Susie Meserve: Anxiety in the Pandemic

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Anxiety is nothing new to Susie Meserve, but the pandemic has turned up the volume and unveiled new outlets for worry.

I’ve always had anxiety. As a child, I washed my hands until they bled. I was obsessed with safety, double checking the door lock, convincing myself I’d contracted some horrible disease. When COVID appeared, many people experienced what I have my entire life, and it was oddly comforting: handwashing was no longer a sign of obsessive compulsive disorder but a way to save a life. The idea of contracting a horrible disease wasn’t so crazy.

At first, COVID didn’t make me more anxious than before. Like many anxious people, I thrive on control: if I washed my hands, socially distanced, followed the rules — I could keep everyone safe. But the rules are murky, and as the months wear on, the daily decision‐making has become agonizing. Every attempt to socialize or school our children or grocery shop requires a fraught mental calculus: is this allowed? Is this safe?

I’ve even found myself intolerant of other people’s worry. I’m angry at those who don’t take the pandemic seriously, but I’m almost as annoyed with those who cluck and judge on social media, as though to prove they’re the most cautious. You’re just having anxiety, I want to tell them — this mantra has long been a trusted coping mechanism. But who am I kidding? We’re in a global pandemic. Our nation barely survived an attempted coup. Our kids haven’t been in school for a year and the new variants are here. Reality is more terrifying than anything a worried mind could conjure.

No: we can’t tell ourselves not to worry, but we can remember that we’re ALL trying to stay afloat in a deeply uncertain world. There is, I think, a small comfort there.

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So the next time you’re gripped with worry, try my favorite coping mechanism: tell yourself, I’m just having anxiety. You might even try, we’re just having anxiety. We may be physically distanced, but we’re not wringing our hands alone.

With a Perspective, I’m Susie Meserve.

Susie Meserve is a writer and poet living in Berkeley.