Empty store shelves in Toronto. Photos by Mike Abrusci.
At the best of times I am an anxious person. Left to its own devices my brain is prone to rumination. Most of the time this starts with some inconsequential thought. For example: maybe I left the oven on. From there I begin to play out possible scenarios in my head. If I did leave the oven on, how long until something caught fire? If my home caught fire, how long before it burned down? What about the nice family downstairs? Would their dog get out on time? In a matter of seconds I've gotten from hot stove to firey pet murder. For whatever reason that kind of thought escalation is my default setting. When it gets out of hand all I can do is lay in bed and stare at my phone.
Combating that feeling takes a lot of effort. I go to the gym. I go to therapy. Nowadays I can mostly stop the spiral before it starts. Still, each time I start to wade into some irrational think hole there is the thought maybe this time I should be worrying. Maybe this time everything gets bad. This is my prevailing concern as the coronavirus changed from something that was happening far away to something impacting my day-to-day life here in Toronto.Amongst the global health pandemic of COVID-19, here are some questions I've been asking myself: What if I get sick? What if my family gets sick? Can I still cash my cheques? Should I go to the grocery under self quarantine? Can I keep working? What if it keeps spreading? Is all this just normal now?For a little while I wondered if I was overreacting. As I bunkered in my apartment friends went to bars and restaurants. Concerts kept happening. Travel continued as planned. Then bit by bit the mood started to change. People started buying a lot of beans and toilet paper. Streets began thinning out. News outlets devoted more and more of their coverage to the virus until eventually was all anyone could talk or read about. As I'm writing this, my home province of Ontario has just declared a state of emergency, closing down non-essential businesses and advising everyone to avoid going out unless it is absolutely necessary. A lot of people seem kind of scared.The reality is quickly sinking in about how this will immediately impact us in the present and how it could continue to impact us once we’ve moved past the pandemic. It is the first time my sense of escalating dread seems warranted, but I can't even take pleasure in having my feelings validated on account of the whole world catastrophe.
Stores have been closing. Events have been canceled. The refrain everyone keeps repeating is that we’re living in strange times.
Right now I'm concerned for my friends. A lot of my peers make their living creatively. Often this means months on the road playing music, long runs of theatre, or piecing together a string of comedy shows. These jobs, even for the supposedly successful, are supplemented by some gig work back home. With live events shut down and restaurants for the foreseeable future a lot of friends are wondering when they'll be able to make a living again. Both their chosen profession—the arts—and their backup gigs have crumbled in a matter of weeks.Even when it's all going well these the lives we have chosen can feel precarious. There is a mid-level band I adore who have been playing twenty years in 2020. A few months back they reached out and politely asked if I could write something about the anniversary to promote their upcoming tour. Despite that fact that the band has a devoted fanbase and beloved back catalogue, I couldn't get an editor to commission the story. As much as I enjoy their music they weren't fresh new faces or undeniably famous, the kind of art that's easier to convince publications they’ll get their money’s worth. Now the tour I couldn't support has been indefinitely postponed. They aren't sure how they're going to make up months of lost income. Shortly after getting home their singer lost his Nonna. He couldn't attend her funeral because he is self-isolated.
Another friend was criticized for staying on the road until last weekend. There were a lot of comments online that what he was doing was irresponsible. But before governments canceled shows outright, he wasn't sure what to do. It's not that the risk didn't seem real. It was that there were a whole crew of people—his band, the openers, his tech crew, the tour managers—that were relying on him to provide for themselves. Many of the crew had young children. Just because there was a virus didn't mean the bills stopped, so they continued until it became unconscionable not to.There are countless other people I know who have been impacted: the comedian who lost her weekly show and her bartending job. A former classmate who runs lights for live venues is now out of work. A PA has been pulled from her position as the film she was working on called for hiatus. An actor who had his show pulled in London now has to navigate his way back home just as the government is warning travel may become difficult or impossible.
Everybody keeps apologizing when they talk about these problems. They'll post a GoFundMe link or plan a live stream. But they're lucky. Other people have it worse. Like having your whole professional life completely upended isn't it's own form of personal tragedy.As people across North America finally start to self-isolate, everyone has been looking to the internet for guidance. A number of people have pointed out that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine. Others have posted their online fitness routines. Multiple users have pointed out this is a great chance to figure out a side hustle. There is an overwhelming push to continue on with the type of productivity hustle that exists during normal times. But these aren't normal times at all. I would be angry about it if I thought people were being malicious. Like they had some hidden agenda to push the capitalist routine. In reality I think people are just trying to find something to pass the time. Divorced from their routine they are not sure what to do. I haven't quite known what to do either. I've been trying to gauge how far this all escalates and trying to worry the appropriate amount.A strategy that's been suggested to me to combat negative thought loops is looking at the practical things I can do in the moment. What actions do I have control of that will positively impact my current situation? The most practical thing I can do for the moment is to stay indoors, scroll on my phone, and maybe watch the Sopranos for the fifth time. Ironically this feels a lot like my anxiety days. But the other useful strategy I learned for fighting these feelings is figuring out how to be of service. So I've been throwing a few bucks to people who seem like they need a hand at the moment. I've been calling my family for the first time in forever. I've been trying to think about how I can do better for myself and others when all this is done. But who knows. It is strange times.Follow Graham Isador on Twitter.