Last summer I bought a stand up paddleboard. It didn’t arrive until almost the end of the season. I waited too long and everything was backordered. I got the hang of standing up on the board pretty quickly when I tried it a few years ago; it was the learning curve for introducing a new element into my life that made me hit the brakes. There was so much to research. Inflatable versus fiberglass, for example. Hand pumps versus car. I would need a life jacket and maybe a wetsuit. I needed to figure out how to transport and store the beast, where I could launch legally, and how to get a permit and a parking pass. By the time the SUP shipped to my house and I’d practiced inflating it in the living room and made a trip to the beach office in the middle of the workday, I was this close to be over the whole endeavor. My husband suggested I watch a few videos of people paddling so I could learn the technique before I got on the water, but I was already on information overload. I couldn’t take in a single other new thing. I went out on a Sunday afternoon, nabbed the last available parking spot, and realized I’d left behind the SUP’s detachable fin. I tried again on a Wednesday morning. I was on the water before the sun peeked up over the horizon. I splashed down into the water three times in a row before managing to stand up successfully. I paddled around for over an hour. I watched the sun come up, a ball of fire in the sky. I felt the water splash around my ankles. I heard dragonflies buzz around my head and swatted them away. I swear I saw a fish jump. Later, I’d figure out I’d been holding the paddle backward, that my posture was all wrong, and not care. The learning was in the doing and I had all the time in the world.
One year ago I went into lockdown with my family. It was scary and surreal. Do you remember that part of it? We were afraid to leave the house. We waved at neighbors through the glass. We were afraid to touch things other people had touched. There were long lines and short hours at the grocery store, and we were afraid the food chain would break. Almost everything else was closed. On the anniversary this weekend, I drove north to Lake County and went hiking by myself. I waved at strangers on the trail. I ran my hands on trees and tapped polypores with my feet. I went home and made an elaborate meal for my family. Life is hyperreal. I’m too tired to be scared.
I’ve been thinking about this post for a few weeks. What I can say about this last year, about what it’s meant to me, about what it’s done to me, about the lessons I’ve learned, and the kind of person I’ve become? I can’t. I can’t even. It’s too much, too big, too messy to write. The pandemic isn’t over. It’s not even almost over, not for me. Not for most people. Vaccines are trickling into my town, but I’m at the bottom of the list. I realize that’s a good thing. It means my life has been easier than most for the last year. It also means I’m still risking my life and trying to survive. I’m still becoming the person the world will spit out when the pandemic ends.
The truest thing I can say about the last year is this: I got older. That’s it! Hardly unexpected, but it’s still hitting me hard. I tiptoed into early middle age in the early days of the pandemic. I didn’t notice it at first, because I’m in the period of life that has been nudged back and stretched out to the point of being nearly unrecognizable as middle age, thanks to the millenials who didn’t want to grow up and the boomers who didn’t want to let go. The generations have more in common than we like to admit. It’s undeniable, though. At 35, I’m squarely in the middle of my life and last week when I saw a video of myself that just didn’t look right. How could a jawline so indistinct sit beneath smile lines that cut so deep? Like someone turned up the contrast on only half my face. The signs have been piling up all year. I’m softer around the middle and my knees screech at me when I pull myself up from crouching on the ground.
Of course, the last year aged us all in more than the usual ways. The number the pandemic did on my body is nothing to what it pulled on my insides. A year ago, I related more immediately to the girl I was when I was five, fifteen, twenty-five than to the grown up in the room I had to be that day. A year ago, parenting my daughter was like re-parenting a version of myself. COVID slammed down like a wall, cleaving my childhood from hers and severing me from the person I used to be. COVID grew me up.
COVID grew me in in relation to my parents. As a once wayward child, my best trick for making them pleased with me was spending too much on plane tickets and showing up on their doorstep with a suitcase in my hand. I couldn’t believe it when they asked me to travel this year, and I had to say no. Is there anything more adult than disappointing your family to protect the life you’ve built?
COVID grew me up at work. I used to feel restless, resentful that I didn’t have precisely the job I wanted, that my career didn’t travel in the direction I had planned. I couldn’t believe it when the city ordered me to move my legal practice into my home, but I had to say yes. It didn’t matter. I was just grateful to have work. Is there anything more adult than suiting up and showing up for the job you’re paid to do?
COVID gew me up in my marriage. We’ve always been good in a crisis, but day-to-day life could be hard on us, a series of battles over who was sacrificing more. In the year that asked the most of both of us, we acted like partners instead of combatants. Is there anything more adult than setting aside your pride?
COVID grew me up in my friendships. I missed the ease of seeing people around town and didn’t know how to sustain anything over a screen. I waited for the group chats and virtual book clubs to materialize or for somebody to at least check in. The loneliness almost did me in, until one day a friend brought donuts to my door and I realized people had been showing up for me all year long: with birthday signs for my daughter, with playdates outside, with plates of food and loaves of bread, with hand-me-down books and toys, with coffee in the front yard, and, yes, with phone calls and texts and “are you okays?” My friendships don’t exist behind screens, and my friends didn’t disappear during the pandemic; I did. They were there all along. I just had to pay attention and put in a little effort. Is there anything more adult than asking what you can give instead of what you can get?
COVID grew me up for my daughter. She needed me more this year than any point since infancy, and the need was so pressing that I had to gather up every part of myself of myself–the daydreamer child, the rebellious teen, the strident feminist, the serious lawyer, the tired wife–and coalesce them into a single being: mom, right here, right now. The presence of mind parenting demands in a pandemic is unlike anything I have ever known. Is there anything more adult than rising to the occasion?
That’s my anniversary post. It’s been a year. I got older, and so did you. I’m not complaining. When the thing we’ve spent the last year hiding from his death, another year is the most we can ask for. It’s more than what lots of us got.
This week I realized that people acknowledge the anniversary of the pandemic on different days: the day the WHO declared a pandemic, the day the US descended into a state of emergency, the day your town imposed stay-at-home orders, assuming you were ever subject to the them, the day the kids came home from school or, if it was spring break, the day they didn’t go back. The multiplicity of anniversaries is one more marker of the the pandemic’s differentiating effect. It his us at different times, in different ways, and to different degrees. The variances aren’t insignificant. They are overwhelming in their unfairness. My household will be acknowledging one year of sheltering in place with ice cream, because that’s what we stayed up late eating when we needed something that felt soft and good. Other households will be offering prayers over their dead.
Today marks the anniversary of the last time I took my daughter to church. We were there for choir practice. I sat in the back and listened to a friend whose wife is a teacher whisper that their district was having meetings where they were saying they were getting ready to close. A Catholic school on the Northshore had already shuttered, but this was the first I’d heard about public schools. I wasn’t worried, though. Their district was different than ours. Smaller. Wealthier. Whiter. I made my eyes big at her and, against medical advice, put my hands on my face. “Oh no. I’m so sorry.” She had a son in first grade and a preschooler at home. “I can’t imagine that will happen in Evanston, though. People don’t have the resources. All that childcare.”
On the way out of the church, my daughter stopped in front of a person-sized poster standing in the foyer. There was a picture of a cell phone and on the screen it said “God calling.” My daughter ran over to the poster and put her hand on the big green button. “Aw, good girl, you’re picking up.” “She doesn’t really have a choice,” our pastor pointed out from where she was standing nearby. There were two buttons on the phone, and both were green.
Today is also the anniversary of the last time we ate inside a restaurant. My daughter and I went out every week after choir practice. It was our decadent tradition, but it wasn’t sitting right with me. I knew people were panic-buying hand sanitizer and toilet paper, and I’d been reading about something called “social distancing” in the news the last few days, but I wasn’t really sure what it meant. I texted my husband.
Me: “Is it a good idea to take D to a restaurant tonight? Maybe we should just get takeout.”
Him: “We can’t change our whole lives.”
I took my daughter to Tsim Sha Tsu for hot pot and picked a table in the corner, away from the other guests. The dining room was tiny, but making the effort made me feel responsible. Was this social distancing? The other thing I’d been hearing a lot about was racist discrimination against Asians. A lot of it was coming from the mouth of our then-President, but it was also playing out in the streets. It seemed more important to keep eat inside a Chinese restaurant than to change my mind about eating inside a Chinese restaurant.
A year ago today I was in the shadows but not in the dark. I knew some, but not enough, and I didn’t know what to do with what I knew.
A year ago I was weeks away from covering my face and months away from buying proper masks for me and my daughter.
A year ago I was slammed at work.
A year ago I was in the best physical shape of my life.
A year ago I was spending my nights writing my life story because it wouldn’t stop screaming at me and I knew I needed to write it down or it would destroy me from the inside out.
A year ago I was in the middle of Lent. I think I gave up Instagram.
This year I gave up giving things up.
The pandemic took too much.
A year ago tomorrow I left work early to hunt down groceries and couldn’t find any. That’s when the pandemic became real; when I thought we might not eat. We ordered local takeout twice a week for a year and I traded meals and loaves of bread with my friends from Taiwan and Korea but that didn’t stop the restaurants from closing down or the violent hate crimes against Asians.
In two days we’ll mourn a full year of in-person education, lost. The pandemic came to Evanston and it came for our public schools, resources or not. When people assured me my daughter would be fine because of all that we have–an at-home parent, a steady internet connection and extra tablet, time to invest in helping her learn–I nodded and said, “You’re right.” When things started to break down at home and people suggested we just pull her out for a year, to even out the achievement gap, I rolled my eyes kept but my mouth shut. I wasn’t sticking her in front of a screen all day for the education. I wrote that off as lost a long time ago. Virtual school was the only interaction with other kids my daughter was having. The system was non-functional, but she’d be non-functional without it. When people came for the superintendent for saying he would take an equitable approach to reopening by prioritizing marginalized students, I defended the policy. It’s fair. It’s just. It’s the right thing to do. Privately, I was terrified there wouldn’t be enough space for my kid. When we got the email before winter break that she hadn’t made the cut to go back, I was terrified we wouldn’t make it through the rest of the year. I don’t know what I thought would happen, just that things had gotten so bad, I didn’t know how we would keep going. I emailed the principal. “I know it’s not just about us. I know other people need this more. But if there is space after all the other priority flags have been considered, will you also the mental health impacts of prolonged social isolation on children with no siblings, no extended family, no pod?” When the time came to go back to school on an impossible hybrid schedule (two hours and twenty minutes a day, four times a week), enough families pulled out and a spot opened up for my daughter.
A year in, I know more. I know better. But I still don’t think I’m doing anything right.
Some topics are too big. I can’t tell you about a time I slept outside without telling you about every time I slept outside. In Utah, we set up the big tent in our backyard and a windstorm whipped it around so hard that we ran inside, scared. In the morning, the tent was gone. The Grand Canyon was colder than we thought and our gear was flimsy but there was nowhere to go. We zipped our sleeping bags together for warmth. Somehow, Lake Powell was hotter than we ever imagined. We peed in a pit toilet set inside a canvas shelter. I saw an ancient, scaled lizard. Our dad burned his eyeballs. We went back in bikinis in high school and I burned everything else. We went to Pinetop with a tent but no flashlights and no food. No campfires allowed. The forest was already burning and ash rained down. We went to Michigan with everything a family could need. We even had a plastic carton for eggs. We watched the sun set on the water. We ate beautiful food. We read in hammocks and played on the beach. We made our daughter’s whole life. We went back again and again and again.
“How are you holding up?” That’s what I ask when I talk to somebody I haven’t heard from in a while. “How are doing?” That’s what I ask after we’ve traded pleasantries and Omigods and Can you believe it’s been a year? The emphasis, I hope, conveys that I really want to know or that maybe I already do know because I’m going through the same thing. When we sign off: “Hope you’re hanging in there.”
People ask me how I’m doing and I have to convince myself they actually want to know. I tell them about how my daughter’s been in virtual school for so long but I’m lucky to have a stay-at-home partner who can supervise e-learning. I tell them I’m lucky I can work from home, that I’m lucky to have had work to do, but that I’m looking for more. I might tell them I’ve been teaching myself to cook and hiking with my daughter and painting with watercolors. I might even tell them about this blog.
It only takes a few minutes of talking for a person to have a general idea of the structure of my days. It only takes a few posts to take in my emotional landscape. What you still don’t know is what late stage quarantine actually looks like. Or maybe you know because you’re going through the same thing.
Late stage quarantine means I’ve quit brushing my hair and putting on makeup for Zoom/Teams meetings. I’m still wearing clothes, but that’s about it.
Late stage quarantine means busting out the lap desk to my “work station” (futon and fleece blanket nest) even more comfortable. I’m still sitting upright, but only barely.
Late stage quarantine means stripping down to my underwear to exercise instead of using ten minutes to change into workout clothes and adding to the laundry pile. I’m still moving my body, but I’m doing less every day.
Late stage quarantine means I don’t shower until I can smell myself. I’m still washing my hands until the skin sloughs off, but everything else is greasy.
Late stage quarantine means giving up on high brow TV and just binge watching House Hunters. Real Housewives is up next. I’m taking time to “relax” at night, but indulging my worst impulses at the same time.
Late stage quarantine means my kid messes with her parents by getting real close to our faces and telling us that it looks like we have pinkeye. I have a hilarious kid, but I might gouge out my own eyes.
Late stage quarantine means I’m watching my friends and family get vaccinated and venture out into the world. I’m so relieved and so happy for them, but I’m burning with envy. When am I going to get mine?
I used to be presentable. I used to be good. I used to always be going up.
Late stage quarantine means devolution in every sense of the word.
I carried my lunch to school in a square plastic box a few years after the other kids had switched to brown paper bags or hot lunch. My mom would make my lunch until I was a senior in high school and skipped lunch altogether so I could get out of school early. It was important to her. Her mom died when she was eleven and making lunches for his three girls was one of the many mom-tasks my grandpa took on after his wife died. My mom got a stepmom when she was sixteen and the stepmom accused my grandpa of spoiling his daughters. With the homemade lunches into their teens, you see. So you see why I couldn’t ask for the $2 to buy a hamburger or a sloppy joe or a crunchy taco from Taco Bell (because there was a Taco Bell inside my high school cafeteria). You see why I couldn’t complain about the warm mayonnaise or the stinky tuna or the slimy carrots or the brown apples the smushed bread or the thermos that smelled like old milk. You see why I couldn’t say anything about the days she wrapped everything in tinfoil because we were out of plastic baggies. You see why I couldn’t ask her to stop tucking little notes into the side of my lunchbox or drawing smiley faces on paper napkins. I wouldn’t have wanted her to stop anyway. The notes made me go all warm inside. Warm like the rest of the lunch, baking in a box in the Arizona sun.
February is always long and miserably cold in Chicago, but this year is in a category all its own. Here are some miscellaneous stats that aren’t that impressive on their own but seem more significant when you stack them like sheets of ice. February 14 was one of the coldest Valentine’s Days on record with a high of four degrees. February 16 was the ninth consecutive day of measurable snowfall in Evanston. It was the 17th consecutive day with eleven inches of snow on the ground. Here is a stat that stands on its own. On President’s Day, we got 18 inches of snow on top of the 12 inches of snow that were still on the ground.
I decided to go for a run. I know, I know. What kind of show-offy winter exuberance is this? Trust me, I was as surprised at myself as you are. I’m no stranger to running in unfavorable conditions, but I’ve been sticking to indoor workouts lately on account of the fact that it’s Dante’s icy fucking inferno outside. I don’t want frostbite. I don’t want to twist an ankle or a knee. I don’t want to deal. Yesterday wasn’t bad, though. I mean, the snow was up to my thighs, but it was almost twenty degrees outside which, for Chicago in February, is basically balmy. I got the idea when a Facebook friend posted about having legs like heavy iron after running through the snow. She also said that seeing everyone out shoveling off their cars and sidewalks made it feel like summer in the neighborhood. I’m a competitive kind of bitch, and easily influenced. If she can do it, I can do it, I thought.
LESSON: Brag about the cool shit you do; it might inspire someone else.
By late afternoon, I figured most of the sidewalks would be cleared and, if they weren’t, I could take the roads, which would definitely have been plowed. I was right about the roads, but not the sidewalks. I would run the length of one or two houses before having to leap sideways over slush into the street to avoid smacking into a chest high wall of snow. This is not a complaint. Many of the people who hadn’t managed to dig out yet were actively shoveling when I ran by, and of course I have no idea about the circumstances of the rest of the residents. There are plenty of elderly and disabled people in my town and plenty more who work on the front lines. I pay $190/month in HOA dues and a crew shovels us out asap when we get so much as an inch. It’s money well spent, because I’m 100% sure I would be the neighbor whose sidewalks stay icy for days on end.
LESSON: It’s a privilege to have time and money and gear to workout in the middle of the day, and to outsource my shoveling to someone else; it’s a service to shovel your walk and your neighbor’s if they can’t.
A little less than a mile from my house there’s a paved trail that runs north/south alongside the North Shore Channel. It’s great for three to six mile loops and I use it several times a week during COVID because the trail is wide and when it’s cold I’m often the only one on it. I don’t know why I assumed the trail would be plowed, but I felt like an idiot when I looked north and south and found myself gazing upon a sea of white in both directions. I’ve lived in Midwest for almost fifteen years and Chicago for over a decade. How am I still learning things about winter? I started to turn back and then remembered that my Facebook friend probably didn’t end with “legs like iron” by sticking to sidewalks that had already been cleared. I decided to charge ahead. Running in the thigh high snow was a thrill. There was not another soul on the trail, so I pulled down my mask and grinned like an idiot at the cars driving by. I felt like fucking Bambi driving my knees up high and slicing through the snow on the way down. I felt like fucking Allyson Felix pumping my arms so hard to propel my body forward. My form has never been better. Three months into a brutal winter, I finally felt alive.
LESSON: Go do something weird and hard just because you can; it’ll make you feel fucking great.
Less than a quarter a mile into running through powder, I started to break a sweat. This was good news, and half the reason I was outside in the first place. When I’m depressed, as I have been, a sweaty workout is the only thing that will get me into the shower. After half a mile, my lungs were burning. I was approaching a main intersection that would let me off the trail. I was reluctant. If I turned back now, the whole run would be three miles instead of the five or six I was aiming for, but I was panting like I’d been running sprints. My body was too tired to let my brain get away with calling myself lazy for scaling back on the mileage I had planned. I decided to head back home.
LESSON: It’s okay to adjust your plans when circumstances change; it is smart to take it easy when things get hard.
Before I got off the trail, another runner materialized in the distance running in my direction. A kindred spirit! I had to restrain myself from gesturing grandly up the trail and proclaiming, “Behold! I cleared the way!” Instead I pulled up my mask and waved with both hands. The other runner, a lanky boy in his teens, pointedly ignored me. No matter. This happens often. When he’d passed, I scooted over and helped myself to the path he’d carved out. Huh. His stride was the right size but placing my feet into the holes he’d already made was throwing me off balance. When I turned left to cross the bridge over the channel, I had to slow to a walk to avoid tipping over the rails onto the ice.
LESSON: Stay in your own lane; it’s easier to make your own path than to follow someone else’s.
After I made it over the bridge I turned left onto a quiet, residential road. My legs were like jelly, but they turned over easily. I quickly picked up the pace. As I wound my way through the neighborhood, I realized I could run in the middle of the street and not even deal with the messy sidewalks. I wondered if I should look for another challenge, maybe run through a park or around the track piled high with snow, or if I should take plowed roads the whole way home. Running hadn’t felt this easy in awhile. I was listening to music and endorphins were kicking in and I was feeling good.
LESSON: You don’t always have to forge the way; let someone show you the easier, softer way.
When I got close to home I checked my watch and was shocked to see that I’d barely clocked three miles in the time it usually takes me to run four. I could have kept going but I stopped the watch and called my mom instead. We walked and talked until I was shivering in the cold and went home happy.
LESSON: Things that are worthwhile sometimes take awhile; three miles are better than none.*
*Unless it’s a rest day or a sick day; on those days, no miles are better than any at all. Rest is part of training! Rest is critical to physical and mental health! Rest is your birthright!
The best part of winter quarantine is that I don’t have to yell at my kid to stay away from other people outside because nobody goes outside. Nobody but me anyway. An astrologer once told me my Aries moon is the reason I can’t sit still. I don’t know about that, but staying inside does make me nuts. Yesterday I went for a walk and started kicking a ball of ice like a soccer ball. I was very into it, feinting and striking my way all the way around the block. I stopped at the communal mailbox before I went inside to see if anything came for the neighbors I’m house sitting for. I flipped through the few pieces of mail in the box because they asked me to watch out for an important letter from USCIS. I was bobbing my head, humming under my breath, jamming to Time After Time. The song was stuck in my head from the love songs playlist the kid put on six hours earlier for Valentine’s Day because she is a sap. I didn’t see the letter I was looking for but I must have seen something, maybe out of the corner of my eye, because I turned my head, and there was a man, just standing there. “Hi,” he said. I looked at him and screamed. The shock of seeing another person in this winter wasteland, of being ripped from my reverie, rippled through my whole body and I screamed with my whole body, too. Slight bend in the knees to brace myself, head back to project into the common area. As I was screaming, I recognized the man. He was a neighbor of course, someone I know well, a friend. He was standing about ten feet away, giving me a respectful distance and waiting patiently for me to finish checking the mail, and I was screaming loud enough to bring the rest of the neighborhood running to the windows. He started laughing and I made a joke about how long it’s been since I’ve seen another person, while I hastened to close the mailbox door and get out of his way. My instinct was to barrel back home after apologizing for being a total freak, but I forced myself to turn halfway and stay, ten feet away, while he checked his mail. I couldn’t figure out what to say, so I vomited more self-deprecating jokes, while I waited for him to help me out. “How are you? I’m not crazy, but how are you?”
We survived the interaction, but man. If seeing people is weird, talking to them in person is even weirder. I had to consciously remind myself that small talk is not only appropriate but worth the effort. And it was effort. It took actual work to pull the right words from my brain, to figure out what from my life might be relevant to his. When we had exchanged what felt like enough sentences to pass as an actual conversation, I raced over to my neighbors’ house, dropped their mail in a bin on the floor, and proceeded to have an extended conversation with the old gray cat that I was there to feed. After that I went home, still a little embarrassed but mostly delighted to have an anecdote for my family and content for my blog.
I was an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for all of my life until I turned thirty years old. Some members might object to my use of the term “active.” There were a few stretches in college that I didn’t darken a church door for months at a time, but I was always trying. There was always a Book of Mormon on my nightstand. I always prayed. I always answered the door to the missionaries and picked up the phone when my visiting teachers called. Before I ever left the fold, I was already on my way back.
When I made it back to regular church attendance, I tried even harder, but I never saw myself as a full-fledged member in good standing. All I could see were the ways I didn’t measure up to what I thought were the church’s standards:
- I went to church but not every week.
- I taught Sunday School but I prepared lessons at the last minute.
- I did my visiting teaching every month, but I let my companion plan it.
- I prayed every night but not on my knees, and never in the morning.
- I read the Book of Mormon every day, but nodded off a few verses in. I still hadn’t taken Moroni up on his promise that if I read the book all the way through and prayed, with sincere intent, I would know it to be true, but that was only because I didn’t need to; I already knew.
- I subscribed to the church magazines, and read those too, but never all the way through.
- I listened to General Conference every six months, but skipped the Saturday morning sessions for brunch, and there was always at least one talk that made me furious.
- I quit living in sin but I never confessed anything I did.
- I quit using drugs and getting drunk but there were so many slips that I rewrote the Word of Wisdom to make room, as Brigham Young did, for beer and sparkling wine.
- I quit drinking coffee but I couldn’t stay away from tea. The truth is, I never tried. After (aspirationally) giving up every other earthly vice, I figured the church could meet me on the other side of the veil and pry my hot cup of leaf water from my freshly resurrected hands.
- I wore skirts that went to my knees on Sunday but bared shoulders and legs all summer long.
- I wore a prairie diamond ring from Nauvoo, but never donned the undergarment.
- I put the Family Proclamation on my wall, but the wall was inside a closet.
- I got married but not in the temple.
- I planned Family Home Evening and family scripture study and family prayer but my husband was never going to join the church.
- I had a baby but I couldn’t quit my job.
- I was a Mormon who cursed, laughed at dirty jokes, read erotic fiction, and watched R-rated movies and all the shows that aired on HBO.
Mormons pride themselves on their ability to be in the world, but not of the world. Even when I was most ashamed of the church, I was proud to be a Mormon. I also believed it. I knew my purpose was to build God’s kingdom on earth, but I was so afraid belonged better in Babylon.
I know better now. Looking at that list, at all those things I thought were so bad, I see that there’s nothing on there that’s so shocking; they just didn’t fit with the vision of Mormonism that had been bestowed upon me as a child. And why would they? I was a child and as soon as I wasn’t, I was supposed to start having children and raising them up in the church. I never would be exposed to a more mature version of the faith.
Looking at that list, I see so many things that I’m sure other Mormons did; I just didn’t know. And why would I? I kept myself at a distance because I was afraid of what would happen if other members of the church knew the real me. It’s not all on me, though. They kept themselves at a distance too. If anyone ever struggled with the things I did, or laughed at the jokes I did, I never knew, because no one ever told me. That was the fellowship I needed, and the kind of faith I needed, too–the kind that could stand to talk about sex and sin and sorrow (“and all other instruments of faith and sex and God in the belly of a black-winged bird“) and how to move forward through it all. If I ever went back, that’s the kind of fellowship I’d give.
I stopped going to church five years ago. I pulled my name off the records last May. It’s only now that, for the first time, I can claim my former status as an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints because the time and separation finally cleared it up for me: that’s exactly what I was. I was not a perfect Mormon, but I sure did live the hell out of my faith.
“How do you want this next phase of the pandemic to feel?” That’s what my therapist asked me last week after I spent the first half of our session cataloguing the fears and anxieties that are currently dragging me down and eclipsing any hope that things will ever get better. People have been giving lip service to the importance of mental health since the early days of the pandemic, but I saw the writing on the wall the day the first stay at home order went into place. At the time, I was newly in therapy, working my way through a mental health crisis that had started the previous fall, but really that I had been living through, in a cyclical fashion, since I was 18 years old. In winter, the world goes dark and I can’t see my way out. It’s not just about the sun and the seasons. The first time it happened, I tried to end it all in Tucson, and I’ve been suicidal in June, too. It’s never been quite that bad again, but last winter it got close enough that I scared myself back into therapy after four years of trying to twelve step my way through all my problems. By March, I was working my way up and out of the latest deep hole. I felt more optimistic about my marriage, my parenting, my work–my life. I wasn’t thinking about dying.
Then the pandemic hit, and death was imminent and everywhere. Even if COVID wasn’t coming for me, it was gunning for my grandma, and my parents, and my in-laws, and even if they survived, somebody else’s grandparents, somebody else’s parents, somebody else’s children would not. I read those early projections in horror: 200,000 to 2 million Americans could die before this thing was over. Faced with the threat of disease, something inside me shifted, and I started actively trying not to die, and to not kill anybody around me, either. I stayed home.
That’s not to say my mental health during the first part of the pandemic was great. It was absolutely not! Luckily, my weekly counseling sessions transitioned relatively seamlessly to phone and then video, and I was able to keep doing the hard work of carrying on in these difficult times. Therapy was a lifeline. Knowing I had space to talk about intense feelings enabled me to set them aside and live my life in the meantime. Therapy helped me respond to ordinary stressful situations, cope with the additional challenges of the pandemic, and even address issues that I didn’t even realize were still lurking in the background (read: leaving Mormonism). Therapy helped me hold it together.
The cracks started to show in the summer. What happened was I got sick. It came on suddenly. In the morning I was running around in the summer sunshine with my daughter. By lunch I had a splitting headache and wanted nothing more than to take a nap. By mid-afternoon, the room was spinning, my stomach was churning, my temperature was spiking, and I couldn’t stand up. As my physical symptoms mounted, so did my panic. I was too tired to move and feeling guilty about it. I was snapping at my family and feeling shame about that. We were supposed to go camping with friends in a few days and I didn’t know what the hell to do about that. I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t know how much of what I was feeling was real and how much was a physical manifestation of the deep anxiety that comes with getting sick in a pandemic. I didn’t know if my symptoms warranted a COVID test. I didn’t even know where to get a COVID test. I didn’t know if my non-COVID symptoms warranted a doctor. I didn’t even know if I could get an appointment with a doctor. Even if I wasn’t really sick, my anxiety was so off the charts bad that I knew I needed to talk to someone. You see, sometime after headache came on but before the gastrointestinal issues set in, my thoughts had turned toward self-harm. As the hours wore on and I got sicker and more confused about what to do, it started to look like the only way out.
It is my professional and personal opinion that one of the best things to come out of the COVID pandemic is expanded access to healthcare through telehealth. Unfortunately, when I was in desperate need of a virtual appointment, I was too sick to figure out how to navigate the health plan website to request one, and it remains unclear whether I would have been able to get one as urgently as I needed it. Instead, I pulled on heavy sweats (because I was shaking from chills), an N95 mask, and rubber gloves and drove to urgent care, barely managing to not throw up on the way there. When I got to the front door, I was met with a sign telling me to go back to my car and call instead if I had any symptoms of COVID. I had to sit on the ground and catch my breath before mustering up the energy to walk back to the parking garage.
From the safety of my car, I called the urgent care practice and spoke to a nurse practitioner. I told her I had a fever, chills, nausea, cramps, and vomiting. I told her I couldn’t breathe, but that might be because I was also having a panic attack. I told her I wasn’t okay, that I was anxious and depressed and didn’t know what to do. I told her I needed help, I needed to talk to someone, anyone now. I stopped short of describing exactly how bad things were in my mind because I was afraid. I didn’t want to go the ER in a pandemic. The NP told me none of my symptoms were typical of COVID so she couldn’t recommend a test. I could get one if I wanted but I wouldn’t get results for five days. She didn’t say a word about my mental health. I took the jab in the nose and it came back within 24 hours negative for COVID, but I stayed sick for weeks, cycling between anxiety and depression the whole time. I still don’t know if I had COVID. The fatigue I labored under all summer makes me think “Yeah, maybe.” It’s the aftereffects of the encounter at urgent care that I still can’t shake, though. I know our healthcare system is broken, and I know COVID has put it under unbelievable strain, but I am a white, married, cisgender, able-bodied, employed, and insured. I never dreamed I could walk into a doctor’s office begging for help and be sent away.
I had to wait for my next therapy appointment to start to process that trauma. I identified the root of my panic as not having a place to go or a person to call when I am thrust into a medical crisis. My former reliance on urgent care and the emergency room to address any serious pain or scary-seeming thing was not viable in a pandemic. With my therapist, I made a plan to finally get a primary care physician. I haven’t had one since I was living under my parents’ roof. When you have a history of abusing prescription pharmaceuticals, going to the doctor is fraught. It took awhile to find a doctor covered by insurance (fucking insurance websites!) and it took even longer to get an appointment (fucking COVID!). By the time I got in the door, I was desperate enough to fill out the intake questionnaire honestly. Little interest or pleasure in doing things? Yes, many days. Feeling down, depressed, or hopeless? Yes, most days. Thoughts that you would be better off dead or hurting yourself in some way? Yes, some days. At my appointment, the doctor broached the subject gently. “Your depression screening was positive. “Really?!” I chirped. “You mean I don’t have depression?” “No, that’s not what I mean.” I deflected some more. “I mean, doesn’t everybody feel hopeless right now? It’s bleak out there.” The doctor couldn’t disagree. She raised the issue of medication. I had a lot of resistance, but I asked the doctor what she thought. She looked me straight in the eye. “I think you could probably feel better.”
It’s not like I hadn’t thought medication about it before. You don’t plumb the depths as long as I have without wondering if one of the pills everybody else you know is taking will pull you up and out once and for all. Like going to the doctor, taking medication when you’ve been addicted is complicated. I’m afraid if they give me the good drugs, I’ll abuse them. I’m afraid if I tell them about my concerns, they won’t give me the good drugs. The good drugs, of course, are the only ones that seem worth the trouble. I don’t want to alter with my brain chemistry if it’s not going to get me high. I don’t care if it will make me feel better. I want to feel good.
My doctor told me to call her if I wanted to revisit the conversation about medication. I agreed, but was renewed in my commitment to toughing it out on the basis that my brain is not always a scary place to be. I have more good days than not. I generally enjoy my life, except when I’m sick, and in non-pandemic times, I really enjoy my life.
That was six months ago. I knew this winter would be hard, and it’s been so much harder than I thought. At this point, I am completely devoid of hope that the world will go back to any semblance of normal, that my daughter will go back to school, that I’ll go back to church, that I’ll see my family on the other side of the country, that we will get together with friends, that we will be free to walk around outside without me freaking out when my daughter strays too close to a neighbor, that we will be able to gather in groups, that we will stop wearing masks. The light on the horizon is gone, and operating in this context is getting to be too much. I’ll spare you the grisly details and family dramas and leave it at this: I’m worn down, and it feels like I’m going lower than I’ve ever been before. I was explaining all this to my therapist when she asked me, “How do you want this next phase of the pandemic to feel?” I mulled it over for awhile. My knee jerk response is that I want to feel good, goddamnit, but I know that’s asking too much. It would be weird to feel good right now. Really, all I want is to feel better than I do. I hearkened back to the doctor’s words last summer. “You could probably feel better.” I hearkened back to my own words back to her. “Doesn’t everyone feel hopeless right now?”
Maybe I’m glutton for punishment, but I’m not going on meds. Not right now. I can’t do it, not during the pandemic, for the same reason I’m not buying a bigger house or moving to the country or adopting a puppy or putting my kid in private school. I don’t want to make life-altering decisions in reaction to circumstances that, God willing, won’t last forever, and I don’t want to introduce another variable into the hot mess that is life today. I don’t want to wake up in a post-COVID world and wonder why I moved to a red state. I don’t want to wake up happy and wonder if I could’ve gotten there on my own. I might wake up in a post-COVID world and decide I still want to feel better after all, but at that point I hope the decision will feel like mine.