She calls me her phone, but almost never uses me for phone calls. Her hands claw around me, as she stares at me for hours: Instagram stories, Snapchat snaps, TikTok videos, news feeds, YouTube, and incoming messages. Day and night, she scrolls and scrolls.
My owner’s name is Alex, and this is 2020.
Images of koala bear and kangaroo rescues, bushfires and burned homes, pain me as they fill my screen. A Ukrainian plane has been shot down. There is so much tragedy to absorb, and Alex is questioning whether World War III is a possibility. She types non-stop, unaware of her increasing internal angst. As she texts, the tension between the US and Iran is mounting.
“What if this is the beginning of World War III?” she and her friends ask each other.
On the same day, there is a flood of pictures and comments about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. What is happening? The Duke and Duchess of Sussex announce, on Instagram of all places, that they’re stepping down from the Royal Family. It is unheard of to make such an announcement on phones like me, instead of traditional newspapers or the BBC news. Over 1.8 million Instagram “likes” and the British monarchy is shaken.
More tragedy follows: Los Angeles Laker basketball legend, Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others have died in a helicopter crash. Alex stares at me in disbelief. Can this really be true? Heartfelt messages are pouring out on my screen. She holds me in shock, tears streaming. She is a big fan of Kobe Bryant, and his daughter was just one year younger than her. Now she’s dead, in an instant. The year 2020 is off to a tumultuous start.
The World Health Organization announces that a deadly coronavirus, COVID-19, has emerged in Wuhan, China, and is spreading across the globe. I feel Alex’s pulse rapidly beating. She watches people in China screaming in pain, falling to the ground. Her anxiety is high, and it’s transmitting through her clammy hands, to me. I can hardly keep up with the bombardment of postings.
Stop, Alex! Please! I want to shout. Don’t you see how this is affecting you? You’re a sensitive soul, and these images stay in your mind for weeks after you’ve watched them.
But I can’t stop her. She’s glued to the heart-wrenching Instagram videos. Post after post shows patients on ventilators fighting for their lives. Nurses and doctors speak through me, recording panicked messages about the shortage of beds, staff and supplies.
Fear is contagious. I am deeply concerned about Alex’s mental health. She’s not getting enough sleep since she can’t switch me off at night. She is seeing too much and there are no filters. Raw images and videos come at her, and she’s sucked in. She can’t stop checking. The virus is spreading. The numbers are mounting. Her anxiety is escalating.
Oh Alex, if only you would turn me off and give yourself a break from it all.
On March 11, the World Health Organization declares a global pandemic. The disease is spreading, and everything is shutting down. Restaurants, shops, gyms, tennis courts, playgrounds and schools – even Disneyland – have closed until further notice. The Olympics are postponed, Spring Break trips cancelled, and education is going online. Her classroom will be a Zoom room.
I despair for Alex at the thought of even more time spent on screens, but Zoom is the new word. She uses it as a verb, “I’ll Zoom you,” as a noun, “Let’s meet on Zoom,” and as an adjective, “Let’s have a Zoom party.” New hashtags pop up as new lingo emerges. #LockDownNow #SocialDistancing #StayHomeStaySafe #FlattenTheCurve #MyPandemicSurvivalPlan #Coronapocalypse #PanicBuying #MaskUp and more.
Images of deserted roads, empty shelves and the last rolls of toilet paper go viral. Hand sanitizer is sold out and masks are a hot commodity. Toilet paper memes trend and people offer pizzas in exchange for loo rolls! Two women in an empty toilet paper aisle play the Titanic theme song on their violins. This meme makes Alex laugh. It’s a relief to hear her giggle.
On May 25, African American, George Floyd, is choked to death by police. Alex is fuming! She watches the recording over and over. She gasps each time she hears George Floyd saying, “I can’t breathe.” Her eyes fill.
#BlackLivesMatter is everywhere and racial tension explodes. All over the world, people take to the streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
On June 5, I attend the Vancouver anti-racism rally with Alex. It’s really loud, but peaceful. Thousands are here in support, chanting. It’s the midst of COVID and I can just see into Alex’s eyes behind her mask. She looks sad and exhausted. The world seems so out of control and unpredictable right now. So much suffering. Alex is feeling the intensity of the emotions surrounding her.
On August 4, I ring. It’s Alex’s cousin, Aleyna, calling from Beirut, Lebanon.
“There’s been an explosion,” she sobs. “Chemicals stored at the Beirut port exploded, and everything is gone. We’ve been ripped to shreds. So many people have died, and thousands are wounded. Our homes are gone.”
“How can this be?” Alex asks. “Are you all okay?” Her heart hurts, thinking of her aunts, uncles and cousins. Her hands shake and her body trembles. She hands me to her mom, to continue the conversation.
“It’s so unfair,” she cries, for her relatives and for beautiful Beirut. “What is happening to our world?”
Alex, it’s been a very tough year. Your angst and anxiety is understandable, but you will get to the other side of this. There has been a lot of loss, but you are building resilience. You have had no choice but to learn to adapt. You have learned the importance of staying in the present and appreciating what you do have. Joining in with your neighbours to bang pots and pans at 7 p.m., night after night, and creating hearts for the front window to applaud the front-line workers, are memories you will always cherish.
This extra time with your family has brought you all closer. You truly understand Dr. Henry’s words, “Be Kind. Be Calm. Be Safe.”
This has been a year like no other, but just as the phoenix rises out of adversity, you will emerge stronger as well, dear Alex.
Sharon Selby, MA, is a Registered Clinical Counsellor, with over 20 years’ experience counseling children and families. She is the author of the children’s book, Surfing the Worry Imp’s Wave, where you can find more information about the strategies recommended in this article. To receive her free ebook: 8 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Your Child is Anxious, go to www.SharonSelby.com/free