It’s like laughing at something that looks funny from a distance, then having it run at you full force and realising that you were laughing at a giant fucking cave troll.
COVID-19 wiggled into my consciousness at the end of January.
Before then I was focused on going back to the UK for Christmas and returning to Japan with Ste. Even when we heard of it in January, it was just this year’s flu, nothing to worry about. We carried on as normal, enjoying travels around Kyushu.
Then it escalated.
Ste moved his flights forward by two weeks to make sure he could get home and I was on my own again feeling quite distraught.
Saying goodbye to someone so important was hard and it reopened my struggle with goodbyes all over again. My lifestyle in Japan is pretty solitary, so jumping back to that after almost four months of company was quite the jolt.
I remember getting really worked up about a week before Ste left. Until then I just didn’t think about it and if I did, I’d distract myself or convince myself it was ages away.
But the time eventually came and I was not handling it well. I cried a LOT and I mean ugly crying. If you ugly cry in front of the guy you like, you know something’s wrong.
We talked about why I was so sad and worked out that it wasn’t just that I was going to miss him or that I was going to be alone again. It was a loss. He was leaving, which meant that I had to grieve.
We also realised that this linked to another traumatic event that happened not so long ago.
The last time I saw my dad he was sat second chair from the back, second from the right in Kagoshima Airport, waiting for his flight. I dropped him off, checked him in, cried when I gave him a hug and said goodbye. I looked back at him while I was walking to the car thinking it’s going to be the last time I see him for a while. I wasn’t wrong.
‘traumatic experience is repetitious, timeless, and unspeakable, yet,
it is also a literal, contagious, and mummified event’
– Michelle Balaev
As I dropped Ste at that same airport I couldn’t help feeling and fearing deja vu.
He left, he landed and he’s home now safe and sound.
I’ve been managing the stress and grief through routine. I started by building myself a productive morning routine (which you can read about here). Then I got back into fitness, creating my “Golden Triangle” fitness plan, which I’ll be writing about on Sunday!
I’ve been using my time at the office, while the schools are closed, to practice Japanese, think about my future, lesson plan, work on my mindfulness and just better myself in whatever ways I could.
All the while, the global situation was deteriorating.
Spain got bad, Italy got worse and then the chaos reached the UK. Where Japan’s early school closures had once seemed an overreaction, the UK was now in panic mode and the US was overtaking at a rapid pace.
The day Ste landed, the UK announced lockdown. Even then, I don’t think the situation fully dawned on me. It’ll pass, I thought, just keep your head down, keep focused.
I’ve kept my head down, kept focused, but the situation hasn’t passed.
I’m worried about my mum and sister who work in the NHS and don’t have the option to work from home. I’m worried about family members and friends who have already gotten sick, or about them getting sick.
I’m scared for friends in the US or set to return there soon. I’m terrified of deciding to stay in Japan and by the time my contract ends being unable to get home. Or losing someone in the meantime.
That said, I don’t want to jump the gun and head home now if the situation is going to calm down before my contract ends in August. I feel safe where I am right now and the routine that I’ve built for myself is helping me to keep going.
People like me, those living abroad for a longer yet limited amount of time, are in a tricky situation. We’re away temporarily but we aren’t on holiday and we aren’t travellers looking for the next flight home.
For us guys, the difficulty is trying to decide what to do.
Do we leave the relationships and the lives we’ve created for ourselves early, the security of employment and healthcare that might not be available in our home countries? Leave our independence and security? Do we go through the stress and dangers of leaving the country quickly?
Or do we wait for it to pass and risk being away from home if something happens, maybe even being unable to get home?
Then if we do decide to leave, we have to face those traveller problems: hours spent flight hunting, cancellations, multiple bookings and lost money.
From the outside, it seems a simple decision. Family are all emotion and tell you to come home. Work is all logic and tell you to stay, ‘it’s unsafe to fly and, for now, the situation is safer in Japan’.
I guess I’m looking for something a little more level-headed. Maybe that’s impossible at a time like this. Maybe there is no level-headed solution. Or at least not enough information to allow a level-headed solution.
The only thing I can do is to keep myself level-headed. People are surviving in situations worse than mine. While that doesn’t take away from my own problems, it inspires me to keep going.
I’ve heard of Japanese doctors and nurses working overtime and sleeping in their cars to protect family members. I’ve seen survival despite the impossibility of social distancing in countries like South Africa, where Karsten Noko writes that for many;
“The choice before you is often to stay home and fail to provide the evening meal for your family, or to brave it out into the city and try and fend for your family.”
And I’ve found hope reading about the kindness being practiced across nations, for example in Pakistan through the charity tax, or ‘zakat’.
The situation and information is constantly changing but for now, I’m staying put.
The flights from the UK and Japan are few and far between but they seem to open up again in May. I’m going to plod on, keep working and wait it out, ready at any time to book a flight home if necessary.
One thing I’m sure of is that I don’t want to be on the other side of the world and someone to leave me. I’ve been through that before and I can’t do it again.
That said, the time I have left in Japan is precious, so I’m spending every minute that I can outdoors, enjoying the beautiful nature of my area.
While everything is grey now, it’s going to pass. The giant cave troll will lose interest and leave you alone and things will get easier.
Keep in touch with loved ones, try to stay in the present as much as possible and look for the good. When you look for it, you’ll find it. There are so many stories of strength being written in this crisis. You’re writing your own story right now, so just do what feels right and make it a good one.
For anyone else struggling to decide what to do, let me know your ideas in the comments. I know some ALTs have travelled home already. How do you guys feel about your decision now? Any advice or information is more than welcome- as long as the information is credible, we don’t want any more confusion right now!
Even though it’s hard,
For reliable and credible information on the coronavirus, I’ve been checking this page: “Coronavirus pandemic: Tracking the global outbreak“, BBC
Countries and coronavirus:
For anyone dealing with grief:
“Coping with Grief“, NHS
“Psychoanalytic activism: Finding the human, staying human“, * Nyugen, L. (2012) Psychoanalytic Psychology, 29(3), 308–317.
I would recommend Nyugen’s article for anyone struggling with, or wanting to understand more about trauma. The article focuses on trauma from sexual assault/ torture but I found it applicable to a wider range of traumas. Thanks to Keilyn for sending it over, I found it really useful. The reading may be difficult for some people.
“Trends in Literary Trauma Theory“, Michelle Balaev (2008) ‘Trends in Literary Trauma Theory’. Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, 41(2), 149-166.