Can we call it ‘collective trauma’? Or is each individual’s case completely different? Is it wrong to complain about lingering stress symptoms connected to the coronanvirus during the last eighteen months of pandemic when so many people have died: their grieving relatives and immeasurable loss paling your own problems into significance?
I don’t know. But despite (or because of) the glorious autumnal weather we are having in Japan at the moment and the bustling return to normality (the crowds! oh my god people streaming in droves into stations and department stores and restaurants and bars up from escalators in numbers that are frightening to the senses; the trains packed to bursting, people talking animatedly and energetically to each other – always masked, though; always masked; a definite excitement in the air; in some ways wonderful; case numbers almost suspiciously low; vaccination rates super high), but simultaneously: I feel overwhelmed. And I find it difficult to suppress it.
Things have been good. My work situation is the best it has ever been: my main school now, where my desk is, is a calm environment with gentle, intelligent genteel colleagues I like and get on well with; the students vaccinated, the lessons going well. Weekends with D are what I look forward to – always fun, going out somewhere, exploring, being spontaneous, laughing a lot – or else just relaxing at home. My creative side may not be at its peak, but I feel inspired and connected. Part of me is well and quite happy.
The other is a fractured disaster. The last week has been terrible.
At the company health check last Wednesday – I had (stupidly) managed to ‘get out’ of the one from last year citing Covid concerns – I was diagnosed with very high blood pressure – the higher (systolic) number – (I am always too blinded by panic to notice the lower one) at 167, my heart, arhythmical. Despite feeling all of this going on subliminally for a while, it has still come as something of a shock. I wasn’t really expecting it. In truth, these mandatory mass medical examinations, while good in a sense – paid for the company, and given the ridiculous hours that many Japanese people work, very necessary – are a great source of clammy unpleasantness for a neurot like me and a cause of stress in themselves, leading to an automatically higher blood pressure-reading simply from the circumstances I find myelf in. While usually in business attire, ties and jackets, in this season, maintaining a dignified distance and saying your konnichwas and sayonara, on this day you are suddenly reduced to a common herd: all the men with their shirts hanging out and white undershirts visible, lining up like bleary-eyed livestock to shunt from station to station like cattle; the individual – but all perfectly visible to all – areas where have your height and weight measured – (mortifying); your eyesight and hearing checked; blood tests; a ‘waist’ check – like a tailor’s from hell – ah yes, it has increased this year, hasn’t it? – a perfunctory ECG-lite that lasts about a minute; a chest-x ray: everyone queued up waiting to get into the portable x-ray machine outside the front of the school; it is stressful, and by the end of it all I was sweaty, internalized, and glandular; still with a full evening of classes ahead of me, palpitating.
With a sore throat rapidly taking hold and a feeling of pressure in my chest, I did manage those those evening’s lessons, but suddenly knew that I would not be able to go in for the rest of the week. It felt like an immediate impossibility. Going to the local doctor’s the next day – less than a minute from my house, extraordinarily convenient – the heart number, to his alarm, was 176, rather high indeed; he immediately put me on blood pressure medication (my parents and sister are hypertensive, so this is in the family – I am not sure why I have ignored the signs in the past). Again, though, and sorry to be so critical (and for ‘oversharing’), the procedure, and way of doing things themselves add greatly to the stress content. It is strange that in a country that is the zenith of discretion in so many ways – so polite, so unobtrusive; never an uncomfortable question about your private life, so wary of offending – when it comes to the medical system, there is no privacy whatsoever. My doctor is a charming and ultra-optimistic man – almost too much so; sometimes forcedly gregarious; he bought three or four copies of my book he was so excited about it and the Vogues; I once took a bottle of vintage Joy round for his wife, who was apparently delighted; he never has a day off and is responsible for an entire community (sometimes when cycling I see his car parked by the roadside; he will be within, trying to snatch a few moments for himself on the way back from one of his house calls;; a very different expression on his face as he stares in a daydream). Though he speaks in rapidfire Japanese, I usually manage to understand the essentials and respond in kind – I just wish there weren’t someone sitting directly outside the door, hearing every word. It is needlessly humiliating.
To expand: in Japan, at doctors’ clinics, there is a system where, as in most countries, you sit in the waiting room for you turn to go to the doctor’s office. Here, however, when your own examination is approaching, you are ‘moved up’ to the seat directly outside his or her room (why?) The voice of my doctor – booming, enthusiastic – carries itself out already to the people sitting quietly, driven slowly crazy by the over-loud virtuosic Chopin and Liszt piano works on the in-house stereo (wild etudes and sonatas which I’m sure get people’s hearts beating much faster through sheer absorption); should you have an embarrassing or delicate issue – be it gynaecological, psychological, bowel, no matter how cringeful, you can be 100% sure that all of the diagnoses, directives and conversations between you and your GP will be overheard by every single person in that particular clinic. I hate it, and – correct me if I am wrong – surely it is different in most countries? My colleague from Hong Kong says he also finds it humiliating the way everything is done without a modicum of privacy when things are being discussed on the teIephone at work: I am sure I remember in the UK going into a confidential doctor’s office where no one outside could hear a word. But then where I am from originally, is not an intricate, often impenetrable, culture of collectivism.
I was ordered by my doctor to go to the closest electronics store and buy a blood pressure reading machine. It had never occurred to me that I might ever need one (even if we know that I fly off the handle, and my alter ego is the incendiary Burning Bush – I am also a fire sign, a raging Sagittarius – so perhaps all of this could have been expected). By this point, though, I could feel my heart pounding rapidly continually, a flutter of palpitations that I was becoming more and more hyperaware of, feeding into itself in a cardiac/neurological loop de loop. At Yamada Denki, the sweet female assistant demonstrated the various appliances available on her own arm, and D measured his own blood pressure to see if it seemed to be about right. His is sometimes on the low side, and 112 seemed correct.. When I tried it, mine was 220; when we got home, around 195.
All of this is new to me (naively, I have hardly ever thought about blood pressure before), but as I am sure you will know, over 129 is considered the beginning of a problem; 150 officially hypertensive, and 180 a hypertensive crisis which can lead to a heart attack and stroke. 195 is off the charts crazy, and I had this continually, in the morning and evening, for about three days. I could hardly think straight. Going in to work on Wednesday I spoke to one of the heads and was told I should go home; thankfully a colleague came with me to the hospital yesterday for a proper check out; electrocardiogram; blood tests, a lengthy and very thorough ultra sound scan; and I was told that essentially my heart is in the right placeI but that I should definitely continue with the medication; make the obvious lifestyle changes; avoid stress. When I got home, my reading was 157; still high, but not a heart-thundering disaster (presumably); clearly, a lot of this is anxiety-related.
I can so easily trace the source. Fourteen months of working in often windowless classrooms unvaccinated; being on crowded trains for hours at a time in the same situation, when already claustrophobic, and in situations where infections were spreading in schools (the ‘cases’ reported in Japan were never the actual numbers – only tiny proportions of the population were ever tested at one time; the situation always more dangerous than the government was making out); knowing that the students I was teaching had classmates who had the virus, was psychologically untenable for me, which is why I came crashing down with vertigo in March – it was as if my mind just simply couldn’t take it anymore. It shut down, and then went into a relentlessly spinning orbit – an absolutely horrible experience that was the worst of my life. My deep hatred of being closed in; of being trapped in enclosed spaces, has been exponentially aggravated by the corona crisis: I can get in lifts/ elevators, albeit uncomfortably, and can get on trains – so am obviously not a total basket case who can’t function. It is manageable. But for example, when I try to imagine sitting on a plane back to the UK – (by the time we get to go back – probably next year in spring or summer now that quarantine regulations here are easing – it will have been three and half years since we have been able to see our families); if I try to visualize actually sitting in a plane seat, and being strapped in for twelve hours, my whole being – physiological and mental – rejects it as total impossibility. Similarly, when the new Bond film came out recently on theatrical release – I have a thing for the Daniel Craig series and am desperate to see the latest and last one, No Time To Die, on a big IMAX screen; just sink into it; see a proper FILM again: although I had talked myself into going to the cinema one Monday afternoon, and had a definite plan to (it will be alright! everyone will be masked! they will be social distanced! there is air filtration!), when I woke up on the day in question I knew immediately that there was no way in hell that I was going there; absolutely no way. I just couldn’t do it. The though of sitting immobile, masked, for almost three hours in a room full of strangers made me scream inside.
I don’t know if I am putting myself in an overly vulnerable position by writing this piece. Maybe I shouldn’t be plastering my own personal troubles all over the internet for public viewing, particularly when I know that people have suffered so much more because of all of this – Bolsonaro accused of genocide in Brazil now that enough evidence has been gathered that the president of that country seemingly deliberately let the virus spread, in the process killing over 600,000 people ; I needn’t mention the US equivalent, the mere mention of whom can send my cortisol rocketing; – the UK has its own official enquiries into what went wrong with our response and the catastrophic consequences. I can put all of this into a global perspective. There are people I know with long Covid; people are still dying even if we are possibly through the worst; this is a huge topic that will not be going away anytime soon. Almost everyone has been affected in some way. Suicides have increased dramatically here among young working women; anorexia for young children has increased 60%. I am not ‘feeling sorry for myself’. But I also know exactly how I feel. And I think both my parents coming down with the virus recently – they are now basically recovered; I sent my mother some essential oils for her birthday this week to help ‘retrain’ her nose the way perfumers do who have lost their sense of smell – and the blood pressure fiasco this week, have suddenly brought everything back to me personally in intense, heart-racing focus.
So I would like to know: what are you own thought on all of this? Is the term PTSD in this context a gross exaggeration? Do you think that huge swathes of the human population are literally traumatized? If so, what will be the treatment? Just natural healing, over time? Is it healthy to talk about it? ( I personally think that it is: the suppression of trauma can lead to psychosis). What is your own personal experience? How has all of this affected you personally in terms of your lifestyle, fears, emotions? (I get flashbacks, and can feel the spikes of cortisol stabbing in my blood when I think about certain things);or have you already started to put it behind you? I am not going to dwell on all of this excessively on here, and will gladly get back to rhapsodizing over scent; we have already drastically cut down on fat and salt (I think we do basically eat pretty healthily to begin, with as we both love vegetables and fruit more than anything else; it is the ‘extras’ that are the problem); bought some new exciting blood pressure lowering health foods, and will be cutting back on alcohol; there are plenty of things to look forward to (presuming I don’t topple to the ground clutching my chest with a face like an organic beetroot) ; I am fine. And now that the panic seems to be over, for the time being (Japan does seem to be doing extremely well compared to a lot of places) I will just resume my life from next week, pop the pills; and try not to think about it.
How about you?