It’s March 18, 2020 and the U.S. is now in the beginning stages of the COVID-19 global epidemic (or pandemic). For most Americans, the biggest worry is getting toilet paper, but for some the pandemic has already taken their lives or the lives of their loved ones. If it hasn’t gotten real for most other people, it will. I don’t want to go off on a rant about the selfishness and thoughtlessness of many people, or the lack of leadership from our politicians, or the lack of preparedness of our health care system, but it all makes me very angry. Or, to put in “I” terms, I get angry when I think about it.
Lately, I’ve been trying to put things in “I” terms in order to take ownership of my thoughts, emotions and reactions. Events or actions or even words external to me might trigger a thought, emotion or reaction, but I can’t blame the event, action or word for my reaction to it. In other words, if someone does something, say insults me or hoards toilet paper so that I can’t buy any, that doesn’t directly cause a specific reaction in me. My reaction is a choice; how I choose to react is within my control, even if events are not. That distinction is not usually obvious to me in the moment because my amygdala wants to take control in that moment. If I count to three (or one hundred and three) and take a step back, however, I can see what’s being triggered in me. If I can understand my triggers, I have a better chance of acting rationally instead of emotionally. In theory. It’s hard for me to be detached and rational when I perceive a threat to my survival. My amygdala is just doing its job, trying to trigger a “fight or flight” response in order to save its host organism.
That’s where I’m at now. In “fight or flight” mode, only there’s no visible enemy to fight and no truly safe place to run to. I’ll be honest. I’m afraid. I wasn’t this afraid when I was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma and I wasn’t sure if I’d live more than a few months. Yes, I was worried. I went through most, if not all, of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief, and I worried; but I didn’t have this kind of FEAR then. I figured that I would have access to quality medical care, that if one treatment didn’t work, I could try others, and I eventually accepted that if none of the treatments worked, then maybe it was my time to die, hopefully at home and surrounded by my family.
This COVID-19 threat is different. What I’m reading about happening in Italy shows me that none of those things might be available to me. First of all, because I am 63 years old and have cancer, diabetes and asthma, I’d probably be triaged as being high-risk and therefore, not worth saving when it comes to choosing who gets saved and who is left to die. I don’t feel that I’m high-risk, but maybe I am. Secondly, and this is more serious, most of the people who are dying in Italy, are dying alone. If they end up in the hospital, they are isolated from all visitors, including immediate family members, who themselves may be sick and isolated. There’s no silver lining to this that I can see and I respond emotionally by being afraid. Very afraid.
I’m afraid for myself, but also for the people I love. Lynn and I have a couple of errands to do this week, but after that we are going to be sheltering in place for at least 14 days. Neither of us has a job to go to (Lynn was furloughed, I’m still out of work since my layoff in January) and we have enough and supplies, including medicine, to last at least that long, so there’s no real reason for us to risk catching the virus or, even worse, spreading it to someone else if we do happen to have it ourselves. I pray that Lynn doesn’t get sick with it and we are separated. I just wish that more people would self-isolate. Seeing pictures of spring-breakers frolicking in Florida is another trigger for the old amygdala.
One of the things that worries us is that we may not get to see our kids or other loved ones again. We’re choosing to self-isolate, but what happens if we get sick or one of them gets sick? And we have no idea at this point how long this social distancing will need to last. Lynn just told me that she read that it could last eighteen months. I hope that’s not the case, but who knows. There’s so much that is unknown about this new threat.
I’d like to say that this crisis is putting our other worries into perspective, but for me, the worry and fear is cumulative. I’m still worried about being out of work and not being able to find a job. It was going to be a challenge before this happened, but now nobody is interviewing and, as the economy continues to take a hit from this, more and more people will be out of work. I’m still worried about money, because our income has been reduced drastically and our fall-back savings are being quickly eroded by losses in the stock market, so we may not have those savings available when we need them. Economists are starting to say that we might be heading for a “depression,” instead of just a temporary recession, so that’s another worry. And then there’s COVID-19 itself, which is just beginning to disrupt our lives. I don’t know that we’re equipped to deal with this socially or emotionally as a society. As an individual, I’m just starting to wrap my mind around it.
And now I’m afraid. For all of us.