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7 October 2020

I may moan about moving house, but it seems I don’t know what stress really means

With the keys to my new abode finally in my pocket I breathe a sigh of relief, until I remember I need to buy a bed.

By Nicholas Lezard

Last week I began by asking if there was anything more stressful than moving, and a friend directed me to the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory, which is not the name of a band you saw supporting the Teardrop Explodes at the Roundhouse in 1979, but a nice long inventory of things that are stressful. It lists 43 of them, from the terrible (death of spouse) to the not-so-terrible (minor violations of the law, such as getting a speeding ticket). These all have scores. Number one gets you 100 points; number 43 gets you a measly 11. You tick off all the things that have happened to you over the past year and if you get between 150 and 300 points, apparently there’s a 50 per cent chance that you’ll have a major health breakdown in the next two years.  

Amazingly, having to find a new place to live comes in at number 32, with a score of 20 points. This makes me feel that I would like to have a word with Messrs Holmes and Rahe and let them take my blood pressure while I am writing this column, a day after I was meant to file it, in the full and ever-pressing knowledge that I am moving into a new place tomorrow and have yet to buy a bed.

Still, it’s kind of fun looking at the inventory. I notice that “sexual difficulties” is at number 13, with a respectable points score of 39, but I think Holmes and Rahe are being a little vague here. What do they mean by “difficulties”? Not being able to get it up? Thrush? I’d say that not being able to get any counts as a sexual difficulty, but I have long since given up on that, or any hope of change for the foreseeable future, so I can’t say it’s bothering me especially.

I’m also thinking that “death of spouse” is not, in every circumstance, the life-wrecking tragedy H and R assume it is. I can only too easily imagine a scenario now where, after months of lockdown, each spouse is looking at the other and thinking that their being run over by a bus would bring a little cheer into the world. (“Spouse beginning or ceasing work outside the home” is, incidentally, in 26th place, with 26 points.)

In fact, the more I look at the list, the less convinced I am by it. “Outstanding personal achievement” (25th, 28 points) is a stressful thing? When I was a child I passed my Grade 3 violin exam with merit, but I don’t recall that doing so made me come down with anything nasty within the next two years. Around the same time I ate 17 roast potatoes at Sunday lunch – still a personal record – and I didn’t even get a tummy-ache.

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“Major holiday” comes in at 42, but why? For some people they’re incredibly stressful and for others – well, they’re a holiday. “In-law troubles” is much higher up the charts at 24, with 29 points, but, as with “sexual difficulties”, Holmes and Rahe are being rather imprecise as to what these troubles might be. The main troubles I had with my in-laws was that one of them had little conversation and the other wasn’t a very good cook, so visiting was a bit of a chore, and in fact on one occasion I did develop acute stomach pains prior to seeing them, bad enough to let me off the hook.

Ah, those blissful days when the worst thing I had to look forward to was a trip to see the in-laws! Right now, I am trying to think of something that does not cause me stress, and I’m drawing a blank. The thing is, when you are under stress, then everything becomes contaminated by it. It’s kind of like being in love: here I am, doing the washing-up – but in love! That’s great. It makes even doing the washing-up a pleasure. Conversely, being under stress means that doing the washing-up becomes stressful, and so does everything else.

In my case, the washing-up is particularly stressful in itself, as the mixer tap has come loose at the hinge and the water goes everywhere except out of the tap itself, but do you see “mixer tap problems” on the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory? No, you do not. At least that’s not a problem I’m going to have to put up with after tomorrow.

For, yes, I have the keys to my new abode in my pocket, and this evening my friend J–– will help me move nine wine boxes full of books, and one suitcase, from one place to another, pausing only to pick up a folding dining table that someone is selling for £30.

I had another look at the new flat yesterday and it looked so clean, so empty. One room is quite small; the other even smaller. But I might put the bed in the larger room, so for the first time in 13 years I will have a bed that is not jammed into a corner. Just imagine being able to walk around a bed. That’s what being grown up is all about, is it not? Of course, first, one has to find one’s bed. 

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This article appears in the 07 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Long Covid