I had a dream the other night. Well, it was more a nightmare, really. Gave me the horrors. I dreamed that I was at a funeral in the Dublin suburb where I grew up. I don’t know who was dead; such details often don’t seem to matter in dreamland.
The church was packed, as churches often were for funerals before the onslaught of the Coronavirus, back in what are now fast becoming the good old days; when people came together to celebrate a loved one’s life, when we ate together, drank together, sang together and hugged each other to share the burden of grief and the loneliness of death.
Nowadays we watch at a distance or on social media as our dead are summarily despatched to burial or cremation. We are denied the process of gathering to bear the burden and relive the memories. In this, as in many other ways, Covid-19 can make heavy the beat of the human heart.
In my dream, when the service was over, the mourners en masse followed the coffin out of the church and I was surrounded by crowds of people - old neighbours, friends and relatives. None of them paid a whit of attention to social distancing. This upset me, mindful as I was, even in sleep, about the perils of contamination.
I admonished the crowd to stand back, have sense and be responsible. They shrugged me off. I entreated them. They laughed at me, slapped my back, wrapped their arms around my shoulders and urged me to relax, chill out and not be a worrywart. I was horrified. I begged them to back off and leave me alone but they ignored my pleas and carried on grinning and milling around me. I became angry. I roared and ranted at them to leave me alone. And still they swarmed – jostling me, jeering me, touching me. Infecting me.
I woke up in a panic.
The nightmare was the culmination of what was a bad day for me. My period of funk began with a morning trip to the supermarket. The weekly shop has become, apparently, one of the main triggers of stress, given that the supermarket is now the one place where many of us come into contact in a confined space with potential carriers of the dreaded virus. My nerves were a tad frazzled.
So, the mood was set. I was out of sorts for the rest of the day - fed up, irritable, cranky. Stir-crazy. Raging against how this damned virus has compromised my life.
Stress can be a sneaky, pernicious thing. I have experience of this. Four years ago, I was afflicted with prostate cancer and underwent a course of radiotherapy and hormone treatment. It was a dark and worrying time but I’ve always been blessed with an easy-going disposition and I figured I could trust myself to carry any anxiety with my customary optimism and bonhomie. Little did I know.
A few weeks into my treatment I felt a constriction in my oesophagus. This gradually worsened over the following days until it reached the stage where I couldn’t swallow solid food. I’d liquify my meals in order to imbibe nourishment. I became convinced that I had cancer of the oesophagus.
My doctor arranged for an endoscopy, which entailed the insertion of a long, flexible tube down my throat and into the oesophagus. A tiny camera at the tip of the scope enabled the doctor to have a look around in there. As soon as he finished the procedure, he assured me that there was nothing sinister going on; I was suffering from a condition called Globus and the sense of constriction was brought on by anxiety.
I was stressed out and didn’t know it.
The sense of relief was glorious. On my way home the constriction began to ease and by dinner time I was cured and I enjoyed a hearty solid meal. But I knew then that, just as the health-care workers were sorting out the cancer, I needed the tools and ammunition with which to battle the stress.
I took a three-pronged approach. I consulted a counsellor who needed only two sessions to equip me with the smarts to recognize and cope with anxiety. I enrolled in mindfulness classes and became a dedicated practitioner. And I reread my favourite novel.
A sacred text of Texas literature, Lonesome Dove, the epic saga of a cattle drive in the dying days of the Old West, won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for the writer LarryMcMurtry. Bursting with pathos and humanity, the story explores themes of old age, death, unrequited love and friendship. A TV mini-series based on the book won six Emmy Awards and starred the Oscar-winning actors Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. Duvall has described the novel as America’s Hamlet.
My cancer treatment advanced. Each day I’d be zapped with radiotherapy and I’d tend to my mindfulness and each night I’d lose myself in Lonesome Dove. The book transported me to another world - the magical world of Mister McMurtry’s imagination and literary brilliance. It uplifted my spirit from my own reality of worry and anxiety to a realm of grand adventure and spiritual replenishment, where my cancer and my worries were, for a while, all but forgotten.
Such is the power of great writing.
My recent nightmare was a timely reminder that anxiety is knocking on my door again. As it seems like this virus will continue to torment us for a while yet, I daresay that perhaps I’ll soon be reaching for the top shelf and taking down that good book.
I never wrote about the cancer. I wanted to but I couldn’t find a way into it. I moved on. Left it. Until now, when the memory welled up in me – and at a time when it seems appropriate. And here I am. Writing it.
Stress isn’t the only phenomenon that bides its time in the ether.