When I was a child my mother had a rare infectious disease. She lay locked in her room down a hall that seemed longer and darker than before, and I couldn’t go in and see her. I have no idea how long I waited. It may have only been a few days. Whatever time it was, it spans my earliest memories.
Now I’m in the room and my daughter stands down the hall, asking me to open the door and just peek outside. Another claustrophobic space that a child will remember. I’m presumptive positive for covid-19 and in isolation.
My daughter and my wife have run of the house, but they can’t leave either until the results come back, and maybe not even then. On a sun-blessed day like today children should be out playing. People should be planting things. There are flowers in pots on the patio. In a large one is an azalea in full bloom. We wait all year for that plant. My wife says she’ll text me a picture.
I peaked at it when I left the house to get tested.
After church on Zoom today, after a moment of delay, I drove alone to the hospital. Cars were stacked up, idling, coasting toward billowing white tents.
I always take a book when I fear I’ll be stuck in line for a while. I took Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, because I needed something beautiful and terrifying. I didn’t need the book. Across the parking lot, head to toe in PPE, moved formless, faceless nurses with clipboards and blue plastic bags, disappearing into driver’s side windows and re-emerging into the halo-like light of a May afternoon.
Mother’s Day, and my wife is home disinfecting the house.
When my turn came I thanked the nurse as she stuck a long swab down my throat. She gave me permission to gag, and I coughed and choked and, finally, cried. Then it ended, and I drove home. The streets were packed with people and bicycles, dogs and cars. The farmers market was open. The sun streamed through the windshield. I lowered the sunshade and shielded my eyes. I wouldn’t see the sun again until the results came back, and maybe not even then.
I’ve written a book about anxiety set in this very moment. I didn’t expect this. The book is just released, and this sickness is keeping me from promoting it as much as I should.
Most of us with bipolar disorder are familiar with anxiety and have some idea how to handle it. I wrote the book for people with anxiety and those new to it, many of them people who are well, but due to the stresses of the shut down and the threat of the virus now encounter the unfamiliar symptoms of mental illness.
I hope I’ve taught them how to cope and thrive. I’m working on it myself.
The word anxiety is from the Greek ankho and means “to choke.” I felt it while being tested, and I feel it in this room in constraint unfamiliar even to me. The threat of ruin from covid-19 has transformed into the surrender of having nothing to do but wait.
All we have is time and loneliness. No one can truly understand our suffering but ourselves. This is why people find God. This is why my daughter stands outside the door and asks me to tell her all about the test and when I might have results. She wants all the details. My wife and I tell her everything. She accepts the weight. She understands, but she questions.
I remember being told nothing when I was a child and the hall rolled out as tightly bound as the entrance to the haunted house on the boardwalk. That’s what my anxiety feels like.
If the test is negative there will be a certain kind of stigma as people move away and whisper, “what if the results were wrong?” If the test is positive I’ll just stay in this room, reading books, choking, praying, a burden waiting for something to happen.
An unknowing voice behind the door at the end of the hall.