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