what it’s like to live with anxiety and hypochondria under a pandemic lockdown

dear readers, it’s been a while. sorry for being away for months; i lost my writing voice sometime ago and i’m trying to find it again.

it’s been exactly 30 days since Malaysia imposed a nationwide MCO in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which means that i have been stuck in my KL condo for a month now, venturing out only for grocery runs once every fortnight.

i wish i could say that a month later, i’ve gotten used to staying indoors under a government-imposed order, but do you really get used to living in a pandemic?

it started way back in January for me:

my first time reading about the coronavirus (then still known as 2019 n-CoV) was on a train on the way home to Alor Setar for chinese new year. right up until that point in time, i had been occupied with work, and also Oli’s visit in December and our trip home for Christmas. so it wasn’t until i had settled down comfortably in my train seat that i found myself properly scrolling through twitter for the first time in weeks. that was when sporadic tweets of a virus outbreak in China popped up on my timeline and immediately caught my attention.

here’s the deal with me and the general concept of being sick: i am terrified of it. i have anxiety, which has also led to the growth of a spurt of hypochondria. i didn’t manage to put a name to it until much later on, but growing up, every little illness i had made me think i was suffering from a more severe disease, never mind that there was no real, rational basis behind the fear. that’s just how anxiety works. even before i had started getting panic attacks when i was in secondary school, there was a period of time when i had consistent headaches for consecutive days, which frightened me so much that i had to go home halfway through a midterm and persuade my parents to bring me to the hospital because i was worried that it was caused by something life-threatening. (it turned out to be caused by stress.) since then, the situation has repeated itself, but with different illnesses.

so it was no wonder that the very idea of a disease outbreak scared me a lot. at that point in time in late January, the number of infections in Wuhan was rising exponentially, but there were only a handful of cases outside of China. but that didn’t stop my brain from initialising lowkey panic mode. fear is usually stoked by a lack of knowledge, and that applied to my fear too. i was afraid because i didn’t know anything about this virus, and the worst part was no one else seemed to know much about it too.

so the first day of chinese new year saw me sitting in a corner by myself at my relatives’ house, obsessively pouring over any and every news article or update i could find on the coronavirus. and then news came about that Malaysia had its first cases. i remember that moment vividly, because it was a moment when i stopped my card game with my relatives because i was feeling too anxious to do anything else except worry. i don’t really know how to describe the fear haze that i was consumed by during the whole of chinese new year; all i could remember was the feeling of extreme disillusionment of seeing all my family and friends celebrate the festive season with smiles and laughter, and then there i was feeling way too paranoid about even sitting close to anyone and already wearing a face mask because i had just read that the virus had a 14-day incubation period and most people who got it were asymptomatic. the word “pandemic” appeared more and more frequently in headlines each day. there were only less than 10 cases in Malaysia at the time but all i could think of was, you never know. i had dragged my parents to pharmacies to buy hand sanitisers and face masks, reiterating to them what i had read in the news; wash your hands, cough into your elbow, don’t touch your face.

looking back in retrospect and comparing the current situation with three months ago, maybe i was overreacting. anxiety does make one catastrophize everything. but from my point of view now, there was no doubt that mentally preparing myself for the worst at the very beginning lessened the blow that the horrible dread that i was to face in the coming months dealt to my mental health as the situation got worse all around the world.

i was supposed to go back to KL after that by train, but i was already afraid of crowds, so i hitched a ride back with my uncle instead. i showed up at work the next day with a face mask on and felt anxious after finding out a colleague was sick with a cough. i started following KKM Putrajaya on twitter and obsessively checked for the daily local infection counts. i said no to weekend plans if i could help it and i stopped going to malls altogether. the feeling of disillusionment still persisted, because with the mere 20 or so cases in Malaysia at the time, no one around me seemed to be too worried, and yet on some days it was all i could think about.

weeks passed by after that and it was March, when Italy and South Korea were starting to make headlines. the WHO had also given the disease an official name, COVID-19. admittedly, as i gradually fell back into the comfortable lull of daily routines and also being occupied with work, i allowed myself to feel more assured, about the situation in Malaysia at least.

and then Case 26 happened in KL, and my anxiety levels rose again. this cluster led to a suspected scare at my workplace, and i found myself at the office late one night having a panic attack at the possibility that i might have been exposed to COVID-19.

the possibility was, fortunately, ruled out a week after, but there was barely time to feel relieved when news about the tabligh gathering surfaced, and Malaysia more or less descended into chaos. the word “lockdown” was starting to get thrown around on local twitterjaya, and three nights before the announcement of the MCO, my cousin called to warn me of the possibility of a state- or nationwide lockdown, and that was a pivotal moment for me, i think. i had read so much on people’s experiences with lockdowns in China, and then in Italy, and they never failed to send a chill down my spine. they were recounts of checking the national death toll first thing in the morning upon waking up, being restricted from visiting family even within the same city, and essentially witnessing the physical shutdown of a whole country. the fact that we would also soon be facing similar measures sent me into yet another panic: does this mean Malaysia will also be seeing the same figures and tolls as those two countries?

the MCO happened, as we anticipated it would, and more than anything, i was worried for my parents. the whole balik kampung on the eve of MCO fiasco aside, i knew there was no way i could risk returning home after having just gone through a suspected exposure scare. but accepting that fact didn’t make me worry any lesser, and the first few weeks of the MCO saw me trying very, very hard not to remember the countless anecdotes i had read on journalist websites. it wasn’t the first time knowledge had turned against my anxiety. but all i could do was frantically remind my parents to not go out, and to be extremely careful if they had to.

going out on grocery runs for me is no walk in the park, either. i am lucky enough to live somewhere within walking distance from several supermarkets, and i count my lucky stars for that. but each time i step out of the house, i am unable to shake off the nagging feeling that i am already inherently at risk. even after disinfecting everything i’ve bought, and all the surfaces i’ve touched, internally i still countdown 14 days from the day i left the house. it’s hard to even draw the line at how reasonable my worry levels are at anymore (“What was deemed abundantly cautious on Wednesday morning became common sense by Wednesday night.” *).

with that said, i have already reached the point of staying indoors where my windows are already fully opened, and yet i crave more sunlight than ever. so while venturing out carries with it an element of fright, i can’t help but anticipate the wide, open areas of being outside my room, and being bathed in Malaysian sunlight, the epitome of humidity and heat.

if it’s one thing living in a crisis has taught me, it’s that the act of thinking and worrying about it never truly stops – not even in my sleep. all my life, i’ve always had vivid dreams every single night, and i usually remember most of them after waking up. in the past, i’ve noticed that my dreams usually correspond to my emotions and thoughts during waking hours, with anxious dreams being the more intense and impactful ones. so when i started having recurring COVID-19 dreams with common themes and patterns, i was not really that surprised.

they never start out the same, but they all share the common setting of being outside. one time i was in Italy, having just got off an ItaliaRail train, the very same trainline my parents and i were on during our trip there in summer two years ago. one time i was on a crowded beach in Australia, with my parents and an aunty and uncle. one time i had flown back to Manchester, and met my university friends at the airport. one time i was in South Korea, taking an Uber to a hospital with five other strangers. one time Oli flew here, and i went to a local café to meet him. and then comes the turning point of the dream, and each time, every single time, it eerily fleshes out in the same way.

first comes the sudden realisation that i am outside during a pandemic, and not indoors as i should be. then comes the panic of why am i not wearing a mask? what am i doing here? why are my parents and relatives and friends and boyfriend not wearing masks? am i at risk now? and then comes waking up, and the ultimate feeling of relief when i remember that i have not left the house in weeks. i am safe, for now.

and that moment right between panicking in my dream and waking up, brings with it such a disjointed feeling. i am privileged to wake up and feel safe, which feels very ironic when reality is such that outside these four walls, outside my restlessness and boredom, a crisis is happening. it never stops, it never sleeps. out there, people are bravely working on the frontlines, people are sick, people are dying. just because i don’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

(i dream of covid is a website documenting dreams of people all over the world, notably changed and affected by the pandemic.)

living with anxiety and hypochondria under a pandemic lockdown sounded like my worst nightmare, but just like any other person, there is no choice but to keep on keeping on. during this crisis, i have seen how selfless and kind people are to those who are in need, read touching accounts of humanity shining through in the form of charities, volunteers and even just normal folks buying meals for food delivery riders. during this crisis, it can never be emphasised enough just how incredibly brave all health workers are, and how hard they are working to literally save humanity. and one day, once all of us get out of this, the time must come for us to hold important conversations on the changes that must be effected in societies all around the world, in order to better protect everyone in a country, and not just those who are rich and powerful. the normal citizens of the world deserve better.

i’ve been stuck in a mental rut lately (non-COVID related but i’m sure the effects of isolation are starting to get to me in every aspect) and like i said, i’m trying to find my writing voice again. not being able to write has made me feel like i’ve lost something important, and i’m hoping if i can get back into writing again, i can start lifting myself out of this rut step by step, day by day.

meanwhile (as if any of you need any more reminders, but once more for good measure), stay at home if you can, social distance, and call your loved ones regularly. these are trying times and it’s not a gesture of weakness to be extra gentle with yourself. remember that.

Published by

Michelle Teoh

26-year-old cynical Asian, book enthusiast and purveyor of fine sarcasm.

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