A year ago today, I had a regularly scheduled quarterly appointment with my Rheumatologist. I knew enough about the “novel coronavirus” to know that being near other people was potentially a risk. We knew by then, also, that the virus was already lurking nearby because our local middle school had been shut for cleaning over the weekend due to a confirmed case. But I was still holding out hope that our family could sneak in a long-planned vacation to San Diego on March 18.
My doctor’s office is located within a large hospital, which was not exactly where I wanted to be at that moment in time. When I arrived, I mentally plotted the best course from my car to the doctor’s office that would ensure I minimized contact with others. I parked on the street instead of in the hospital garage and MacGyver’ed my way through back stairwells and infrequently used hallways, using only my elbows to open doors and letting them slam shut. I was very proud of my stealth, my well-honed survival skills (also known as being an anxious person who perpetually prepares for any eventuality) finally coming in handy.
When I opened the doctor’s office door, a woman was standing at the check-in counter speaking with the receptionist. Two others sat in the waiting room. My evasive maneuvers appeared to be for naught. Then I heard the words “just back from Italy” and nearly exploded. Was this virus really something I needed to worry about or was the news making an exaggeration of things? I paced, refusing to sit on potentially contaminated seats or to touch anything, and waited impatiently for my turn.
It’s still hard to believe that I walked into that office telling myself that I was probably overreacting and that, sure, caution was prudent but let’s not be hysterical. I had a hunch that getting on a plane and going on a cruise were becoming more unlikely by the minute, but it goes to show the power of – what? Denial? Incredulity? The sheer impossibility of what was about to happen? that I doubted the information in front of me – in front of all of us – to that point.
My doctor told me explicitly: no commercial airlines, definitely no cruises, and stay away from crowds. Because of my immuno-suppressed state I did, in fact, fall into a higher risk group. I left dazed – usually reality doesn’t match my over-active imagination. This time I underestimated reality. I felt suddenly quite mortal and very vulnerable. And no one really seemed to know what to do. We had information, but the idea of quarantine and social distance seemed drastic and irrational. People in authority – from the government and the CDC to school departments, business leaders, and medical facilities – kept referencing other people in authority in this bizarre hamster wheel of deer-in-headlights inaction.
On my way home from the doctor, I stopped to see my mom for what I knew would officially be the last time for a while (you know, a couple of weeks – ha!). It felt like a risk – was I bringing something in or taking something home unknowingly? – and I regretted going almost immediately. That afternoon I stood apart from everyone when I picked my daughter up from school, waving to my friends from a safe distance, a little quiver to my lip. My neighbors dropped of N95 masks on my front porch. We debated whether or not our son should perform in his band concert. It seemed insane to cave into irrational fear. But when you can’t see what you fear, what is rational anymore?
March 11, 2020, my husband started working from home. He used to take the train to work every day. On his last commute home another passenger coughed the whole way. We couldn’t figure how me standing away from a crowd at school dismissal was going to help much if he was being coughed on to and from work every day. So he stayed home. And that was just the beginning…
THIS YEAR on March 11 I will get my first dose of COVID vaccine. I am excited that this moment is here – I can taste freedom and some semblance of sure footing again. The mask mandates made a huge difference, as has everything we have learned about the coronavirus and how to treat it and who it affects.
But I am also nervous for all the regular reasons an anxious person would be nervous – unknowns and straying from the norm always provoke anxiety. The norm has become staying home and staying apart, keeping this virus as far away as I possibly can. It’s odd to go out and actively seek it (I do know it’s not a live virus and the vaccines are thoroughly vetted – and I WILL get it, absolutely. I’m just being honest – life is full of both/and situations and this is one. I am excited and I am nervous).
The past year has required serious mental gymnastics. Back-bending our way back to the old normal will be an adjustment too. For me, anyway. To mentally survive this period of extreme isolation required adjusting my threshold for patience and accepting a version of life that was smaller and more insular than I would choose. I took a big step back from my regularly scheduled programming. A friend observed when the lockdowns first started that I was a social butterfly who got her wings clipped. I tried not to dwell on it too much, and to adjust. I just kept going the best I could. And I did. We did.
As the switch flips and we head in the other direction, this March 11 may be the beginning of something new – something normal. I am tempering my expectations and won’t celebrate too soon, but I do have this hopeful sensation bubbling up inside me. Dare I dream of being close to other people again? Hugging my mom? Sending my kids to school full-time and to camp this summer?
It’s a dream right now, but it’s a dream fueled by real, actionable progress not just wishful thinking. I am starting to think that, yes, in fact, we will be alright.
Stay the course. Stay well. We got this.