• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: The Uncertain Times Woe is We Blues

It is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) … yet. But Post-Pandemic Traumatic Stress Disorder (PPTSD) deserves an entry. Granted, we’re not even done with COVID-19, so "post-pandemic" is somewhat wishful thinking. What's more, we need an aftermath plan. In addition to the heartbreaking death toll from the virus, the novel necessary safety protocols have altered all our lives in so many ways now and in the future that all I can see is the tunnel at the end of the light.

Drawing courtesy Mirko Ilíc

The telltale symptoms of PPTSD are no mystery. All sufferers share similar characteristics. I’ll share some of mine not because misery loves company (solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris, as the adage from “Doctor Faustus” by Christoper Marlowe goes) but because at times like these, when so many people are isolated or herded together in tight pods, it is somewhat comforting to know you or your circles are not alone. Or as the current chestnut goes, “alone together.”

The most troubling, physically painful symptom, is anxiety. It is not so much fear of the future or even anticipation of an enigmatic inevitability, but the presumption that normal will never again be normal (and how could it, now that we know this kind of calamity exists, and that even the collective might of the world's nations cannot prevent it from recurring). Anxiety translates into stress and stress is a killer, in all senses of the word. Anxiety triggers stress and stress is a heavy weight on mind and body. Like many, I remained in New York City for the first months of forced isolation. Like others, less in number in my privileged demographic, during mid-June and for much of the summer (save for a few short trips back) I escaped to nature. “In 40 years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens,” wrote the brilliant neurologist and author Oliver Sacks (1933–2015) in a posthumously published New York Times Op-Ed that I urge you all to read.

I have a neurological disease (albeit a thankfully slow-moving one), and staying locked up in my city apartment (even taking a few short walks around the block in my locked-down neighborhood) was perceptibly unhelpful. Staying in a natural surrounding with flowers, trees, birds and bugs is indeed, at times, less stressful. As a workaholic, I never expected to say, even to myself, that I’d like a day, a week or a month of doing nothing. I’ve said it but I have not exactly done it. (Plans for resuming school online, preparing classes, meeting every day anywhere from two to as many as ten times on Zoom, Google Hangouts—which sucks—WebEx and FaceTime, is far from calming.) Deadlines for overdue and postponed projects, writing this daily column and a host of other annoying responsibilities add up to a collection of what I consider a PPTSD critical mass.

Many, many people have it worse, and my heart goes out to them. My sympathy goes to those who have lost someone dear, and my empathy goes to those who suffer more untenable mental disorders like PTSD. I am not using the PPTSD initials to minimize their anguish. What’s more, we all respond to crisis physically and emotionally in different ways. I try humor but frequently it falls flat. For me, there comes a point, like now, where I need a release, hence this specific Daily Heller, although in much of my recent writing (which I find more difficult to do these days, though like aerobic exercise, I try to keep it on a regular schedule) I involuntarily refer to the pandemic and political turmoil we face together.

My anxiety/stress, though it does manifest in fits and starts, most profoundly results in insomnia. Rather than fall asleep at bedtime, even when exhausted, everything revolves in my mind like hamster on a wheel. Every conceivable notion, from calling the plumber to fix a leak to recalling an episode of “Endeavour” to writing this very post, goes round and round in a perpetual rinse cycle of atrocious mixed metaphors. When the mind-wheel shuts off, I can’t help thinking, as I’m trying to concentrate on my breathing, what effect not sleeping will have on the next day’s competence or lack thereof, which just adds to the sleeplessness.

We’re living in blue-grey times. My saving grace, as Oliver Sacks so optimistically wrote, is the color and calm of nature. Yet as Mirko Ilíc’s illustration (for which this entire essay seems to be a caption) reveals, some days are as dark and somber as moonless nights (others are alive with many shades of moonlit grays). I have no insightful answer to this problem other than my usual childhood wish to whoever is listening: “Please, someone, make it go away.”