It’s a beautiful, sunny morning, and spring is in the air. There should be a bounce to your step as you prepare to decamp from your home, meet your friends for coffee, head into the office, and begin another wonderful day. But then it comes to you: there is still a quarantine. You turn on the news, see the rise in the death toll, and you think about the people you know who are sick, the ones you’ve known who have died, and you feel a twinge of something. Is it survivor’s guilt, or a pressing need to help in some way, or fear that maybe you have the virus and are minutes away from your first symptom, or is it a hope that you may have been one of the asymptomatic carriers who now has that most sought-after thing that money can’t buy (the ANTIBODIES)? Or is it a mishmash of all of these feelings?
Well, as this describes some aspect of everyone’s collective experience, you clearly are not alone. A sexagenarian told me this morning that he had never been under such enormous stress in his ENTIRE life. Which is saying something given over six decades of world events as a point of comparison.
So if it is fear which is principally driving the feelings of anxiety, what are we afraid of? Parsing and unpacking the mishmash can be helpful. Fear of death is a potent distracter, to say the least. Most of us (though far from all) are able to compartmentalize this fear, and by following the CDC-recommended measures, we are also taking affirmative steps to minimize this outcome, and so far these measures seem to be working to “flatten the curve”. Actions which produce results make us feel better.
I think a more prevalent though not always identified fear is the concern that things will NEVER return to normal. Considering that a person who has the flu for three days wonders if she will ever again feel whole, the COVID pandemic, with no clear end in sight, amplifies these feelings logarithmically. And as if social isolation weren’t enough, when we do venture out, there is the feeling that people on the street see us as the enemies, as the very agents of their own doom. This has a funny way of making us feel dirty, like lepers to be avoided. Normally, as New Yorkers, we are very protective of our personal space. But now, when faced with compulsory isolation, we find ourselves longing for those annoying and probing questions from people standing in line at the market, at Starbucks, and on the subway.
We even long for traffic, and if that’s not a paradigm shift, I don’t know what is. I was driving with my son yesterday, and said I couldn’t wait until I have to drive around a few times to find a parking space, instead of being faced with spot upon empty spot. Be careful what you wish for, I told myself. Of course, we are not longing for traffic or a lack of parking spaces, but rather a return to normalcy.
But if the WHEN is a driver of anxiety, so is the fear of the WHAT. The worry that there will be a new norm, and this sort of newness is unsettling. Will the movie theaters ever open again? Will my favorite restaurant still be in business? Will stores be in business, now that online-everything has settled in even more firmly than BC (before COVID)? And then comes the guilt—who are we to be thinking of movies and shops and groceries and bakeries when people are DYING? And yet to recognize that many, many people are feeling this way (remember, I talk to people all day, and in the confines of the legally-protected safe space of a doctor’s visit, I hear a LOT) helps us identify as normal the things which are driving our fears and our anxieties (and our palpitations). And in so doing, enables us to face these realities head-on, and to begin to deal with them. Or more to the point, there is nothing WRONG with you for feeling these things, even while you are concerned about the macro-environment which is destroying so many precious lives.
We are living through historic times. Infamous, to be sure, but historic nonetheless. So chronicle how you are feeling. Take notes, photos and videos. For when the worst is over, there will be the post-worst. The post-traumatic stress reactions, the smoldering anxieties, the new reality. And having notes and photos will help the healing.
Will any of us ever again have fewer than 36 rolls of toilet paper in the pantry? Whose home will be without masks, gloves, and Purell? Will we ever shake hands again without fear of death? Never mind the nervous laughter. Many of us will be feeling this way. Those of us who expect it, recognize it, legitimate it—will be the best-prepared to deal with it.
Now look out the window, even open it, take a breath, look at the trees and the sky. There is ample beauty still in this world. Enough to get us through what is to come.
Dr. Mark L. Meyer received his M.D. from the Yale University School of Medicine and his J.D. from Yale Law School. He has a private cardiology practice in Manhattan.