What does June 1, 2022, mean to you? If in Shanghai, that date should represent one thing: freedom. But months later, I feel anything but liberated.
On the surface, our city looks familiar; bars and cafés are open, we’re back to work, and some of us have been on holiday. Bits of life are lived, but I struggle to connect fully with mine.
Pieces are there, like a puzzle scattered across the floor, but it’s easier to look at each segment separately than to put everything together and face the bigger picture. Hard as I try, I haven’t processed the past few months and doubt I’m the only one.
So I asked:
And people began replying:
“Know what you mean! It still feels like ‘The Truman Show’ where everything is meant to be back to normal and ducky, but underneath something is askew! Like waiting for the hammer to drop at any minute.” @imaxhere
“A cocktail of feelings with a bit of anxiety and confusion as the main ingredients.” @MikedelaTorreR
“Unfortunately it’s called PTSD, Emma! Just focus on family and work, and it makes it easier! Stay away from social media and the news, too.” @TotallyRAIDiCal
“My mind has been gone since the hospital…Now I’ve made the decision to leave.” @MattMarsdennn
Having been through facilities myself, I understand Matt’s position. But it doesn’t take quarantine to question life in Shanghai, and the decision to leave is one many have made.
Exodus aside, the choice isn’t easy, although some insist on presenting it that way. One comment on my tweet echoed a take we’ve all heard – shut up or ship out, reducing connections, careers and kids down to a coin toss.
Life’s not that simple, as most know.
“I feel I could stand any kind of lockdown, but I want to be with my mom & dad, brother & sister again. But equally worried about being cut outside of China, with no way back to those I love here. I hate having to choose.” @jaapgrolleman
“Part of what’s making it difficult is that not only have things been stressful here, they’re messed up in some of our home countries.” @MFinChina
“No one outside of Shanghai has experienced this, so it’s difficult to talk about with friends or family. For other emotionally traumatic events, people in our lives can give guidance or comfort. For this, we’re sort of on our own.” @crushspread
I relate. My parents caught COVID in the UK and found themselves relaxing on a beach in Greece a week later. Same virus, different experience. And I haven’t shared much of mine with them because where to begin and how could they understand?
There’s solace in community. But while hope exists in Shanghai, between uneasy truths about the past and uncertainty about the future, it’s hard to hold onto.
“It’s OK not to be OK… This will hopefully be the new normal for only a short time before it eases back a bit more.” @TheSpilster
“I gotta endorse the ‘immediately skip town and go traveling for 6 weeks strategy…’ For me, SH lockdown feels like YEARS ago. Twitter is making me a little nervous for the return though.” @pretentiouswhat
“Don’t think I’ve even started to unpack the last few months yet. A big obstacle to doing so is having some consistency and hope here, which we don’t seem close to having.” @harri_squatter
So, where does this leave us? Some 26 million people each with their own story, none truer than the next.
It’s essential to recognize that a handful of voices do not speak for everyone. Nor can the confinements of a tweet express how it feels to collide with the most challenging time in Shanghai’s recent history. But, like a puzzle, we can look at each experience with respect, acknowledging its place in our city’s bigger picture.
I interviewed many mental health professionals during lockdown. Threaded through our conversations was the idea that to emerge from any struggle, we must find meaning in it. Lockdown was a collective wound, but healing is an individual journey.
I think Brian puts it well:
“‘By now’ suggests that 1) there is an appropriate timeline for healing, and 2) that this is an ‘after’ period. I think many agree this was a collective trauma, and there is no normal timeline for recovery. Sadly, this has not ended, it’s very much still on. Time for self-care.” @brianhallphd
Reflections from Mental Health Counselor, Bohan Zhang
I relate to not feeling right while struggling to pinpoint why, maybe because we’ve experienced bigger challenges than we realize. I’ve met friends and gone out, but we’re reminded normalcy is conditional – the rain has stopped, but clouds linger.
Lockdown could be viewed as collective trauma, causing increased anxiety, hyper-vigilance, and an intensified safety-oriented mindset. While natural, this reaction prevents us from engaging fully in life.
When we’re reacting (assuming the passive), we’re not acting (taking the initiative), leaving our minds in the past and not in the present. No wonder we feel distracted or detached.
And, while easier said than done, we need to go at our own pace. Though we’ve had a collective experience, we’re affected differently – it’s as individual as it is shared.
It’s also important we live through this with awareness, patience, and compassion. I’ve been thinking about a video I watched years ago studying trauma. It showed a polar bear being chased by a helicopter before being shot with a tranquilizer gun.
Regaining consciousness, the bear began to convulse with short, rapid gasps. A few minutes later, with a deep inhale followed by a long sigh, normal breathing was restored. It was like the bear had returned to its body and into the world (“here and now”).
Most mammals “shake off” traumatic memories after threatening situations to discharge built-up energy (part of the “fight-flight-freeze” response). Without doing so, trauma stays in the body and continues to exert its effects.
There’s much to learn from polar bears and our other mammalian friends. Let’s start here: allow yourself time, give space to your feelings and let the process run its course.
Also, know that, as humans, it’ll look different and take longer due to the mental capacity that separates our species. That distinction can be a blessing or a curse, but fortunately, we have a choice.
Bohan Zhang: Mental Health Counselor, Psychological and Behavioral Therapies Team Leader at ELG. He provides counseling, consultation, training, and supervision services in English and Mandarin. Contact Bohan and his team here: Service Inquiry Hotline: 400 6129 423 / www.chinaelg.cn/en/bohan-zhang
Emma Leaning is a columnist for Shanghai Daily where she authors “Emma Leaning is MENTAL” and “The Oyster Pail.” With candid dialogue and sincere reflection, her work explores all things human to the backdrop of Shanghai.
Emma qualified from Bournemouth University before studying at The British College of Journalism and has lived in China since 2012.
She encourages you to get in touch and welcomes your comments. Reach Emma at: email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @LeaningEmma.
[All images courtesy of Emma Leaning; cover image by Hu Jun]