Of course you know what you’d miss if you were locked away for a while. Spouse, kid, an aimless walk down to the river; the obvious things jump right out at you.
I didn’t think I’d miss the coffee so much.
I have a chipped mug with a Matisse painting on it and I sit out on the patio in the morning, hours before anyone gets up, and sip strong, black coffee. This time is mine. It’s even too early for the dogs to want to go outside. This is when I like to write.
The several days I was isolated for fear of having the virus I still got up early, but I couldn’t go downstairs to make coffee and I sure couldn’t touch the doorknob to go outside. My wife had spent two days disinfecting everything in the house, erasing with Lysol every fingerprint from every surface, and my hands, and my breath, were feared to be toxic.
So I waited. For hours. The first thing my wife did when she got up was make coffee and slip it through the door to the bathroom connected to the room in which I was isolating. Her hand, with chipped nails unattended like our unwashed hair and my untrimmed beard, appeared from the dark hall through the barely open door and placed the mug gently on the countertop, then quickly withdrew.
For days she did everything.
I stayed in that room and the symptoms got worse: Cough, chest pain, chills like it was winter and the windows were left open all night, fatigue, sneezes, difficulty concentrating, light sensitivity and headaches like I’ve never had before.
The doctor on telehealth wasn’t sure since I didn’t have a fever, but he ordered the test anyway and the next day I took it.
I came down the stairs with a mask on, took the keys from the countertop without touching anything but the keys, turned sideways and wriggled out the door my wife had propped open.
When I got home I wiped down the steering wheel, the ignition, and the door handles on the car, kicked the door to the house, and wriggled back inside, back up to my room.
Then I waited.
The next morning I took the laptop to create an account so I could login and get the results to the test, but the ID verification vendor was down and the hospital site didn’t recognize me. I waited a bit longer for the call.
When the phone finally rang, I had to stand against the door in the bathroom, as close to the hall as I could get, because the cell signal in that part of the house is spotty and calls are always dropped there. The signal is better in the hall. When the nurse told me I’d tested negative the first thing I said was, “Then why am I so sick?” She said the flu season was over, so that probably wasn’t it, but I didn’t have covid-19.
I just stood there for a while. Then I sat on the bed and waited a while longer.
I walked downstairs, slowly. I kept my hands off the banister. My wife was on a Zoom call and my daughter was on her chrome book and they both froze and mouthed, “what are you doing?” I told them I didn’t have it and my daughter shrieked and ran across the room to hug me and my wife jumped right off her call.
I still didn’t touch anything.
The test they gave me has a 98.2% accuracy rate, so I knew I didn’t have what they were testing for. But I was still sick. We all decided I should go back into the room until I got better. So for three more days I missed the chipped mug and the dawn glow and sat alone in a room with lights too bright and read long books.
I communicated with other people who had similar symptoms but still tested negative. Nobody could figure it out, but we were all sick. I really worried about the chest pains and the headaches, so I did what every person who questions their results does and searched online.
Those symptoms rarely occur together, and when they do the most obvious cause is anxiety. I laughed out loud. I just wrote a book on anxiety and here I was, locked away for days, unable to see the changing colors of the Spring sky and the lavender blooming out on the deck because of anxiety?
50% of people in the United States report serious mental health effects during the last two months. Even people who write books about mental illness.
As the symptoms fell away I felt the rumbling energy and unnerving buzz of a brewing manic episode. This was not an uncommon feeling after being sick, so I used the methods I write about and those feelings were soon gone. By the weekend I was all better.
Most of the people I talk to don’t believe it was only anxiety that made me so sick. I object to the phrase only anxiety. Mental illness does a lot more than put people in bad moods, and the physical effects of emotional challenges are rarely considered and rarely recognized as such.
Today many people unfamiliar with mood swings and disruptive behavior are feeling discomfort they’ve never encountered before. Those who regularly deal with mental illness are doubly challenged.
It could be that the disruption of my routine, the lack of early mornings spent outside alone hearing the birds wake up and holding the mug just so as to not cut my lip on the chipped ceramic, took the same toll on my health that a virus would.
This morning I’m back to normal, normal for now, and everyone seems to be struggling to find the same, safe space. As we re-open we need sane techniques to help us face unanticipated challenges we’ll surely encounter. We need to take care of our minds and our bodies as we look out for each other.
As we keep our distance we must not lose sight of the fact that fragile little things hold us together, and we must not rush toward some anticipated better time and trample those things underfoot.
George Hofmann’s new book Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis is available wherever books are sold.