On March 24, 2020, I was tested for COVID-19. Five days later I found out I tested positive. During those five days, I experienced moments of joy, sadness, anxiety, boredom, denial, anger, frustration, and loneliness. During those five days, I reflected on actions I had taken, felt relief and gratitude for decisions I had made, felt righteous indignation at comments received from friends, and made commitments to changing my lifestyle. During those five days, I considered who my friends really were and who would miss me if I died.
Here is the kicker, though. I never had any symptoms. I never had a fever. I never had shortness of breath. I never had the dry cough. I did feel a bit tired and I think I had a bad night one night, but that might have been because I drank too much wine. I kept checking myself. My inner conversation became more like a Wimbledon final, with volleys of “You’re in denial!” and “I’m just fine!”. The only evidence of illness was the overflowing waste basket that contained used tissue from me having to blow my nose due to what I determined was a sinus infection.
There was such disconnect between what I was seeing on TV and what I was experiencing in the comfort of my own home. I was not stressed, nor did I experience any fear that I would run out of toilet paper. I live by myself, so I wasn’t worried about infecting others. I had gas in my car, money in the bank, food in the freezer, and I knew I could take care of myself.
Please understand, I am not boasting in making these statements. I am very aware that too many people on this planet are vulnerable, frightened and without resources. They are truly at the mercy of this virus, especially since it does not have any way of being stopped at the moment. And, perhaps I do feel guilty that I am not suffering. Yet, these are my circumstances, and I am trying to make meaning of all this.
At first, I shared my new status without much thought. I was surprised on more than one occasion by the outpouring of compassion and concern. While I appreciated it, it felt overwhelming, particularly since it was so disconnected from what I was experiencing. I naively supposed that people would be relieved that I was without symptoms. Instead, some seemed disappointed that I was not at death’s door.
As I watched more and more TV, it dawned on me that many people were under the impression that a diagnosis of COVID-19 was a death sentence. Based on the daily reports from government officials and vivid pictures of overworked medical professionals in hospitals, it was easy to understand why folks would be so concerned. My experience was vastly different. And it certainly would not make for good TV.
Now that I am weeks beyond my diagnosis and still without any consequences (except weight gain from eating too much!), when I think through the impact this pandemic is having, it reminds me of the early days of HIV. There still seems to be lots of fear, mis-information, denial, and scrambling for a new sense of normal.
Most of us have an incredible capacity to adapt and sustain a sense of hope if not in the immediate moment, then in the longer term. All evidence to the contrary, the world has not yet fallen apart. Against all odds, kindness, compassion, and a sense of duty seem to prevail even in the face of scarcity of toilet paper and spaghetti on the store shelves. People find creative ways to connect and stay connected, because that is what humans do.
There are really two pandemics going on here. COVID-19 has touched the lives of every human on this planet in the space of a few months. It is taking the lives of people without regard to their citizenship, economic status, or age. It has disrupted every routine and ritual across the globe. It is upending established businesses and creating opportunities for entrepreneurs. It is wide open to hucksters and fear-mongers who run unchecked on the internet and find toe-holds in unexpected places.
The other pandemic is fear. This is the one I believe will have the biggest impact. Like the best Stephen King character, COVID-19 can’t be seen, smelled, or touched. It resides in some unknowable place, ever ready to attack and kill and seemingly without any defense. It is passed first between unsuspecting and innocent people who are dumbfounded when they realize they are going to die and then on to others who know the risk, but expose themselves anyway.
The heroes of this pandemic are those people who daily take care of the needs of others, whether they be friends who check in on friends and family who are alone, volunteers who deliver meals, folks who are sewing masks and getting them to people, or the medical personnel who are in our hospitals and clinics and who take a stand against the physical consequences this virus has wrought.
In this day and age of unlimited access to information, we all become experts and acquire new language of “PPE” and “ventilators”. We sit in judgment of elected officials who either take charge and rise to the occasion or who falter and hide behind pontification. We demand that somebody fix the problem or make things right so that we can stop our distress and get back to doing the things that felt good before.
Personally, I find such armchair expertise overblown. I do my best to provide accurate information to my friends. I limit myself exposure to hyperbole and keep my blood pressure under control by not engaging in argument. I do this as a prescription for remaining sane during a time that by any stretch of the imagination is anything but predictable and controllable.
As a behavioral health professional, I understand the long-term consequences of stress and anxiety. I also know that the only things I can truly control are my thoughts and my behaviors. When I look back just a few weeks ago, it seems to me that things were not going all that well. Like the crab in the pot where the water has been slowly warming, I had become accustomed to the outrageous and normalized it. It took me going half-way around the world in order to clearly see just how out-of-the-ordinary things had become. Now that I am back home, I have a much clearer idea of what I want “normal” to be.
As someone who tested positive for COVID-19 and who has recovered, I have some suggestions for managing your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in the coming days.
- Follow the suggestions of the folks who know how this virus works. Wash your hands – a lot! Keep your hands away from your eyes and face! Wear a mask when you are out in public. Heed the shelter in place orders. Keep at least six feet between you and other folks when you are out shopping.
- Cut yourself some slack. When feelings come up, name them. If they are intense, remember to breathe. If you can find productive things to do, then do them. If you can find something to laugh at, laugh out loud. If you feel like crying, shed the tears and then move on.
- Do some physical exercise every day. Limit your time watching TV or playing games online. Find a creative outlet for your energy. Reach out to someone who might be lonely. Imagine what your life will be like after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Find something beautiful, wonderful, exciting, and new to share with someone. Try a new recipe. Learn something new. Come up with your own list!
More than anything, it is important to just take this thing one day at a time. While that may seem to be simplistic, the wisdom of paying attention to what is happening right now has heaps of evidence to demonstrate that it works. When I was in that space of not knowing whether I had COVID-19 or not, it was easy to jump ahead and imagine the worst. “At least if I were in the hospital, someone else would be taking care of me!”, or so I thought. But when I just focused on the present, I realized that I was already doing a good job of taking care of myself. I realized that I had friends who were more than willing to lend me a hand if I needed support.
I admit, I worried that maybe people would forget about me. I worried that maybe I had angered some people or offended them and they would decide to ignore me. These were the dark thoughts that came up for me and that come up for many of us. These are the fears of abandonment that are hard-wired into our brain. Managing this kind of distress requires that I pay attention to what is happening right now.
And right now, everything is actually okay.
Here is what I know. COVID-19 will eventually run its course. We will find a vaccine and it will make a difference. There will be challenges ahead, and we will find ways to meet them.
And there will be miracles and celebrations.