The coronavirus frightens me in a way I never felt before. I’m not panicking but I fear for my life in a way that is deep rooted, instinctive. The virus makes me face my mortality every hour if I let it. I could tell myself social media and the news is what’s making me feel so anxious, but let’s be honest – the news is not good, we are living in Plague Times, and my own prospects of getting through this crisis intact is something I cannot take for granted.
I’m not sure if I’m being fatalistic or realistic or if there is no difference. Fatalistic sounds dramatic and showy, realistic sounds stoic and objective. My guess is I straddle that difference because I need to be both as each calls for it.
I am a stroke survivor. When I had my stroke in August 2018, I was paralyzed on my left side but I wasn’t concerned about dying. I remember being taken to the hospital in an ambulance and thinking, “I’ve got to live with this, this is my life now.” I was in good hands and it was up to me to fight for my well being and maintain a positive attitude.
During my initial hospital stay, when it looked like I would not be able to go to a rehab hospital, I told my wife I can simply recover at home and mentally prepared myself for that outcome, no harm no foul. Luckily, I did indeed get to stay in rehab and it made a significant, life-changing difference. But I was ready to do without if we had to, I wasn’t scared then. I just wanted to work with the hand I was dealt.
And in the year and a half that’s followed, I’ve recovered from my stroke in many ways. I still have numbness on my left side – my foot, my hand, my face – and it tingles and makes my skin feel painfully tight on bad days, so that never lets me forget what happened. It’s something I accept, though, and I remain profoundly thankful for what I managed to take back despite that. Smiling in the mirror, walking a half mile on my own, opening a door with my left hand – even if it takes some struggle, these are personal victories worth treasuring.
I learned to live with my stroke and its aftermath, but the coronavirus has made it a new kind of liability. The virus makes me feel like there’s a target on my back, as stroke is among the pre-existing conditions found in cases where patients require hospitalization. It’s not clear to me if being a stroke survivor means I’m more likely to catch the virus or that if I catch the virus this pre-existing condition will make it more serious… For that matter, it may also be that stroke was just one of the pre-existing conditions hospitalized patients reported but that it wasn’t an actual factor in the susceptibility or severity of the virus. I know it’s a stretch – maybe a desperate-sounding one at that. However, cardiac and pulmonary diseases and compromised immune systems are much more prominent in reports I’ve read, so maybe a history of stroke among hospitalized virus patients is a case of correlation and not causality. I’ll take whatever crumbs of hope I can get.
Whatever the case, it has left me feeling extremely vulnerable and helpless. Up to recently, I was able to live with my stroke and adapt as best I could. Now it’s like my stroke is being used against me in a way that is beyond my control. If I get the virus, I am deathly afraid it won’t be the mild version where I just stay at home and muddle through like the flu. I imagine myself struggling to breathe and placed on a ventilator and I don’t know how I could handle that. Even worse, I imagine that hospitals are overrun and there is no ventilator if I need it, no hospital bed if they run out or that they need to give it to somebody who has a higher likelihood of surviving than me. Because of my medical history, I cannot help but think of the virus as a worst case scenario, that I need to prepare myself for what may happen. I can’t afford to be taken by surprise.
But can’t I avoid it? As of this writing, there are a thousand cases of the virus in Florida, which has a population of over 20 million. I know that this is due to the very limited testing so far, but I tell myself the odds are in my favor. Twenty million is a lot of people and we won’t all catch it. Why can’t I be one of the lucky ones – or better, one of the more successfully vigilant ones? I don’t live in a city, the warm weather may be a benefit against the virus like it is with the flu… But I also tell myself to look at how quickly it spreads, and the math breaks my spirit instead of giving me a sliver of salvation, and I try my best not to feel paralyzed in the face of this unstoppable force.
There are things I can do, of course. I do my best at social distancing, and since my stroke I have been socially distant anyway – my days after the stroke were spent entirely at home while my wife was out working and my daughter was at school. Before the plague, I looked forward to social events we kept as a family, especially game night with close friends. Otherwise I was alone most of the day, though as a geeky introvert it had never been difficult to fill up my time and I’ve even found (very) occasional work in writing and social media. But I always missed my family when they were not around, certainly more than I would let on.
It helped that we had a cat to help fight loneliness. Nozomi was my only full time companion, a comfort that was always around and empathetic to my needs in the way pets often are. When I first came home after the stroke, she often gently lay against my left arm as if to protect and comfort me. When the house was just her and me, I would hold her for as much as she would let me.
Sadly, Nozomi fell ill and died at the end of last year. Christmas Day, which is part of a whole other chain of bad shit I won’t get into here. Losing her made me feel more isolated, despondent, less willing to be social because my familiar, my feline anchor, was taken away and the house felt that much emptier.
But now it looks like being mostly by my lonesome these past few months was preparation for a situation the whole world now faces. My daughter is home from school indefinitely and my wife’s hours at work have been cut drastically, so we are in this, together but isolated. All of us are under a de facto quarantine and the weird toll that takes on the spirit, that sense of being cut off.
What little interaction I used to have with the world has diminished even more, which is oddly comforting and disturbing all at once. The most I go out now is trips to the grocery store, visits to mostly empty parks, and late night drives. I’m fighting off cabin fever in the smallest of doses.
But this is my choice. Florida has no official lockdown yet. My wife and child, on the other hand, see their friends and interact with them, they want their social lives as much as it can be permitted. To be clear, they’re not approaching random strangers or going into large crowds or anything like that – they just want to be with their friends, a close circle for each of them. Depending on what you read online, some experts say it can be done smartly, others are more absolute and fully against such contact. I could object, ask my family not to expose themselves to greater risk – and in doing so, expose me to greater risk as well – but decided it would be cruel and counterproductive to lay such a burden on them.
After all, my daughter has the same geeky introvert temper as me, but she has more close bonds than I ever had. She mostly enjoys keeping herself to herself, but when she wants to be with her friends, this is a necessary affirmation to her, an important connection she makes as a young adult slowly coming into her own. So when she gets invited to a sleep over or join in on a day trip, I’m fine with it.
My wife is an extrovert always looking to step out of the house and while away hours with her friends. That is who she is. She is social to a fault while I’ve often been antisocial to a greater fault, and in our years of marriage the balance worked to our advantage, became our version of good cop / bad cop. I cannot take her social peregrinations from her and she wouldn’t let me anyway, so it’s not like we fight about it. It’s matrimonially accepted, a fait accompli baked into our vows, just as she never questions the comics and games I buy, or the Jpop idol posters that used to line my walls.
So if I do get sick because my family choose to be more social than me, it’s the risk I take for being who I am and loving who I love. I make my peace with that for the most part, at least as far as their needs are concerned. But the choice still scares me, it’s one of those decisions that no one may end up happy about in the long run. I won’t tell them to stay cooped up with me, they suffer too much of that already, but the need to accommodate their freedom still leaves me troubled. Am I overreacting or are they not reacting enough? Is it possible or even wise to split the difference?
And death is just one thing that troubles me now, life under the plague has other hazards as well. Like millions of others, we’ve been hit hard financially, and to be honest our situation was precarious to start with. The virus threatens our ability to breathe physically while the new plague economy takes away breathing room to make a decent living.
My wife is barely working at a job she recently started, as her hours have been cut to nearly nothing. I’m owed money for freelance work I’ve done recently and haven’t been paid yet. The bills we have to juggle every month are now thudding hard on the ground, forcing us into a piggybank triage of what we could pay as soon as we get money, what we can hold off temporarily, and which creditors we need to beg for mercy. There’s talk of stimulus and checks arriving in the mail, but how much can that cover and for how long?
I don’t blame my wife’s bosses for cutting hours because the world’s shut down and employers have to struggle and make tough decisions. As for my own pay issues, pre-plague that was just one of the annoyances of a freelancer’s life; post-plague I don’t force the matter because I know I won’t be seeing that money – again, realistic or fatalistic, it’s your call – because they’re in as dire straits as I am and have to look out for their own well-being before mine. To be honest, I’m not sure if I’d do any better – I consider the bills I can’t pay right now and what that tells me about my own priorities.
And as I’m painting this bleak picture, I keep asking myself why I want to share such things at a time like this. I’m a geeky introvert, as I’ve said before, and over-sharing is not one of my strong suits. I’m not happy about my attitude, I’d much rather be more optimistic and positive and keeping it all to my goddamn self, but I’m simply not hardwired to be upbeat and events in recent years support the darker views I hold. So what is the point then? Where is the benefit in tapping out these words at this time?
It’s for my own sake, of course. Being obsessively morbid all the time is exhausting emotionally and physically, it makes me spend too much time reading the news and tracing horrible Twitter food fights and memorizing statistics that just mushroom beyond belief. It keeps me up at night when I most need to be well-rested, it builds up bleakness and despair in my spirit and I need to cut that shit down some.
Being obsessively morbid only fifty percent of the time would be good enough, I think. Writing how I feel and playing on that whole realistic / fatalistic angle gives me something I can point to and think, “There. I’ve said my piece. It’s out there so I don’t have to dwell on it so much.” These demons need to be exorcised even if they continue to sit on my shoulder.
In the meantime I’m very much alive so I keep on living as best I can. I keep an extra eye out for my health, taking my meds regularly and drinking lots of fluids and staying rested while also keeping reasonably active. I treasure the time with my daughter, we both make sure to laugh a lot. I have projects to work on, not just to keep me busy but in the hopes it may earn some money and hopefully keep other people distracted during these times. My wife and I talk over financial options and side hustles we can work on together, in between her frequent forays to the outside world.
I even look forward to a future where I write a post on how I overreacted about the virus and how it all worked out okay and maybe overreacting was what saved my life in the scheme of things. Having now written my bleak, fatalistic, realistic take on the plague, I ponder what I could say when the crisis ends and we’re all still around (well, most of us). I look forward to appearing ridiculous and foolish in hindsight and having to say, “You know, that was how it felt at the time. I stand by that even as it turned out my worst fears did not come true.”
That would be nice.
In the meanwhile, I will continue to be terrified, to stare at my mortality way too frequently and way too closely. I continue not to panic or at least remind myself that panic does no good. But writing these things at the end of this essay feels nowhere near as bad as when I wrote it at the very beginning.
So there’s that. And that has to be enough.
I first started this essay around three AM on Sunday, March 22nd, bursting with all the angst and melodrama that time of night can you fill with. It is now almost two PM as I make the final touches on this essay, getting ready to declare the draft pretty much final, and I have to admit… It’s a gorgeous, sunny day in Florida and I’m actually smiling and basking in the warmth as I prepare to let go and have this essay stand as-is. (I’m giving myself a full day before I actually post this for public consumption, though, because common sense.)
The world goes on, no matter what, this beautiful day is telling me. And at this very moment, having said what I needed to say, I am perfectly fine with that.
How could I not be?
POST POST SCRIPT
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