Up until a few days ago, this pandemic was still somewhat abstract to me: something I worried about, read about on the news, took precautions and altered plans around, but not something that had touched my personal, everyday life.
But last week I felt under the weather, and my partner and I decided to get COVID tests. Mine came back positive.
I want to share a little about my experience because I think hearing the stories of real people is important to understanding a range of experiences, and we know so little and understand even less about COVID. This is my story, and it is far less dramatic, frightening, tragic, and concerning than many, many others. There have been so many small mercies associated with my situation; I’m very grateful, very lucky, and very privileged, and many people are much less so. Still, I have learned a lot in the past week, some of which I wish I had known before. I would like to share some of it with you, in case it might be helpful.
To give you some background, I’ve been extremely careful since early March, and have taken very few risks. I’ve worked online, sometimes from home and sometimes from my very clean private office suite. My partner and I have kept our household isolated from others. I used to be a midwife, and I understand disease transmission and prevention strategies. I am an ace at handwashing. I have sewn masks for myself and many others, and I always wear a mask in enclosed public spaces.
I will never know how I got it; I didn’t do anything particularly risky, although I did take some minor risks carefully considered, and calculated to make life sustainable for the long haul. The health department thinks I could have gotten it from being in a shared enclosed space with one other masked person (a massage therapist), or passing someone in the hall of my office who didn’t have a mask on (yes, even that brief a passing without a mask!), or from a large grocery store where only half of the people wore masks that day, or from the HVAC in my office building which blows into my private office where I sometimes go to make a video or do an online session.
So far my partner, with whom I live, has tested negative and we have been able to (mostly) keep apart in our home by being very careful and mindful of our every move. For what it’s worth, this is not as easy as you might think; we had to make about a zillion decisions really fast, and implement them consistently. How do you separate the air in a small home into personalized compartments when lives are at stake? I wish we had thought this through ahead of time, and I recommend you take the time to make a plan if you can.
Here are some of the complications we’ve had to deal with: once one household member tests positive, you are all in total quarantine, and nobody will be able to go to the store. Also, when you’re freaked out, it’s not the best time to make complex decisions. On top of that, you won’t want to have those detailed decision-making conversations face to face at close range. We had thought if one of us got it, we would just both get it, so we could be close and supportive. But after learning about the very likely health consequences, long term damage, and the unpredictability of the illness, I found myself totally unwilling to risk my partner’s health if there was anything I could do to prevent her infection. If you’re getting a tragicomic image of two middle-aged women wearing masks, standing outdoors yelling to be heard across a broad expanse of lawn and slapping away mosquitos, while hastily deciding who will touch which animals, how to cook, eat, sleep, work, and use the bathroom without endangering anyone, you’re not far off.
Have you heard of COVID anxiety, panic, or depression? I’m here to tell you it is real, even with a mild case. For me, the novelty and adventure of the situation wore off very quickly and worry set in, particularly worry about inadvertently killing my spouse by touching and not wiping a surface, or…breathing too much? The memory of all the sweet snuggles and closeness we shared from the week before I knew about my infectious status triggered guilt, if not regret. Then came a level of isolation that cannot compare to anything I have experienced before, even in my many years of being single. Every raw spot in my psyche seems to be triggered by this particular, unique set of circumstances.
It is crazy-making to do (and re-do) the math to try to figure out how I got it when I should not have had sufficient exposure. I keep going over recent events: Maybe it was this? Maybe that? If I shift to considering how to prevent transmitting it, I’m brought to my knees. Did I expose anyone? Who do I need to call? How can I support them in their emotional response, while I’m still pretty emotional myself? Reading the news has gone from upsetting in the extreme to something much more extreme; I have no words for it, but all the emotions of the year seem to be erupting in me now. I am mind-boggled trying to understand the huge public outcry against wearing masks, when I myself am living out the mildest possible version of the direct consequences of someone else’s decision not to wear a mask. I’m having a rough go of it.
I can’t stop thinking about the huge number of people who are seriously ill, experiencing long term health consequences, deaths of multiple family members, or death themselves. And here is another crazy-making fact: the consensus of experts seems to be that any immunity might last (drum roll please) for 2-3 months, probably not much more, and it is unpredictable. That means the herd immunity fantasy is out the door, which brings us full circle back to “how did I get this in the first place so I can avoid getting it again?” And so the thought loop continues.
It takes constant vigilance to not fall into a swirling pit of negative thoughts. I wasn’t bad at self-regulation before, but 2020 will be the year I master it, because I will have to in order to get through this month and all the unknowns ahead. Thank goodness I finally started that regular mindfulness practice in March. Time to recommit.
The work of protecting other people by masking up and social-distancing isn’t fun or exciting, it doesn’t feel remotely heroic, it isn’t particularly comfortable, and you’ll probably never see the impact that you make, because prevention is invisible. And the very idea seems to be very triggering for some people.
As therapists, we know that our choices impact other people all the time. But this is a particularly dramatic example of the way that we’re all linked–not just partners and friends, but complete strangers, and entire cultures. These connections are not abstract. They are very literal: I’m sick now because I breathed in droplets from someone else’s lungs. Despite my robust health, the virus took root sufficiently to make me sick, succeeding in its goal to replicate itself to enable further spread. To quite a significant extent, our physical, bodily health depends on the actions of people we don’t know, and vice versa.
But this illness is anything but abstract once you have it, and pretty triggering in itself. Many of us will soon experience this; even the small risks I have taken, in a county that isn’t flooded with cases, resulted in my infection. Nobody knows for sure if they will have a light case, a catastrophic case, or no symptoms at all. Nor do we know why the effects vary so much from person to person and case to case. With so little information, and so much at stake, everything depends on the choices we make now.
We can’t be rugged individualists in a pandemic. Social distancing is isolating, and we are all tired of it, but illness creates an entirely different level of isolation–without conferring even brief guaranteed immunity. With all the differences that divide us now, it is easy to forget that we are connected in ways we can’t disentangle; we affect each other in ways that go far beyond the abstract.