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How the Pandemic Saved My Life: Or, what happened when my shameful personal preferences were mandated.

A recurring metaphor runs through my life, and it originates with actual events in my childhood. I’m on a dusty Texas playground where I passed many a traumatizing hour enduring forced fun at the hands of my cruel elementary school teachers. The sun is absolutely blazing and there’s me, clumsy and dripping with sweat and bizarrely over-developed at eight years old, running alongside a merry-go-round as it spins, trying to grab the hot metal grasping bar, tripping over the cracks in the dry earth, being taunted or ignored by most of the dizzy children on the spinning contraption. Some kinder children reach out, try to help me get on, but because of my sweaty hands I’m embarrassed to take their hands. Once, when I try to accept another girl’s proffered hand, I end up tripping and pulling her off, too.

And that’s an apt metaphor for large parts of the first 47 years of my life. But all that seemed to turn with the onset of the pandemic.

It’s not a comfortable thing to admit, and I understand if it’s off-putting to some, especially those who lost jobs or, even worse, someone they loved because of it. The pandemic was (and still is in many parts of the world) a horrible event that befell humanity, and I wish it hadn’t happened. Yet nonetheless, I think it’s likely that had it not happened, I wouldn’t be alive today.

As background, let me paint you a picture of my life when the pandemic began, circa March 2020. The year prior had been really, really rough for me. In April of 2019, I was laid off with no warning from a full-time corporate cannabis copywriting job that I’d grown to comfortably hate yet very much rely on for my survival.

Here’s the TLDR version

Since November 2016 (well, actually since I was in elementary school, but especially since the election of 2016) I’d been enraged by what was going on in the world. I felt that a facade of civility and tolerance had been ripped away and humanity’s real face, or at least America’s, had been revealed: racist, hateful, misogynist, hypocritical, and willfully ignorant.

Because I’d so excelled in and loved grad school, I had six-figure student loan debt. My attempts to stave off any attempt at a real adult life had come with a hefty price tag that was now a luxury car-sized albatross around my neck.

Physically, I was in horrible shape. I was nauseous and constipated most of the time, and for years I’d been throwing up almost daily -all of which I suspected was the result of the high doses of multiple medications I was taking to deal with my chronic mental health issues. I had high blood pressure, I was 25 lbs overweight, never exercised, and ate and drank way too much. I had two rotting teeth in the back of my mouth that intermittently caused me great pain, but because of a few horrifying experiences with less-than-compassionate dentists, I was terrified to do anything about it.

The way my mental illness manifested had driven most everyone out of my life, and I didn’t blame them. Except for my mother, I was utterly alone.

Underlying all of that were two constants that have been with me since birth and will likely go with me to the grave: chronic, genetic depression/anxiety, and hyperhidrosis, which means overactive sweat glands…which means my entire body is often sweaty, and my hands, feet, armpits, and face sweat almost all the time, no matter what I’m doing nor the temperature. Both lifelong conditions have served to set the tone for my life in ways I’m only now coming to fully understand.

In October of 2018, on the assumption that my life and general circumstances vis a vis my mental and physical health could not possibly get any worse, I went off my meds. That decision precipitated a steep decline from which I barely recovered.

In February 2019, shortly before I lost my horrible job, I began to develop what I can only describe as a blister on the underside of my right breast. I saw several doctors and had a mammogram, but the thing continued to go undiagnosed. When it flared up, a doctor would prescribe a round of antibiotics and it would go away. Then it would come back.

Soon after I’d been laid off, I started randomly fainting at unpredictable times. We’re talking just keeling over in the grocery store, and doctors weren’t able to explain that, either. I became afraid to drive as a result.

As I collected unemployment, I’d begun freelancing, writing marketing copy for the highest bidder with very modest success. I did have one steady client, a local digital marketing agency, that I loved working with but that only had a few hours of work for me each week. I was desperate to earn money, and even though I had detailed plans for a book that I wanted to write as well as ample time to write it, my depression and constant anxiety about money kept me from working on it.

Because of my mysteriously deteriorating health and the loss of my loathsome job and the ensuing lack of money, my mother and I rented a house and moved in together in October of 2019. She and I had been living in separate apartments in Denver, and except for a few intervals in which I’d lived with romantic partners, I’d been living on my own for 30 years. She’d been living alone since the death of her parents (she was their live-in caretaker) almost 20 years ago.

As you may imagine, our first few months of cohabitating were difficult. I understand now that my perception of absolutely everything was deeply skewed at that time by my profound, near-fatal depression, but I felt that she was being callous and uncharacteristically cruel not just to me, but to others in her life as well.

A conviction rose up in me, the reverberation of a drumbeat at my core that I’d first heard when I was eight years old. If, as Emily Dickinson wrote, hope is a thing with feathers, then dread must be a thing with tentacles and they had me in their grasp. Life was simply too loathsome to bear, and the fact that I seemed to have failed at it nonetheless was too just too ridiculously overwhelming. I felt that I had no compelling reason to live and I could no longer live with the crushing pain and constant struggle with my brain. I would end it. That thought began to take form around Thanksgiving of 2019.

Though I did believe that my mother’s life would ultimately improve without me in it and that she would be eventually relieved, I still didn’t want to ruin her holidays. So I decided to wait. Sleep had always been my refuge, but I’d developed insomnia for the first time in my life. I’d lie in bed shaking and crying, believing prayer was futile yet still praying to no one and nothing in particular that once I did fall asleep, I’d never wake up. But instead of dying, I’d dream in jagged shards of memories and images so graphic and horrible I’d jerk awake, my bones and joints aching inexplicably as they’d started doing of late.

If I can just get through these holidays, I told myself, I can end it next spring. Thinking of it as my last Christmas made the whole thing easier to bear, somehow. I began to think in terms of dates. I decided that June of 2020 would be a good time for my exit, and began to make notes and lists in preparation.

In January of 2020, the recurring “thing” on my breast had a massive flare-up. I became very weak and very sick. The powerful antibiotic the doctor prescribed caused a heinous reaction that sent me to the emergency room in February 2020 — the month before Covid started to surface. The only reason I’m mentioning the timing is that when I was initially seen at urgent care, one doctor took a look at me, asked a few questions, then quickly exited the room and returned with other doctors, all masked up. This was not normal behavior at the time. Suffice it to say, they had no idea what was going on with me until, after hours of tests and specialists and iv drips and debate as to whether I should be admitted to the hospital, the masked specialists decided it was a bad reaction to the antibiotic I’d been prescribed. They sent me home to recover as my mother cared for me in my misery.

As I slowly recovered over the next couple of weeks, I began to wonder if my prayers for a merciful end were being answered in some nightmarish, ironic, slow-motion way. I found myself humming a song familiar to me from high school: “I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumours/but I think that God’s got a sick sense of humour/ and when I die, I expect to find him laughing.” Indeed, Depeche Mode, indeed.

By the time there began to be talk of some sort of serious, transmissible, deadly disease spreading the globe, my own extreme illness had passed, but I still felt unwell, and determined to carry out my plan.

It was also around that time that my older cousin, David, began to get ill. Because David had AIDS since the 1990s, getting ill was serious for him. He and I had never lived in the same town and had never been close, but his mother and mine are sisters and have always been extraordinarily connected.

Meanwhile, public spaces began to shut down. You remember how it was in March of 2020 — general panic and confusion. The zeitgeist suddenly seemed to match my own inner world -anxious, wary, averse to crowds, nervous about the future, and generally pensive and uncomfortable. It’s so odd to say it, but that was the moment when things began to click for me. There was no longer a dread of social events that I felt I really should attend because there were simply no social events to dread.

Still though, June. After witnessing the televised murder of George Floyd (over and over), I was more convinced than ever that it was a good time to “eliminate my own map,” as David Foster Wallace wrote (and then did).

Oddly, I started to get more freelance work from the company I loved. Because it’s a digital marketing firm and lots of small businesses were rushing to establish more of a web presence in reaction to the pandemic, the company was getting a lot more work. And even though I was getting more work, there was no demand for me to come into the office, ever. In fact, there was the opposite.

I should stop here to explain how difficult working (or even being) around groups of people for very long is for me. That likely sounds ridiculous and prissy, but my anxiety and hypersensitivity to everything around me make it nearly impossible to concentrate around other people. And, given the factor that I’m a writer by both vocation and trade, concentration and quiet are key in my working environment. I excelled, for instance, in an academic environment where I went to campus to hear lectures and go to the library but otherwise worked through the syllabus on my own, haunting the doorstep of my professors’ office hours to engage in as much one on one time as they’d indulge me. I dreaded group assignments of any kind as my anxiety was so acute that it would manifest in unpredictable ways and I was often perceived as aloof and offputting at best, unlikeable at worst. And sweaty, always.

So the fact that I was working more hours at a job I truly liked doing and was able to do it at home was absolutely pivotal in my comeback from the most desperate depression of a life studded with abyss-like periods of darkness.

Also around the start of the pandemic, I was referred to a dermatologist who solved the issue on my breast with an ointment. What I had feared may lead to a mastectomy or worse had been solved with such simplicity that I felt foolish. But grateful, nonetheless.

Meanwhile, my cousin David got sicker. He didn’t have COVID, but he had something vague that was very serious and no specialists in his city seemed to be able to figure it out, especially since they were preoccupied with the pandemic. My mother was very worried, not just about David, but even more so about his mother, her 80-year-old sister.

It was then that I began to seriously reconsider my plan. David had no control over what was happening to him, nor did he have any say about the timing. It was his bad luck that this was happening when it was.

On the other hand, I had control, at least nominally, over what was happening to me. I couldn’t put my mother through it, especially if David died, and it looked like he might. If there was a shred of hope, just a glimmer like the glint of a dime miraculously catching the sunlight from the bottom of a mud puddle, I had to try one last time to survive the incessant and exhausting fight with my own brain. I emailed my doctor, a young general practitioner I adore, rather than the psychiatrist I’d come to dislike (not personally, just as a provider). She prescribed a very low dose of an antidepressant that was totally new (to me) and made an appointment to check soon on its efficacy.

By late May, the firm I loved freelancing for had hired me part-time, with the strong suggestion that full-time would likely be available soon. The pandemic raged on, so there was no immediate danger of being forced into an office. And the firm had given up its shared office space so, at least for the moment, there was no office to go to regardless. For the most part, people were taking the mask mandate seriously, and I rarely went out, save to the grocery store or other “essential” errands. When I did go out, there were fewer people about on the roads and in the stores, and those who were out had to stay socially distanced. Blessed social distance! I think a lot of introverts, highly sensitive, empathic types, etc will appreciate my ardor for a state-mandated personal bubble. I felt far less taxed after going out than I had “in the before,” and the general lack of going out was doing wonders for my mental health. My physical health improved, as well. Avoiding large gatherings and wearing a mask had kept me from what was generally an annual series of minor but illnesses — sinusitis, bronchitis, ear infections; all of the ear, nose, and throat stuff was usually an annual event for me, but none of it happened during the pandemic.

Miraculously, the new antidepressant proved quite effective. A minor adjustment to the dosage was required, but since then I’ve felt clear-headed and even-keel in a way that I never have before.

My general shift in well-being and tentative steps into the land of the grateful living had yielded such good results that I began to branch out into other areas of my life. I started to be more cognizant of my health, both physical and mental. That led to efforts in being more intentional across the board. I began to ponder life beyond mere survival, and what that might look like. What if I were able to make the changes in my life I’d long thought impossible? What if I could get well? What if I didn’t think suicide was inevitable?

As I began to embrace the possibility of carrying on with my life, my cousin David lost his. He didn’t have COVID, but he eventually died alone in the hospital because of it, so he may as well have died of it. He was a casualty. His mother, of course, was devastated. Her tender oldest child, her boy who had always preferred dressing up in her clothes to playing sports, was gone.

I committed in a way I never had before to getting better, to doing more than staving off suicide.

The company where I was working part-time time offered me a full-time writing job. I was ecstatic. As I began to feel more valuable in the world, I felt more confident in my abilities to survive, just on a basic level, as a human adult. I was able to contribute equally to the household I shared with my mother, which made me feel like I had agency in my life, and I no longer felt an overwhelming sense of shame for being so terribly over-educated and underemployed. I still had insurmountable student debt, but at least now I was being paid fairly well to do work that’s at least adjacent to what I studied and what I love — writing.

And as COVID wore on, my anxiety about the pandemic itself began to subside, or at least to lose some of its urgency. My mother and I obeyed the guidelines and kept mostly at home and to ourselves, so I felt like we were as safe as we could be, given the circumstances.

It was probably around October of 2020 that I began to realize the extent to which I was thriving during the pandemic. Not so much financially, though I knew I was fortunate to have a good job. I just felt so much better. Less exhausted and drained. More rested and energetic. Yes, my improvement was definitely rooted in being on a medication that was effective without causing debilitating side effects. But it went beyond that. I began to understand that it was infinitely easier for me to protect my energy in lockdown. The notion of protecting one’s energy may sound like made-up bunk, but for people like me who feel as if they were born with raw nerve endings just beneath a vellum-thin skin, it’s very very real. Not being viewed with suspicion when I voiced my discomfort about being in crowds (“Really? not even concerts/festivals/sporting events/etc? But why not???? They’re so fun!!!!”) was a huge relief. And the constant undercurrent of social anxiety that flows like sap through my life was given a chance to be still for once during the pandemic. No more tentatively RSVPing to events, then stressing about them until canceling at the last socially acceptable moment. There were no events to freak out about. It was glorious.

Inky the Odd/Enkidu the Wildman

It was also during October that we adopted our wonderful little pound puppy, Inky/Enki/Enkidu. Despite wanting a dog since my beloved Django died in 2015, I’d not felt emotionally stable enough to be responsible for one. I hadn’t honestly known if I’d survive to care for one, and it didn’t seem fair to risk that.

By Thanksgiving, I felt totally in the clear — meaning I no longer felt suicidal. At all. I was so utterly grateful for having crossed such a vast chasm in the intervening year. I had only been able to get through Christmas of 2019 by repeatedly reminding myself it was the last holiday I’d have to endure. Christmas 2020, on the other hand, was one of the better holidays I’d ever had. Nothing special happened, but I didn’t want to die; which, in retrospect, I guess is pretty special.

In January I outlined very specific goals for 2021 in several areas of my life. I took a lot of time to decide what was really important to me, and what I could achieve in a year that would be challenging but doable.

In February, I finally had the oral surgery I’d been delaying for years. The rot in my head, now physically as well as metaphorically, was finally being dealt with.

As I write this, it’s early June of 2021, and I don’t believe I’m hyperbolizing when I say I don’t think I’ve ever felt as good as I do these days, neither mentally nor physically. Now, keep in mind that I’ve virtually always felt bad either mentally or physically or both, but still, it’s a pretty big deal for a 48-year-old woman to be able to say that she’s never felt better.

Also as of now, the pandemic seems pretty much over in most of the United States, or at least in my part of it. But I don’t think things will go back to “normal,” at least not in the sense of “the way they were.” I know they won’t for me. I still have the awesome job, and I still work from home. I’m hopeful that more people will be able to work from home regularly now, as it opens so many opportunities for people who are previously excluded from good, solid jobs because for whatever reason they can’t do office life. People like me.

When the pandemic came, the merry-go-round stopped spinning, or at least it slowed way down. I realized then that while some people really did seem to enjoy being on the dizzying thing, I didn’t. Honestly, it made me feel more than a little sick during the brief moments when I was on it, and I liked just being here on the ground better.

The wild thing is, now that the universal merry-go-round is starting back up again, a lot of the people who were on it only reluctantly before seem to have wandered off, and they’re not particularly interested in getting back on.

As for me, I find it’s a lot more peaceful when I’m grounded, and not grasping for something I don’t truly want in the first place just because it seems like the thing to do.

Ultimately, I became more accepting of myself during the pandemic. My generally awkward, misfit status had troubled me in ways I hadn’t understood. I’d always considered my severe social anxiety to be antithetical to a healthy life. The fact that I always had to drive myself or take an Uber to social functions so that I could leave early had always embarrassed me; my public tearful breakdowns were sort of a given and I found them as uncontrollable as hiccups and a million times more humiliating.

In my constant striving for love, for money, for recognition, for understanding…for so many confusing things…I’d never had a forced reset like the pandemic. And just as most everything in my life has been a bit off-kilter and often perpendicular to “normal,” my constitutional reaction to the restrictions surrounding the pandemic was positive. The fact of the thing was that my personal preferences were being forced on the general public. In that upside-down world, I thrived as I never had before.

So while it’s more correct to say that the circumstances that resulted from the pandemic rather than the pandemic itself saved my life, nonetheless, it’s true: had it not occurred, I don’t think I would have survived 2020. And I’m very glad I did.

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