21st December 2020

Covid ‘removes’ my Christmas pain

I love Christmas. Actually. The idea of living Christmas and the fairy tale that comes along with it is something I have always loved since I was a little child.

 

Christmas means coming together with loved ones and everyone speaks of "going home for Christmas". This is my personal pain every year around this time, and it makes me cry, at least once, the closer we get to Christmas Eve.

 

***

 

I watched snowflakes landing on my sleeves, on my hands, my chest. I looked up into the sky, brightened by street lights, and saw millions of flakes coming down, their touch cool on my nose and cheeks. It fitted the bright, flashing, glowing huts of the Christmas market around the town hall, the Jingle Bells that pealed in my ears, and the gingerbread smell that filled my nostrils. Christmas was almost here – the second sad Christmas.

Sonja didn’t want to go home for the festival. Well, she actually considered Munich her home by now. So did I. We loved it there. I had suffered no homesickness at all. Talking to Mum, Grandma and sometimes Dad on the phone was good enough. However, during the previous days, with Christmas just around the corner, I did feel the need to go back to northern Germany to see my family. I’d become sadder and sadder with each day that passed. Now, I was hurting.

“How am I going to explain this to my mum?” I’d said to Sonja when she’d begged me to stay.

She had no answer.

I told Mum my boss had asked if I was able to help with a special project on the afternoon of Christmas Day in return for some good money. She knew I normally didn’t get paid as an intern. Maybe that convinced her. Maybe not.

On the morning of Christmas Eve – the first main day of Christmas in Germany – the last few girls on our floor left for home. Most had gone days earlier. There were over twenty rooms on each floor in the house – that was how many girls were normally around. By midday, our corridor was empty. No one left except for Sonja and me. I walked down the stairs to floor five. I checked its common kitchen and living room, opened the doors to both wings and glanced down the corridors. No other girls. I walked further downstairs, checked the kitchen, living room and corridors of floor four: no girls. Same on floor three. I carried on walking down without really looking any more, and as I passed the phones on each floor, I noticed none of them rang. No chatty, high, girly voices. Silence everywhere. The whole house was dead. It felt surreal.

On the ground floor, Mrs Lange spotted me. She hadn’t closed the reception desk yet and she invited me to join her and her colleagues later in the day to celebrate Christmas. I felt another of those lumps in my throat and hoped it wouldn’t result in tears. An invitation from three old ladies and their priest was the best that could happen to me at that moment.

When I made my way to the attached nunnery and church, Sonja came too. I was convinced she’d also be welcome. Father Winfried held the Christmas Mass. After that, we sat around a big round table that was mostly surrounded by nuns, and overloaded with steaming Bavarian food. Sonja’s and my street clothing stood out like scarlet macaws in a green jungle. Mrs Lange and the other two ladies who managed the house weren’t wearing nuns’ habits, but their mousy outfits almost qualified. It was then that I couldn’t withstand the pressure of that lump any longer and I burst into tears. I was missing my family – Mum and Grandma, at least.

 

(Excerpt from my novel, One Of Us Has To Go)

 

***

 

My so-called Emotional Contamination OCD (an obsession about people and places that the sufferer feels endanger and contaminate them) does not allow me to go where I come from. It tells me that my parents; everything to do with them; the place I was born and raised is contaminated. I must avoid my roots at all costs and to the extent of microparticles. 

 

I cope okay during most of the year. Except for my birthday and especially Christmas. Christmas does bring this painful feeling with it, every damn single year, that I am missing out on what Christmas is about: coming together with your family. The Christmas song Driving Home For Christmas is the one I really despise.

 

Except for three Christmases, I have spent all of them away from my family since the age of 18. I am 43 now. I haven't been to see my family since 2009. I know that I have at least one nephew who has the 'perfect' Christmas age. The imagination that my family, and all the other families in the world, are having a joyful time burns holes into my heart. I have collected loads. And my heart still bleeds despite being a big girl.

 

This year, it is different. I left Germany a long time ago. I live in England now. Over the weekend, the UK government had a sudden 'change of mind' regarding the Christmas rules and Covid restrictions. The new mutant of the virus has turned everything upside down. And everybody. I've read of families who've ended up ripped apart. A lot of people won't come together, some even spending Christmas completely alone (I know this very well!).

No, I am not happy that these people are thrown into chaos and can't be together for Christmas. I too wish the pandemic would just go away and I certainly hope that next year will be normal again - I do have a lovely partner these days, so I'm not alone any more.

 

But Christmas 2020 will be one that many people will feel like I do all the time. People do have family – like me – but restrictions are in place that prevent them from seeing them. I do have family; in several cities across Germany. But there is my OCD that bans me from joining them ‘like’ Covid restrictions. I am not allowed to see my family, or go where I come from. I live in lockdown. Permanently. I'm used to this for ten to eleven months throughout the year, but I'm hurting in December.

 

Given millions of people can't travel and see their families this Christmas, I suddenly don’t feel alone. I’m almost excited about this since my pain seems shared. Lighter – not quite removed. (Sorry, I had to put that in the headline to pull you in. Would you have read until here otherwise?!) For years to come, I'll be able to refer to 2020 and say "Remember that Christmas during the pandemic? It's how I live my personal Christmas pain every year." I believe, even hope, people will be able to understand what I have to suffer each Christmas, from this year on. It’s that that lifts my mood, while I’m truly sorry for all those who’ll shed the same tears as I do – but probably worse if it is their first time.

5th May 2020

Coronavirus: An Invisible Threat

Should Parents Try To Curb Their Own Anxiety?

“I knew something bad had happened. I didn’t understand how bad it was, but Mum wouldn’t stop pacing up and down in the living room in front of the TV. I saw the images: fire, an explosion and big smoking chimneys – the nuclear catastrophe in Chernobyl.

We were living in a sleepy village, Fessdorf, in northern Germany, far away from Chernobyl. However, Mum explained there was a wind coming from the east. And rain. Suddenly Fessdorf seemed under a strange threat as Mum wouldn’t let my brother and me leave the house for three days.” (*)

 

I live in England, West Midlands, now and here in this town, as much as in any other across the UK, we are on lockdown due to the novel coronavirus outbreak (resulting in the illness Covid-19). Not long before the draconian restrictions were imposed, I observed a woman running after her child, yelling: “Don’t touch that bench, the virus is everywhere!” She was right to make her child stop. The invisible threat is real and close. Covid-19 is actually in this town. But did the child understand what a virus is? Why her mother was panicking?

 

I was a young girl when the nuclear disaster happened, in April 1986. I remember it well. My mother screamed when someone rang our bell, wanting to step into the house – onto the carpet – to deliver something. She saw contamination and a deadly threat everywhere. I didn’t. I saw nothing. But my mother seemed rock-solid sure it was there.

My parents took swift action: they wouldn’t let me or my brother go out – lockdown. Instead, they dashed out to a big supermarket to stock up on food. Panic-buying!

The pantry was jammed with long-life milk, as well as milk powder so we could mix our own for several years to come. I asked if a war was going to break out. They said no. But we could still die, or become very ill at least.

The threat came from the radiation, the fallout. I didn’t understand what radiation was. It was invisible. How could it exist when I couldn’t even see it?

 

I have lived with severe OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) for over thirty years. It started in 1986 and very quickly manifested itself.

Now we’re in 2020, and another invisible threat is out there, with people having to stay inside their homes. Back in 1986, it was all about not touching the ground and not eating certain foods for several months. Maybe years. This time, it is about not touching other people and surfaces, staying away from each other and washing our hands.

I can’t stop thinking about all those young and vulnerable children out there who – like me when I was little – are facing an invisible yet serious threat. I can’t stop worrying about them being confused by this, possibly anxious. The hysteria around them, the ongoing bad news, the change to their normal and comfortable routines – what will be the impact on their mental health? I am worried.

 

One year and three months after Chernobyl, my family and I went on a holiday to northern Italy, together with several other families as a big group. I loved being on holiday and was excited about this one, too. But there was a list of things I wasn’t allowed to do during the trip – comparable to the pandemic quarantine restrictions – one of which was eating mushrooms. Growing like sponges, they sucked up contaminated water from the ground. Together with the other families, we picked chanterelles in a forest. My parents allowed us to touch them, and to help cook them with the other kids and parents in the resort kitchen – my parents had loosened ‘quarantine’ a little. But they forbade us to eat them. I obeyed the rules.

My brother, old and smart enough to have his own opinions, broke the ‘quarantine’: The chanterelles, along with other foods, were steaming on the dining tables. My brother stabbed his fork in the pile of stir-fried chanterelles, shoved them into his mouth, chewed and swallowed. Faster than my parents could even realise. My mum’s hysteria followed, my dad’s preaching did too. And my fear rose: is he going to die overnight?

While I was experiencing great fear and worry for my brother, I felt a sudden safety at the same time. Strong, solid safety. Because I hadn’t contaminated myself. It played out in my mind: he was going to be dead and I was going to survive. He hadn’t followed the rules, whereas I had stuck to them. He had ‘contracted coronavirus’ but I hadn’t.

He had felt that washing his hands and singing Happy Birthday once was enough [~The WHO currently recommends washing our hands for the duration of singing Happy Birthday twice] – one fork of chanterelles wouldn’t kill him. But I would sing Happy Birthday more than twice. And: forever.

My brother survived, of course. He did not become sick and didn’t even get a hint of a green face or anything else. But I was living with fear that I couldn’t fight any more. I became obsessed with being safe. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is an anxiety-linked mental illness. In my experience, and in my humble opinion, it is a coping mechanism. A way to handle overwhelming fear. A tool to feel safe and keep the anxiety low. It serves an unusual but dangerous thirst for the positive feeling of security. And it becomes a vicious circle.

 

In 1986, I stared out of the window, forbidden to leave the house, like in self-isolation. I was unable to see the danger, but still scared of it. After three days inside, and once the rain had gone, my mum let my brother and me go outside for an hour to play table tennis. I was extremely uncomfortable, and whenever it was my turn to run after the ball, I checked: I needed to see the radiation; maybe it would come around the corner. I imagined it flowing about a metre high, shimmering like hot air above asphalt. But I never saw anything.

 

Are young children wondering what coronavirus looks like?

 

2% of the world population suffer with OCD at some point in their lives. It affects any age and both genders equally. I am hoping that as many children as possibly will be spared from developing OCD because of this global pandemic.

 

 

(*) Passage from my novel One Of Us Has To Go

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©Katja Schulz 2020

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