Navigating the Pandemic: I Feel Good, Is That Bad?

When I was a child, I played a morbid psychological game with myself. To some degree I still play it. It’s a riff on the bargaining stage of grief while paying homage to a few foundational religious sentiments.

In this game, I imagine that I have control over whether I am happy and am able to have fun. The trade-off is that in order for me to be happy and stable, I have to agree that I will not have too much fun on the outside. It’s like karma’s chaperoning a party and goes over to shut things down when it gets too raucous.

A corollary to the master rule of the game is that I must always be properly armed with the knowledge of how awful things in my life can get and heed that reality before I can move forward into positivity.

Most people who know me can attest to the fact that I am reserved, thoughtful, even boring. There’s one colleague of mine who openly admits that he only starts yawning uncontrollably when he speaks to me, while somehow also assuring me it’s not about any quality I possess or project. So, yes, I get it. I’m not dynamic in person. It’s why I like to write.

What most people don’t know is that until I was about eight or nine years old, my demeanor was completely different. My kindergarten teacher found me very rambunctious. I remember calling a boy a “jackass” and being reprimanded. (I don’t think I’ve called someone a colorful name in the intervening 40 years since. I’m really good at following instructions.) I would always look over and make sure the other kids were doing their work correctly, instead of doing my own work.

I was such a bundle of mischief, relatively speaking, that to this day I can honestly say I received my worst grades in kindergarten. Translated, that means I was a regular, happy-go-lucky kid as far as I know.

What happened next is ultimately one for the psychologists, but I have my theories. The first is that school did such a good job socializing me that it sucked out my childlike qualities. As noted above, I’ve always excelled at following instructions. Once I internalized that I would be in school for at least 13 years, and possibly longer, the only sensible thing to do was to get with the program and focus on the qualities that matter in this environment: 1) pay attention; 2) don’t cause disruptions; 3) follow rules; and 4) learn the material.

That mindset translated into disproportionately good grades in school. I graduated as valedictorian from arguably the best high school in Tennessee, while being less academically brilliant than several of my classmates. It’s also made me a pretty reliable adult citizen. I’ve always kept a job. I have only had minor brush-ups with authority figures. I vote. I’ve always been valued and respected at my various jobs, except for one that I’ll save for another post. Blech.

However, was all of this at the expense of being a normal, happy, rambunctious child and a spontaneous, fully realized adult?

I don’t think that’s the whole story. My second theory relates to a fateful trip to an intown Nashville restaurant known as Cajun’s Wharf. The establishment was a sprawling concept restaurant that had nooks of seating, arcade games, and fun nautical tchotchkis. My family took an uncharacteristic detour from our usual Shoney’s dining experience that evening, and I recall our having a great time. My father ordered some type of white fish that was sautéed in a white wine sauce and let me have a bite. For a picky eater like me, this was pretty wild.

I remember us trekking back home to Gamaliel, Kentucky that night after dark. I don’t recall being inside the body of someone who would sing along to the radio with abandon around other people, particularly my parents, but I do seem to remember a little second-grade kid in the car doing exactly that. And I am an only child.

Then disaster struck. I felt queasy. I felt queasier. I told my parents I felt sick, and they pulled over by the side of the road. I remember standing beside the car awaiting the inevitable, but it didn’t happen. I was shuffled back into the car and my father made a beeline for the house. I went to bed, feeling gross and feverish. I threw up beside my bed a time or two and was generally miserable.

I can’t even remember the car trip all the way back down to Nashville the next morning. My pediatrician diagnosed me with strep throat, and I was sent back home to recuperate.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the disaster. The antibiotic regimen I was prescribed may have placed a definitive end to my rambunctious childhood.

The rest of my recovery was uneventful. I think I felt ok most of the time. But upon my follow-up visit to the doctor, he was concerned that I needed to replenish my gut bacteria to make up for the antibiotics. (I was always told my pediatrician was an outstanding doctor, and this does seem a little ahead of the curve for the early 80s.) In 1982, there was no Culturelle that I could pop, and even if there was, Dr. Micromanage probably would not have gone for it. He told my parents that I was required to eat two servings a day of probiotic dairy products. Although bacteria-enriched milk was available (Purity had sweet acidophilus milk in an orange carton), no one in our family connected the dots. My choices of poison, per my doctor, were buttermilk, cottage cheese, and yogurt. Buttermilk is inedible to me, and the texture of cottage cheese is beyond repulsive. So I went for yogurt. It was sweet, creamy, and it had mix-ins that would distract me from the bothersome, creepy tang.

Bad choice. Just maybe, if the innovative, dessert-y yogurt flavors of today had been available, with chocolate, caramel, cheesecake, and coffee, I would have been fine. Just maybe, if my mother had thought outside of the box (which she never did when it came to food), she would have just bought me plain or vanilla yogurt and added Hershey’s syrup to it.

As it happened, I forced down two small cups of yogurt every day for two weeks, complete with the slimy, cloyingly sweet fruit flavors that were the only options at the time. I’ve never been a fan of most fruits, and the yogurt ordeal cemented my aversion to them. To this day, I can’t even bear the residual smell two hours later when someone has had yogurt in a room.

I threw up at least twice more during my yogurt-boarding experience, out of sheer disgust at what I was ingesting. I almost never threw up as a child. The combination of that strep throat and the yogurt therapy aftermath was a significant chunk (ha) of my experience with it as a child.

The fallout from this second-grade experience was immense. All yogurt-based dishes are off the table for me. (And if they’re not, I’ll swipe them off the table in a soap opera-worthy flourish.) I struggle with fruit. I can’t enjoy most fruit and dairy combinations, not even something innocent like strawberry ice cream. I’m distrustful of doctors, who I believe relish the idea of submitting a patient to torturous therapy when something entirely palatable is available. I have a lifelong, paralyzing fear of vomiting, which led to me not eating properly for at least three years after this incident and still presents regularly as an adult.

Oh, and my entire personality changed. School played its part, but the strep throat episode and yogurt fiasco challenged my youthful notion that life was great and was there to be lived.

Instead, life began to be something that was managed. Managed with a great deal of care and forethought. My lesson, after a night of seafood and wine and merrymaking, was that having too much fun led to a devastating reckoning. I’d had my fun, then I paid the price.

That’s why you will never see me in a bar dancing on the tables. OK, let’s be real–you’d have trouble finding me in a bar drinking alcohol. Most times,you’d have trouble finding me in a bar at all. Too much fun disorients me.

Further, any action, no matter how minimally transgressive, whether committed by a stranger or friend, drives up my anxiety. I’ve learned to act like I’m going with the flow, but somewhere in my head a voice is muttering, “They should not be doing that.” If the voice possessed a head and a finger, it would be shaking both with vigor. Even being associated with someone who isn’t thinking about the consequences of their actions tempts my fate.

This internal struggle with how to exist in the world has become a little more external with the advent of the novel coronavirus. It’s like the rest of the world is now living in my anxiety bubble–everyone is now asking themselves the same questions I have always struggled to answer. Do I have fun and can I be optimistic about how this plays out? Or do I worry and sit by myself in isolation and hope that being a party pooper will lead to a more positive outcome?

The issues we face are more complex than that, and our individual actions are certainly on a continuum and less binary than presented above. Businesses are starting to open. I have a trip to Chicago booked for June. Life goes on. But we still have a chorus of people and PSAs cajoling us as a society to “just stay home.” I’ve been part of a social media chorus that has been collectively looking down its nose at people who are not isolating and taking the threats seriously enough. Despite a lifetime of experience with having these thoughts about others’ recklessness, after over two months of frowning disapproval, I wonder, is it enough already? Do I need to lighten up?

No doubt I am suffering from some of the isolation exhaustion that has been diagnosed in the media. I fully prepared myself for two or three months of staying home and doing without certain pre-pandemic luxuries, but that timetable is expiring. Cases appear to be plateauing or decreasing, and despite all the manipulation of the stats that has been documented, overall I can’t find a clear difference in the case trend before full shutdown and after full shutdown in my state. Is it really true that a “critical mass” of citizens is voluntarily distancing and avoiding large gatherings and wearing masks, enough so that the spread of the disease has been effectively managed, even with boneheaded government guidelines? Possibly, but how can we know?

(I placed “critical mass” in quotes to avoid any academic discussions about whether I used the term correctly in any specialized academic context. I ain’t got time to research that right now.)

The only truth I have access to is that no one knows any of this for sure. We are dead-center in the midst of this crisis, staring at the bark on the trees and not aware of how the forest looks at all.

But for me, individually, I have created a personal roadmap. I may have freehanded the whole map and the landmarks could all be in the wrong places, so I’m not saying it’s right.

For me, personally, I am optimistic. Experts are paid to tell us the worst-case scenario so that we’re prepared for it. If there’s even a 10% chance that we could lose a hundred thousand more lives this fall in the U.S., then we need to create a plan whereby that chance is eliminated. That doesn’t make the experts wrong if the scenario doesn’t happen–it makes them cautious, and if the actions they recommend are followed, then it makes them right by default.

But the worst-case scenario is exactly that. So a better outcome is possible, even likely.

What the jackasses (sorry, it’s been 40 years–I had to let it out again) in the White House and Republican-controlled states are doing is a classic Tea Party copout. Instead of leading with foresight and wisdom, they’ve grabbed popcorn and a seat in the theater and spout unhelpful things at the screen about how implausible the plot is while not participating in directing the movie. Then they have the nerve to say that they’re acting in the best interest of their constituents by mimicking their behavior.

People in positions to govern should do that. Our president and his knockoffs act just like disgruntled Joe in his recliner with a beer. Joe in his recliner plays a role in our society as a citizen, even as a disaffected and sour citizen without the best knowledge at his disposal. But he shouldn’t be governing. Governance means looking at the big picture, looking beyond the end of your nose and thinking beyond what’s in it for you. If we endanger the lives of thousands of Americans by not taking certain systemic precautions, then that’s a governance issue.

If we as citizens want to be a part of the solution, we can take the same approach. Every precaution you take is a step toward reducing the spread of an unpredictable disease. The individual decisions you make may vary, but if you at least ask yourself what the larger impact of your actions will be before deciding, then you are thinking critically and are on the right path.

Which brings me to my last bone to pick regarding the pandemic and how people are responding to it. Individual freedom has come up numerous times as a talking point on all sides of the issue. To everyone who experiences variations on the anxiety based on a perceived lack of freedom, whether your freedom of congregation, what to wear in public, or expressing yourself on social media, I have one piece of advice: suck it up. As someone who has battled anxiety about how to exist in front of other people for my entire life, I know you can do it. Specifically:

• Enough with this weird preoccupation with masks. If you have a problem with masks from a hygiene standpoint, you should also be opposed to underwear. It’s the same damn concept. If you really wanted to take a principled stand on being told what to wear, you could start with challenging public indecency statutes that legislate clothing itself. That seems way more restrictive than a hygienically-based face-covering guideline in the midst of a freakin’ pandemic.
• I’ve been told my entire life: the church isn’t the building, it’s the people. Most churchgoers know this saying, have recited it, and nodded vigorously when their pastor repeated it. (All the while, many of them put on special clothes and acted like entirely different people for the pleasure of the building.) In my humble opinion, people who feel the need to meet in person for church during a pandemic are not spiritual in the least–they’re just as bad as the spring breakers in Miami who don’t want to be told they can’t have their social gathering of choice. We have the technology to congregate virtually–why is this an issue?
• Cut it out with the socially irresponsible jokes and speculative articles and documentaries on social media. Just because you CAN say something doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Don’t assume that you’re just talking to your inner circle of friends who “get” your humor or what you “really” meant by sharing the “Plandemic” trailer. Especially when your profile is public and/or you have 1,000 friends. It’s incredibly disingenuous to post on the wide-open internet and then claim that someone is barging in on your thread when you post something that could cost people’s lives or create unnecessary panic. Be responsible and accept responsibility.

I was walking home from the train station on a recent afternoon when this parallel between my current quandary about how positive my attitude should be during COVID and the lifelong tension about how much fun I should allow myself to have presented itself. I found myself stuck in a familiar place–feeling bad about feeling good.

And I do feel good. I am hopeful that, try as he might, our fearless and wise president wasn’t quite awful enough to rattle us into a state of mobilization around all the terrible things in the world. It took something even more heartless, mindless, and less human to accomplish that. (It even has smaller hands.) I think the virus has shown us its fangs, and we have collectively (led of course by our scientists and frontline workers) extracted the venom from those fangs and are working to evaluate it and turn it into treatment and healing.

Similarly, the rest of us, witnessing the fangs of our broken government and social processes, the fractured world order and the tenuous supply chains, are going to work smarter as individuals and as participants in the economy and stewards of our employers to create better processes and make better decisions.

A terrible, overused platitude could destroy this entire post, but I’ll risk it: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I think we’re going to be stronger.

And I’m not going to wait 40 more years to call someone a jackass when that admission makes me stronger and frees me up to take action.

I might even buy a yogurt the next time I go to the store. (Don’t hold your breath on that one–especially if you’re wearing a mask.)


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