Coronavirus Anxiety: Traveling Through a Black Hole

It turns out that even when you’re staying at home, you can explore space. Sort of.

If you deal with depression and/or anxiety, you know that it’s kind of like a black hole. It has its own gravity. Sometimes you maintain a balance with it, circling without getting too close. And sometimes, its gravity pulls harder.

I’ve always been a worrier, but I’d established a balance with my singularity. Then my daughter was born, and suddenly I was afraid all the time. There were all the usual new-parent fears for that first summer. In the fall, there was a larger-than-usual spread of Eastern Equine Encephalitis from infected mosquitos by the shoreline. I bought mosquito netting for the baby’s carrier and never left the house without bug spray. Once that died down, it was flu season. I relaxed in January, once the baby’s vaccine had fully kicked in.

And then, COVID-19.

China exploded with cases, and travelers brought it all over the world to rip through the global population. The United States government decided that it wouldn’t hit us, so the entire health system was unprepared. They’re dangerously low on equipment and making life-and-death decisions. And even knowing that the virus has a long incubation period and asymptomatic shedding, the U.S. didn’t invest in the kind or scale of testing that would help us understand who’s sick, who’s got antibodies, and who should be kept away from whom to help stop the spread.

Suddenly, we all had to stay home. For us, that meant not seeing family even though they’re just around the corner. It meant losing our day care and having a baby home with us all day while we try to work. It meant hitting the “check out” button a hundred times in hopes of snagging a grocery delivery window. It meant watching nervously as our supply of Lysol wipes—which just a handful of weeks ago felt like plenty—started to dwindle, irreplaceable because everywhere is sold out now.

My own personal event horizon was coming at me like a cat on the stalk: you close your eyes to take a breath, and when you look again, it’s closer, and staring at you with manic eyes.

On the Other Side

But the thing about anxiety like this—at least for me—is that it’s not sustainable. I can’t live on the edge of a panic attack for several weeks. I adapt. Normalcy reasserts itself, even if it’s a different “normal” than before.

No one knows what would happen or where (or when, or how) you’d come out if you survived the trip through the center of a real black hole. But it feels like I’ve passed through the singularity of my fear and I’m on the other side of it. I can still hear its echoes behind me and all around me, and sometimes it still feels overwhelming, but it’s not gripping my throat or stealing my sleep or making me cry all the time anymore.

I still worry, mostly for my parents. They’re in the age group where things get more dangerous, and my dad’s in an essential service, so he can only work from home for so long before he needs to go back to the office. And I worry for my grandma, who’s 93.

But in her, I’ve also found an unexpected anchor. When asked if she was afraid, her reply was “If I get it, I get it. If I die, I die.” Truly, a honey-badger attitude. And while the emotional granddaughter in me wants to react with horror, she’s not wrong.

If we get it, we get it. If we die, we die. It’s actually kind of liberating.

I’m still going to do all the preventive measures—not going out except for walks in the fresh air, avoiding others, washing my hands a lot, ordering everything I can for delivery and wiping down surfaces and anything that comes into the house, etc.. I will control everything I can, because that’s my nature. My struggle is to remind myself that there are things I can’t control, and to learn to be OK with that. Or, at least, to find a balance with it.

WHERE THE FIRST PRIMAL CELL WAS, THERE WAS I ALSO. WHERE MAN IS, THERE AM I. WHEN THE LAST LIFE CRAWLS UNDER FREEZING STARS, THERE I WILL BE. -DEATH

It’s times like these when my inner medievalist taps me on the shoulder. I think about how so much of the fear we have now is because we’re just not used to death anymore. Death is something that happens to other people. In hospitals. On battlefields. Death is always right behind us, but we’ve stopped acknowledging it. We don’t sit with our dying anymore. We don’t hold vigils with our dead. We mourn quietly and privately, and society rewards and praises us when we push through our grief as fast as possible and get back to normal life.

There’s very little acknowledgement that any “normal” you return to after a loss is a different normal. We don’t talk about the holes it leaves in us because that’s private, as if death and loss aren’t something that everyone has to deal with at some point.

I think about my last day with my grandfather. He was in the hospital, dying of respiratory complications that he’d been fighting for years. I held his strong hand in mine, and he held back, as long as he could. I sang to him and thanked him for everything, told him how much I loved him and how grateful I was for him. I listened to his breaths, further and further apart, until he breathed out and didn’t breathe in again. I don’t remember if there were any machines beeping. What I remember is his breath, and the strength suddenly leaving his hand, and the veins in his neck stilling, the blood stopping.

I have sat with death. It was awful. Wrenching. More painful than I know how to express. But I’m glad I was there. I’m glad that I could hold his hand as he stepped over the threshold. Grateful I was there to see him off. To nod at Death as he passed. To pray that he carries this soul lightly.

That’s my prayer for everyone dying now. Carry these souls lightly.

We humans are so full of ourselves. So convinced that we’re the reason everything was created. So certain that destroying the earth’s last remote places and exploiting every resource we can get our hands on makes us brave explorers and heroes. We were so secure in our normal that we didn’t even think about what might happen if we faced a foe we didn’t expect. Could barely fight. Couldn’t even see.

If you’ve read this far and you still want to read, I recommend The Ghost Map. It’s about the London cholera epidemic of the mid-1800s, but a LOT of it rings true today. It’s a neat look into the beginnings of epidemiology—the very science hard at work today to create a vaccine and discover treatments for this new viral threat.

Humanity has made it through wars, epidemics, natural disasters. We’ll fight on for as long as we can. But one day, when we’re all gone, the earth will go on and probably not notice the difference. I plucked up a maple seedling in my backyard over the weekend and thought to myself: in fifteen years, this block would be a forest. In a hundred, no one would know at a glance that we’d even been here. All our everyday stuff, our toasters, our computers, our journals, our beds, our cars, our clocks, our phones, our worries and fears, all gone.

And then I think about actual space, and not just my personal black hole. We’re one tiny planet in a vast universe. Unlikely, unique (as far as we know). On the cosmic scale, we’re already nothing. And yet, how special it is that we’re here at all.

I hope that, on the other side of this, we’re open about mourning our losses. And once that’s done, I hope we think hard about how to preserve and appreciate what we have left.

What do you think?

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