When I was 12, and my only worries should have been whether or not I made the netball A team, I became convinced I was going to die of Aids.
I saw germs everywhere: on the seats of the Tube and the tables at school and in the air that I breathed. So I washed my hands. I washed my hands so hard, so regularly, that they began to crack open and bleed, my fingers like those of a bare-knuckle boxer, not a girl who had just started secondary school.
The Christmas holidays arrived and I temporarily breathed a sigh of relief: now I did not have to leave the house. But into the vacuum left by one worry, a new one quickly appeared: what if I already had this infectious illness, and was going to give it to my family?
I locked myself in my room, hid my toothbrush under my pillow, began chanting phrases I hoped would keep them alive. Every day, I imagined the death that would come from the physical illness I was so sure I had. I did not know that the actual illness I had was mental, and quite common: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
OCD is, according to the World Health Organisation (ironically), one of the most debilitating illnesses to live with. I am lucky enough that through endless treatment I now, over 25 years on, can right-size my OCD without it disrupting my life too much.
But I have been thinking of all the people out there who might be experiencing it now – perhaps for the first time, perhaps not – in light of the march of Covid-19. OCD tends to attach itself to modern panics – when I was 12, the Aids crisis was reaching its tragic peak – and it is almost inevitable that currently, some people are as tempted to self-isolate because of symptoms of mental illness as they are because of symptoms of physical illness.
I cannot recall, in my life, a more anxious or extraordinary time, bar perhaps the terrorist attacks of the nineties and early noughties. But then the cause of the fear had the face of an enemy – of the IRA or al-Qaeda – and now its face is that of anyone that this novel coronavirus has the ability to infect – which is, as we are realising, everyone. Loved ones, friends, colleagues – we are all vectors for disease.
I wanted to write my column this week about the effect that coronavirus will have on people’s mental health, because in recent weeks I have favoured making light of the situation, and today I think it’s important to acknowledge the gravity of what is facing us, and how everyone is feeling. Humour can be an effective way for people to manage fear, but it often hides… well, fear. This is the greatest public health crisis of our generation, as the Prime Minister said on Thursday. But we should not forget the toll this will take on mental as well as physical health.
My best friend is a nurse who has been unfailingly pragmatic about the coronavirus – until this week, when the briefings started to change and the ICUs started to be marked for Covid-19. She told me she was scared, and that she felt bad for feeling scared, as if experiencing emotions was a negative thing for a healthcare professional to do.
I don’t want to be accused of stoking fear, but I do think it’s really important to say that it is ok to feel fear, that it is ok to be scared, that if you feel panicked you are not somehow letting down your country and your people. The British stiff-upper-lip mentality of keeping calm and carrying has officially been dispensed with, following advice from the country’s Chief Medical Officer to stay indoors if you experience even mild symptoms of disease. You do not need to keep buggering on. You can stop. You can be.
But I do think it is really important that, if you are forced to self-isolate, you continue to connect, through phonecalls, Skype and WhatsApp. Anxiety thrives in the quarantine of a person’s head and, most of all, during times of uncertainty. Schedule regular calls with friends and family. Talk about the way you are feeling. But try not to make the way you are feeling the only thing you talk about – maybe start a book club, or agree to binge-watch something on Netflix.
Remember that, however scared and anxious you are feeling, you are not alone in this. This is a very ordinary human reaction to an extraordinary global event – and, like everything that has gone before it in history, it too shall pass.