Vulnerability blues

Nadia Bolz-Weber had a splendid message a couple of days ago. If you haven’t seen it, watch it now – it’s almost certainly better than anything I’ll be saying here!

I am, unfortunately, labelled “extremely clinically vulnerable” with respect to the Coronavirus, probably with complete justification. I have lifelong asthma, am idiot enough to smoke, and probably as a result of those two now have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (oh, and I also have three blocked coronary arteries). This has meant, for the last five years or more, that I get automatic ‘flu jabs and have on hand steroids and antibiotics to take as a precaution if I get a bad cold or ‘flu. It’s been reasonably successful, as I haven’t actually developed pneumonia arising out of what, to a normal individual, would be a period of coughing, sneezing, running nose and generally feeling naff during that period – and before that, I did end up with pneumonia several times. It seems pretty clear that Covid-19 would be extremely bad news for me were I to catch it.

Therefore, UK government guidance is that whereas the general population are now anticipating that their period of social isolation will maybe be relaxed sometime in the next three or four weeks, my own will last at least another 8, and there’s every expectation that it will be extended beyond that. Also, whereas others can go out for walks and necessary shopping, I’m told to stay at home and have contact with no-one. A follow-up letter from the government specifies that that extends even to a carer – and that would be my wife; apparently we’re supposed to live in different rooms and never come within 2 metres of each other. OK, that is not going to happen – neither of our psychologies could stand it, but it does mean that she is not picking up the slack of going to the shops two to four times a week, which I have been doing for years, as she is physically disabled and also suffers from psychological problems which have made going to a supermarket extremely difficult for her, sometimes impossible and always wiping her out for the day. I’m her carer too…

Now, in conscience, we’re pretty isolated in normal times. Aside from the shopping trips, I maybe get out to a couple of meetings a week, and have one evening playing boardgames with friends at home. OK, occasionally I spend time at the lab (I’m also on occasion a research assistant doing chemical process work) when there’s a piece of actual research going on, but that was quiet before the virus and is closed at the moment. I could wish that we were equipped for biochem, particularly as there are a host of enquiries for some biochem materials, but we’re not. That’s not to say that boredom is a problem – I’ve been up to my eyes in manuscripts to edit (and still am) and there are a lot of internet content providers who are at a loose end and producing more than ever – and I haven’t time for all of them, despite being hugely interested in some of what they’re doing. I’ll be finishing a course with Homebrewed Christianity on Whitehead’s “Process and Reality” next week, and avoiding signing up to any more. Er – “like the plague” was the phrase which came to mind, but no, not quite that much!

That brings up two more issues. I am feeling that I should do something positive to assist in this national emergency, and I do have lab skills. My wife sews (she’s a quilter, among other things) and she notes the horrendous shortage of PPE in the NHS and thinks that she should be frantically sewing scrubs and gowns for doctors and nurses. However, we are supposed to be thoroughly locked down, which means that even if I had access to a lab with the requisite equipment and a brief course of training, I shouldn’t be going there and exposing myself – and my wife would need to be in contact with others to acquire fabric and deliver things, and similarly would be risking me. And, in conscience, we are both sufficiently stressed that adding an additional source of stress would be a bad idea. So we have to cope with a frustration there.

Secondly, a significant part of what I do these days is act as carer for her, and I’m not able to do a significant part of that (namely, going out and getting stuff). I feel a loss of part of my identity there – and I know, as a friend says, we are “human beings, not human doings” and I should not be measuring myself by what I do. “Consider the lilies of the field, they toil not nor do they spin…” springs to mind. However, I don’t seem to be able to tell this to my subconscious. I’ve no doubt that a lot of other people who are prevented from doing their jobs are feeling exactly the same thing.

I think the biggest thing weighing on me, though, is that I’m now reliant on other people to get groceries and some pharmacy supplies (my regular meds I’m paying my pharmacy to deliver), and I need to thank Simon, Esther, Gemma, Claire and Ian for their help over the last four weeks. But I’m having to ask for help, and that, it seems, is against the order of nature as far as my subconscious is concerned. This is affecting my wife as well – we are, historically, people who help other people, not people who need help. She was a teacher, preparing children for life, I was a lawyer and councillor, helping people solve problems individually and collectively.

I blame our upbringing. My father, in particular, was very keen on an interpretation of the parable of the talents in which the talents were abilities (the modern reading of talents) rather than money (the biblical reading), and he regularly stressed that I had many talents and needed to use them to benefit others. “We’re put on this earth to help other people” was something he said many times. A juvenile me did once retort with “So, what are other people there for?”. Only once, though – that wasn’t a popular position with my parents. What I’m overwhelmingly left with from that childhood is a compulsion to help others and a nearly equal compulsion not to be a “drain on others”, to be completely self-sufficient while helping them.

So, sitting at home helplessly while other do my shopping for me goes against everything I was brought up to think that I was here for. I really don’t want to ask for it (and in my wife’s case, that includes the mechanism of only asking for things you really, really need, rather than things which are familiar and “nice” – apparently if we’re going so far against nature, we should be suffering for it and eating own brand sliced white bread resembling cotton wool rather than a decent French Stick, which are still readily available…).

I can maybe reproach myself that there’s some “sin of pride” there, that we shouldn’t be “so proud we can’t ask for help”. And yes, there’s probably a measure of that – but mostly, there’s years of English upper middle class conditioning. And a pervading feeling coming from that as well as all the other little niggles above that “it’s all wrong”. And that’s depressive patterns coming back, which I’ve been mostly free of since 2013 now. Those, I can’t afford – the coronavirus might kill me, but depression very nearly did, notably back in 2006, but a few other times as well.

So, today, I’ve done almost none of the things I “really ought to be doing”. I’ve enjoyed some sunshine and blue skies, I’ve listened to the birdsong and watched fishes swim (without leaving my garden, of course – “yard” to Americans). I’ve been being, rather than doing.

And that’s all right.

I suppose, having been reminded of it last night on the “One World” event, this makes a fitting endpiece

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