News & Politics

Shellshocked

Shoppers rush to pick up toilet paper that had just arrived at a Costco store, Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Tacoma, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Hello, Dear Reader. You haven’t heard much from me lately, because I’m feeling what you’re probably feeling right now: shellshock.

Not “battle fatigue.” Not “operational exhaustion.” Not “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Shellshock. Like George Carlin said 30 years ago, it’s a perfectly accurate and descriptive word for a horrible experience, and over the past century we’ve used euphemisms and distancing language to soften the impact and strip the meaning from it. You might not be shocked by a literal WWI artillery shell right now, but the fear response is the same. The pain and confusion are still real.

I know because I was shellshocked for a large part of the past 10 years. In my case, the “shell” was an armored State Department SUV that made an illegal left turn on a Washington, D.C., street and struck me as I was crossing with the Walk light, shattering my knee and changing my life for the worse. It took me years to recover physically, and even then I was still terrified just to walk down the street. I stayed in our nation’s capital for 4 years after that and had several other near-misses with D.C. drivers who treat pedestrians like GTA achievements, and I’m pretty sure it drove me insane. (Or more insane, I guess.) Panic attacks, paralyzing fear, even dissociation and visual distortions sometimes. It was hell.

Once I’d finally had enough of that and moved back home to Indianapolis, it got a little better. I didn’t have to walk everywhere, and I felt safer inside a car or house. Headlights at night could still trigger me, reminding me of the headlight that was right in my face the instant before my life changed. But otherwise, I was mostly okay.

Well, forget that now. I haven’t left the house except once* in over a week, and my panic attacks are back as bad as ever. And now there’s no escaping it. These days, my exercise regimen consists of multiple reps of vigorous mood swings. I’m terrified of getting this virus, not just out of fear for my own health, but the health of anybody I might inadvertently infect. I especially don’t want to hurt my parents, who live 10 miles from me and might as well be on the Moon right now. (Hi, Mom and Dad.) I’m lucky enough to be able to make a modest living typing out stuff like this, and talking to you is better than talking to myself, and maybe it might even help you a little bit. It sure as hell is helping me. So that’s all I’m going to do until America gives the all-clear. But now the fear and panic I thought I had escaped years ago is unavoidable, it’s inside the house with me, and it really pisses me off.

All of which is to say: I know that feel, bro. It’s okay to be scared. You’d have to be crazy not to be scared right now. This is all happening too fast, there’s too much information and misinformation and disinformation getting blasted at you all at once, and the consequences of everything that’s happening are too big to wrap your head around. It’s hard to know what’s going on or who to trust.

Except when it comes to China. That one is easy:

Right now the Chinese government — not all Chinese people around the world, you dumb libs who see racism everywhere, but the Chinese government — is devoting all of its resources to a massive “I’m Rubber, You’re Glue” propaganda campaign against the United States. China has sent armies of bots and trolls to swarm Twitter and other social media platforms, harassing and lying to anybody who dares to tell the truth about China’s responsibility for this virus. China has either paid or coerced mainstream American media outlets into spreading brazen Chinese Communist Party propaganda. The Chinese have been lying about the virus from the beginning, they’re solely responsible for this pandemic, and they will continue to lie as long as they can get away with it. If we thought China was ever going to be our ally, those days are over now. (Sorry, Joss Whedon.)

As it turns out, I predicted all this two months ago today:

But the thing about a crisis is that it can be very clarifying. It clears away a lot of the clutter in our minds. It makes us realize that “shellshock” is a perfectly good word, and it changes the way we see stories like the following. Elliot Njus, The Oregonian:

Police say they’ve arrested a man accused of trying to sell thousands of face masks intended for hospital workers that were stolen earlier this month.

Police said someone took 20 to 25 cases of N95 respirator masks from The ReBuilding Center in North Portland on March 7. Each case contained 400 masks.

Protective equipment for health workers is in short supply amid the coronavirus pandemic. The nonprofit ReBuilding Center diverts building materials from landfills and offers them for reuse. Court records indicate the victim of the theft was Mercy Corps, another Portland nonprofit.

Back in the Old West, they used to hang horse thieves. It was harsh frontier justice, but they justified it because stealing a man’s horse was the same as condemning him to death. So what should be the punishment for a man who just stole the equivalent of 400 horses? How many doctors and nurses and paramedics and other frontline warriors against this menace has he endangered? What should we do with such a criminal?

I get the feeling the American justice system is about to go back-to-basics.

Speaking of horses, you can lead ’em to water, but you can’t make ’em thoroughly wash their hooves for at least 20 seconds with soap. You can tell young adults to maintain “social distancing,” but you can’t keep them from partying on the beach. You can warn people about the threat, but you can’t make them do what’s best for everybody. A lot of people are listening, though, and I just pray that’s enough.

“But it only affects old people,” you might be saying. Well, click this and read the thread from a 31-year-old Olympic swimmer. If the China virus has hit him this hard, I don’t want it near me or anyone I care about:

And the economy? I have no idea what effect all this is going to have. I can’t think of any historical precedent. It won’t be anything good, that’s for sure. But I just can’t believe that the whole world would shut down over the space of a week if it weren’t for a damn good reason.

We’re all scared about the future. Right now it looks like that’s what at stake: the future. A dead business can be brought back, but a dead human being can’t. A struggling economy can be revived with ingenuity and hard work and sacrifice, but a struggling human immune system can’t. We can work hard to go back to normal life once we get through this, but first we have to get through this.

You want to know who I’m voting for in November? Right now I just want to survive until November. Ask me then.

This really feels to me like a fight for our very way of life. Maybe even human life itself. I hope I’m wrong. I hope it’s not as bad as I fear it is. I hope that six months from now, we’ll all have a good laugh about how we overreacted. But hope ain’t a plan.

I realize this has been a bit of a ramble, Dear Reader. It’s all I can do to keep my fingers on the keys right now. But this is how I see it. The truth might be all we have left soon, and we need to keep telling it while we can.

Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Stay inside if at all possible. Work from home. Call your mom. Play an old board game with your kids. Whatever you need to do to stay sane right now. Help #SlowTheSpread and #FlattenTheCurve. After this nightmare is over, then we can figure out what comes next.

If we stomped a cockroach like Hitler, we can damn well flatten this bug.

*After staying in the house for a solid week, I had to go to the CVS drive-thru for prescription refills. (They wouldn’t deliver it to me, which is an even longer story.) The pharmacist handed me the clipboard to sign for it, and I said, “Are we really still doing this?” I’ve never been a germaphobe, more of a germaphile really, but it turns out I’m a quick study. The pharmacist gave me some wipes, and I’ve been keeping wipes and hand sanitizer in my car even before all this, but I still didn’t want to touch that damn pen or clipboard. Companies need to start coming up with ways to do that sort of stuff with no physical contact, and they need to do it today.