I hope this finds you well. Or, you know, as well as possible during this time.
I hope you are finding yourself with as much health, both physical and mental, as one can muster.
This time is (well, I don’t want to be trite, and refer to this time as “unprecedented” so I will, instead, use one of the synonyms offered to me when I highlight the word in Microsoft Word, and go with) extraordinarily trying for all.
I don’t want to scorn #2020 or reference something I did not “have on my Bingo card.”
I want to get real.
I want to tell you what this pandemic is like for me. I want to try to shake off the dust; to pummel the writer’s block; to try to illustrate something for which we do not yet have words. Part apology, part explanation, part excuse, part SOS cry (can you hear me from behind my mask?). Why I have been absent, quiet, cocooned? Why am I so scared?
I won’t take you on a deep dive into my psyche, as you definitely didn’t have that on your 2020 Bingo card, but I will give you a bit of background:
Before the pandemic hit, I suffered from anxiety. Surprise! Hey, try to get the shock off of your face (can you see it from behind your mask?). Though it is free-floating and broad in nature, a few particularly profound and intense areas of focus include: health (and its opposite, illness) and the well-being of my family.
I know that I come by this particular breed of anxiety honestly, with an indiscernible blend of nature and nurture. I was hardwired and I have scars. I grew up being taught about superstition and when I have to fill out a family history at a new doctor’s office I always need an extra page.
“Who in your family has had cancer?” these forms ask.
“Where do I begin and can I write on the back?” I reply, in kind.
I am terrified that something will happen to the people I love, and particularly that they are/will get/will someday become sick.
In fact, in the few weeks before the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in the US I had to take my children to the pediatrician and urgent care several times, with Belle having an undiagnosed case of the flu and Beau having an undiagnosed case of strep. When his developed into scarlet fever I lost my mind. Protecting my kids is my greatest duty and when I miss something – when I don’t listen to the scary ruminations in my mind – the ones that sends out red, angry-looking flares signaling imminent danger – I shatter into a million pieces. I should note, when I took the kids to said doctor visits, as an avid germophobe, I brought a giant towel shaped like a hamburger for us to sit on, not allowing the kids to touch anything, frantically dispensing Purell and reminders. THIS WAS PRE-COVID.
Now, before I continue, let me acknowledge my privilege. COVID-19 is universally awful, and I recognize all that I have. I have so many things that make this situation better for me than for so many others. I have insurance, access to healthcare, a home, food, transportation, solid internet connection, solid personal connections, a job from which I was able to step away while morphing into a teacher for my kids, a job at all, support systems, therapy, medication, and many other things for which I feel so grateful. I am not a frontline worker, no longer work as an educator, and have been able to stay home (which we are still doing, have never stopped doing, and plan to do for the foreseeable future.)
But, friend, I want to admit to you that I am struggling. Despite my best efforts, my anxiety has been raging. Nothing feels safe to me anymore. I spend some part of the day, every single day, so scared that I feel physically shaky, queasy, or foggy, with increased heartrate, migraines, and exhaustion. I am now, what you’d call, hypervigilant. Hypervigilance is grueling. I cannot trust my intuition or “mom gut” because everything feels scary to me and I have no ability to tease our the actual from the imagined. I treat most things as the former, panic, feel sick, make frantic calls to patient doctors, but having patience for this patient is arduous, if not impossible.
Why am I so scared? Why do I ask, “Are you OK?” every single time someone in my house sneezes from ragweed, coughs from swallowing their water the wrong way, or gives any indication of displeasure? Thank you so much for giving me this chance to explain.
I am terrified of COVID-19. An extremely contagious, novel virus that is spreading globally, wrapping its germy arms around every semblance of normalcy and protection is scary! I am scared of all we do not know; the things that continue to confound the medical community, the lack of any surefire, definitive treatment or vaccine. I am scared of my kids getting sick and being scared to touch them. I am scared of my parents getting sick and being scared to lose them. I am scared all day, every day. Even when it isn’t in the forefront of my mind, the fear is always there, lurking, eating away at me like…well…a virus.
A lot of this fear is rational, I know. Back in March, when we first locked down, one of my doctors explained to me that I would be at higher risk for complications if I were to contract COVID, as I am already immunocompromised. I have two autoimmune diseases. My body’s own immune response naturally goes haywire and so when doctors started to speak of things like the cytokine storm and body systems “going awry” my own anxiety cyclone began to rage.
This is scary enough (for everyone, I know, including you, friend). But, there is a second storm, perhaps a hurricane this time, that, when swirling in conjunction with the first anxiety-related-natural-disaster, creates a superstorm big enough to sweep me away in its ominous grasp. I am Dorothy, clicking my heels so many times that the soles are now as thin as paper, begging to go home. Begging for things to feel safe, again. Wanting to wake up from this nightmare.
This second storm is known as “the doctors and hospitals can no longer, reliably, protect our health” and just thinking about this counterintuition makes me dizzy. The doctor’s office, once commonly “germy” to me, is now a place we are trying to avoid at all costs. Because life is life, some of the people in my family have had to visit doctors during this time and, I will say, the offices we have encountered are doing remarkable jobs to keep their patients, staff, and, thankfully, themselves safe and healthy. However, it is a reality that weighs on me constantly. For a family that had to take our youngest to the ER so many times in his first few years that we began to joke about a frequent-user-punch card, like one you’d get at the frozen yogurt shop, this is so very scary. By the way, the frozen yogurt shop is oh so very scary to me, as well, and that sucks oh so very much.
Now, if someone gets sick or has an accident or escapes my hypervigilance for one second, it could be catastrophic. It was only 20 months ago that, as you may remember, friend, I had a freak injury during which time several heavy, cast-iron pans fell from six feet above me, right onto my head. It was terrifying and painful and, when I sat on the kitchen floor, stunned, and touched my head to identify the tender, throbbing spot on the left side, and I felt something wet, and Kenny looked at me, terror in his eyes, and said, “Bec, that is blood,” we immediately called 911 to get help. A trio of EMTs arrived, carried me to a stretcher, drove me the two minutes to our local hospital and got me admitted to a room immediately. A doctor, nurse, and medical student worked on me, taking me for a CT scan, injecting my head with a numbing agent, and using staples to close the wound. Kenny was able to sit with me, holding my hand. They diagnosed me with a concussion and I was sent home to rest and heal. It was pretty scary, but I was OK. I did not have to worry about all of the things I worried about (major brain injury, brain surgery, needing brain surgery for a major brain injury without McDreamy being the ER with this ferryboat adorned scrub cap) alone or masked or gloved or at risk of contracting a novel coronavirus.
Why am I so scared? Because I am so scared of illness and so scared of injury and so scared of not being able to protect the ones I love and so scared that if someone I love is ill or injured then they will have to seek medical care and risk being exposed to or, worse, contracting COVID-19.
This fear infiltrates every aspect of my life. I try to be a good mother by protecting my kids from harm and, yet, I am an anxious mother. I want to make sure my kids are healthy, both physically and mentally. I want them to see friends, but do not feel safe with them interacting with other kids in person. Neither child has touched another child since March. This breaks my heart. But, not as much as it would break my heart if someone got sick. I want them to grow academically, and work tirelessly as a member of their teaching support staff, but I constantly feel as though I am falling short. They miss meetings. They have too much screen-time. They aren’t able to make meaningful connections. I am ruining their lives! But, I am protecting them! But, at what cost? This is, also, why I am scared. As I have said before, I feel like a terrible mom.
I want to apologize, however. I am sorry if this letter seems self-centered. Trust me, I want to hear exactly how you are doing, what you are feeling, what moves you, what worries you, what I can do. I simply wanted to explain to you why I act and speak and feel the way I do at this time. I share my struggles so that you remember that you are not alone. Never, not ever.
I wanted to give you a peek behind the mask.
Thank you, friend, for your patience with me. I know I have not been as communicative. I have been no fun at all! Eight months without fro-yo can have that effect.
Do I think things will get better? Yes. I am confident that they will. In my experience, and if past is prologue, a hopeful story often comes after the hard. So, while we are trudging around the muck and mire of the virus’ dark winter, let’s look for the light. For the positive changes that are happening around us. Change is the one thing I will, most certainly, keep on my 2020 Bingo card.
And, if I start to forget, I’d be so grateful if you would remind me. I promise to always do the same for you.
So, how are you doing? Please write back!