Quarantine Diaries Day 365: Anniversaries Part 2

One year ago I went into lockdown with my family. It was scary and surreal. Do you remember that part of it? We were afraid to leave the house. We waved at neighbors through the glass. We were afraid to touch things other people had touched. There were long lines and short hours at the grocery store, and we were afraid the food chain would break. Almost everything else was closed. On the anniversary this weekend, I drove north to Lake County and went hiking by myself. I waved at strangers on the trail. I ran my hands on trees and tapped polypores with my feet. I went home and made an elaborate meal for my family. Life is hyperreal. I’m too tired to be scared.

I’ve been thinking about this post for a few weeks. What I can say about this last year, about what it’s meant to me, about what it’s done to me, about the lessons I’ve learned, and the kind of person I’ve become? I can’t. I can’t even. It’s too much, too big, too messy to write. The pandemic isn’t over. It’s not even almost over, not for me. Not for most people. Vaccines are trickling into my town, but I’m at the bottom of the list. I realize that’s a good thing. It means my life has been easier than most for the last year. It also means I’m still risking my life and trying to survive. I’m still becoming the person the world will spit out when the pandemic ends.

The truest thing I can say about the last year is this: I got older. That’s it! Hardly unexpected, but it’s still hitting me hard. I tiptoed into early middle age in the early days of the pandemic. I didn’t notice it at first, because I’m in the period of life that has been nudged back and stretched out to the point of being nearly unrecognizable as middle age, thanks to the millenials who didn’t want to grow up and the boomers who didn’t want to let go. The generations have more in common than we like to admit. It’s undeniable, though. At 35, I’m squarely in the middle of my life and last week when I saw a video of myself that just didn’t look right. How could a jawline so indistinct sit beneath smile lines that cut so deep? Like someone turned up the contrast on only half my face. The signs have been piling up all year. I’m softer around the middle and my knees screech at me when I pull myself up from crouching on the ground.

Of course, the last year aged us all in more than the usual ways. The number the pandemic did on my body is nothing to what it pulled on my insides. A year ago, I related more immediately to the girl I was when I was five, fifteen, twenty-five than to the grown up in the room I had to be that day. A year ago, parenting my daughter was like re-parenting a version of myself. COVID slammed down like a wall, cleaving my childhood from hers and severing me from the person I used to be. COVID grew me up.

COVID grew me in in relation to my parents. As a once wayward child, my best trick for making them pleased with me was spending too much on plane tickets and showing up on their doorstep with a suitcase in my hand. I couldn’t believe it when they asked me to travel this year, and I had to say no. Is there anything more adult than disappointing your family to protect the life you’ve built?

COVID grew me up at work. I used to feel restless, resentful that I didn’t have precisely the job I wanted, that my career didn’t travel in the direction I had planned. I couldn’t believe it when the city ordered me to move my legal practice into my home, but I had to say yes. It didn’t matter. I was just grateful to have work. Is there anything more adult than suiting up and showing up for the job you’re paid to do?

COVID gew me up in my marriage. We’ve always been good in a crisis, but day-to-day life could be hard on us, a series of battles over who was sacrificing more. In the year that asked the most of both of us, we acted like partners instead of combatants. Is there anything more adult than setting aside your pride?

COVID grew me up in my friendships. I missed the ease of seeing people around town and didn’t know how to sustain anything over a screen. I waited for the group chats and virtual book clubs to materialize or for somebody to at least check in. The loneliness almost did me in, until one day a friend brought donuts to my door and I realized people had been showing up for me all year long: with birthday signs for my daughter, with playdates outside, with plates of food and loaves of bread, with hand-me-down books and toys, with coffee in the front yard, and, yes, with phone calls and texts and “are you okays?” My friendships don’t exist behind screens, and my friends didn’t disappear during the pandemic; I did. They were there all along. I just had to pay attention and put in a little effort. Is there anything more adult than asking what you can give instead of what you can get?

COVID grew me up for my daughter. She needed me more this year than any point since infancy, and the need was so pressing that I had to gather up every part of myself of myself–the daydreamer child, the rebellious teen, the strident feminist, the serious lawyer, the tired wife–and coalesce them into a single being: mom, right here, right now. The presence of mind parenting demands in a pandemic is unlike anything I have ever known. Is there anything more adult than rising to the occasion?

That’s my anniversary post. It’s been a year. I got older, and so did you. I’m not complaining. When the thing we’ve spent the last year hiding from his death, another year is the most we can ask for. It’s more than what lots of us got.

Quarantine Diaries Day 362: Anniversary Part 1

This week I realized that people acknowledge the anniversary of the pandemic on different days: the day the WHO declared a pandemic, the day the US descended into a state of emergency, the day your town imposed stay-at-home orders, assuming you were ever subject to the them, the day the kids came home from school or, if it was spring break, the day they didn’t go back. The multiplicity of anniversaries is one more marker of the the pandemic’s differentiating effect. It his us at different times, in different ways, and to different degrees. The variances aren’t insignificant. They are overwhelming in their unfairness. My household will be acknowledging one year of sheltering in place with ice cream, because that’s what we stayed up late eating when we needed something that felt soft and good. Other households will be offering prayers over their dead.

Today marks the anniversary of the last time I took my daughter to church. We were there for choir practice. I sat in the back and listened to a friend whose wife is a teacher whisper that their district was having meetings where they were saying they were getting ready to close. A Catholic school on the Northshore had already shuttered, but this was the first I’d heard about public schools. I wasn’t worried, though. Their district was different than ours. Smaller. Wealthier. Whiter. I made my eyes big at her and, against medical advice, put my hands on my face. “Oh no. I’m so sorry.” She had a son in first grade and a preschooler at home. “I can’t imagine that will happen in Evanston, though. People don’t have the resources. All that childcare.”

On the way out of the church, my daughter stopped in front of a person-sized poster standing in the foyer. There was a picture of a cell phone and on the screen it said “God calling.” My daughter ran over to the poster and put her hand on the big green button. “Aw, good girl, you’re picking up.” “She doesn’t really have a choice,” our pastor pointed out from where she was standing nearby. There were two buttons on the phone, and both were green.

Today is also the anniversary of the last time we ate inside a restaurant. My daughter and I went out every week after choir practice. It was our decadent tradition, but it wasn’t sitting right with me. I knew people were panic-buying hand sanitizer and toilet paper, and I’d been reading about something called “social distancing” in the news the last few days, but I wasn’t really sure what it meant. I texted my husband.

Me: “Is it a good idea to take D to a restaurant tonight? Maybe we should just get takeout.”

Him: “We can’t change our whole lives.”

I took my daughter to Tsim Sha Tsu for hot pot and picked a table in the corner, away from the other guests. The dining room was tiny, but making the effort made me feel responsible. Was this social distancing? The other thing I’d been hearing a lot about was racist discrimination against Asians. A lot of it was coming from the mouth of our then-President, but it was also playing out in the streets. It seemed more important to keep eat inside a Chinese restaurant than to change my mind about eating inside a Chinese restaurant.

A year ago today I was in the shadows but not in the dark. I knew some, but not enough, and I didn’t know what to do with what I knew.

A year ago I was weeks away from covering my face and months away from buying proper masks for me and my daughter.

A year ago I was slammed at work.

A year ago I was in the best physical shape of my life.

A year ago I was spending my nights writing my life story because it wouldn’t stop screaming at me and I knew I needed to write it down or it would destroy me from the inside out.

A year ago I was in the middle of Lent. I think I gave up Instagram.

This year I gave up giving things up.

The pandemic took too much.

A year ago tomorrow I left work early to hunt down groceries and couldn’t find any. That’s when the pandemic became real; when I thought we might not eat. We ordered local takeout twice a week for a year and I traded meals and loaves of bread with my friends from Taiwan and Korea but that didn’t stop the restaurants from closing down or the violent hate crimes against Asians.

In two days we’ll mourn a full year of in-person education, lost. The pandemic came to Evanston and it came for our public schools, resources or not. When people assured me my daughter would be fine because of all that we have–an at-home parent, a steady internet connection and extra tablet, time to invest in helping her learn–I nodded and said, “You’re right.” When things started to break down at home and people suggested we just pull her out for a year, to even out the achievement gap, I rolled my eyes kept but my mouth shut. I wasn’t sticking her in front of a screen all day for the education. I wrote that off as lost a long time ago. Virtual school was the only interaction with other kids my daughter was having. The system was non-functional, but she’d be non-functional without it. When people came for the superintendent for saying he would take an equitable approach to reopening by prioritizing marginalized students, I defended the policy. It’s fair. It’s just. It’s the right thing to do. Privately, I was terrified there wouldn’t be enough space for my kid. When we got the email before winter break that she hadn’t made the cut to go back, I was terrified we wouldn’t make it through the rest of the year. I don’t know what I thought would happen, just that things had gotten so bad, I didn’t know how we would keep going. I emailed the principal. “I know it’s not just about us. I know other people need this more. But if there is space after all the other priority flags have been considered, will you also the mental health impacts of prolonged social isolation on children with no siblings, no extended family, no pod?” When the time came to go back to school on an impossible hybrid schedule (two hours and twenty minutes a day, four times a week), enough families pulled out and a spot opened up for my daughter.

A year in, I know more. I know better. But I still don’t think I’m doing anything right.

Quarantine Diaries Day 341: Late Stage

“How are you holding up?” That’s what I ask when I talk to somebody I haven’t heard from in a while. “How are doing?” That’s what I ask after we’ve traded pleasantries and Omigods and Can you believe it’s been a year? The emphasis, I hope, conveys that I really want to know or that maybe I already do know because I’m going through the same thing. When we sign off: “Hope you’re hanging in there.”

People ask me how I’m doing and I have to convince myself they actually want to know. I tell them about how my daughter’s been in virtual school for so long but I’m lucky to have a stay-at-home partner who can supervise e-learning. I tell them I’m lucky I can work from home, that I’m lucky to have had work to do, but that I’m looking for more. I might tell them I’ve been teaching myself to cook and hiking with my daughter and painting with watercolors. I might even tell them about this blog.

It only takes a few minutes of talking for a person to have a general idea of the structure of my days. It only takes a few posts to take in my emotional landscape. What you still don’t know is what late stage quarantine actually looks like. Or maybe you know because you’re going through the same thing.

Late stage quarantine means I’ve quit brushing my hair and putting on makeup for Zoom/Teams meetings. I’m still wearing clothes, but that’s about it. 

Late  stage quarantine means busting out the lap desk to my “work station” (futon and fleece blanket nest) even more comfortable. I’m still sitting upright, but only barely. 

Late stage quarantine means stripping down to my underwear to exercise instead of using ten minutes to change into workout clothes and adding to the laundry pile. I’m still moving my body, but I’m doing less every day. 

Late stage quarantine means I don’t shower until I can smell myself. I’m still washing my hands until the skin sloughs off, but everything else is greasy.  

Late stage quarantine means giving up on high brow TV and just binge watching House Hunters. Real Housewives is up next. I’m taking time to “relax” at night, but indulging my worst impulses at the same time.

Late stage quarantine means my kid messes with her parents by getting real close to our faces and telling us that it looks like we have pinkeye. I have a hilarious kid, but I might gouge out my own eyes.

Late stage quarantine means I’m watching my friends and family get vaccinated and venture out into the world. I’m so relieved and so happy for them, but I’m burning with envy. When am I going to get mine?

I used to be presentable. I used to be good. I used to always be going up.

Late stage quarantine means devolution in every sense of the word.

Quarantine Diaries Day 340: Metaphor? You bet.

February is always long and miserably cold in Chicago, but this year is in a category all its own. Here are some miscellaneous stats that aren’t that impressive on their own but seem more significant when you stack them like sheets of ice. February 14 was one of the coldest Valentine’s Days on record with a high of four degrees. February 16 was the ninth consecutive day of measurable snowfall in Evanston. It was the 17th consecutive day with eleven inches of snow on the ground. Here is a stat that stands on its own. On President’s Day, we got 18 inches of snow on top of the 12 inches of snow that were still on the ground.

I decided to go for a run. I know, I know. What kind of show-offy winter exuberance is this? Trust me, I was as surprised at myself as you are. I’m no stranger to running in unfavorable conditions, but I’ve been sticking to indoor workouts lately on account of the fact that it’s Dante’s icy fucking inferno outside. I don’t want frostbite. I don’t want to twist an ankle or a knee. I don’t want to deal. Yesterday wasn’t bad, though. I mean, the snow was up to my thighs, but it was almost twenty degrees outside which, for Chicago in February, is basically balmy. I got the idea when a Facebook friend posted about having legs like heavy iron after running through the snow. She also said that seeing everyone out shoveling off their cars and sidewalks made it feel like summer in the neighborhood. I’m a competitive kind of bitch, and easily influenced. If she can do it, I can do it, I thought.

LESSON: Brag about the cool shit you do; it might inspire someone else. 

By late afternoon, I figured most of the sidewalks would be cleared and, if they weren’t, I could take the roads, which would definitely have been plowed. I was right about the roads, but not the sidewalks. I would run the length of one or two houses before having to leap sideways over slush into the street to avoid smacking into a chest high wall of snow. This is not a complaint. Many of the people who hadn’t managed to dig out yet were actively shoveling when I ran by, and of course I have no idea about the circumstances of the rest of the residents. There are plenty of elderly and disabled people in my town and plenty more who work on the front lines. I pay $190/month in HOA dues and a crew shovels us out asap when we get so much as an inch. It’s money well spent, because I’m 100% sure I would be the neighbor whose sidewalks stay icy for days on end.  

LESSON: It’s a privilege to have time and money and gear to workout in the middle of the day, and to outsource my shoveling to someone else; it’s a service to shovel your walk and your neighbor’s if they can’t. 

A little less than a mile from my house there’s a paved trail that runs north/south alongside the North Shore Channel. It’s great for three to six mile loops and I use it several times a week during COVID because the trail is wide and when it’s cold I’m often the only one on it. I don’t know why I assumed the trail would be plowed, but I felt like an idiot when I looked north and south and found myself gazing upon a sea of white in both directions. I’ve lived in Midwest for almost fifteen years and Chicago for over a decade. How am I still learning things about winter? I started to turn back and then remembered that my Facebook friend probably didn’t end with “legs like iron” by sticking to sidewalks that had already been cleared. I decided to charge ahead. Running in the thigh high snow was a thrill. There was not another soul on the trail, so I pulled down my mask and grinned like an idiot at the cars driving by. I felt like fucking Bambi driving my knees up high and slicing through the snow on the way down. I felt like fucking Allyson Felix pumping my arms so hard to propel my body forward. My form has never been better. Three months into a brutal winter, I finally felt alive. 

LESSON: Go do something weird and hard just because you can; it’ll make you feel fucking great.

Less than a quarter a mile into running through powder, I started to break a sweat. This was good news, and half the reason I was outside in the first place. When I’m depressed, as I have been, a sweaty workout is the only thing that will get me into the shower. After half a mile, my lungs were burning. I was approaching a main intersection that would let me off the trail. I was reluctant. If I turned back now, the whole run would be three miles instead of the five or six I was aiming for, but I was panting like I’d been running sprints. My body was too tired to let my brain get away with calling myself lazy for scaling back on the mileage I had planned. I decided to head back home.

LESSON: It’s okay to adjust your plans when circumstances change; it is smart to take it easy when things get hard.    

Before I got off the trail, another runner materialized in the distance running in my direction. A kindred spirit! I had to restrain myself from gesturing grandly up the trail and proclaiming, “Behold! I cleared the way!” Instead I pulled up my mask and waved with both hands. The other runner, a lanky boy in his teens, pointedly ignored me. No matter. This happens often. When he’d passed, I scooted over and helped myself to the path he’d carved out. Huh. His stride was the right size but placing my feet into the holes he’d already made was throwing me off balance. When I turned left to cross the bridge over the channel, I had to slow to a walk to avoid tipping over the rails onto the ice. 

LESSON: Stay in your own lane; it’s easier to make your own path than to follow someone else’s.

After I made it over the bridge I turned left onto a quiet, residential road. My legs were like jelly, but they turned over easily. I quickly picked up the pace. As I wound my way through the neighborhood, I realized I could run in the middle of the street and not even deal with the messy sidewalks. I wondered if I should look for another challenge, maybe run through a park or around the track piled high with snow, or if I should take plowed roads the whole way home. Running hadn’t felt this easy in awhile. I was listening to music and endorphins were kicking in and I was feeling good

LESSON: You don’t always have to forge the way; let someone show you the easier, softer way. 

When I got close to home I checked my watch and was shocked to see that I’d barely clocked three miles in the time it usually takes me to run four. I could have kept going but I stopped the watch and called my mom instead. We walked and talked until I was shivering in the cold and went home happy. 

LESSON: Things that are worthwhile sometimes take awhile; three miles are better than none.* 

*Unless it’s a rest day or a sick day; on those days, no miles are better than any at all. Rest is part of training! Rest is critical to physical and mental health! Rest is your birthright! 

Quarantine Diaries Day 338: Regression

The best part of winter quarantine is that I don’t have to yell at my kid to stay away from other people outside because nobody goes outside. Nobody but me anyway. An astrologer once told me my Aries moon is the reason I can’t sit still. I don’t know about that, but staying inside does make me nuts. Yesterday I went for a walk and started kicking a ball of ice like a soccer ball. I was very into it, feinting and striking my way all the way around the block. I stopped at the communal mailbox before I went inside to see if anything came for the neighbors I’m house sitting for. I flipped through the few pieces of mail in the box because they asked me to watch out for an important letter from USCIS. I was bobbing my head, humming under my breath, jamming to Time After Time. The song was stuck in my head from the love songs playlist the kid put on six hours earlier for Valentine’s Day because she is a sap. I didn’t see the letter I was looking for but I must have seen something, maybe out of the corner of my eye, because I turned my head, and there was a man, just standing there. “Hi,” he said. I looked at him and screamed. The shock of seeing another person in this winter wasteland, of being ripped from my reverie, rippled through my whole body and I screamed with my whole body, too. Slight bend in the knees to brace myself, head back to project into the common area. As I was screaming, I recognized the man. He was a neighbor of course, someone I know well, a friend. He was standing about ten feet away, giving me a respectful distance and waiting patiently for me to finish checking the mail, and I was screaming loud enough to bring the rest of the neighborhood running to the windows. He started laughing and I made a joke about how long it’s been since I’ve seen another person, while I hastened to close the mailbox door and get out of his way. My instinct was to barrel back home after apologizing for being a total freak, but I forced myself to turn halfway and stay, ten feet away, while he checked his mail. I couldn’t figure out what to say, so I vomited more self-deprecating jokes, while I waited for him to help me out. “How are you? I’m not crazy, but how are you?” 

We survived the interaction, but man. If seeing people is weird, talking to them in person is even weirder. I had to consciously remind myself that small talk is not only appropriate but worth the effort. And it was effort. It took actual work to pull the right words from my brain, to figure out what from my life might be relevant to his. When we had exchanged what felt like enough sentences to pass as an actual conversation, I raced over to my neighbors’ house, dropped their mail in a bin on the floor, and proceeded to have an extended conversation with the old gray cat that I was there to feed. After that I went home, still a little embarrassed but mostly delighted to have an anecdote for my family and content for my blog. 

Quarantine Diaries Day 330: Feel Good, Inc.

“How do you want this next phase of the pandemic to feel?” That’s what my therapist asked me last week after I spent the first half of our session cataloguing the fears and anxieties that are currently dragging me down and eclipsing any hope that things will ever get better. People have been giving lip service to the importance of mental health since the early days of the pandemic, but I saw the writing on the wall the day the first stay at home order went into place. At the time, I was newly in therapy, working my way through a mental health crisis that had started the previous fall, but really that I had been living through, in a cyclical fashion, since I was 18 years old. In winter, the world goes dark and I can’t see my way out. It’s not just about the sun and the seasons. The first time it happened, I tried to end it all in Tucson, and I’ve been suicidal in June, too. It’s never been quite that bad again, but last winter it got close enough that I scared myself back into therapy after four years of trying to twelve step my way through all my problems. By March, I was working my way up and out of the latest deep hole. I felt more optimistic about my marriage, my parenting, my work–my life. I wasn’t thinking about dying. 

Then the pandemic hit, and death was imminent and everywhere. Even if COVID wasn’t coming for me, it was gunning for my grandma, and my parents, and my in-laws, and even if they survived, somebody else’s grandparents, somebody else’s parents, somebody else’s children would not. I read those early projections in horror: 200,000 to 2 million Americans could die before this thing was over. Faced with the threat of disease, something inside me shifted, and I started actively trying not to die, and to not kill anybody around me, either. I stayed home.

That’s not to say my mental health during the first part of the pandemic was great. It was absolutely not! Luckily, my weekly counseling sessions transitioned relatively seamlessly to phone and then video, and I was able to keep doing the hard work of carrying on in these difficult times. Therapy was a lifeline. Knowing I had space to talk about intense feelings enabled me to set them aside and live my life in the meantime. Therapy helped me respond to ordinary stressful situations, cope with the additional challenges of the pandemic, and even address issues that I didn’t even realize were still lurking in the background (read: leaving Mormonism). Therapy helped me hold it together.

The cracks started to show in the summer. What happened was I got sick. It came on suddenly. In the morning I was running around in the summer sunshine with my daughter. By lunch I had a splitting headache and wanted nothing more than to take a nap. By mid-afternoon, the room was spinning, my stomach was churning, my temperature was spiking, and I couldn’t stand up. As my physical symptoms mounted, so did my panic. I was too tired to move and feeling guilty about it. I was snapping at my family and feeling shame about that. We were supposed to go camping with friends in a few days and I didn’t know what the hell to do about that. I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t know how much of what I was feeling was real and how much was a physical manifestation of the deep anxiety that comes with getting sick in a pandemic. I didn’t know if my symptoms warranted a COVID test. I didn’t even know where to get a COVID test. I didn’t know if my non-COVID symptoms warranted a doctor. I didn’t even know if I could get an appointment with a doctor. Even if I wasn’t really sick, my anxiety was so off the charts bad that I knew I needed to talk to someone. You see, sometime after headache came on but before the gastrointestinal issues set in, my thoughts had turned toward self-harm. As the hours wore on and I got sicker and more confused about what to do, it started to look like the only way out. 

It is my professional and personal opinion that one of the best things to come out of the COVID pandemic is expanded access to healthcare through telehealth. Unfortunately, when I was in desperate need of a virtual appointment, I was too sick to figure out how to navigate the health plan website to request one, and it remains unclear whether I would have been able to get one as urgently as I needed it. Instead, I pulled on heavy sweats (because I was shaking from chills), an N95 mask, and rubber gloves and drove to urgent care, barely managing to not throw up on the way there. When I got to the front door, I was met with a sign telling me to go back to my car and call instead if I had any symptoms of COVID. I had to sit on the ground and catch my breath before mustering up the energy to walk back to the parking garage. 

From the safety of my car, I called the urgent care practice and spoke to a nurse practitioner. I told her I had a fever, chills, nausea, cramps, and vomiting. I told her I couldn’t breathe, but that might be because I was also having a panic attack. I told her I wasn’t okay, that I was anxious and depressed and didn’t know what to do. I told her I needed help, I needed to talk to someone, anyone now. I stopped short of describing exactly how bad things were in my mind because I was afraid. I didn’t want to go the ER in a pandemic. The NP told me none of my symptoms were typical of COVID so she couldn’t recommend a test. I could get one if I wanted but I wouldn’t get results for five days. She didn’t say a word about my mental health. I took the jab in the nose and it came back within 24 hours negative for COVID, but I stayed sick for weeks, cycling between anxiety and depression the whole time. I still don’t know if I had COVID. The fatigue I labored under all summer makes me think “Yeah, maybe.” It’s the aftereffects of the encounter at urgent care that I still can’t shake, though. I know our healthcare system is broken, and I know COVID has put it under unbelievable strain, but I am a white, married, cisgender, able-bodied, employed, and insured. I never dreamed I could walk into a doctor’s office begging for help and be sent away. 

I had to wait for my next therapy appointment to start to process that trauma. I identified the root of my panic as not having a place to go or a person to call when I am thrust into a medical crisis.  My former reliance on urgent care and the emergency room to address any serious pain or scary-seeming thing was not viable in a pandemic. With my therapist, I made a plan to finally get a primary care physician. I haven’t had one since I was living under my parents’ roof. When you have a history of abusing prescription pharmaceuticals, going to the doctor is fraught. It took awhile to find a doctor covered by insurance (fucking insurance websites!) and it took even longer to get an appointment (fucking COVID!). By the time I got in the door, I was desperate enough to fill out the intake questionnaire honestly. Little interest or pleasure in doing things? Yes, many days.  Feeling down, depressed, or hopeless? Yes, most days. Thoughts that you would be better off dead or hurting yourself in some way? Yes, some days. At my appointment, the doctor broached the subject gently. “Your depression screening was positive. “Really?!” I chirped. “You mean I don’t have depression?” “No, that’s not what I mean.” I deflected some more. “I mean, doesn’t everybody feel hopeless right now? It’s bleak out there.” The doctor couldn’t disagree. She raised the issue of medication. I had a lot of resistance, but I asked the doctor what she thought. She looked me straight in the eye. “I think you could probably feel better.”

It’s not like I hadn’t thought medication about it before. You don’t plumb the depths as long as I have without wondering if one of the pills everybody else you know is taking will pull you up and out once and for all. Like going to the doctor, taking medication when you’ve been addicted is complicated. I’m afraid if they give me the good drugs, I’ll abuse them. I’m afraid if I tell them about my concerns, they won’t give me the good drugs. The good drugs, of course, are the only ones that seem worth the trouble. I don’t want to alter with my brain chemistry if it’s not going to get me high. I don’t care if it will make me feel better. I want to feel good.

My doctor told me to call her if I wanted to revisit the conversation about medication. I agreed, but was renewed in my commitment to toughing it out on the basis that my brain is not always a scary place to be. I have more good days than not. I generally enjoy my life, except when I’m sick, and in non-pandemic times, I really enjoy my life. 

That was six months ago. I knew this winter would be hard, and it’s been so much harder than I thought. At this point, I am completely devoid of hope that the world will go back to any semblance of normal, that my daughter will go back to school, that I’ll go back to church, that I’ll see my family on the other side of the country, that we will get together with friends, that we will be free to walk around outside without me freaking out when my daughter strays too close to a neighbor, that we will be able to gather in groups, that we will stop wearing masks. The light on the horizon is gone, and operating in this context is getting to be too much. I’ll spare you the grisly details and family dramas and leave it at this: I’m worn down, and it feels like I’m going lower than I’ve ever been before. I was explaining all this to my therapist when she asked me, “How do you want this next phase of the pandemic to feel?” I mulled it over for awhile. My knee jerk response is that I want to feel good, goddamnit, but I know that’s asking too much. It would be weird to feel good right now. Really, all I want is to feel better than I do. I hearkened back to the doctor’s words last summer. “You could probably feel better.” I hearkened back to my own words back to her. “Doesn’t everyone feel hopeless right now?” 

Maybe I’m glutton for punishment, but I’m not going on meds. Not right now. I can’t do it, not during the pandemic, for the same reason I’m not buying a bigger house or moving to the country or adopting a puppy or putting my kid in private school. I don’t want to make life-altering decisions in reaction to circumstances that, God willing, won’t last forever, and I don’t want to introduce another variable into the hot mess that is life today. I don’t want to wake up in a post-COVID world and wonder why I moved to a red state. I don’t want to wake up happy and wonder if I could’ve gotten there on my own. I might wake up in a post-COVID world and decide I still want to feel better after all, but at that point I hope the decision will feel like mine.

Quarantine Diaries Day 335: What Is Real?

Winter is here. The real winter. The scary kind of winter they kept talking about in Game of Thrones before I quit watching in season three. The scary kind of winter I kept talking about on this blog last fall when I realized COVID wasn’t going anywhere. I’m talking about the bone freezing, finger biting, face slapping stuff. The forecast for last weekend looked like this: 3 degrees, 5 degrees, 4 degrees, and those were the highs, which tell you nothing about sub-zero lows or the the wind howling through alleys, battering trees, and knocking around the trash bins in front of the house, along with anybody unfortunate enough to step outside. There’s a full foot of a snow on the ground that’s not going anywhere and more on the way.

The other day I was achy and running a slight fever, a not infrequent occurrence these days–Lord knows why; nobody in my household goes anywhere or interacts with anyone–and the combination of cold and slight illness kept me inside for three days straight. It’s hard to skip the daily walks that have become more ritual than habit over the last eleven months. If I can walk, I’m not trapped. If I can walk, I see things change. If I can walk, I can get through this. But anyway, it’s too cold to walk. Instead, I stare out the window like a sickly child or a woman pining for something lost. There isn’t much to see. The ground is white, the trees are bare, the sky is low and dull. The birds are either none at all or a murmuration of starlings, looking like pestilence.

On Sunday, a dove landed on the sill outside our draft living room window and just stayed there, shooting my daughter a beady side eye when she drew close to examine its feathers through the glass, but unwilling to give up its proximity to warmth.

On Monday morning, I spotted a small dark mound on the wooded hill behind our house. It looked like a largish rock, but I didn’t think it was a rock. One, I’ve been watching that hill for close to a year now, and I was pretty sure there wasn’t a rock there before. Two, there was no snow on the mound and everything else had a fresh dusting. Three, I could have sworn some of the contours looked like limbs folded in on themselves. I didn’t think I was hallucinating, but I watched the mound for so long that when it didn’t move, I started to hope it was a rock, and not one of the feral cats that prowls around the neighborhood in warmer months.

On Monday afternoon, the mound was gone. Thank god, I thought. I’m no cat lover–I’m highly allergic and dislike anyone that thinks they’re better than me–but it didn’t seem right for a cat to be curled up on top of the snow like that. Also, dead animals are nightmare fuel for my second-grader.

On Tuesday morning, the mound was back. That’s it, I announced to the world. I’m going out there. I planned to go out with a bowl of milk and some food after breakfast to try to lure the cat onto our porch. I wasn’t exactly planning to bring the cat inside–I figured it could leech some heat from the side of the house, like the dove on the windowsill–but I wasn’t exactly planning on not bringing it inside, either. I could see myself nursing it back to health, if it didn’t fight me off first.

Look, I know it was a bad plan, but I’ve been wanting, no yearning, for animal companionship–a familiar, if you will–for so long that I was ready to take whatever scrap heap the universe dropped off behind my house. I was prepared for the critter to be rabid, or vicious, or dead. I was prepared for it to bite or scratch or run away.

I was not prepared for it to be a rabbit. When I went back to the window, after riding the wave of my earth mother daydream, the little mound had popped up onto its hind legs, an eastern cottontail, clear as anything. Was it too cold out for the rabbit? I don’t know. It seemed like it should be hibernating or at least in a burrow somewhere, but as far as I know, rabbits have been surviving Midwestern winters longer than I have. Was the rabbit hungry? Probably. It was eating twigs straight off a tree, which hardly seems satisfying, but it was going at it with gusto. There were a few things I knew for sure: a wild rabbit was not going to wait around for me to trek up a snowy hill and through the brambles; a wild rabbit was not going to let me scoop it into my arms; a wild rabbit was not going to lap milk out of a bowl; a wild rabbit did not need to be “rescued”; this wild rabbit was not going to be a means for me to live out any of my fantasies.

I shook my head and called out to my seven-year-old–the living, breathing, fragile creature in my care. “I’m going downstairs now! What do you want for breakfast, kiddo?”

Quarantine Diaries Day 334: When Home Is Not A Haven

Last week, I was telling my therapist how it feels before I fly off the handle at my family. “It’s like my threshold for any kind of stressful interaction has dropped so far that all it takes is for my spouse to disagree with my or my kid not to listen and that’s it.” I snap fingers. “I can’t cope, and it all goes down from there.” “Well that sounds like burnout,” she said, like it was obvious. I was surprised. I  thought I knew burnout. Burnout is a work thing. Burnout, for me, has been a sports thing. I didn’t realize it could be a family thing. This whole time, I thought if I wasn’t happy at home, if the family wasn’t getting along, the problem was me, the fault somehow mine. 

That day in therapy, I was so confident that burnout was not the issue that I bulldozed past the suggestion. It wasn’t until a few days later that–after fighting my kid through a too late, too long, and entirely too tedious bedtime routine and looking around at every toy-covered surface in our house–my therapists words came back to me, and this time they felt true. I got curious and typed the words into my search browser. “Family burnout during COVID.” Oh. It’s a whole thing that people have been writing about since last spring. Kids are feeling it too. I obsess over family dynamics because family dynamics are all there is.I get how I missed it. The symptoms mirror those of depression: exhaustion, lowered mood, poor sleep, addictive behaviors. One of the symptoms is depression. The other big sign is conflict with family members, and that’s the one that’s making me crazy. When we can’t leave the house because the world’s not safe, I need things to be okay at home, and when they’re not, I’m not. 

I survived work burnout lowering the absurdly high bar I set for myself as an employee. I thought the standards I held out for myself as a parent were more reasonable. Is it not reasonable to expect that I will be able to meet my child’s physical, mental, social, and emotional need and do it perfectly every time? Is it not reasonable to expect that I’ll never screw it up, never do any harm? I can see that the rope of perfectionism winds its way through every aspect of my life, putting me in a double bind. I can’t make a mistake with my kid. I am going to make mistakes with my kid. 

I survived work burnout my redefining what work meant to me; my job is no longer a place I go for identity or validation. I thought it was was reasonable, even admirable, to look for that kind of meaning at home. Is the work I do as a parent and a partner not the most important work I will do in this world? Is home not supposed to be a haven? I can see how that’s a lot of pressure to put on my family. I can see that my understanding of what a home is supposed to feel like needs to evolve now that we are living the entirety of our lives within walls of one small house.

I survived work burnout by expanding my mind. I stopped thinking about work outside of work. I immersed myself in my family life. I prioritized friends. I picked up some fun new hobbies. The problem with burning out on my entire life almost a year into COVID is there are no new inputs. I’ve taken all the walks, baked all the bread, watched all the Netflix, painted all the birds, done all the puzzles, played all the board games. Obviously, I’ve forced more family time than any of us can handle. 

This weekend, after I realized what I was dealing with, I slowed waaaaay down. I claimed whole chunks of time in the daylight hours for myself and tried to give myself new inputs. I rowed instead of going for a run. I read a book about weird Mormon history instead of the newspaper. I actually watched the Superbowl, even the football parts. Did it work? I don’t know. It was a pretty peaceful weekend. I didn’t lose my patience or my temper or my mind. I don’t have anything I need to talk about at therapy tomorrow. That feels like a win, or like I’m at least on to something. 

Quarantine Diaries Day 327: Pep Talk

A big law firm is recruiting me pretty heavily to join their ranks. I know. I’m as surprised as you are. Isn’t it obvious from my resume that I ran from Big Law as fast as my legs could carry me? I did that during the Great Recession, too. My antipathy toward Big Law runs deep. The lawyers I’m talking to are messing with my head, though. They are testing me. The people seem so nice, and the work so compelling, the hours expectations so reasonable, and the money so tempting. It’s the security I’m really after. Watching the world get rocked for the last year makes has a way of making me want to fold myself into a big company that will carry me and my family through the worst waves. My commitment to charting my own course, I fear, is not pandemic proof. I think I’ve made up my mind to stay put and then every interview throws me off. I can’t see if the behemoth I’m looking at is a storm or a freighter with a lifeline. The only thing that’s clear is that they want me.

“I hope you don’t take this the wrong way,” my husband puts out there, his foot halfway to his mouth, “but why do they want you so badly?” That, at least, is easy to answer.

  • Because there aren’t that many people who do what I do.
  • Because I have a unique set of skills and experience.
  • Because I have a stellar reputation.
  • Because I have a killer resume.
  • Because I have valuable industry contacts.
  • Because I interview really well.
  • Because I’m smart as shit.
  • Because I’m personable as hell.
  • Because I have a track record.
  • Because I’m a good firm citizen.
  • Because I’m a woman.
  • Because I would make them a ton of money.

It’s that last bullet point that’s driving the day, for them and for me. Big law is a numbers game, a leveraging, a squeeze. It’s exploitation, point of fact. Looking at that list, I can’t help but think, if I’m such hot shit, why don’t I make all that money for myself?

Quarantine Diary Day 323: Skin Deep

There was a time I would have described myself as low maintenance and thought that to be accurate self-assessment. There was a time when I thought low maintenance was something to aspire to. There was a time when I thought that low maintenance–in relationships, in friendships, at work–would keep me from getting dumped or fired. I was wrong on all counts. I am not low maintenance in any meaningful sense. I demand a lot from my relationships. I require attention and engagement and emotional intensity, or at least a degree of tolerance for my emotional intensity. There’s nothing remarkable or impressive about being a woman with no needs. Disappearing yourself will not keep people around.

I do, however, enjoy making as many things in my life as I can as easy–as low maintenance–as can be. I don’t dye my hair. I get cuts that can grow out for six to twelve months (or more!). I bite my nails down to the quick. I shop for clothes maybe once a year and when I do I spend too much money so I don’t have to do it again. Remember how at the beginning of COVID, introverts were like, “Social distancing, oh please. I’ve been prepping for this my whole life?” That’s how I felt when the salons closed and women started showing up in Zoom with their natural hair. I’ve been like this my whole life.

Periodically, relentless insecurity will collide with my penchant for wishful thinking and I’ll try to be somebody other than what I am. I’ll find myself at a J. Crew outlet trying to be my sister-in-law. I’ll find myself at an overpriced downtown salon asking for an undercut. I’ll find myself drooling over women with dewey skin on the internet and ordering $85 worth of product from Glossier. The skin care regimen was the thing, the brass ring, the hallmark adult womanhood I could never quite figure out. Surely, I thought, there must be a causal connection between the fact that I had yet to dedicate the time and money to figuring out what combination of products work best with my skin and the fact that I was still breaking out like a teenager. Surely, there must be a magic formula that would shrink my pores, calm the redness, and dry out the cysts on my temples, cheekbones, and chin. Surely the fault was mine and commerce was the answer.

Glossier was my gateway drug. I tried all the serums: Niacinamide + Zinc serum to “sort out texture issues,” Hyaluronic Acid + Vitamin b5 to “ease any tight, dry feeling,” and Vitamin C + Magnesium to look “fresh, recharged, and [of course] glowy.” Did they work? I don’t know. They definitely changed my skin, made it somehow…thinner…so I couldn’t pick my face anymore without making it bleed. I figured whatever it was doing, it had to be better than nothing, so I reordered the serums when I ran out, and kept doing it, though I eventually started buying inexpensive dupes from another company. In the meantime, other products kept showing up in my mailbox, after my husband bought me one of those subscription beauty boxes. He only meant to get me a year but forgot to cancel so the products just kept coming. I incorporated morning and evening toners into my routine, more vitamin C, expensive moisturizers and primers, masks, and yet more serums for morning and sleep, including one that I really liked that was fittingly called “Self Esteem.” I may be cheap and low maintenance but I’m not a total novice. I did my research. I didn’t use them all at once and I gave them time to work on my skin. I threw out the products that clearly reacted badly with my skin (okay, fine, I threw them into a drawer, not the trash because, like I said, I’m cheap). Eventually, I had a skincare regimen that…I don’t know…felt like it worked…I guess. Maybe? The products were expensive, and the steps were complicated and changed every other night, and my skin was smoother but still weirdly thin, but maybe I could chalk that up to aging, and I still broke out a lot, but that was probably hormonal and also I realized I need to wipe the screen of my phone down more often after stroking it with my fingers all day and then sticking it to the side of my face to use as an actual phone.

A couple of months ago, I cleared all the products out of sight and went back to the routine I used in my early twenties, when washing my face at night and wearing moisturizer with sunscreen felt like the height of responsible living: face soap + drugstore moisturizer. No toners. No serums. No primers. No vitamins. It was just a test, born out of taking a closer look at my finances. A couple of more expensive products were close to running out and I didn’t want to reorder them if they weren’t actually doing anything. Within a couple of weeks of putting down the products, my skin went back to the way it used to be, which is to say, not great, but normal, at least for me. I still have visible pores and blackheads and scars, but my skin isn’t so fucking fragile anymore. I can pop a zit without it looking like a crime scene. Breakouts happen and then they pass. I do use a clay mask once a week. I look in the mirror and I like what I see.

The serums were worse than snake oil. They actively made my skin worse.

What other pointless pastimes have I been pursuing because I thought I was supposed to? What other hopeless habits have I picked up because I thought they looked good? What other random and purely imitative rituals did I mistakenly think were for me?

Years and years ago, after college but before I got married, I made short and sweet list of resolutions at the beginning of a new year. There were only five items on the list. I don’t remember three of them. One of them was to be better at writing thank you notes. The last one was to learn how to make a “heart healthy muffin.” What the fuck? Back then, I gave a shit about the size of my thighs, but not my heart, and I’d never baked a thing other than chocolate chip cookies using the recipe on the back of a Nestle bag. I was probably 22 and saw the phrase in a SELF magazine at the gym and latched onto it as a symbol of the kind of women I wasn’t and, therefore, the kind of women I should aspire to be. That resolution stayed on my list for years until I realized I didn’t want to waste the little bandwidth I have for cooking on a recipe that’s defining characteristic is that it’s good for your heart. I buy all my muffins at coffee shops, anyway.

Pandemic life offers some easy answers to the question “What kind of person did I think I was that I no longer have to be?” I don’t miss shopping for shoes and purses; I don’t miss getting the odd pedicure once a year and feeling guilty about the state of my nails the rest of the time; I don’t miss accepting every invitation for lunch, coffee, and happy hour that comes my way; I don’t miss waiting in line for brunch; I don’t miss going somewhere every weekend; I don’t miss working out every day. I’m not low maintenance, but I sure do like having my life that way.