Imagine with me for a moment that your neighbours came home on a Friday afternoon with a very beefy looking man at the front door. He was about to change their world.
He told them that as of Monday, they would no longer be allowed to leave the home for school or work. They would be forbidden to go their place of worship, music lessons, and they gym. The dad would have to give up his rec hockey league, and the mom wouldn’t be able to go to her regular “Bachelor” viewing nights with her girlfriends. The kids couldn’t have playdates or play on a soccer team or have swimming lessons.
The Dad had a parent in a nursing home who valued visits–they couldn’t visit him. The Mom had a sister getting married–they would not be able to attend. A sister died–they didn’t go the funeral. They stayed home. Isolated.
The man said they would be allowed for very brief period to get groceries and run absolutely essential errands–but with the clear understanding that they might die trying.
The Dad and Mom exclaimed, “But we have jobs. We have to feed our family.” And the beefy man at the door was adamant: “You’re not going anywhere. Figure it out.”
It seemed harsh and mean. It was terrifying, really. The man that it would likely be for 2-3 weeks. That seemed endless, but they resigned themselves to the imprisonment because it would end shortly. They wondered how their family and friends were doing–they wanted out to check on their people–but, alas, the man at the door did not permit them to leave.
2 weeks stretched into 2 months–which stretched into almost 2 years.
Two years of being isolated. Stressed, lonely, scared. Two years. Interminable. And then a little more.
Finally, the beefy man at the door left. The kidnapping was over. They emerged from their home.
Free. Free at last. But definitely impacted by this prolonged period of isolation and fear.
And when the neighbours heard of the trauma of this family having been essentially locked into their home for 2+ terrifying years, they called in the system. Social workers came. They helped the children re-integrate into the school. The experts explained to the community how two years of no contact with friends meant that these children would likely have less ability to learn in social settings, that it would be hard regulate their nervous systems. One had fallen behind in education because learning from home hadn’t worked and would need extra support.
The adolescent was now 18, but had not had a first date, any Friday night parties, any high school sports. This teen had never had a beer with their friends. They hadn’t had a chance to trial so many emerging adult activities–a first beer, the first 2 am curfew. The teen lacked so much life experience, but now thrust into university, overwhelmed. But folks understood that she had been prisoner for 2 years, and walked her through it. They listened and understood.
The parents didn’t want to go back to working outside the home. They had made working from home so effective, that they resisted the return to the workplace. A therapist came and heard their challenges, and developed a gradual return to work, processing this plan. They became overwhelmed in previous familiar social settings, going home from family gatherings, and avoiding some gatherings completely. They didn’t return to previous volunteer interests as it all seemed too much.
The community understood that the stresses of being prisoners, locked in their own home for 2 years created trauma, which would require months of reintegration, and even years later, it was understood that responses would arise which could be attributed to the fear and isolation of those years.
Wouldn’t you be eager to care for a family who was robbed of more than two years of normal life? Wouldn’t you be completely understanding that they would need extra support, compassion and understanding?
When only one family is affected, the entire community can rise to support the significant trauma.
What happens then, when this scenario isn’t one household in a community, but every single household in every single community in every single city in every single country across the world?
Who can provide the support and understanding and reintegration support when it all the effects of the pandemic also happened to those who provide the support?
This is our dilemma.
I was chatting with an elementary school teacher who said, “There was no understanding for how hard it was during the pandemic. We just had to do it. We did it. But it was hard. Now our class sizes are bigger than ever, the needs are higher than ever, and we have less staffing now than we did then, and it’s going down even more next year.” (And regular life: she also had death and serious illness in the family during these years compounding the challenges exponentially.)
She looked at me with tears in her eyes, shaking her head.
She needs recovery, but there is no one present to understand the cost of the pandemic on her, and provide her the support that is utterly essential.
I suspect the administration in the school is feeling the pressures, and the ones applying the pressure feel similar pressure on them.
She was redlined into damage–and the people who we might expect to support her in her trauma are likely also redlined into damage.
The pandemic created a sustained period of stress beyond what was sustainable–and yet we were asked to sustain it. We were “in the red” for too long.
Even though life looks “normal” now, there is damage to our spirits.
For most of our lives, we have taken turns being the overwhelmed ones. One colleague loses a parent this year, another struggles with cancer the next, and another has a house fire the next. We surround the one that has had a difficult experience.
What happens when we have all had a sustained time of fear, challenge and loss?
Not everyone is ok is these days.
But too often, folks that might need support are disappointed it’s not coming.
I don’t think the lack of support is lack of caring. It’s not a lack of humanity. It’s humanity that looks ok, pretends its ok, enjoys the rhythms of “normal” but actually doesn’t have prepandemic levels of resilience. Our capacity for empathy for the struggles of others is lower these days.
It’s not because people are jerks.
Drowning folks are inherently selfish. Folks who are drowning are not generally very kind to other drowning folks. When a person is just trying to keep their own head above water, they aren’t in a place to help others.
There is a way out. We can name the damage, acknowledge our emptiness, let others know when we wish we could help but don’t have capacity.
We can have others understand how hard it is for us, and that we understand how hard it is for them. We can plan together how to navigate these extremely difficult times.
It is certainly a challenge to figure out how to work together when we can’t surround the ones that are struggling when so many feel the struggle. But if we name it, then perhaps we can try?
The struggle is real. The solutions aren’t easy. But we will need to support each other–for literally, the months and years ahead.