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A recognition that we are not going through this alone

The experience of the pandemic for many of us is something close to grief

I said that I didn’t think I could stick much more of this, and you answered, Tony Soprano-style, “what are you going to do?” I was paying €50 to hear that. I might as well have been talking to the postman.

You sat there unmoved, my irritation reflected off you like light off a mirror, your skinny neck protruding from the shapeless hospital-green garments you had started wearing. You used to wear a shirt and tie in the days when I could talk to you, man-to-man. This new you is different, unreachable. Someone who would be more comfortable removing my appendix than listening to my fears.

I tried again. “I mean I can’t even leave the house some days, I am so terrified of the bloody virus. Other days, I don’t care about it at all. I want to go out and shake someone’s hand, clap them on the shoulder and see what happens. Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad. Anything would be better than this limbo state we are in now, everyone fearful and uncertain.”

That made you raise an eyebrow.

“You don’t do that, I presume. You don’t go out and deliberately put yourself at risk?”

“No, of course not, but it doesn’t stop me thinking about it, and that kind of thinking is not normal.”

You didn’t reply, just sat there waiting, I had so many things I wanted to say, but the hospital garb, the physical distance, the chilly breeze chill blowing in through the open window above your head, and of course, the masks, made it impossible to speak openly, to relax, to talk as we used to, before.
I reminded myself that I was paying for this, one way or another. That I had come for something, even if I did not know what exactly that was.

“Do you think I am depressed?”

“Why do you ask me that?” you replied, answering my question with a question. That must be something you learned in medical school, I thought. A smart trick that fueled my agitation.

You were not going to take these things from me. They were mine alone, this anger, frustration, and agitation

“Because I am always angry, irritated, snapping at people.” I wanted to say that I was mad with you too, then. That I had not been that cross when I came in; that your refusal to engage, lean forward, react, was making me feel worse. In fact, you were the only thing I was angry with at that moment. You, and the fact that I was paying for this so-called consultation and so far, it was a complete waste of time.

I didn’t say any of that, just waited for you to speak. Still, you said nothing. You didn’t even fidget, look away or pretend to look at something on your computer.

Was that another thing you learned in college? To sit with silence, to be still, regardless of what turmoil someone presented to you. Or perhaps you practised meditation or mindfulness or some other Buddhist-type activity. I stopped trying. You were not going to take these things from me. They were mine alone, this anger, frustration, and agitation.

And as I began to own them and name them, they began to lose their power. After what seemed like an eternity, you roused yourself, sat forward and spoke in that slow, measured manner that I was familiar with.

“Is there something in particular, you think I can help you with today? You seem to be struggling a lot more than usual.”

“It’s just the virus. The social isolation, the masks, not being able to go to the pub for a drink, to go out for a meal. It is just getting to me.”

You nodded. “I think it is getting to a lot of people.”

I don’t care about a lot of people, I thought. I only care about how I am feeling and you don’t seem to understand. Surely, as a doctor, you can offer me more than a simple truism.

But these were only unspoken thoughts and when I ordered then to be quiet, I noticed your flat voice, tired eyes, unkempt grey hair, like an unruly barren bush in winter, your shoulders rounded from hunching yourself over the keyboard. And I knew that I was not alone.

We were in this together, and like grief, there was no way around it, only through. A flicker of gratitude ignited. Gratitude that you have been here almost every day since the beginning and will still be here at the end. I grasped the hand that you extended into the shallow well of despair.

“Thank you”, I said, as I got up to leave. I suppose we are almost there.

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