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Take Care of Yourself: On Chronic Illness and Anxiety

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‘Collective Dreaming’ in the Time of COVID-19

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Bloody, Radical, Postcolonial Revenge

I cannot remember anything lately. My blood sugar levels run up and down all day and my brainfog is thick with worry. Except for walks, I haven’t really left my house in weeks—I have diabetes, so I am taking all of the precautions. And I count myself lucky to be able to stay home and still work.  Friends and family members are losing their jobs, or fear losing their jobs, or fear getting the virus because they have to go to work. People I know are sick with what sounds like COVID-19, except they cannot get tested. And even despite all this precarity, people are still looking for ways to lend a hand. This response sprang up organically and has helped smooth the edges off my cynicism—an attitude sharpened by the actions of our government which is more concerned about corporations than it is about people and public health. 

Of course we are helping each other, we must; it’s our responsibility to care, help, nurture. But the cruelty of our government is overwhelming. In prioritizing the economy and potentially risking millions of lives, elected leaders show an inhumane and illogical response. It strikes us as nonsensical; we ask, how can they do this? Just like in many other countries that have already experienced the “peak,” US healthcare workers are already saying that there are not enough resources to treat those who will become seriously ill. There are not enough tests to go around either; the CDC declined to use the World Health Organization’s test and then botched its own test. This shameful lack of preparation conceals the true numbers of people who are sick—including those who are asymptomatic, carrying the virus and spreading it unknowingly. As the disease exponentially spreads, we are so far behind.

I absorb and process the news like this all day, every day. My mind tries hard to make sense of it and rationalize, organize and prepare. Some days I am super productive and hyper focused, other days I get so overwhelmed by everything that I absolutely must nap for at least an hour. Some days I think we’ll get through all of this somehow, other days I stare blankly and cannot believe this is real. And then my moods bounce around as my memory continues to struggle. I retrace my digital footsteps, the timestamps on my phone photos, notes, texts, and debit card purchases. On March 10, I took a photo on the 2600 block of St. Paul Street, on my way to work, of a blue balloon on the sidewalk. It’s not a good photo and I didn’t think it would be when I snapped it, but I liked the contrast of bumpy gray cement behind the matte latex cobalt balloon. A slight wind pushed the balloon around, picked it up. It is the kind of image I used to paint, when I had a studio and time to use it—something inconsequential that I saw while walking around, head down, that I’m rendering and imbuing with some secret significance, the memory of what was going on when I saw the thing.

During a work meeting that day, March 10, I remember sitting at what seemed to be a safe distance apart from my coworkers. I took numerous breaks to wash my hands. After the meeting, I went on with my day, and the next several days were a blur; I worked, edited, wrote, emailed. Went to the dentist. I went to the grocery store once or twice—the last time I went someplace with only a mild fear of germs.  

I knew several days prior to that that I needed to be careful where I put my hands. I knew at least a couple of days before leaving Baltimore the previous week, on March 4, that hand sanitizer was impossible to find at any stores here and I was lucky that I already had a couple of travel-size bottles before leaving town to visit my boyfriend in Evanston, Illinois. It was that weekend, around March 7, that we first knew to be scared. I had to go to an urgent care clinic in Skokie that day for something completely unrelated to the coronavirus, and when we walked in, the receptionist was wearing a yellow mask. As soon as we entered, she asked me and my boyfriend whether we had flu-like symptoms or if we had recently traveled out of the country and if so, could we please wear one of the masks next to the sign-in clipboard. Though we weren’t sick and hadn’t traveled, my boyfriend and I each grabbed a mask. A minute later, a man walked into the clinic; the receptionist asked him if he had flu-like symptoms or had recently been out of the country. He said that he had the flu, so he put on a mask. I heard a tremor in my boyfriend’s voice when he told me he was going to wait in the car. I only put my mask on at his urging even though I wasn’t sure it would protect me.

 

“I’m worried about your immune compromised ass take care of yourself,” a text I got from my friend Lydia the morning of March 12. 

I told her that I was definitely staying inside—“except today I have psychiatrist and therapy but I’m gonna walk and not take the bus.” 

The walk to the psych appointment took an hour. The weather was warm and lovely. I treated myself to a pretty good vegan banh mi at Atwater’s while I checked the news and responded to some emails. Things were rapidly changing by that date—the virus was coming at the US fast (it was already here) and we were not prepared. I started compiling this short essay and list of how local arts organizations were responding to coronavirus news for BmoreArt, a list that started feeling outdated as soon as it published the next day, March 13. I followed it up last Friday with a list of ways to help local artists and cultural workers and small businesses

“Undeniable, essential Virgo energy,” my friend Caitlin, a Capricorn, commented when she shared it on her Facebook page. “I’m panicking constantly but organizing information right now is saving me,” I responded. 

I won’t track you through all of my panicky, anxious thoughts, but organizing my memories of the thoughts into some semi-linear timeline gives me just a whisper of peace. On Monday, March 23, my anxiety shot up. There wasn’t any particular angle or facet or nugget of news that set me off, but when I am feeling immense anxiety, even when I think I’m doing a good job of sublimating it, over a certain period of time my blood sugar tends to drop. That day, I tried to lie down for a short nap but couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d try to listen to something. A podcast. A podcast that I enjoy but also have to moderate my consumption of because it is hosted by nihilists, who in this episode were talking about the coronavirus. My brain was buzzing with nervous thoughts and a brief, flawed belief in the inevitability of the whole population of Earth dying from this virus. 

I put down my phone and checked my blood sugar. It was extremely low. I needed to refocus and take control of my annoying but manageable condition. I drank some juice. I let myself listen to nothing for a while.

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