I gave myself permission to publish a blog post that I wrote during the fog of illness, and while still on a cocktail of medication (I promise LSD was not among these, although during a section of this post, that seems questionable). It is likely the navel-gazing drivel of an exhausted person, but if we can’t indulge ourselves during convalescence, when can we? I felt a pressing urge to do/create/contribute/produce during this strange time, and so, since most tasks were beyond reach, I did this instead. I may write an actual post about having a breakthrough COVID case soon. OK, disclaimer over. Read on, if you choose.
Several weeks ago, I sat in the parking lot at the veterinarian’s office, waiting for the office staff to bring my dog back out after her shots. I decided that rather than mindlessly scrolling through my phone as per the usual, I would listen to a podcast. Maybe even one that would improve my life! (From another podcast, The Happiness Lab, I had learned the helpful 3-W reminder “What For? Why Now? What Else?” to check myself when I reached for my phone) So I chose “What else?” over Facebook scrolling, and clicked on 10% Happier with Dan Harris because I super loved his book about meditation.
I was sick. I didn’t know it yet, because my doctor’s appointment wasn’t for an hour. I mean, I knew I was sick but was certain that they would tell me I had a sinus infection and send me home with an antibiotic. But I didn’t have a sinus infection—I had COVID.
I felt soothed and grounded as Dan interviewed his guest, and made a note to listen to his next episode when I found myself with some time on my hands. Well. As it turns out, the following two weeks would provide ample opportunities for podcast listening—while I tried to sleep amidst chills and sweats, nervously driving half an hour to an unfamiliar hospital to receive a monoclonal antibody infusion, alone in a hospital bed during the infusion itself, during subsequent steroid insomnia bouts, and when trying to still my restless mind, as reading was just too difficult.
On the 8th day after my COVID symptoms appeared, I got behind the wheel of my car for the first time since my doctor’s appointment. I drove to a local standalone ER to receive the infusion my doctor ordered to combat my worsening symptoms. I was too anxious to listen to music, and instead chose to listen to Dan Harris interview Suleika Jaouad.
She spoke about her new book, Between Two Kingdoms, which was based—along with her NYT column “Life, Interrupted”—on her leukemia diagnosis at age 23. Being ill with a virus, albeit a scary one, is nothing at all like a cancer diagnosis with a 33% chance of survival. There is no comparison. And yet, as I had settled into my physical misery and constant anxiety about my health and mortality, the notion of being stuck between two kingdoms, your regular life suspended, resonated with me. I ordered her book on Amazon as the IV dripped at my bedside.
The concept of having life put on hold for a crisis, disaster, or illness felt profound, and important. And to a significantly lesser degree than Jaouad, in the moment, I felt in touch with the strange location of restructured daily living, a compromised physical being, a life that needed to be paused. Recovering from COVID became a microcosm of this state of suspended animation, a mini-representation of the reality people live with when their lives are upended by tragedy or trauma.
A word about trauma. Another disclaimer, even, which clearly I am incapable of resisting as a deeply superstitious, neurotic nutjob. Being in the online writing world, I am privileged to know and connect with an entire community of folks I would have otherwise never met. And they have stories. My life has been deeply touched by countless women who have lost children, partners, parents; women who have battled cancer and watched their homes burn or be washed away by floods. I have witnessed these stranger/friends generously sharing stories of watching their children undergo cancer treatment, of grieving babies they have lost, of families devastated by suicide. Their stories stay with me. They guide me, they haunt me, and they ground me with the humility of perspective.
I have a small fixation on retracing my steps. And as I have reflected on the past few years—which have been notably more disruptive than other eras of my life—I find myself connecting the dots through a series of interruptions.
Sophie broke her arm. Badly, grotesquely, and then she hallucinated from the medication.
One month later, our house flooded, ushering in several months of utter chaos.
Our therapist died.
I got pneumonia, then bronchitis, then the flu.
One month later, we began reading about the coronavirus.
And then, the universal disruption of a pandemic.
Of course, the breadcrumbs of interruptions can be retraced farther and farther, if one chooses to mark time in such a way (which I sometimes morbidly do). But back to the spectrum of traumas. Having COVID was not a tragedy. When my house flooded, it was also not a tragedy. When my seven-year-old broke her arm, it was a trauma for the entire family, but it ultimately did not end in actual tragedy. The night she bled after her tonsillectomy was the darkest I have ever experienced, but once again, we were lucky. When my husband recovered from a serious concussion, it impacted our entire lives but we kept going. Losing pregnancies devastated me, and yet I have my two girls.
This sounds like the opposite of what I mean. Or maybe what I mean is actually two contradictory notions, a holding of polarities. It sounds like I am saying, “What we went through was nothing like what my other friends experienced.” As in, “Some people have real problems.” And I sort of do mean that, in the most genuine, humble, deferential, “I am not equating my personal struggles with your tragedy or loss,” but also in a frantic wood-knocking don’t strike me down, universe, I swear I know it could be so much worse kind of way. It makes me cringe, that feeling that someone’s trauma is contagious, or worse, when someone remarks that they understand the loss of your child because their cat died last week.
But I also mean something different—that our health scares and house floods and injuries were real traumas. That a person’s seemingly simple struggle of revising a career path, juggling multiple roles, navigating divorce, managing chronic pain, or even recovering from a routine surgery are actual problems. Problems that it’s ok to be swept away by. Even if they are smaller than someone else’s problems. I have always been an advocate for venting/complaining, even when aware things are worse for somebody else. Minimizing one’s challenges isn’t usually an effective choice—I call it shaming yourself into gratitude.
When I look back at the past few years, I do see a series of events that swept me away. Between periods of coasting were family injuries that became all-consuming; a home disaster that left us displaced and unsettled; illnesses that felt debilitating; witnessing the smallest and most vulnerable member of our family in a state too fragile to contemplate. In every one of these crises/disasters/traumas was a similar message, a cosmic whisper: “Anything can happen to you at any time.”
You are never out of the woods.
You are unfathomably, unspeakably fragile.
You are vulnerable. Nothing is certain.
These interruptions become a knotted rope guiding us along an unseen path; every so often our grasping hands encounter an obstacle that hauntingly reminds: “You are breakable; they are breakable; everything is breakable.”
And when you live in the middle of that interruption—whether it is a cancer diagnosis or deep, complicated grief, a house fire, an injury, or an illness—your consciousness shifts to that in-between state. Suspension. Pause. You stop making grocery lists and accept that missing picture day is not an actual emergency. You eat what you want, and your priorities and celebrations are unrecognizable in their unimpressive simplicity.
When I pondered the concept of “Life, Interrupted,” and thought of the many interruptions that derail our daily living habits, it made me wonder if really, it’s the opposite. That it’s the interruptions whose constancy structures our lives, and that we really just end up living around them. That the living isn’t the flow, punctuated by obstacles, but rather we flow through interruptions, while life expands around them.
There is a sort of gift when you notice yourself amidst an interruption, though. A relief, a lifting of duty, a resorting of priorities. When you sink into the reality that nothing really needs to be done, that very few things matter very much, sometimes your focus adjusts into absolute clarity. There is a singleness that shines through, a stripping away of the extraneous. Maybe the interruptions are when you truly see life.
Making it through COVID resulted in a potentially brief but currently ongoing phase of cheesy gratitude and joy. I finally quit knocking on wood when proclaiming that we “survived COVID” (oh god I’m going to knock on wood anyway because what if a plane falls out of the sky onto me now?) and found myself gleefully anticipating cups of coffee, meal preparation, and even putting on non-loungewear and leaving the house. Life felt all shiny and new. I found new podcasts, and joyfully absorbed them without the buzzing brain and draining fatigue.
I can’t put down Between Two Kingdoms. It’s gorgeous and captivating and profound. And I’ve changed my mind about the interruptions versus life. The interruptions really are interruptions—the exception and not the rule. When the fever retreats and the crisis ends, we settle with relief back into the beautiful mundane, not knowing how long we will be uninterrupted.
Absolutely phenomenal read!
Loved this, Stephanie — keep on keepin’ on.