We’re all so exhausted we need another word to describe quite how exhausted we feel | Brigid Delaney

Like everyone else after 20 months of virus vigilance, I’m only now stopping to take a breath

Hey, how are you?

You’re tired? How tired?

Oh, you’ve never been this tired in all your life kind of tired? You dream of sleeping for 10 years tired? Every part of you is tired, even your hair?

Yeah, same.

After 2020’s first lockdown, people bounced back. There was a buzz to getting back out again and reconnecting with people, a release of pent up energy, and the commitment to beat the virus back and get to Covid zero.

Now … now … people are hollow-eyed, wrecked, a shell. The fatigue is animal. Omicron, whatever – just run me over with a tractor. People are struggling to stay up past 8pm. They’re wanting to make a 5:30 booking for dinner. They day-dream longingly of profound rest, cool sheets, white walls, long holidays, solitude and silence.

After a brief spurt of energy in October when we opened up, people are now limping to the end of the year.

The other day at the doctor’s, my GP started falling asleep mid-consult. She was looking something up for me on the internet about concussion and then her head dropped sharply in a micro-sleep. She had just been telling me how exhausted she was from the pandemic.

Some of Australia’s leading female business and community leaders signed an open letter last week asking for more recognition and support for the care economy. They say women are “suffering the great exhaustion” – resulting from the extra unpaid work of caring on top of their normal jobs.

Healthcare workers are leaving in droves, and there is a mass exodus of 20,000 critical care nurses – many of them traumatised and exhausted.

Pope Francis asked Catholics last month to pray for people with burnout.

I see the exhaustion in my own colleagues. Journalists and editors were in the strange situation of reporting on a situation that they were living through – trapped in a news story for almost two years. “I am more than exhausted,” one editor told me. “We need a new word.”

And for those of us consuming the news over this period of time – we were in the weird situation of being directly affected by the story. Usually if you are directly affected by a news event – say a bushfire or weather event – it’s relatively short lived. You don’t see your story on the news nightly for 20 months. The price of vigilance to the one story, over this long period of time, is exhaustion. Or more than exhaustion – the thing we don’t have a word for.

But now, after 20 months of vigilance, people are starting to – if not quite relax, then stopping and taking a breath.

People who were just hanging on by a thread can finally let go. But what does letting go mean – and will our society allow it?

The answer, as a lot of us are finding out, is “no”. The world doesn’t stop just because you are exhausted. You still have to go to work, earn a paycheck, see friends, parents, be a carer, plan a holiday or Christmas, deal with life in the same relentless way that you did before the pandemic. And now with opening up you need to add a social life and the gym, and maybe travel and returning to the office, on top of what was already there.

Rest is on the other side of exhaustion – promising to be an antidote. But do we even know how to rest? Properly rest, with no stimuli? Our dopamine-addicted brains have been jacked up for years on notifications, social media likes, watching Netflix while tweeting while texting, etc. Neurons drenched in stimuli, our fight or flight response activated for almost two years – how do we recover? We’ll have to learn a whole new way of being. There’s no one there to show us. There’s no profit to be made from rest. Corporate mindfulness training was all the rage a few years ago – 10 minutes of meditation daily to improve clarity and productivity. But this is not what we need right now.

Rest is of a different order. It cannot be rushed.

Our bodies will lead us there. Exhaustion is their message.


Brigid Delaney

The GuardianTramp

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