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3 February 2021updated 29 Jul 2021 10:54am

Why do we struggle to admit we’re sad?

We can’t change how the pandemic makes us feel – but we can be honest with ourselves about those feelings.

By Megan Nolan

Now that we are nearly a year into the pandemic, I can see that the aspect of it I have yet to mentally absorb is that I didn’t personally cause it. There were few significant problems in my life pre-Covid that I didn’t create or exacerbate through my own stupidity or inaction. If I hadn’t recently made any material problems for ­myself, I would certainly have conjured some into existence with my misfiring brain; the aimless anxiety that lay in wait for passing people and situations to attach itself to. I wasn’t ignorant of the inevitability of death and illness, having encountered both, but I did retain a sense that if I solved my own pathologies I would surely go on to a generally happy existence.

It is almost a relief to be proven wrong on this and to learn I have no control over my own suffering. Practically all of my questionable behaviours have been made impossible. I go to bed by midnight and exercise and eat vegetables, and still I am profoundly unhappy. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so hard on myself for all those years.

This new kind of unhappiness is a ­mystery to me, one I and many others are struggling to accept. It is not a diagnosable or medicable experience. It is not at its core depression or an anxiety disorder, although it has certainly exacerbated those illnesses where they exist already.

The maddening thing about this feeling is that it is completely reasonable. At this stage in the pandemic, with the novelty of shock worn off and a definitive end still elusive, a base level of what I have come to think of as “ordinary unhappiness” is at work. By this I mean a near-constant and unresolvable level of misery; an emotional reaction to our circumstances that makes complete sense. How are we to address an unhappiness like this, one that cannot be ameliorated? How is one to respond adequately to a woe so common – surely it must be nearly universal, at least in this country – and still so acute?

I find that our shared experience seems not to comfort us very much, but instead to shame us. Every loved one I speak to – including the recently bereaved, people who have lost work and are struggling financially, parents of young children – allows themselves only the most modest expressions of their desperation and sadness before hurrying to say that they know others have it worse.

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[see also: It’s not just you: Why the current lockdown is having an extreme effect on mental health]

Part of what is so dark about the government’s coronavirus messaging – loudly announcing fines for house parties, adverts asking us to look into the eyes of patients on ventilators and swear we’ve never broken a rule – is that members of the public are pitted against one another. To distract from the government’s prioritising of temporary economic success over long-term health and recovery, we are told to look instead at each other with suspicion, as potential rule-breakers. We are told to look at the dying and blame ourselves, despite the majority of private individuals sticking to the restrictions no matter how personally painful they are. As a result, there is a terrible hollow where our communal grief should be.

It is difficult in these circumstances to admit, even to ourselves, just how much we are suffering. We deny the severity of our pain because it seems so much less important than the loss of life. And there is also an underlying suggestion that it is pointless, or even destructive, to be honest about how extremely challenging our lives now are.

I try not to acknowledge the reality of my feelings. It feels silly to worry people when there is no possible solution. To capture it bluntly, I would say that almost every day in the months before Covid, I woke up generally happy and hopeful, even when specific problems arose. Now I wake up unhappy, and spend much of each day navigating the tides of that unhappiness; trying to identify the points where it will ebb and I can sneak a tiny, trivial amount of work into the day. I run errands for myself and neighbours to feel a sense of purpose, then manage the disappointment of another evening alone: the end of the work day, the meal, the glass of wine emptied of meaning and pleasure. I find it increasingly impossible to believe that this will end and to have any hope for the future. Even when I suspect this feeling is not entirely rational, it’s still real.

I am struggling to know how to hold my sadness. I suppressed it for months and months, mummifying it under layers of denial and the mistaken belief that things would be back to normal soon enough. But pretending has taken a toll on me, as the denial of suffering always does.

We avoid pain so we aren’t flattened by it. We don’t have the luxury of allowing it to overcome us, because work and other obligations will not allow it. We cannot sit and cry all day long, because there is no answer to our despair. But we can’t expect to find ongoing strength in minimising our sadness. Our reserves grow thin, the performance becomes shaky. We finally find our spirits more exhausted than if we had allowed ourselves to suffer.

The philosopher Simone Weil believed that paying attention was the most fundamental of our obligations, the least of what we owe to each other. In paying attention we honour the suffering that binds us all. Acknowledging affliction, Weil wrote, “means saying to oneself: ‘I may lose at any moment, through the play of circumstances over which I have no control, anything whatsoever I possess, including things that are so intimately mine that I consider them as myself.’” I have no answer to the question of how to suffer well during this pandemic, except that I try sometimes to think of suffering as something we owe to those who have died. If the government will not honour its debts to those people, then we at least can try to. Our suffering cannot be made to disappear, but it can at least be given meaning. 

[see also: It’s okay to complain about how much we’ve lost because of Covid-19]

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This article appears in the 03 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s tragedy