Love In A Pandemic
March 20, 2020
Love is a virus.
We spread it with the slightest caress or infectious smile. Too, with words, we strengthen others, shoring up immune systems, helping survivors survive what they must. Yet, just as easily, language decimates what was once healthy, including our bonds.
A troubling pattern of symptoms presented itself several years ago. Nearly the moment I reached middle age, my Southern-Lady epigenomes switched on, my mouth frothing, pouring out words I’d once found nauseating.
Over time, the symptoms grew acute. Words squirted out before I could seal my lips, others oozing, despite my attempt to clamp my hand over my mouth. Then, came bodily symptoms. I would come to, finding myself touching a nearby shoulder, a tender conveyance for another soul that caught me off guard. As if seizing uncontrollably, I would envelop others, wrapping my arms about them, drawing them close.
I felt embarrassed at these human displays, as if my aging had weakened me, rendering me emotionally feeble, transforming my impermeability, my exterior defenses melting away, leaving me open, pourous.
See, I’d come of age in South Central Appalachia, growing up a white female in a world that celebrated impervious (white) masculinity. The images around me had always been of males: firebrand preachers, steely mountaineers, and ironlike athletes.
Sometime in my youth, I’d made a deal with myself: embody loud, raucous, profanity-spewing femaleness who proudly exclaimed to her friends, “I don’t cry” (a lie!) Outwardly and inwardly, I rejected what I saw as delicate, frail femininity, for me, the type depicted in myths, movies, and pews come Sunday morning.
As I matured, the virus my system had been suppressing became active, and I could feel my softening. In turn, I found myself infecting others with gentle endearments, murmuring, “Oh honey” as I collected them in my arms, snuggling body to body, a mingling of essences. And I loathed myself for all of it. After a time, though, I learned to live with what the virus was doing to me. Then, I came to relish it.
Today, I’m taking an oath. It’s my personal Hippocratic Oath: to spread the virus, infecting others with....
Love in a pandemic.
Kelly A. Dorgan is a professor, writer, and researcher specializing in illness, gender, culture, and communication. Connect with her on Twitter https://twitter.com/KADorgan and her website https://www.kellydorgan.com/.
March 22, 2020
Love is a continuously mutating strain, and yet, strangely, it remains the same at its core.
Great crises of humanity are encoded into us, written into our DNA. At the genetic level, we have a deep knowing what has come before us, what our ancestors faced.
Ostracism, scapegoating, and murder: these happened throughout The Black Death of the 14th Century, the San Francisco Plague of the 20th Century, and the Ebola Epidemic of the 21st Century. As tensions spread so do paranoia, terror, and dehumanization, transmitting a contagion of cruelty across peoples and borders.
Yet, love is also communicable during our darkest times.
Love has many strains, and not all of them benign.
Our innate need to love and be loved has a dangerous side. Unknowingly, some of us transmit microscopic infections to the most vulnerable. Mary Mallon prepared delicious delights, exposing families to typhoid fever. A beloved healer in Sierra Leone died in the EBOV outbreak, her body infecting hundreds of mourners who honored her at her burial ceremony. There have been others too, devoted healthcare practitioners whose care killed rather than healed.
Love can’t always cure ailments or rid the body of invading infections. Maybe love puts us at greater risk in some ways.
We hold people, wiping away their tears. We clasp their hands when we have no words of comfort. We give them sips of water when their lips crack and bleed. We wash their emaciated bodies as their fluids spill out, a reverse baptism.
Undaunted, we spread love.
One of the great honors of my life has been sitting with women who are living with cancer and listening to their stories. Even when I pressed them for their own survival tales, many of them wanted to talk, instead, about caring for others, sharing stories with me of their children’s deteriorating health and spouses’ death and dying. Even in a state of weakened immunity, those beautiful souls provided care.
Humbled by their stories, I've learned so much from the women with whom I share space, especially how love and illness fuse, embedding themselves into our DNA.
Love in a pandemic is always present, even if microscopic, perhaps mutating and becoming more potent in the waning of mortality.
Our protections deteriorate, leaving us exposed. Our shoulders slump, our legs fail. And we collapse under the weight of our own need. Finally, we submit to what’s always been there, coursing through us, asymptomatic until our defenses lapse. Microscopic love finds a way in, passing through the barriers we can no longer erect in our weakened state.
That’s how we spread love in a pandemic.
Make Love Go Viral
March 25, 2020
Love in a pandemic requires super-spreaders.
As the most recent pandemic peaks and abates throughout the world, I recognize that I’m not alone, even in a time of solitude.
Here’s how I know I’m not alone: I hear it in the language we share:
Once, I’d only heard these words spoken by illness specialists, doctors, nurses, epidemiologists, health-communication researchers, for example.
But now, our language is mutating.
We’re all super-spreaders. We’re all carriers.
I recognized that the first time I stepped into a communication class. Sixteen-years-old, I was one of those privileged high schoolers who got to take courses for credit at our local university.
Now, let me be clear. I was a mediocre student—funny, when you consider that I’m a professor. But there was something about communication that I instinctively understood, even before I stood behind the podium to give my speech to a room full of college students.
With each word and gesture, we infect others...with ideas, opinions, and emotions, and in doing so, we mutate language. And when we mutate language, we mutate the world.
Love in a pandemic becomes communicable in so many ways. Here’s what I’m hearing from and seeing in you:
1) Exhaling LOVE.
You wake, the morning light lilac, and your mind reaches for the previous day’s treacheries. Yet, when you open your lips, you know your very breath carries contagions, so you whisper on your exhalation, “I love you,” even though those words have been released by you billions of times before.
Our viral load of compassion must increase during great crises, infecting ourselves and others with kindness and grace, not suspicion and rage.
We make love communicable on our very breath.
2) Shedding LOVE.
Some contagions transmit through something called viral shedding, carried to another in our velvety caresses or our intimate secretions.
You reach out to another who’s in pain, and even if your touch doesn’t land on naked skin, your gentle gesture may be enough to release a blissful biochemical cocktail that eases pain. You blow kisses at your dear ones, pawing at the space between you, sending air-hugs, your affections silent but still potent.
Love doesn’t require a lot in a pandemic. It’s opportunistic, waiting for the smallest opening in our defenses.
3) Super-spreading LOVE.
Think you’re unimportant? In a pandemic, you are more important than ever.
Hate for and fear of Others spread rapidly during crises. So can love. Just look at the musicians in Liberia who produced a song about how to stay safe during the EBOV outbreak. Or the photographers who captured parents cradling their dying children during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Or the writers who journalabout the heartbreaking sweep of illness across the human landscape.
We’re all capable of being super-spreaders of hate. With our words, we can target and decimate populations, launching our own biochemical campaign—akin to tossing plague-infected bodies in a community’s water sources.
Or, we can all take our own Hippocratic Oaths. With each word and gesture, we seek to do no harm. More so, we seek to become super-spreaders.
Make love go viral in a pandemic.
Suffering Isn't Equal. No 1 of 2
March 28, 2020
Love in a pandemic requires our mindful recognition.
Suffering in a pandemic is pretty much guaranteed, but not everyone suffers equally.
I live in a land of emerald forests, crystal waterfalls, jade lakes, and blue mountains, some that swell, rounding pleasantly, some that aggressively stab into the sky.
Southern Appalachia is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. No wonder I moved back after living in Georgia’s piedmont region for six years. My childhood home lured me with its enthralling siren song, silent to many, but threading into me and pulling me into the mountains again.
But like anyone in a loving, long-term relationship, I recognize the bleak alongside the beauty: this land is also marked by disparities—economic, educational, and health.
We have disproportionate levels of cancer and diabetes, to name a few. Plus, there’s our problem of co-morbidities, simultaneous illnesses in a single person. On top of it, that person may live under the same roof with generations of kin, all of whom are experiencing multiple illness conditions. Then, consider the geographic and economic structures limiting regular access to quality healthcare.
People don’t suffer equally in our day-to-day living. Neither will we in a pandemic.
Some families, communities, and populations are fixing to get hit harder.
Years back, I chatted with a woman at the edge of a misty, morning field. We were among the thousands of people who would gather on that stretch of green, ringed by mountains, for the RAM clinic (Remote Area Medical).
She and I stood only a few feet apart, but we stood different worlds—at least socio-economically. I was at RAM as a cancer communication researcher. She was there as a patient. I was hoping to get respondents for my survey. She was hoping the long lines didn’t stop her from getting the care she needed. Otherwise, she’d have to wait. Maybe till next year. Me? I might have to leave RAM with a low sample size. Poor, poor me.
I’ve shared this story before, so many times that it’s imbedded inside me, like honeysuckle vine burrowing into a crabapple trunk.
At the edge of that field, she told me about the lumps in her breasts, painful, disfiguring. But, like so many others at RAM, she couldn’t afford the drive to the nearest screening facility, let alone any treatment that would follow. So, she’d learned to live with the discomfort of having breasts mutated by tumors (benign or malignant, she couldn’t say).
I find myself thinking of her often.
And that was before the pandemic.
What stories would that woman tell me now?
I’ve carried her with me everywhere. Into my classrooms when I teach health communication. Into my interviews with cancer survivors. More so, I carry her into my medical appointments.
When my OBGYN looks me in the eyes and chats with me for a half-hour before having me hop up on the exam table, I see HER. When I text my primary care physician about some annoying symptom that has cropped up and get a reply, I see HER.
And I see her now too. While I’m outside on my sunny deck, sitting on my new patio furniture, hunched over my laptop, writing a blog.
Love in a pandemic means recognizing that suffering is not equal.
And then, we dedicate some part of our lives to addressing that.
Love Is Aware of Others' Suffering. No 2 of 2
April 1, 2020
Love in a pandemic demands our porous minds, bodies, and souls, allowing us to be infected with awareness.
A couple mornings ago, I read an article about how African Americans might be more vulnerable in this pandemic.
This is how the BLMGN explained it in a recent email, “the coronavirus is especially threatening for Black Americans. Structural and systemic racism have long-upheld disparities within our healthcare systems — resulting in higher rates of chronic diseases and lower access to healthcare among Black people.”
You’ll understand why, then, organizations like BLM and the CDC pay particular attention to higher-risk populations, including Black Americans who have historically faced pronounced health disparities.
As a White woman who came of age in the South, I’ve encountered plenty of people who resist talking about the impact of racism on health. But as Father Tony DeMello wrote,
“Love springs from awareness.” — DeMello
Perhaps the truest form of love in a pandemic is our awareness of how some communities stand to suffer more.
Years ago, I worked on a CDC-funded study in Georgia. I was a research assistant, there to learn, and boy oh boy, did I. We were exploring, in part, how we think of genetic information and technologies. I joined a team of researchers—of varying genders, races—who went into communities and gathered surveys.
At one point, two of us hung out in a salon, spent the whole day there watching gorgeous women get elaborate braids and weaves. I was the only White person there, not that being an obvious outsider bothered me. After all, I’d lived briefly in Prince George County, MD, and Northern India, so I value those times that I get reminded what it’s like to be a visible minority.
A warm energy rippled throughout the salon. Music played. People laughed, throaty and unguarded. And, my favorite, women ate—and without that self-conscious nonsense I see with a lot of White females.
Most women welcomed me, some graciously completing the survey, getting a small compensation for their time.
One woman ended up being my teacher, though.
“Would you like to fill out a survey about genetics?” I asked. “We’re not looking for experts. We just want to learn what people think, feel. You’ll get $25.00 for completing it.”
Her reply came swiftly.
“Why? You’re just going to try killing us again.”
“Uhm, well, no we aren’t. But I understand.”
And I did...somewhat.
When I’ve told that story before to audiences of White people, I often get met with surprise, shock, even indignation. I think certain folks question wonder why I wasn’t angry back in that salon. And I wasn’t, and here’s why.
There’s a long legacy of racism within the medical community itself. No, I'm not piling on the awesome healthcare providers on the frontlines of this pandemic. But, yes, I’m pointing to Tuskegee, that infamous syphilis study. I’m also talking about much more. Then, let’s not forget Henrietta Lacks, a young African American woman who had her cervical cancer cells gathered without her consent, having a revolutionary impact on medicine...without benefit to the Lacks family until decades after Henrietta’s death.
There are numerous historical cases and current events, underscoring the persistent lack of trust that some Black people still have toward medical institutions and personnel.
So back to that article I mentioned earlier. I got to thinking about the layers of mistrust between Black communities and medical communities, and I felt like I was back in that salon, standing in front of one of my great teachers, holding a thick, paper survey and (re)learning an important lesson.
And to paraphrase Tony DeMello....
Love in a pandemic: it springs from being aware that not all people will suffer equally.
Let’s recognize that, at least. Then, maybe donate to one of the worthy organizations fighting in the thick of it.
April 5, 2020
Love in a pandemic can be exhausting, and that’s okay.
Like many educators, I’ve stumbled into a new world, a virtual one.
And this Pandemic Professor is struggling.
After nearly 30 years of teaching on college campuses, I thought online classes would save me time. I wouldn’t have to drive to the university before dawn to get a parking space and meet for early-morning office hours. I wouldn’t have to trudge in heels from building to building, dodging runoff on rainy days and picking my way across buckling sidewalks. Plus, there’s the bonus of not having to show up 10 minutes before class to boot up sleepy computers and sluggish projectors.
So, yes, I thought I’d save time by teaching online.
I’m still laughing at my naivety!!
Huddled in my loft, I lean toward my laptop, the video camera highlighting the lines in my face and my dull eyes. I’m a writer, so I’m used to pouring myself into my monitor, not seeing it reflect me back to me, revealing my spikey worry and oozing exhaustion.
Since I teach communication students, I know they’ll see through my thin, professorial guise. They’re trained presenters, interviewers, and observers. They study people for a living, examining messages, spoken, or not. But they’re also compassionate, forgiving exposed vulnerabilities, mine included.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve lost that spark, that ZIP, Mom calls it. I’m preoccupied all the time.
I’ve moved my classes online, undergraduate and graduate. I won’t list the boring details, but the move required weeks of plodding and plotting, morning to night. Then, there’s the emotional work of teaching during a crisis. Educators are supposed to remain steady and strong. At least those are the messages I keep getting:
Help students cope.
Survey their access to resources.
Help them access those resources—financial, academic, technological, psychological.
You get it!
In your own way, you’re also receiving these messages.
Educators are facing the pandemic too, worrying about the lives of our loved ones—plus, our own lives. The layers of worrying pile up like fallen leaves, becoming a heavy blanket over time. How the hell am I supposed to help students cope when I’m trying to figure that out for myself?
Then, I remind myself:
Love in a pandemic means being okay with not being okay ... and drawing on those exposed vulnerabilities to form deeper connections.
April 10, 2020
Love in a pandemic means making healthy connections, including virtual ones.
Holding communication classes over Zoom has been a mess, but it’s kind of been a glorious mess. Several times a week, I have good conversations with good people, and I watch their eyes light up, curiosity replacing worry and exhaustion, if only for a moment.
Over the last few class periods, we’ve talked about maintaining healthy boundaries in a time of blurred boundaries. Even before the pandemic, students and professors alike were accosted by messages.
Communication overload. That’s what we call it in my discipline.
We’ve been inundated by emails, texts, and posts. Now, in pandemia, we’re also supposed to be available via discussion forums, online groups, and, of course, videoconferencing.
“I’ve never been more isolated or more connected,” one of my students admitted recently, summing up the pandemonium of pandemic communication.
We’re alone amidst so much togetherness. What a fitting moment to rethink and reestablish healthy boundaries.
I’m a pandemic professor, a member of the pandemia.
I’m a Zoomer, not a Boomer.
What that means for me is that I peer even more into my students’ lives. From the comfort of my home, I watch them, noting their weary eyes and hearing their slightly quivering voices. I marvel at them as they fight to hold onto their dreams of bettering their lives and the lives of their families and communities.
By connecting to them virtually, I’m also accessing parts of my students’ lives that I’ve never accessed before. In live classes, they share stories, opinions, and experiences—but in contained, measured ways. These days, I see into their bedrooms and the dens of their childhood homes. Their parents wander through the background, dogs climb on their laps, and young siblings push through closed doors and press small faces into video cameras.
These virtual connections have taught me a ton....
I’ve learned the names of their pets, siblings, and romantic partners. I’ve learned the colors of their bedding and seen the clutter of their workspaces. Too, I’ve learned a bit more about their political standings, having caught sight of posters on their walls.
All these glimpses into their lived spaces are lovely, but I sense the fading of boundaries between professor and student, and that unsettles me.
When I end our Zoom meetings, I fumble for words that will inspire them to return next week for an online class they didn’t sign up for. In my ears, every utterance is flat, clearly insufficient for a time such as this.
My screen goes black. Even after our virtual connections have been severed, I find it hard to disconnect from them. I worry about them, their unemployment, their dwindling bank accounts, and their complicated lives that have gotten more complicated.
Prior to the pandemic, most educators I knew were already stretched, exhausted. In the pandemic, we’re supposed to figure out how to maintain healthy boundaries in what feels like a world that’s lost its boundaries.
Love in a pandemic means sitting in front of dark monitors, our confusion and exhaustion reflected back to us, and in the quiet, we catch glimpse of this: maybe it’s okay to be unsettled in unsettling times.
April 13, 2020
Love in a pandemic means seeing people where they are, not where you are.
Southern Appalachia’s where I teach. Here, my students lead complicated lives. That includes the “privileged” ones.
Stay a spell and let me tell you a bit about these students.
Many are first-generation. Some are furiously prying themselves from poverty’s grip. Others peel themselves away from significant family and job obligations in pursuit of education. In the olden days (about a month back), they’d drift across campus from residence halls, faces buried in smart phones, seemingly oblivious to the beauty around them.
Most drove, though, heading to campus over mountainous routes, rutted backroads, or blue highways. Unless you’ve been to Appalachia, you may have missed it: we’re a land of cities, towns, and rural communities, but our roads lead to shared spaces, and we bring our stories, passions, dreams, and experiences with us.
In the shared space of our classrooms, we participate in sacred acts, a narrative communion that bonds and transforms.
That’s some of what’s magnificent about the students I’ve known.
Let me tell you about some others. Like Joel and Sandra (not their real names), young folks who care for ailing kin. They write papers and take tests, their grades never spectacular—but their lives are.
It’s been a great honor teaching the so-called floundering students, the ones toiling to earn their college degrees while, literally, keeping parents, siblings, and grandparents alive.
Welcome to the Pandemia, where students have it rougher.
Most have lost their jobs. A few loiter in parking lots of libraries and fast food restaurants, searching for a Wi-Fi signal strong enough for them to join online class discussions. Others have moved home, reconfiguring their lives, giving up their hard-fought independence to live with parents once more.
Instead of feeling sorry for themselves, they declare:
“I’m one of the privileged ones.”
“I am blessed.”
My current students have homes to shelter in. Even those unemployed—and I teach students who must work—have family to help them with rent, tuition, and unexpected costs. At least, that’s what they tell me. They’re probably not telling me everything, as if they’re worried about causing me more worry.
Too late! I’m thinking about my current students, and the ones who’ve come before this batch, like....
Brenda whose father sexually abused her through much of her childhood.
Maggie whose mother died of cancer some years back.
Joel whose younger sibling has multiple serious health conditions, requiring special at-home care, feeding tubes, respirators.
Sandra whose mother has been in and out of the hospital for years, requiring Sandra to become the family-health advocate while pursuing her education.
Don who’s faced years of racism and has been working to uproot his family from poverty.
Where do these students shelter in place? What does shelter even mean to them?
This pandemic has inconvenienced me as an educator, forcing me to stay at home and connect with my students remotely, expanding my workload with all the grading, messaging, lecturing, uploading, and downloading.
So what? And I ask myself that with loads of self-compassion, but also with awareness.
A Pandemic Professor, I’m inconvenienced in a lovely home with electricity and technology. My yard is lush, blossoming in festive springtime hues, festooned with apple and pear blooms, sprinkled with violets and buttercups. I’ve worn paths through the wild thicket and the ragged field out back. As I stroll around my yard, I look in awe at the rolling, blue mountain that’s a backdrop for my life. And if anything goes wrong, I have a five-minute drive to the hospital.
Meanwhile, some students huddle in cars, holding onto their cell phones as tightly as they’re holding onto their aspirations. Some navigate racism in their daily lives in addition to navigating the educational system. Some have been disowned by families because of homophobia and transphobia, and they’ve been following the path of education out of a painful past.
Now, students must navigate all that ... plus this pandemic.
Of course, there are students are facing this pandemic from a place of privilege, like me. They snuggle in their beds as they write their papers. They tuck themselves away in private rooms, barricading themselves from a noisy household. They are annoyed at having to watch online lectures and video-recording their presentation assignments, and I recognize that remote work adds many more steps to our already complicated tasks, but, like them, I see the privilege too.
Love in a pandemic means witnessing how the pursuit of education is complicated in the Pandemia.
April 17, 2020
Self-Distancing is a loving act, and, perhaps, we will learn to love it back ... maybe even a bit too much.
Humans are beautiful messes. We sabotage good times. We flourish in bad times. As a communication professor and researcher, I’ve studied people living through all sorts of conditions, collecting their stories and listening to their tales of loss and self-resurrection.
Then, the pandemic hit. Like many of your workplaces, my university closed, and my work went online. The result? I’ve pretty much stayed at home for a month now, isolated from people.
And, I’m discovering that I am safer at home, in many ways.
The other day, I left the house to run errands, picking up meds, dropping off recycling. At one point, I ended up chatting (in-person) with someone I’ve known for years, a restaurant owner. It was a good chat. I learned about the ways he’s adapting, streamlining his business. Unfortunately, that means that he’s laid off most of his employees, but he’s committed to bringing them back—eventually.
Standing six feet apart from him, I listened, soaking up his stories of survival and “thrival.”
A sucker for the resilience of the human spirit, I find that people’s difficulties make them more luminescent to my eye.
Perhaps, I shouldn’t have stood there listening to him. Perhaps, I should’ve been maintaining my social distance. Because by the time I got home, I was wiped. Bone weary, in fact. And that got me thinking:
Panagoraphobia. Agoraphobia in a pandemic.
No, that condition isn’t in the current DSM. But my guess is that in a few more months, there will be numerous panagoraphobics.
Okay, it’s important to admit here that I’m not a mental health practitioner. I’m not a clinician. Plainly speaking, I am unqualified to diagnose disorders.
What I am is a social scientist, an observer of people, including myself. So, when I’m struggling to leave the house and operate in the larger world, I’m sure others are too. Or they will be.
Outside seems too big now. Cars fly by, roaring dragons riding the backs of long, black serpents. In parking lots, people flock, milling like migrating birds, their squawking loud, their bodies flapping and fluffing up, displays that mesmerize and overwhelm me.
By the time I return home, I’m tapped, drawn even more to wild spaces, needing to be away from the flurry of humanity. Since the pandemic, my home’s become the kangaroo pouch I long to snuggle in.
A month into safer-at-home, and I’m wondering when I’ll be forced to leave Here for Out There.
Writing this, I review the criteria of agoraphobia. E.g., the anxiety that comes from being in crowds, or from leaving home. And I’m curious.
Is what’s happening to me is happening to others?
I’m an experienced presenter. I’ve spoken to audiences of hundreds. I’ve moderated seminars with fifty-plus attendees. I grew up on stage, acting and singing. I am not shy, but the older I get, the more I feel the world’s tentacles latching onto me, sinking into me. And I’ve come to yearn for my own company more and more.
During this pandemic, we have experts advising us to prepare for a “new normal,” the time after our confinement is lifted. I suspect my new normal will be characterized by panagoraphobia: heart thudding, throat tightening at the mere thought of life without social distancing. And, I'm figuring out how to manage my new condition.
Love in a pandemic means accepting the isolation that’s been thrust upon us, then becoming fond of it, perhaps already grieving its eventual loss.
April 24, 2020
Love in the pandemic means staying curious about strangers, strange spaces, and strange times.
I’m about eight or so, tucked in my childhood bedroom, a tiny girl surrounded by pink walls blossoming with fat blooms in shades of azalea and rose. Cross-legged, I sit with my back against the foot of my bed, hunched over a notebook, pencil in my hand.
When I close my eyes, I still see my drawing, one of an alien, a visitor from beyond. Below that picture is my story, only a few lines about an outsider coming to Earth and finding a friend among humans.
That story is long gone. I doubt I even finished it. Nonetheless....
writing has stayed with me, one of my truest friends, especially when I feel like a stranger in a strange time.
I’m a sucker for storytellers who expose ordinary living in extraordinary times. Years ago, I read Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. Defoe wrote about the common in the calamity, detailing the spaces of his community inflicted by illness.
“One day,” Defoe writes, “curiosity led me to observe things more than usually, and indeed I walked a great way where I had no business. I went up Holborn, and there the street was full of people, but they walked in the middle of the great street, neither on one side or other....they would not mingle with anybody that came out of houses, or meet with smells and scent from houses that might be infected.”
Though written in the late 1660s, Defoe’s work inspired my blog, his witnessing of social distancing in another century unleashed in me a yearning to witness the social distancing in our time.
That’s what I love most about writers and writing. No matter the time or place, we seek to make the strange recognizable and the stranger understood, maybe even welcomed.
There have been other sources of inspiration for this blog, too.
Back in March, UVA Professor Herbert “Tico” Braun asked his students to “keep a record of their daily lives during this unprecedented time.”
His call helped convince me to write my own blog, to keep my own record, my own journal. As soon as I started, however, I saw that people don’t have to be writers to be recorders of history.
Everyday folks are witnessing everyday events in these strange times.
Oncology nurse who writes about masking up to see her patients. Financial advisor who writes to ease people’s concerns about market volatility. Father who writes about his afternoon walk with his young children. Educator who writes about emailing her students to check in and reassure. Server who writes about the realities, good and bad, of being unemployed.
And, it’s the:
Secretary who writes about the savory dinner she cooked. Gardener who writes about the plot he’s prepared. Councilwoman who writes about learning how to dress waist-up for a videoconference. Mother who writes about the drive-by parade she arranged for her daughter’s birthday. Artist who writes about grooming her bunny to cheer herself up. Teacher aide who writes about her insomnia—OK, there are lots of writings about insomnia, stress, depression.
What these daily jottings illustrate is that, while we struggle, we also report the ordinary joys that are smackdab in the middle of a pandemic.
At the beginning of safer-at-home, I was tempted to put my writing projects on the backburner. After all, I had to learn how to operate Zoom, schedule meetings, send my students invitations to those meetings... so much was new in this strange virtual world. Surely, my writing had to be ignored for a spell.
Then, it occurred to me:
If I were an alien visiting a strange land, wouldn’t I journal about my observations? Wouldn’t I record what I saw, experienced? After my first weekend immersed in Zoomland, I reminded myself that writers write.
Too, we witness, listen, testify, and share!
And, above all, writers report on the everyday acts of love in a pandemic.
Screw the "Don't Be So Sensitive" Advice
April 29, 2020
Spreading love in the pandemic involves spreading love within.
As I read my friends’ posts and tweets, seeing their faces drawn by anxiety and eyes painted with worry, I’ve been thinking about how these remarkable times may be impacting High Sensitive Persons (HSP), and that’s why I’m writing a two-part blog on this topic.
Okay, let’s start with some terms and definitions. Don’t go! I’ll be quick. Besides, you could be highly sensitive. Or, maybe, you’re sheltering in place with one or two HSPs, and you’re all driving one another mad with your diverging needs.
When I’m talking about HSPs, I’m talking about sensitivity to stimuli. A.k.a. Sensory-Processing Sensitivity.That’s what Elaine Aron and others call it (more on her work later).
For some HSPs, the sensitivity could be about sounds or smells. For others, it could revolve around people. You know, like being tuned into everyone, noticing every little subtlety. Think facial expressions, body language, vocal variations, and so on.
Before we continue, I’ll admit something here. There’s debate about whether HSP and Empath are interchangeable terms, but I’m not going to get into that. If you’re interested in this topic, keep reading. I’ll point you to some resources.
I first stumbled across the concept of high sensitivity in Susan Cain’s Quiet. Later came Christiane Northrup’s Dodging Energy Vampires, and Judith Orloff’s Empath’s Survival Guide. And here’s what I started learning:
High sensitives can read the energy of the room, for example, sensing—even absorbing— others’ emotions. That makes HSPs capable of connecting to their environment and/or the people in it, including strangers.
Have you ever been told, “You don’t know a stranger”? I have, and I’ve taught a bazillion students who have been told that too. When I meet someone new, I am rarely at a loss for words—More accurately, I’m rarely at a loss for questions. I want to know them, their stories, their fears, and their survivals (This does not mean that I can't be shy or reserved, by the way).
As a communication professor, I’m used to training students how to connect with other people. But with me, I’ve had to train myself to not connect, because...
Connection feels natural, almost compulsory, like breathing. But it also drains me, like I'm gulping pollen-filled air, leaving me logy.
All this got me thinking about how sensitive souls are muddling through the pandemic.
Let’s tackle social isolation.
For an empath, being isolated has its advantages. We can steer clear of “bad” energy. We can avoid those who suck us dry, intentionally or unintentionally—what Northrup calls energy vampires. When the buzzing world slows to a hum, the constant bombardment of stimuli lessens.
During the pandemic:Traffic noises have decreased. Social events have been cancelled. Crowds have dispersed. In essence, mandated socializing has been replaced by social distancing.
Isolation, though, doesn’t necessarily mean disconnection, and that may present unique challenges for HSPs.
As Orloff says, empaths “are prone to absorbing the suffering of the world.” And, oh, is the world suffering.
Does shelter-in-place mean suffer-in-place for some?
To answer that, let’s consider the work of Elaine Aron, for me, the Mother of HSP research. Aron’s blogging about challenges high sensitives may face while sheltering in place.
For example, HSPs may face more difficulties when it comes to tuning out the stress of our partners, and the restlessness of our children may seep into us more. Then, let’s not forget about the near-constant suffering; it can be especially hard for highly sensitive folks to disconnect from the suffering in their families, communities, and the larger world.
If you’re like me, you wake in the middle of the night, worrying about the unemployed server who waited on you a handful of times, the dauntless healthcare provider without sufficient protective gear, the single parent who must both work and homeschool their kids, the communities with poor access to hospitals, the teachers taxing themselves while trying to help students [insert the continued litany of worries].
The other day, for example, I finally got some time to relax. I’d caught up on grading stacks of papers. I’d finished my Zoom classes and meetings. Then, during my “down time,” my brain started buzzing, churning out reminders about all the people I hadn’t checked on. Like my hairdresser. Immediately, I picked up my phone to ask how she’s doing and see if I could pay for my appointments in advance, concerned that she and her family don’t have enough money to eat, pay bills...live.
When there’s suffering everywhere, it’s hard to shut off the connection to others, maybe even more so to HSPs. Even when alone, we absorb (real or imagined) the emotions of others, as Orloff contends. No wonder I’m seeing so many posts about insomnia, anxiety, and depression.
So, with love, I offer you this quote, one that I’ve adopted as a kind of mantra:
"Hey, you’re doing great by just doing as well as you can at this time. Don’t judge." –Elaine Aron
Now that's sound advice.
The Reality of Virtual Connections
May 9, 2020
Spreading love in the pandemic may feel natural for some...and oh so depleting.
When we talk face-to-face, there are all those subtle cues we draw on consciously and subconsciously to shape our messages. These cues help us adjust to our communication partner(s). Think of that flinch that makes you pause, maybe soften your tone a bit. Well...
Remote work still requires communication work.
Just because we’re behind a screen, or a mask, doesn’t mean we stop that communication work. We go on digesting expressions and microexpressions, those verbal and nonverbal messages (visible and invisible). But what’s lacking in our virtual connections are some of the seasonings, the spices sprinkled throughout our face-to-face interactions. Like the rich laughter that once invigorated us, now tinny and distorted by laptop speakers. Or the faint scents of others that once soothed us, now absent, perhaps when we need them the most.
As the Psychology Today article points out: “we are all sensual beings. When we encounter each other, we take in information from many senses.”
In essence, then, we may be so damn exhausted because we’re working hard at communicating without getting those sensual benefits.
Are you a highly sensitive person? If so, virtual communication may deplete you in additional ways.
Consider mirror neurons, for example. As author and psychiatrist, Judith Orloff explains, these “cells enable everyone to mirror emotions, to share another person’s pain, fear, or joy. Because empaths are thought to have hyperresponsive mirror neurons, we deeply resonate with other people’s feelings.”
Now, I’m not a neuroscientist, so make sure you get reputable sources about this emerging area of science. Also, keep in mind that there are a bunch of smarties calling for us to rethink the function of mirror neurons.
This is one explanation I’ve heard about what mirror neurons do: they help us See-Do.
When I’m in a classroom or in a grocery-checkout line, I see the person in front of me wince (Are they in pain?). I noticed how they press a hand to the small of their back (Do they have back pain?). When I see, then, I decide in that moment what to do, how to respond, how to offer comfort.
When we’re in Zoom classrooms or Webex meetings, we’re seeing-doing for others. But, perhaps, what’s exhausting us is that we’re seeing-doing for ourselves too. We become our own communication partner, visually speaking. We notice our hair, face, and eyes. We notice how our lips purse, our eyelids blink rapidly.
Face it! We’re not used to seeing ourselves when carrying on a conversation. It’s like our brains aren’t designed for the Seeing-Doing when it involves simultaneously watching ourselves and others.
No wonder our virtual interactions deplete us.
I won’t cover here the great advice listed in the Psychology Today article, but check it out! All I want to say is this:
There is nothing wrong with you if you get rattled on those video-conference calls or video chats.
If adjusting expectations about your looks or trying the post-it note trick (see that article) don’t work, then try something. Tell everyone that your internet connection is lagging, that you have to turn off the video. Plenty of my students have used that strategy this semester, especially when struggling with their mental health, and I didn’t think less of them.
In fact, I applaud everyone who takes measures in this virtual world to meet responsibilities.... including to ourselves.
Last week, I finally took a cue from my students. Attending several large town-hall meetings, I muted the video and audio, allowing me to listen without distraction. And, I got far less taxed by the long meetings because I didn’t have to worry about how I looked, what my facial expressions suggested to me or others, where I sat, or what was in my background. I could simply BE.
In the end, I remembered that....
Love in a pandemic means self-love too.
GIFT Yourself! No 1 of 2
May 18, 2020
Love in a pandemic means knowing when you deserve some of your own time.
Especially these days, your fortunes may be frayed at the edges by your challenges. Okay, so you’re bringing home a paycheck, but that’s because you’re an essential worker, overwhelmed, exhausted, and at risk, and you find yourself envying those staying at home. Or maybe you’re staying at home, but that also means you’re homeschooling and squeezing in videoconferences for work between teaching lessons you’re ill-equipped to teach.
My bet is that your life has become more complicated in some ways. But you do have something: certainty. You can be certain that you aren’t in control of how this pandemic unfolds.
With that in mind, it’s time for you to give yourself a gift—that’s a G.I.F.T.
Give It Five Today. GIFT. You can do that.
Clinical psychologist and mindfulness practitioner Dr. Rick Hanson explains, “people feel pushed around by external forces of various kinds...It becomes more and more important to feel that...there are things you can do with your reactions.”
That’s where Give It Five Today comes in. Five minutes for you and only you. It doesn’t matter when or where. It doesn’t require getting on yet another Zoom meeting. It doesn’t require pricey yoga mats or expensive gear.
Five minutes. That’s it! Given by you to you.
My forties were transformative, but transformation means chaos.
I ended a toxic marriage, survived through the suicide of my ex, fought for my son as he decided to not continue our mother-child relationship, and lost my father to one last massive stroke. But I found so much too! New relationships, including one with my current spouse and step-kids. New dedications, including to the next stage of my professional career.
Too, I found the importance of the GIFT.
And all that was before the pandemic.
Giving yourself the gift of five minutes is one of the most loving acts you can do for yourself.
How do I know? I’ve done it for the last two years. Every single day. Without fail.
During the most chaotic times of my life, I discovered the works of Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh. Their books helped me save my own life! I started facing my good-girl-fix-others approach to life, an approach that kept me hooked in dysfunctional circumstances. But it would take years more before I faced my drive for perfection.
When I started meditating around 2008, I sat in a lotus position and practiced the “right ways” of stillness. Of course, I doomed myself. I got inside my head. Instead of championing myself, I hauled expectations, comparing my mindfulness practices to a bullshit image of what meditation should look like. And that image definitely didn’t look like me. I wasn’t skinny enough. My posture was wrong, my clothes too.
See, I told you....bullshit!
It wasn’t until March 2018, that I surrendered, making peace with the craziness in my head. And here’s what I learned to do.
Right after crawling out of bed, I dress in my cheap yoga pants and tee (nothing fancy). I clear notifications on my phone, but I resist the urge to dig into social media. Some mornings, I falter, and when I do, I get back on track. After all, social media (nearly everything else too!) can wait five minutes.
Insight Timer has become my go-to app when it comes to meditation. Try it. It’s free, and you can play meditations on your phone...and of varying lengths. Usually, I start with a short one. Five minutes is great for me. It gets me going, and if my body and mind are heavy from a bunch of anxiety dreams, that five minutes is enough to move the energy through me.
Look, I’ve been talked at for most of my life. I’ve had plenty of people giving me unsolicited advice, telling me, “Do that!” and “Don’t do that!” I don’t want to do the same to you. If you don’t have five minutes, how about one minute? If you don’t like visualization meditations, how about music or nature sounds?
When you gift yourself, it should be a gift that works for you. Personally, sitting meditations make me crazy, especially long ones, so years ago, I fired my inner critic who told me that mindfulness practices must look perfect. Now, I literally run or walk in circles throughout the entire meditation, and it works! For me.
Love in a pandemic means giving yourself the five minutes you would willing give to a loved one.
GIFT Yourself! No 2 of 2
May 24, 2020
Amplify love in a pandemic by writing notes of gratitude, appreciation, and joy.
As a child, I wrote love notes everywhere and in many forms. My stubby fingers pinching a fat permanent marker, I’d shimmy to the bottom of my sleeping bag and scrawl the name of my latest crush. With a butter knife, I carved into the kitchen table my adoration. I penned clunky poems for Mom, decorating the margins with hand-drawn flowers or stickers of animals.
Deep down, I knew language was my way of discovering and honoring the everyday divine.
Then, there were my childhood diaries. I filled pages with youthful longings and mourned my losses. Absent, though, was my gratitude for what I had. In fact, my attempts at keeping gratitude journals failed, each one abandoned on a shelf or in a pile of other discarded notebooks.
That is, until my life fell apart.
There’s something powerful about losing an entire family and forming another one. The cycle of destruction-creation helped me see the beauty that I had rendered invisible by my fixations on what I didn’t have.
In my last blog, I talked about the G.I.F.T. Give It Five Today.
Five minutes to meditate.
Five minutes to appreciate.
After my meditation each morning, I jot quick love notes to myself, to others, to the world—mostly the natural world, occasionally the humanmade one too. For at least five minutes, I reflect on whatever has made me glow.
Somedays that glow is warm and golden. Others, it’s a weak ember under layers of cold, gray ash.
Regardless, I write love into the world.
For years, I had a journal stuffed away, unused, its bright cover proclaiming, “Think Happy.” I rolled my eyes whenever I saw it, dismissing its message as one mandating cheer and making positivity compulsory.
“Screw you,” I thought whenever I laid eyes on that bossy, be-happy journal.
By my fifties, I had stabilized my life, and I had pretty much everything I wanted: a killer job with a flexible schedule; bosses who gave me a lot of freedom; a passion for teaching, writing, research; and a fabulous, loving relationship with a spouse who was an actual partner—instead of a teenager in an adult body. On top of all that, I had earned tenure and promotion and had a decent publication record.
So why were Anxiety and Grumpiness suddenly hanging out with my Inner Critic, the three bbfs nattering on inside me ... no matter what I did or accomplished???
I found answers by writing love into my world.
Surly, and damn tired of being so damn surly, I grudgingly started my daily ritual of writing in my 3-Joys Journal (3-JJ). After years, I’d finally surrendered to that bossy, be-happy journal.
Each morning, I jot down my gratitude, appreciation, and joy. Big or small. Reverberating or faint. And here’s the important part of the gift I give myself: I write something—anything—in my 3-JJ. Without fail.
“Relax,” I coax myself. “You don’t have to be fancy or eloquent. You don’t have to write in complete sentences or be lyrical with an evocative vocabulary.” In my journals, there are spelling and grammatical errors, but I keep writing.
Perfection isn’t the goal. Seeing is the goal.
And just like so many of those blasted happiness and wellness studies promise, I found my mental health improving in just a few short weeks.
Plus, I haven’t given up my sarcasm or my dark humor. I’m my same spicy self, and on occasion, Inner Critic still breaks into my thinking and is way louder than my gratitude. Thanks to G.I.F.T., though, I’ve learned to be a hell of a lot more compassionate with myself and others.
Through meditation (last blog) and writing love notes, I’ve grown more tolerant of my mistakes, more forgiving of others’ “missteps,” and more tender during the tough times. And surviving a pandemic is tough.
So, each morning, I remind myself....
Love in a pandemic means writing gratitude, appreciation, and joy into the world.
Protesting in a Pandemic
June 13, 2020
Love in a pandemic means finding unique ways of showing up for others.
I’ll be blunt! I’ve been working to figure out how to protest in the pandemic.
Many of us have long been outraged by the systemic racism faced by Black Communities, specifically, and Communities of Color, more broadly. And, yes, we're talking about police violence. If you haven't seen their talks before, make sure you listen to the work being done by Kimberlé Williams Crenshawand Bryan Stevenson.
No one knows your story better than you do. You know what you’re facing in this pandemic. Maybe you lost your job, and you’re trying to figure out what to do next. Maybe you’re the primary caregiver for multiple generations of family members, and you can’t afford to get sick.
If you can’t take to the streets, there’s a place for you in social justice movements.
As I wrote about in previous blogs posts, underserved communities have barriers to both testing and treatment, and Communities of Color are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Sometimes, then, the best thing we can do to serve is to stay at home to not spread the virus to populations particularly vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I like the way Hilary Weaver said it in a recent article in Elle.
“If you feel at all worried about your risk of catching COVID-19 or getting someone else sick, there are plenty of ways to help from your couch right now. Do the responsible thing, but stay in this fight however you can.”
I’ll write about relational responsibilities during the pandemic in a later blog post. Here, I’ll simply say that, initially, I couldn’t hit the streets, so I hit my laptop.
What can you do by putting your fingertips on your keyboard?
For one, donate to organizations that are pushing for a rethinking of policing and community investments. Whenever tragedy hits (natural or humanmade), I head to https://www.charitynavigator.org/ to research organizations before I donate. For more ideas, go over to WIRED.
Now, some of us have lost our jobs. Money’s tight. If that describes your situation, consider a second option.
Email your elected officials.
Don't know who your representatives are? Try this resource. Or, contact your local ones. For example, there’s a call for our nation’s mayors to review the use of force by police and to engage underserved communities, including Communities of Color.
What if you’ve taken precautions, such as getting tested and self-isolating, and you’re being called to the streets? There are steps you can take to help minimize your risk to yourself and others.
Recently, I participated in a caravan protest.
Check this out!
Write hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter or #InvestinCommunities on the windows of your car, gather allies, and hit the streets. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway), obey all traffic laws, and stay together.
Immediately after the caravan protest, I went to a BLM rally. There, I masked up. That may help you if you are unknowingly carrying the virus. Plus, the mask is an added protection for your identity, especially if you’re being video recorded for possible retribution. At the rally, I carried sanitizer, and I remained at the edges for most of the time.
One quick note. If you take public transportation to protests, the CDC has some helpful information.
At the rally, I took photographs and videos (avoiding capturing faces, getting permission as needed). Given my skills and training, I wanted to document the peaceful BLM protest. Plus! Photography/videography helped me retain my distance from the milling crowds of largely younger people.
Admittedly, though, I found social distancing difficult. A good number of protestors wore masks, but some didn’t, and those were the ones who seemed to be less focused on social distancing. So, as the crowd thickened and swirled, I retreated to a safe distance, still allowing me to record and participate.
There are ways to protest during a pandemic. Find your way. Find your voice. Find your ability to show up for yourself and your communities.
Love in a pandemic takes on many forms, so discover a form that works for you.
Churning Relational Waters
June 18, 2020
Love in a pandemic can be tense, and that’s perfectly normal in abnormal times.
About thirty minutes away from me on a windy road sprawls Watauga Lake. That jade-green lake’s been inviting me into its icy embrace since my youth. Repeatedly, I’ve stepped in, first one step, two, my footing steady. About the fourth, I hit muck, my feet sinking, the compost pile of dead leaves, aquatic plants, and fish poop suckling at my toes, unnerving me.
I’ve swam in enough lakes and ponds to know that wading in is the worst part. The body protests the bite of the cold waters, the mind protests the sloshy debris at the bottom, a mushy oatmeal substance that hides rocks and sticks—until the tender foot finds the submerged sharpness.
Wading into relationships is similarly unnerving, but if we get beyond a certain point, our world opens up in spectacular ways. Under an expansive sky, we swim in our relational waters, for a moment forgetting how much we resisted early on.
Then, the waters start churning, and we’re back to being unnerved again.
Mom calls me her “soulmate.” That’s how close we are.
The thing is, she’s aging (aren’t we all?). And, as we’ve been told repeatedly, older people at are at higher risk for developing serious illness from COVID-19.
Now, let me set something straight. Mom’s a hike-two-hours-every-day-eighty-year old. She’s remarkable, on the go all the time. Still, she’s in that higher risk category, necessitating that I take extra protections to guard her wellbeing.
First, I’ve been quarantining since mid-March in anticipation of eventually seeing her again. I’ve left the house only a handful of times, and when I’ve done that, I’ve masked up and socially distanced. Finally! A couple weekends ago I’d gathered enough data about my health, limited my social contacts, got Mom’s permission, and we reunited after months apart.
Second, I got tested for COVID-19 prior to seeing Mom. I live in a small city in Southern Appalachia of about 60K, so testing is available at the local health department.
For me, it was a quick drive thru, taking more time to get there from my house than to have the nurse make savage love to my brain through my nostrils.
Seriously! It’s quick, and they called me with the results by the next day. Of course, the Mayo Clinic states that “no COVID-19 test is 100% accurate.”
Frustrating the hell out of me, of course, is the fact that rural communities and Communities of Color have more barriers to testing. If you or your loved ones want/need testing, check your county health department and your area pharmacy. The CDC provides some information too.
Anyway, back to Mom and our churning relational waters. If anything happens to her, I’m the one who will have to go running to help her. That means that I must be extra safe and make careful choices, including the relational kind.
Communication Theory Pit Stop! Don’t go. You need this theory, especially now. My bet is that many of your fights with loved ones have been about dialectical tensions. Here we go....
Relational Dialectics. Just the basics. I’ve been teaching RD for years. To oversimplify: RD’s a theory about how we want EVERYTHING simultaneously, including the contradictory stuff.
Okay, back to Watauga Lake. This time, though, we’re swimming in the metaphorical waters of our relationships. Above all, remember, we want everything and at the same time:
We want to be close, clinging to the other person in a given relationship. And we want to be apart, floating in solitude (integration/separation). We want to be certain that nothing’s threatening us from beneath (There are no lake monsters here). And we want to remain uncertain enough for our adventures to be ... well, adventurous (stability/change). We want to expose ourselves freely to one another (Hey, baby, I yearn for you to see me and know what I’m thinking, feeling). And we want to protect ourselves from prying eyes, vulnerability, shame (openness/closedness).
So, here we are floating in our relationships, desiring to be together/be apart, be stable/be changing, and be opened/be closed. And did I mention??
All. At. the. Same. Time.
No wonder we feel so blasted tense! It’s in part because we’re trying to navigate these contradictory (oppositional) tensions. Oh, and there’s a pandemic, magnifying these pre-existing tensions in our relationships.
In the pandemic, the relational waters have churned, forcing us to make decisions that we may not otherwise make.
We’ve had to cling to certain people while longing to be apart, perhaps, even if for a spell (separation/integration). We’ve had to shore up the (illusion of) certainty and stability, while recognizing that the pandemic’s demanding that we adjust to the so-called “new normal.” (stability/change). And we’ve struggled to be open about our relational difficulties while wanting to maintain privacy in a crowded house and/or a world of overexposure and blurred lines between public and private (opened/closed).
Back to Mom.
I wrestled, folks. I’m still wrestling. If Mom would’ve allowed it, I would have brought her to live with me; however, I know that it would’ve been crazy-making to be with one another day in and day out.
While I appreciate the shared activities bringing families together, I would also remind people that it’s okay to find moments of solitude.
It’s okay to find (create) some alone time from those you love the most.
I don’t know about you and your relationships, but I’m a bit mismatched with mine in terms of how much I want stability and change. I like a sprinkle of change ... like a faint rain shower when I’m floating in a lake—NOT a thunderstorm that shakes me when I’m already in dark waters. Mom, on the other hand, is in near-constant motion, paddling here, then there, then....
“Where the hell are you now, Mom?” I want to leave a seething voice message at times.
You get my point. This constant negotiation of stability/change in the relationship compounds the tension that’s already there in the pandemic.
Then, there’s the opened/closed dialectic. My bet is that there will be more than a few people who have scars on their tongues from having to bite down hard. I’m a let’s-discuss-our-authentic-feelings person. Mom, though, is open, but she’s been known to cut off a conversation with, “I don’t like to dwell on negative thoughts. I wish you would just let that go, Kelly.” (AGH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
More than likely, you’ve found yourself torn between oppositional longings in your own relationships. As I tell my students, “It’s okay to want to simultaneously throat-punch your loved ones and fiercely hug them. Don’t throat-punch them. But it’s okay to have the feelings.”
Dialectical tensions are normal, even in the best of times and in the best of relationships. Give yourself a break! It’s a [BLEEP] pandemic, so jump on in the churning waters.It may be unnerving, but it’s also invigorating.
Love in a pandemic means accepting that we want it all, and, that we cannot have it all.
July 14, 2020
Love in a pandemic means savoring chunky-style even when creamy-smooth is preferred.
My family’s not creamy peanut butter, nicely blended, easily smoothed on the bread of life. We’re chunky, bits and pieces mired in oily thickness.
We’re composed of bio-kin and choice-kin. We’ve married, divorced, and remarried. We’ve lost birth-dads. We’ve witnessed our birth-moms’ transformations, some beautiful, some bleak. We’ve made siblings out of friends, and, in turn, we’ve made our choice-siblings into aunts and uncles for the kids in our lives.
In my opinion, chunky blend is tasty and has loads of texture ... but it’s also messy. Maybe even more so in a pandemic.
When the Shelter-in-Place order came down, my spouse and I stared, sometimes slack jawed, at the mix of new and old relational decisions being served up before us. Like....
Both of us have aging mothers, one who has Alzheimer’s and got admitted to a memory-care facility at the start of the pandemic. Our other mother is just over the state line, less than two hours away: this distance is both convenient and inconvenient. Being close means being able to respond in emergencies (big and small). Being close also means being able to respond to ... You get my point.
Then, there are the kids (teens), my spouse’s bio-kids, my stepchildren. In turn, the kids have a mom, stepdad, and stepsiblings, and their stepsibs go back and forth between the separate households of their father and mother. Even writing about the messiness of our families exhausts me.
COVID-19 has been an unexpected, and often unwanted ingredient to our chunky-PB family, making life a whole lot thicker.
Each relational decision has become like taking a bite of something dense. Not easily chewed. Not easily swallowed. And, certainly, not easily digested.
Take for instance the kids’ schooling. Schools closed, necessitating remote learning. For both the kids and for me since I teach at the local university. And we scrambled—still are—to consume a new reality.
Bite. Is it healthy having the kids travel back and forth between households, while they’re interacting with stepsibs who also do back-and-forthing?
Chew. Well hell! Let’s gnaw on this a bit. While the kids do homeschooling, I do home-teaching and home-writing. Subsequently, our “residential” classrooms will overlap, creating conflict, agitation, hostility. When I’m teaching my undergraduate and graduate classes, using the family PC in the loft, will they need to do their homework or want to chill and chat in the living area? How will my schooling interfere with their schooling, and vice versa? On top of it, we still need to chew on the risks of exposure when family members are interacting across multiple households.
Digest. Well, shit. This is a painful realization to digest: the kids will have more freedom at their mom’s, since no one works from home in that household. They won’t have to tip-toe around their mother’s house, and I can focus on meeting my students’ needs. But, wait! What about that increased exposure morsel you sank your teeth into earlier? And how will we remain connected to them, support them, advise them? We’re continuing to try to digest these bits.
And here I'm just talking about one decision: to have the kids live with us part-time, fulltime, or not at all during homeschooling.
Each decision compounded and magnified our queasiness. No matter what decision we produced, it seemed like a turd.
We could leave them with their mother, a medical practitioner who works in a hospital where COVID-19 patients are being treated. Or, we could bring them here for much togetherness time—when we would probably be at one another’s throats since we’re all on Zoom. Oh, and they’re restless teenagers (normal!), and I’m teaching restless and anxious adults [insert loud howl!]
Oh, that’s right! I forgot for a moment. There’s the fact that both my spouse and I have to figure out how to safely visit (if we can) and care for our mothers. Keep that in mind, okay?!?!
In the pandemic, we’re left perpetually hungry.
We want to take a bite, we know we have to, but we also know that we’re getting tired from all the damn chewing. We hurt from the blockages when it comes to digesting major relational decisions, and even when we successfully digest one, there are other decisions backed up, leaving us perpetually blocked, bloated, and, at times, in agony.
I won’t sink my teeth into the intricacies of any single decision. What matters is the relational bite-chew-digest process, and how we’re finding nourishment where we can.
First, we gave ourselves (and continue to do so) permission to ache. Generally, these aren’t leisurely times where we slowly savor what’s on our plate.
Throughout any given day, I have to pause, breathe, and make peace with my sore jaw, raw throat, and a continual throbbing in my gut.
I’ll let you in on something that’s recently gotten added to our chunky-PB family. Mom’s a vibrant, active woman, something I’ve talked about in previous blog posts. Recently, though, she’s started having trouble walking. You may recall me telling you that she hikes 1½ hours every day. Well, it seems her hip is deteriorating, and that’s difficult for a mobile, independent soul like her.
I want to see her, to support her through a difficult time, but that means continuing to keep my awesome stepkids at a distance, since they’re being exposed to more people. I can’t risk carrying the infection to Mom, particularly if she ends up needing surgery.
So, what can I do? Make peace with the bite-chew-digest process, along with that deep throbbing within.
Second, we’re working to make peace with the fact that our individual aches are going to ripple out to the entire family system. My feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, anxiety, and chronic uncertainty impact the kids, and their feelings impact me.
For example, one of the kids has been saving up for a used car and shopping around. All my sour-sweet emotions get mixed in with the chunky-PB, and I’m left to consume a slopping mess. I’m sad and frustrated that I’ve chosen to largely socially isolate, to keep from contracting anything I could pass to Mom; that means I haven’t been there to participate in some significant moments in the kids’ lives. If I’m not careful, I serve up my emotions to the kids—other family member too—and they, in turn, serve their emotions up to the members of their mother’s household, and so on.
With each relational decision, we stand to impact the farthest reaches of our extended, messy family.
In a pandemic, we won’t have only one conversation about relational needs and decisions. We will have ongoing conversations, and we will need to create additional space and time for our biting, chewing, and digesting. It’s hard, and I don’t have many answers. What I’ve come to is this:
Love in a pandemic means understanding that we may, occasionally, chew loudly and have poor manners at a family table that’s become even more chaotic than usual.
July 25, 2020
Love in a pandemic means staying nimble enough to dance, or stumble, around the emotional landmines
In the mountains, July plops hard and heavy: a hot, swollen ellipses, an engorged pause ready to pop. The song of summer sung by crickets, cicadas, and katydids becomes an incessant roar in the oppressive, moist air. The mid-month sits on me, making me clumsy and lethargic—just when I need to be nimble to make my way through all my emotional landmines.
July starts with the anniversary of my father’s birth—and death ... on the same day. Once I make it into the double-digits of the month, I arrive at the anniversary of the adoption of my son, an adoption that ended in relinquishment. The month ends with anniversary of my first spouse’s death by suicide, and, finally, my long-gone son’s birthday.
The heat hampers my ability to maneuver emotionally and mentally. I’ve lived elsewhere, including Georgia and Northern India (UP), so I’m not typically whiny about summer temps. But there’s something about July in the mountains. One humid day sprawls across another, the rolling ranges trapping in the soggy heat, and I find my resilience lagging.
And that was before the pandemic.
Recently, we took our 14-year-old dog to the vet to be put to sleep. It was days before we were scheduled to leave town to clean out the house of a family member who moved to assisted living due to Alzheimer’s. These compounded happenstances further cluttered my July-Minefield.
Maddie (or Mad-Eye, we called her due to the cataracts that clouded her onyx eyes) had only been with us for about three years. Relinquished by her original human family at 11 and labeled a bite risk, Maddie wasn’t an easily choice for us, but I’m glad we found one another, even for a short time.
In the last few weeks, we noticed changes. More trembling, less energy, and occasionally bouts of diarrhea. Squeezed between emotional landmines, we’d look up and notice Maddie aging, her body sagging, her haunches narrowing. We knew her time with us was coming to an end but accessing the vet has become more challenging during the pandemic. With new regulations in place, our vet had additional hoops we had to jump through before Maddie could be seen, and, unfortunately, euthanized.
Our experience with Maddie is only one way that our July-Minefield has been further cluttered by COVID-19. Other challenges haven’t stopped just because we’re facing a pandemic. In addition to the declining health of people we love, including at least one infected by the virus, we have surprise expenses, changing workscapes and responsibilities, and, of course, decisions about the kids’ return to school.
Navigating a minefield during a pandemic takes grace, and in the absence of grace, it takes compassionate focus.
One of the ways that I greet the emotional landmines of July is to narrow my horizons. As a child, I learned this lesson when traveling by car from North Carolina to Idaho.
Wedged in the backseat of our tiny family Subaru hatchback, I’d watched those green signs with the large white letters announcing that the closest town was about 500 miles away. Back then, I quickly learned to narrow my horizons. My focus would be on the next cactus (literally) or the next exit ramp. Otherwise, I drove myself crazy with the agonizingly slow ticking down of miles.
The same is true when navigating the pandemic, especially when making my way through the expanse of emotional landmines. I sweep my eyes (metaphorically) across the space—both near and far—and identify closer and more distant “destinations.”
Okay, call the vet, schedule an appointment, and get through day with as much grace as possible.
It’s going to be a tough day and a tougher week, so complete short workouts and meditations, one load of laundry, then read—but not anything heavy. Small, targeted goals, nothing lofty.
This pandemic isn’t going anywhere. Neither are the rest of life’s challenges. Take it slow and be kind to yourself and others.
Love in a pandemic means accepting that a minefield can be navigated one landmine at a time and with as much grace as possible.
Uncertain Terrains No 1 of 2
July 31, 2020
Love in a pandemic means being willing to traverse unfamiliar landscapes, trusting ourselves to find our footing along the way.
Sometime in spring, you found yourself in dense woods, the once certain path obscured from your vision.
Everywhere you turn you’re greeted by foreignness, and you can’t keep your bearings straight.
Or, maybe the location’s wrong. Instead, you got dropped into a dark lake. Maybe you lost sight of the shoreline. Maybe a fog descended as you tried figuring out in which direction to swim.
So many of us seem frustrated with ourselves, others, and our lives. We've gotten lost, and we can’t figure out how. But we know the Why, don’t we?
Welcome to the 2020 Pandemic.
Back in my PhD days, I studied women’s use of online disclosures to manage uncertainty about sexually transmitted infections.
I promise this detour is not off-track.
I’ve been long drawn to the “taboo,” including communication about sex, sexuality, gender, race, and culture, topics riddled with various types of uncertainty, uncertainties that twist together, growing into one another, becoming almost indistinguishable.
In short, there are various types of uncertainty we encounter during any illness event, but those uncertainties may be magnified during a prolonged crisis.
Illness uncertainty. Think about the last time you had an illness. Now, think back to the symptoms, even the potential causes. You get the idea.
With illness uncertainty, we experience an inability to explain and/or predict symptoms, prognosis, treatment, etc. The women in my research, for example, didn’t know if that mysterious rash was just a rash or an outbreak of herpes (HSV). They didn’t know if that bump was an ingrown hair or a wart related to HPV (a.k.a., genital warts). Or, if diagnosed, they didn’t know if they would ever be free of the viral infection or if they would have to live with it the rest of their lives.
Relational uncertainty. Again, think about your last illness. Or your current one. Now, think back to how that illness impacted your relationships. Within my research, I found that uncertainty about mysterious symptoms, for example, could exacerbate uncertainties about a relationship, riddling a person with questions, questions, by the way, they couldn't always get clear answers to.
Is that red patch a sign of herpes? Oh no, will my partner still love me if I have herpes?
Did my spouse give me genital warts? If so, does that mean that they’re cheating on me? Or did I give it to them?
Even prior to diagnosis, the questions, confusion, and uncertainties can start, settling like a heavy fog and impacting our way forward in our lives and loves.
When we first started hearing about COVID-19 (or the VID, as I call it), we heard more questions than answers. Public health officials, healthcare providers, government officials were at a loss about origins, symptoms, transmissions, mortality rates, and immunity. Continue reading reputable sources, and you’ll find that the questions still outnumber the answers—and they should.
We should continue asking good questions. That’s how we get good research done.
Even in our personal lives, the uncertainties proliferated. Think about that confusing cough. Or maybe the sneezes that kept coming.
Why did I sneeze? And three times in a row? And why am I coughing so much? Usually, I have my worst allergies in March, so why all this coughing in July. Did I catch something when I went to Charlotte to tend to that family emergency? Did I catch the VID? (illness uncertainty about mysterious symptoms).
Wait! Now that I think on it, Family Member X was hacking up a lung. Did they infect me? Or maybe...Could they have suspected they had the VID and exposed me anyway? What else could they be keeping secret? Can I really trust them?(intersecting illness uncertainty about transmission and relational uncertainty).
This cough’s annoying, but I’m also tired. Have I ever felt this exhausted? Wait! Is my forehead warmer than usual? Maybe I should cancel visiting Family Member Y? Aren’t they in one of those high-risk populations? But they always get mad at me when I cancel. They’re so sensitive. Will they stop talking with me for cancelling? I bet they will. Bet they’ll talk about me behind my back too(intersecting illness uncertainty about symptoms and risk with relational uncertainty).
In a pandemic, we arrive in the Land of Perpetual Uncertainty.
But there’s hope! In the next blog post, I’ll talk about how Communication is Key to navigating those uncertain emotional, physical, and mental terrains.
Until then, remember....
Love in the pandemic means having confidence in ourselves that we’ll find our way through an unfamiliar landscape, maybe even a better way.
Uncertain Terrains No 2 of 2
August 20, 2020
Love in a pandemic means understanding that we’re in this new kind of normal ... together.
Feeling troubled these days? Maybe you’re anxious no matter what you do. You turn on the news to get the latest information about the pandemic, and you’re overwhelmed, left scratching your head or clutching your stomach. So, you turn off the news, deciding to find some peace of mind ... but you can’t seem to find much of that these days.
Am I describing you?
What’s great about the human brain is its processing capabilities. Right now, you’re processing layers of information, sorting, organizing, attaching meaning, and responding. Simultaneously.
The drawback of the human brain is that we’re always processing something, even when we have incomplete information or information from sources that may not be credible.
Just because you’re smart and you work to stay informed: that doesn’t mean that you won’t encounter overlapping, simultaneously occurring uncertainties. In fact, I contend, the smarter you are, the more susceptible you are to feeling perpetually uncertain—and about so many things.
Because of your wonderful brain, you are likely constantly gathering new data, arriving at emerging conclusions and correcting previously held conclusions. What’s important to understand about uncertainty management is this:
Uncertainty creeps in its petty pace (to paraphrase from Macbeth). Although there are moments of respite, you may find—especially these days—that confusion creeps right back in, and after you thought you got rid of it.
Uncertainty is kind of like that stray that keeps coming back to you, no matter what you do.
And that’s okay. That’s normal.
Starting in the late 1990s, Dale Brashers and colleagues started publishing landmark research about Persons Living With HIV/AIDS (PLWHA). Not surprisingly, Brashers and his cohort found that when it came to chronic diseases (can be treated but no current cure) that PLWHA had to navigate ongoing and multiple occurring uncertainties.
What are these symptoms?
Will there ever be a cure?
So if I’m diagnosed, what then? Could I even afford treatment?
Who can I trust with my diagnosis?
How will the disease “behave” over time?
For many people facing health conditions, there isn’t a “return to normal” when there is chronic illness uncertainty. And that applies to a pandemic. Sustained uncertainty will be part of the New Normal.
Like the folks in Bashers et al.’s research, we will experience pretty continuous confusion and doubts regarding COVID-19. Eventually, we’ll find a way of getting okay with not being entirely okay about the virus and its real and potential impact on our bodies, bank accounts, communities, and relationships.
But there’s hope!
Communication is key, baby!
Managing our multiple uncertainties is all about communication. And I’m not talking about public speaking.
Managing our ongoing uncertainties involves assessing how we talk to ourselves (and others), especially in those private moments of confusion and overwhelm when there’s too much information and too many decisions to make.
Conduct a quick audit about the messages you send to yourself during this time. What stories do you tell yourself when you’re experiencing confusing symptoms or may require the attention of a medical professional? Are you worth your own time? Do you, like me, wake up at 3:00 a.m. with the Catastrophe-Clusterfuck? Smart people with good brains have the ability to catastrophize. I do!
That’s where communication with other people comes into play too.
I recommend to anyone facing a difficult healthcare experience to make sure they have illness/wellness buddies. And in this virtual world, those buddies can be found in online communities on Twitter, Insta, reddit, for example. Most people need trusted companions and credible authorities when working their way through tough times.
That was the case in my research about women’s use of online communication to manage uncertainty related to STIs. Some women reported not feeling safe in disclosing to people they knew in their “real” lives, so over time, they cultivated virtual relationships with illness buddies. It can take time and courage, though, to find the right support community and the right people to help you face and manage uncertainties — and offer credible, accurate information.
Personally, when I’m facing unknown symptoms that may trigger unknown problems for my relationships, I turn to those illness/wellness buddies, particularly when I’m catastrophizing. I don’t talk to everyone, but I talk to someone, someone I can trust to take me seriously and treat my concerns and information with respect.
Communication with others helps reframe mysterious symptoms and, if needed, helps ease the challenges that arise with navigating the healthcare system (talk about sustained uncertainty!!). And, of course, don't forget your healthcare providers and public health officials.
Compassionate, authentic communication with self and others won’t necessarily make the uncertainties disappear. Sometimes, in fact, we may need to keep our own counsel because there are too many opinions being thrust upon us.
Take for instance our research with women-identified cancer survivors. Some of the women didn’t reveal test results to certain family members because they were too uncertain about how they felt or even what the results meant, so they maintained close contact with trusted nurses and doctors while mindfully deciding who else had earned their cancer stories.
Prolonged secrecy may magnify confusion and doubts; however, confiding in the “wrong” people may also stir up other kinds of uncertainty.
Can I trust Person X to keep their mouth shut?
If I tell Person I, will I end up having to comfort them when I’m the one with weird symptoms?
Still, when navigating an ongoing health crisis, it’s vital that we form communication partnerships—with ourselves and credible others to help us interpret confusing symptoms, make complicated decisions, and survive-thrive in these tough times.
Love in a pandemic means accepting that uncertainty brings confusion, but it also brings hope.
The Pandemic, the Politics, or the Pause?
September 2, 2020
Love in the pandemic means staying tender with ourselves even when we’re ready to slash and burn everything—and everyone—around us.
I’m pissed off. A lot. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not storming around ranting at loved ones and berating strangers. My anger stays concealed ... from most.
I first noticed it around November 9, 2016. No matter what I did, anger stayed with me, a burr that latched onto my clothing, hair, skin. I’d find it everywhere, and at the oddest times.
In the morning, I woke, my soul inflamed. At night, I went to bed, agitation poking me. Even when I meditated, anger rode my exhalations.
Then, the pandemic hit, and those spiky emotions burrowed in deep, rooting, sprouting into a prickly winter briar. And nothing seemed to help. Not the glass of wine at the end of the day. Not the moments of solitude where I used to rediscover my soul. Even in Nature, I’d find that burr working its way through my layers.
Faithfully, I meditated each morning, and I wrote three joys in my gratitude journal, training my mind toward happiness. I turned to spiritual readings by Thich Nhat Hahn, Michael Singer, and Pema Chodron. I picked up inspirational books like Becoming by Michelle Obamaand Vestiges of Courage by Mierya Vela. I sank into poetry by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Larry Thacker, and Maya Angelou.
For sweet spells, I would improve, even managing to, as Mooji writes, “sit in my own splendor.”
Yet, somehow, I’d find that burr under me when I was supposed to be sitting in my splendor, damn it! What let loose this anger within? Was it the Pandemic, the Politics, or the 'Pause, or a combination thereof? These are the questions that are my personal plague.
First, the pandemic.
I’ve written before about how helpless and confused many of us are during this pandemic. My students help ground me, showing me that I am not alone in this struggle. They too struggle, as do their loved ones. My family — birth and chosen — ground me too, and together we ensure that we do not topple over.
Frankly, I don’t blame us for the agitation. We’ve found ourselves in a long-term relationship with a narcissistic bastard, COVID-19. The virus doesn’t give a damn about us. Not our jobs, vacations, celebrations, or bodies. Our lives have been turned upside down, exposing our underbellies ... and all the burrs attached to our nether regions.
This pandemic has exposed what’s been underneath all along: persistent social and economic inequalities, weaknesses in our educational systems, and challenges in our closest relationships. Quiet struggles have become public upheavals, as we are asked (“asked”) to do more and more.
Teachers are being asked to teach in both virtual and school settings. Parents are asked to teach their children while earning an income and keeping our sanity. Activists are asked to take to the streets to protest injustice while also social distancing. Families are asked to maintain bonds across generations without risking our more vulnerable kin. Spiritual and religious persons are asked to keep faith while being separated from faith communities.
We’ve seen so much, lost so much, that it’s easier to hold onto our burrs of anger somedays instead of the fine grains of hope that seem to be slipping through our fingers.
The pandemic has exposed and aroused something in us. Certainly, one day we will see this as a transformative era, a time that brought about much needed change. Perhaps, like Congressman John Lewis reminded us, we will be inspired, ultimately, to say and do something when we encounter injustice.
But right now, it’s hard to be anything but mad. I get that. I see you. I see your anger, your despair. You are not alone.
Second, the politics.
We are divided, the boundaries between our tribal systems seem insurmountable.
Every issue raised challenges us to find common ground. It’s hard finding the tenderness to hug one another—besides, we’re supposed to be socially distancing.
It’s an election year in a world where PACs stir up our baser emotions. In fact, people profit from us remaining angry. The angrier we are, the more we dig into our wallets. The angrier we are, the more we try buying our way out of that anger, eating our way out, medicating our way out, drinking our way out. And, yes, I've tried every single one of these ways.
When I’m really incensed, I remind myself: there are people who benefit from me not picking off the burr of anger and tossing it away.
Certainly, anger can motivate us to great acts of social change. We can be fueled, taking to the streets, calling our elected officials, crafting emails to politicians to exclaim, “This is not right!” That burr may even drive us to more closely examine how we spend our hard-earned money and be mindful where we spend it, especially in this time of change.
What I’m concerned about, though, is when the anger embeds in us, scarring our bodies, hearts, and souls, forcing the tenderest aspects of ourselves to reshape around our perpetual loathing, forming permanent scar tissue. I’m talking about the kind of anger that keeps us raw and unnerved, demanding that we contort ourselves, rendering us into limping, shuffling creatures of hate.
Too, I’m concerned that even if the pandemic disappeared tomorrow, we wouldn’t offer a hug or hand because we may end up throttling one another.
Third, the ‘Pause.
I’m talking menopause. Thankfully, a while back, I got my hands on the book, Menopause Mondays. By the way, Ellen Dolgen has a blog too, so check her out. You might learn a ton about a natural process that is completely normal—and has been nearly completely silenced.
While I have a PhD in Health Communication (I specialized in Sexual Health and Women’s Health too), I had a sad lack of knowledge about menopause. Why? We don’t talk about it. We’re supposed to hide it, to protect our status, to protect our place in a society that values young (fertile looking) women.
It seems that agitation, anxiety, and depression tend to get stirred up during our perimenopausal and menopausal years. Just read works by experts like Dr. Christiane Northrup about how our circuitry is being updated during this important stage of life. Listen to the delightful conversation featured on FLOTUS Michelle Obama’s podcast between girlfriends about menopause.
Forgive the problematic comparison, but anger during menopause is a bit like the character Alex in Fatal Attraction (1987) when she exclaims to the man, “I’m not going to be ignored.”
Like so many women, I have an awkward relationship with anger. Growing up a Southern White female, I was never encouraged to express my frustration, agitation, resentment, or fury. I could be happy (NOT about my own successes), grateful (especially towards others), and disappointed. Consistently, I received copious messages, though, that anger was off limits.
It’s even more so for Black Women who, when mad, risk the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype, as Crystal Fleming discusses in her book, How to Be Less Stupid About Race.
Throughout much of my life, when that burr latched onto me, I did everything I could do to erase it, ease it, or at least eradicate evidence of it. To this day, I am repeatedly reminded that societies generally do not value angry women. Angry men, yes. Angry women, apparently not.
But, like Alex, my anger during the 'Pause is not going to be ignored any longer. And I’m thankful for that. Now, I’ve come to see my anger as a sign of my naturally changing circuitry. Plus, when I march, protest, talk with elected officials, and participate in rallies, I’m finding that as much as people seem to shy away from a woman with a burr up her butt, we angry women get shit done.
Frankly, it’s taken the Pandemic, the Politics, and the ‘Pause to bring me face-to-face with my normal, even healthy, anger. That burr has always been there, and it always will be, more than likely.
So what now?
Allow, Accept. &Amplify in meaningful, pro-social ways.When channeled and softened by compassion, Anger draws our attention to what needs to be removed or the wounds that need tending to.
Love in a pandemic means loving yourself even when others may think that you’re nothing but an Angry, Nasty Woman.
Wandering the Wilderness
October 15, 2020
Love in the pandemic means being brave enough to enter the Wilderness, even if we have to remain there for a spell.
All of us enter our personal wilderness periodically. Or maybe for you it’s a desert, a place of desolation you’re wandering.
For many of us, that period is now. We’re in what seems to be an unending wilderness of disease, death, dying, and despair. The pandemic falls away somewhat, then it surrounds us again. At the time of this writing, we’re at approximately 217,00 COVID deaths, and confirmed infections are up in many areas.
And, recently, the NYT reported that we’re climbing “toward a third peak.” When wandering the Wilderness, we make a big deal about being in a valley, a low point, but we also have to be careful about those peaks.
We don’t know when this wilderness will end—or how it will end. People continue losing their livelihoods, and, more importantly, their lives.
Maybe, though, wandering in these untamed spaces will lead us to where we must go.
The Great Mortality ravaged the world for centuries, hitting in three waves that decimated cultures, bringing out the worst in people. There were rampant conspiracy theories that resulted in humans murdering other humans in an attempt to stop a phenomenon not understood. Medical schools and universities scrambled to create and offer theories that explained, predicted, and controlled the plague. Most were just plain WRONG. Many of those educated experts also died of the very thing they tried understanding.
Yet, out of the harsh wilderness of disease and death grew great democracies when old entrenched systems like the Church and governments took serious hits, proving that they weren’t invulnerable to disease—and they were incapable of protecting those they were supposed to protect. Also, improvements in public-health measures emerged, especially when certain European cities, for example, survived the first wave, allowing for a better understanding of the role hygiene, social isolation, and social distancing play in preventing, or minimizing, pandemics.
The Great Mortality was in many ways the quintessential “Wilderness” experience, dumping humanity into a hostile world where civilizations’ “rules” and “laws” did little good.
In the Wilderness, Natural Law rules, serving up critical reminders about our mortality.
In the decades I’ve worked in Health Communication, I’ve met, interviewed, and researched a number of people wandering the treacherous terrain of illness. What I’ve learned is that:
Being “lost” in the wilds truly allows us to find our way. Or, at least, find ourselves.
There’s something about being lost that makes us drop our illusions of control. Those maps we were handed during our youth: those can become useless. I’m talking about the maps that tell us that if we’re a “good girl” or a “strong man” that we will be safe. I’m talking about the maps that tell us that only certain races are susceptible to disease. I’m talking about the maps that point us toward “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” right before we’re knocked to our knees and no matter how hard we pull, we’re not getting up—not for a while or....not on our lonesome.
Illness challenges us to toss aside those maps, the ones that no longer work but give us that illusion of control, of certainty. I saw that with cancer survivors who lost their hair, breasts, and parts of their internal organs. They had to find other ways back to their beliefs about their identities, faiths, and relationships. Simply put, they had to draw up new maps to new territories of their transforming bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits.
Too, I saw that with women with sexually transmitted infections, the ones who had followed the maps to health. Some of the women in my study reported having been monogamous, for example, only having had sex after marriage. Yet, they still contracted a STI and had to find different routes to notions about being healthy, desirable, and loveable.
Each one of us end up in our own Wilderness, and those maps we hold so dear often prove useless.
Like in a pandemic.
I grew up in the woods. I spent my youth hiking and camping. Then, as a young adult, I spent a summer being a counselor in a remote woodland camp for girls where we went rock climbing, canoeing, and trekking. And I got lost plenty, and what I discovered when wandering the Wilds: Woods don’t care about you, not me either.
Just like the virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2.
Before entering any untamed space, I take water, a knife, and a lighter with me—and usually, I layer up. Similarly, in the pandemic, I mask up and socially distance. I’m no fool. Regardless of whatever Wilderness I’m wandering, I draw on good practices that may not guarantee my safety 100%, but at least I am better prepared for those times when the world becomes more hostile toward me and my kind. Then, I turn myself over to those wild spaces.
I don’t know what’s coming. I hold onto my map, but I also fold it up, put it away, need be.
Sometimes, the Wilderness forces us to create new maps, forge new paths. And maybe that’s what we’re doing right now.
Love in a pandemic means opening ourselves to new ways of taking a long and unpredictable journey.
Lost and Stuck
October 27, 2020
Love in the pandemic can be trying, especially when we’re lost, stuck, and without a clue about when or how we’re getting out of this big ole mess.
As long as I can remember, I’ve had a deep love for forests. The deeper, the wilder, the better. That explains why I have a long history of getting lost in them.
Mom complains to this day that as a kid I'd routinely escaped from home, fleeing into the surrounding woodlands. When I was little (we’re talking 4, 5), she would lock all the doors and get to work cleaning the house. Raised Catholic, Mom had attended parochial school, then, later, she took her vows and became a nun. Of course, that was long ago—and another story. What I’m getting at is that when Mom cleaned, she disappeared into it. Still does. In many ways, her Catholic upbringing instilled that in her. At 82, she keeps a pristine home that makes me simultaneously homesick and envious.
My guess, those decades back when she’d locked us inside the house, she’d given herself over to cleaning to the point that she didn’t notice that my eyes had taken on a far-away stare and my feet had started itching to be planted on the forest floor.
Time and again, I’d work those locks with my tiny fingers, pry open the door, and slip outside. Once free, I’d head to the woods behind our house. When I got lucky, I’d pop outside and find the neighborhood dog, Princess, ambling up the road. Princess always seemed to be off to some mysterious destination, and, like me, she was short and squat with stubby legs, but those legs got her wherever she needed getting to.
Now in my fifties, I don’t remember much about those times that I tagged along with Princess. What I do remember is the mud puddle at the edge of the woods.
That mud puddle keeps sticking in my mind the deeper we go into this pandemic.
Okay, I need to set something straight. It wasn’t really a mud puddle. It was a wallow, a patch of watery muck that cows roll in.
When I exited the dark woods, a green field stretched out before me. Princess made her way across the field, skirting the wallow. But not me. I didn’t skirt. In fact, I’ve never been much of a skirter.
Like in this pandemic, I went straight in, curious, foolhardy.
I love the rain. When a downpour comes, most people head inside; I head outside. Used to, I’d put on a heavy vinyl coat, new-grass green, one that Mom bought me in my youth.
When those mountain showers came, releasing the wild aroma of Appalachia, I would go outside, bathing my feet in muddy puddles, feeling the spray on my face, baptizing my soul.
Even before that green raincoat, I had rubber boots, poppy red. I loved the color, but I hated pulling them on, the rubber of the boots grabbing at, almost greedily suckling the rubber soles of my shoes. Yet, grappling with those boots was the price for my freedom. For some reason, that day I went on my woodland adventures with Princess, I’d pulled on those rubber boots. Maybe they were easy for me to tug over my tiny, naked feet, and they didn’t have laces that would fight my nubby fingers.
My memory of that day gets jumbled. I see rhododendrons, their glossy leaves lovely and towering oaks and maples roughly armored with silver bark. Most of all, I remember the cow wallow, a dark, oblong belly button in the swell of the field. To my inexperienced eyes, it must have looked like the biggest, most inviting mud puddle. I must have thought that those red rubber boots would help me walk through it.
Princess had the sense to go around the cow wallow. I did not. That’s how I got stuck. Right in the middle. Too far in to back out. Too far from the other side.
Around nine months into this pandemic, I’m feeling the same way. I’m too far in, but I know that the “other side” is out of my reach, so I wait.
Apparently, I’m not alone. Both the World Health Organization and The New York Times recognize that “pandemic fatigue” has set in. Many of us are stuck in the middle, not knowing how to haul ourselves out of this mess.
Dad taught at a university in Western North Carolina for decades before retiring. With his salt-and-pepper beard and thick glasses, he looked like the stereotypical professor (I don’t!).
Here’s how the family story goes:
Dad would be teaching on campus, a short, twenty-minute walk from our home. There he would be lecturing to a room full of college students, discussing with them rhetorical devices and southern oration. Then, Mom would call.
“Kelly’s missing again.”
Dad would cancel his class. He and several of his students would make their way up the hill behind the university to where our house stood, and they’d fan out in the neighborhood, searching for me once more.
I don’t remember much about my rescuer. I think he had a beard and a checked-flannel shirt, but that may be wishful thinking. There’s something about a bearded male in flannel that eases me to this day.
There I was, wailing in the middle of the wallow, and this man (probably only 19, 20 years old when I think on it) breaks through the tree line. He makes his way toward me, crossing the field and plucking me from the cow wallow. When I close my eyes, I imagine I hear the suckling noise of those red rain boots being pried from the mud.
Of course, that wasn’t the last time I got lost and stuck, but that’s the time I keep thinking about during this pandemic.
Months back, I threw myself into this pandemic with as much curiosity as I had during those youthful woodland expeditions. As a researcher and writer, I strive to capture how people navigate bleakness in beautiful ways. I try noticing everything: my friends who are healthcare professionals providing the best care they can under difficult circumstances; those who are unemployed or under-employed figuring out inventive ways of earning an income; those who are educators, secretaries, and essential workers serving their communities, despite their fears. I am curious about others and how they're survivinng the pandemic; I'm inspired too. But I other things as well.
Mainly, I feel stuck, a small, scared soul in the middle of a dark, muddy patch that won’t release me.
Yes, I cry, sometimes even wail, but I also know that I’m not alone, even when I feel like I am.
Love in a pandemic means that when we’re lost, we throw out our arms in deep gratitude when we’re found, especially by a kind stranger who comes out of the wilderness.
November 13, 2020
Love in the pandemic means remaining compassionate even when we want to blame and point fingers.
Recently, a student tested positive for COVID-19. I won’t say if this person is a former or current student to help protect their identity.
Quarantining themselves, the student did what they could to protect others, not wanting to pass along the infection as it had been passed along to them—unknowingly. But then, this student faced another kind of isolation.
There were comments made, judgements offered, and blame heaped upon them until they were socially distanced—and socially isolated.
This person, a lovely, gentle soul, had been left alone like a modern-day Hester Prynne, cast aside and deemed culpable.
And this experience got me thinking about disenfranchised grief.
I first heard of disenfranchised grief when reading Andrew Herrmann’s work about his family’s loss of their home. Brilliantly, he takes readers inside interconnecting stories about foreclosure, private shame, and marginalized grief experiences.
It seems that Kenneth Doka coined the term disenfranchised grief in the late 1980s. The concept captures the experience of incurring “a loss that cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned or socially supported.” Years ago, when I first stumbled across this concept, I knew that I would tuck it away and take it out again and again, holding it close, examining it.
In this era of COVID-19, I find myself repeatedly returning to the subject of grief, particularly a culture’s sanctioning of certain griefs and marginalizing others.
Erving Goffman made a name for himself, in part, by writing about illnesses and conditions that discredit a person, in effect “spoiling” that person’s identity. We see it with survivors of lung cancer and people diagnosed with sexually transmitted infections and mental/brain disorders.
We see it in other human conditions too, including poverty and, as Andrew Herrmann has talked about, home foreclosures. We see it with those who have been assaulted or live with intimate partner violence. And we are reminded:
All cultures have a caste system of illnesses and conditions.
I see it in those who test positive for COVID-19, who are isolated, left to grieve and tend to themselves because their sadness over getting sick must never be publicly acknowledged. After all, they had it coming, right?
Then, maybe, compassion seeps into us. And, perhaps, that’s enough for us to remember that line in Unforgiven (1992). “We all have it coming, kid.”
Granted, most of us have some degree of optimistic bias. That is, “the mistaken belief that one's chances of experiencing a negative event are lower (or a positive event higher) than that of one's peers.” Years ago, I learned about Weinstein’s work on optimistic bias. I’ve seen it in my own co-authored research on HPV risk, as well as in some of my other research. Essentially, we are pretty bad at accurately determining our risk.
And maybe some of us really do have “it” coming.
Then, I think of that student. They were isolated, physically and socially, their fears, sorrows, and worries shoved to the margins because they dared to catch a virus. I won’t say the source of transmission because that would be my way of legitimizing them and their infection, and, in effect, placing them higher up in that caste system.
Instead, what I want to do is to acknowledge the lonely grievers, those who face losses that are not “socially acceptable.” I want to grieve with them, with you. I want to remember that we all have it coming in our own way. And maybe, just maybe, the “it” is being loved and cared for when we are at our most vulnerable.
Love in the pandemic means actually loving people through this pandemic.
Rush to Gratitude
November 19, 2020
Love in the pandemic doesn’t have to be a rushed journey through the rocky parts.
“Be careful about the rush to gratitude,” I’ve taken to warning my students, both undergraduate and graduate.
Don’t get me wrong: gratitude is important. Mindfulness researchers and practitioners, along with professionals in Positive Psychology, point to the link between gratitude and happiness. We’re told, convincingly too, about neuroplasticity and training our brains to overcome the bias towards negativity.
I confess! I engage in such trainings. Each morning, I meditate and exercise. Then, I jot in my 3-Joys Journal. On top of it, I read a ton. Currently, I’m wrapping up The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life by David Brooks, and I’ve just started The Buddha Brain, co-authored by Dr. Rick Hanson. These kinds of books are stacked up throughout my house, like cairns meant to mark my spiritual pathways, silently promising to direct me through the darkness.
Okay, you pegged me!! I’m a bit of a gratitude junky. In fairness, I’ve had to become one. Largely because my brain won’t shut up (or STFU, more accurately). I call it my “problematizing brain.” It’s constantly scouring the environment (immediate and distant), trying to ping on the latest quandary, eternally whispering to me:
If you fix Problem No. 1500768-BZA, then all will be well. Finally, you will be able to relax. I will leave you alone.
My brain lies to me like that. That’s why I feed it gratitude practices...the same way I feed my big-mouth cat: to get a bit of relief from the constant yowling.
Practicing gratitude helps me search out and notice what I already have rather than fixating on what I lack.
Yet, I maintain that the rush to gratitude is problematic too, especially when we attempt to circumnavigate the most arduous parts of our journey.
My students are mostly twenty-somethings, newly emerging communication scholars and professionals. They care about others, their eyes perpetually trained on the pressing needs across communities and populations. Often, I must remind them that they matter too, that their suffering should be witnessed, and, perhaps, eased, that their dreams are worthy of being brought to life.
“I’m privileged,” they tell me throughout the semester, part admission, part apology, part explanation.
Certainly, not all see their privilege. Not all recognize or work to minimize others’ suffering or address systemic inequalities. But most of my students do, so much so that they skip over their own pain, rushing toward gratitude, and missing a whole lot in the process.
I have to remind them (and myself) that if they don’t take care of themselves or listen to their bodies that are screaming, moaning, and protesting, they won’t be able to help others. And they sure as hell won’t have enough in them for gratitude.
I want to take you back pre-pandemic, if you’re willing. It’s more about my co-authored research of women surviving cancer.
As you know by now, one of my great honors in life has been sitting with women and receiving their stories about surprising diagnoses, painful treatments, and deep fears. They were a fabulously fiery and funny bunch too. There were tears and angry outbursts, but, inevitably, most would interrupt their own stories of suffering, shifting from their tales of tragedy, terror, and triumph to telling about how others suffer more.
I’ve heard it in my classrooms. I’ve heard it in communities. What is it? It is the beautifully haunting way that some people have of transforming testimonials of tragedy.
One moment, I’m listening to a story about shadows and darkness. The next, I’m listening to declarations of gratitude, of promises that they are privileged, oh! so fortunate...especially compared to others.
Yes, it is all so beautiful. And let’s pause the positivity for a moment. Please!
“My mother died over the weekend.”
“Oh, I am so sorry,” I reply.
“Is it, though? Is it okay? Are you really okay?”
In my nearly thirty years of teaching, I’ve had this interaction numerous times with students. Seriously! In many ways, my conversations with students mirror my conversations with women surviving cancer.
In these words, I hear bravery, an acknowledgement of one’s ability to survive. Sometimes, however, I also pick up on underlying messages, the unspoken ones, like:
I don’t want to burden you with my own suffering. I’m having tough times, but I should be grateful for what I have. I’m bad for both suffering a loss AND for being ungrateful for what remains. I should be stronger. If I were stronger, I wouldn’t feel what I’m feeling.
Beginning in March 2020, when the campus went on lockdown and my classes went online, I kept hearing students say, “I’m one of the lucky ones,” and “I’m fortunate. So many others are worse off.” I hear these same declarations from loved ones too. They lose their careers (not only a job, but an entire career), and they say without pausing that their thankful for having their health. They get smacked with multiple deaths, and they proclaim how glad they are for their families and friends.
Like any other human, I’m riddled with contradictions. I find it hard to be around family members who complain incessantly. I have little patience for someone who is surrounded by love and loveliness but continually points out everything they lack. But, too, I’m concerned about the Positivity Police, those people who seem to rush others’ grieving process or interrupt legitimate bursts of anger about injustices. The focus on positivity and gratitude is crucial, especially when facing times when we’ve lost all sense of control. Still, I’m concerned, and this is why:
When we rush to gratitude, we’re jumping over the sharper sections of our Path, convincing ourselves that it’s better to have our feet on soft, stable areas. We leap over gaping, dark holes, telling ourselves that we should be grateful we’re still able to jump—while ignoring the pain and fear.
What if we stopped for a moment? What if we investigated the dark hole, or, at least, acknowledged its presence? What if we knelt in reverence beside the opening and dared to look into the yawning uncertainty? We don’t have to crawl inside. We don’t have to curl up and dwell down there.
Maybe, though, we could take a moment to see those scary parts of our larger journey, and that includes the maddening and saddening parts of this pandemic. Maybe, we could take a breath and feel what’s there before rushing down the path of gratitude.
Love in the pandemic also means pausing the positivity, witnessing the darkness we’re making our way through, and trusting that, once we’re rested and recovered, we’ll reach gratitude.
Love & Loss
December 2, 2020
Love in the pandemic means letting go when it comes time.
My mother-in-law (MIL) died on Thanksgiving morning, giving me an opportunity to reflect on her and find some gratitude on a particularly difficult day.
Pat was a fighter throughout her life—based on the stories she told me, it sounds like she had to be. During the times that I found her most challenging to be around, I reminded myself that she didn’t seem to have that many people who looked out for her during her youth. So, she had to look out for herself.
I should have known, then, that Pat would’ve thrown a bruising jab on her way out, dying as her youngest kid prepared a Thanksgiving feast.
My MIL wasn’t especially cuddly, and she didn’t have many compliments for those around her, not that I ever witnessed. She’d accused me of theft more than once, and she’d told her family grisly stories about bloody fights she’d gotten into when younger. Those were the stories she told her grandkids too.
By damn, though, she was fierce, and I came to appreciate that. She took on bullies and survived what sounded like a punishing childhood at times.
It’s fitting, then, that she didn’t go easy. It’s fitting that she went out during an historic pandemic.
Pat didn’t die a COVID-related death, but months earlier, she tested positive. Her nursing facility had to whisk her to a special unit in another city hours away. She survived COVID. Damn right, she did! Nearing 80, she went on for months more. By the way, she also survived bouts with cancer too, kicking the Big-C’s ass more than once.
If the fight of her life wasn’t against COVID-19, or even cancer, then it had to be against Alzheimer’s. Pat had been diagnosed (MoCA) several years back with moderate cognitive functioning problems. She fought her family and healthcare practitioners about the diagnosis, and when her condition necessitated in-home care, she fought her healthcare aides too.
Tale is, she took swings at several people she thought were doing her wrong, even threatened to shoot some others (not that she had a working gun). Unfortunately, she ended up striking out at people looking out for her welfare. When I get to thinking about those times before the courts approved guardianship over her and before she lived safely in a nursing facility, I get steamed about all the vultures that ended up circling her. I wish she would’ve taken some swings at them.
Vultures tore a chunk or two out of her before getting chased away. Pat got to the point that she gave money and possessions to people who were apparently more interested in what she could do for them than what they could do for her. Don’t get me started about the vehicle that she “sold” to someone she thought returned her love. Over time, she shoved away her allies and let the vultures close in on her.
That’s the thing with Alzheimer’s: allies and enemies get swapped in the mind of the person with the disease, making the war uglier, more heartbreaking.
Throughout 2020, the pandemic and Alzheimer’s joined forces against Pat, waging an inhumane war, stripping her of her home, freedom, dreams, and memories.
Back in spring, as the pandemic sent us all into lockdown, Pat’s worsening dementia necessitated that she enter a memory unit in a nursing facility. Turned out, Pat was a runner. Of course, she was. As soon as she realized that she was being taken from her beloved home, she jumped out of the car in the facility parking lot and took off, coming close to running into a busy highway. Thankfully, her youngest caught up with her. Pat mistook her own kid for a kindly stranger giving her a ride. They returned to the facility as she complained to her youngest child that her children were conspiring against her, trying to lock her away.
Once she got admitted to the facility, an uneasy peace settled. There were fights and phone calls, but at least she was no longer calling the police on exhausted healthcare aides, accusing them of stealing. She wasn’t accusing her neighbors of moving their house onto her property or turning their house around so they wouldn’t have to look at her. And she wasn’t getting lost in her own neighborhood, and towards the end of her independent living, getting lost in her own backyard.
The peace didn’t last, though. Pat still had plenty of fight left in her.
Pat could be stubborn, quick tempered, and just plain vicious. She also was fiercely determined. For example, when she decided she’d had enough of this world’s nonsense, she stopped eating and drinking. Not even her favorite ice cream rarely gained entrance into her mouth. Over the course of six or so weeks, she turned her body into an impenetrable fort, and no amount of coaxing got her to open back up. Eventually, Hospice came to oversee her dying process. Bless Hospice.
I wish I could say that there had been a moment or two of lucidity that allowed Pat and her kids to exchange warm goodbyes and words of gratitude. Instead, she immersed herself in work. She folded piles of laundry that didn’t exist, and she rested in chairs that also didn’t exist, resulting in several falls and injuries.
A busted nose, and a head wound: these became the manifestations of the disease hollowing her out.
Finally, she took to bed, getting riled when family called. Understandably, they stopped calling, torn between the desire to say goodbye and the desire to not cause her more harm than the twin forces of Alzheimer’s and the pandemic had already caused.
In all this mess, there were lovely moments. For one, Pat had a boyfriend, real or imagined, we don’t know. I don’t much care. I like that she had plans to run away with her new lover to a new life. Yes, she was still under siege by Alzheimer’s and the pandemic, trapped in a locked down facility, but in her mind, she was in delicious, sumptuous love, her disease allowing her to escape the confinement that she couldn’t escape in actuality.
She died on Thanksgiving morning. I hope she went on to a great feast.
That day, I gave thanks. To her for having such amazing children. To her for being such a fierce woman. And to her youngest with whom I share an exquisite life of love.
Love in the pandemic means discovering ways to give thanks in the face of loss.
Kelly A. Dorgan is a professor, writer, and researcher specializing in illness, gender, culture, and communication. Connect with her on Twitter https://twitter.com/KADorgan and her website https://www.kellydorgan.com/.
December 31, 2020
Love in the pandemic means honoring what has been, then letting go to make space for what is to come.
Thank you, 2020. You have been a great teacher, like a complicated relationship that helped reveal what I need to see, and do.
During our time together, 2020, I faced losses and hardships. There were deaths and unemployment in the family. Teaching became a series of trials, providing me ample opportunities to help struggling and overwhelmed students.
Remember, though, my dear 2020, how depleted I have been at the day’s end, how throughout my time with you, my boundaries between work and home blurred. Then came the perpetual sense of dread. What would happen next? Another death? Another loss? Another upheaval? Or just more of my days bleeding together?
I appreciate all the ways you opened my eyes and woke me up.
Thank you for that, 2020.
I can’t lay all of my great reawakening at your feet, 2020. The years that came before you also reminded me of the cornerstones at our foundation: the sexism, the racism, the homophobia, the transphobia, the economic discrimination ... and so many other cruelties and oppressions. With each devastating happening and each death, I saw the outline of those cornerstones that uphold the world we’ve built upon them.
Then, 2020, you came along, widening the cracks in the foundation, allowing us to see even more clearly. You reminded me about where I need to direct my limited time and energy.
You reminded me who deserves my blood, sweat, and tears.
Thank you for that, 2020.
As much as you have done for me, 2020, I’m saying goodbye. Like in the poem by Safire Rose, I am letting go.
I say yes to social justice movements, but I’m letting go of the people who willfully remain blind to the injustices. I say yes to remaining involved in politics, but I’m letting go of the hate and divisiveness some use to stay in power. I say yes to investing in certain relationships, but I’m letting go of the ones that no longer serve me. I say yes to taking more risks, but I’m letting go of the ways that rejection and failure have provoked feelings of insufficiency in me.
I’m letting go, 2020.
Shall we forgive one another? Shall we abandon our griefs and beefs, replacing our serrated words with speechlessness? Let’s just be for a spell, all ears, all heart. Together, we’ll listen for faint cracking, the soft sound of something breaking through our hardpacked souls, something that will thrive in the liminal spaces between our bodies, our pains, and our outrages.
Again, 2020, thank you, but I must let you go. There's more work to do in 2021, more living.
Love in the pandemic means grieving and honoring what’s been and moving toward what’s to come.
January 14, 2021
Love in the pandemic means taking someone’s hand and helping them navigate basic healthcare in a not-so-basic time.
As I’ve written before, Mom is a badass-hike-two-hours-a-day kind of woman. So, when her knee started swelling back in summer, she wasn’t pleased. She tried getting answers, running (limping) from appointment to appointment, and asking tons of questions. She met with practitioners, got a steroid shot, and she also got the run-around.
“Everyone’s just so crazy with this pandemic,” she says, refusing to be bitter.
In the pandemic, Mom’s knee went on the backburner. Until it went out.
COVID-19 rates are spiking here in Southern Appalachia. In my neck of the woods, we have about a 35% positive COVID-19 rate. I was concerned, then, when Mom called me early one morning and needed me to travel to over the state line to her town, a place with a substantially lower positive-test rate.
“I’m not doing well,” she said, her voice uncharacteristically small.
For her to admit that she’s having a hard time is an awesome feat. She is an independent spirit who repeatedly declares, “I don’t want to be a burden,” no matter how often we attempt to reassure her. The night before, however, as the cat swished at her feet, she twisted her already injured knee.
“I saw stars,” she told me.
How terrified she must have been: alone on a winter’s night, a snowstorm approaching, her knee throbbing. To make her way through her home, she lurched from one piece of furniture to another, grasping on for stability.
Thank goodness, Mom’s not one for clutter that could trip her on her precarious nighttime journey from bedroom to bathroom, and back again.
A former candy striper, parochial student, and nun, Mom keeps a tidy house, her floors spotless, her bathrooms and kitchen too. She’s also one for hospital corners. Having worked as a candy striper, she insists on having four crisp corners when making her bed, the flat sheet tight and neat. Her housework requires squatting, bending, lifting, and scrubbing, so being unable to walk has been a sudden, and difficult, adjustment. Like those who use wheelchairs and other durable medical equipment, she will adjust, finding ways of functioning in the world that’s not welcoming to those who struggle with “dys”-functioning.
As a proponent of the social disability model, I am frustrated at how we design our society in such a way that propels people with impairments into disability categories. What do I mean? Think on it. Are there “disabilities” that are mainly disabilities because of how we’ve erected and maintained our physical world? It’s the way we design our buildings, sidewalks, and entrances that, in effect, includes and excludes populations. I for one teach in a building on campus where anyone who uses a wheelchair must expend extraordinary effort to access the sole entrance with a ramp, then, the sole ramp inside the building. If I were on the third floor, up two flights of stairs, I would be inaccessible to certain colleagues and students. That is, when I’m on campus.
Perhaps, I digress. On second thought, I don’t. In large part, Mom was suddenly constrained because of the way we plan and build towns, neighbors, and homes.
Southern Appalachia is not particularly navigable. Our towns aren’t always walkable, lacking sidewalks, and our communities haven’t always invested in (or had money to invest in) public transportation. So, when Mom was stuck in her home in a mountain town, she was literally stuck in her home, unable to walk to down a steep driveway and across a busy street to a neighbor’s house, unable to even go outside without encountering steps.
Because of one swishing cat, Mom found herself plucked from a "functional" member of this society to a "dys-functional" one. Behind locked doors and in an empty house, she was forced to spend a sleepless night waiting for her daughter to come to her aid.
As I rushed across the mountain to get to her, I worried how we would get her into the orthopedic surgeon for a consult. After all, we’re in a pandemic. And, even if we got her in front of the appropriate medical practitioner, would she be able to have any necessary surgery, especially when southern hospitals are being overrun by COVID-19?
The US healthcare system is fragmented, making navigating it difficult and time consuming. There’s a ton of white space, so to speak, between medical facilities. That is, there are wide gaps between out medical services. We have one routine checkup in Facility A, but we must travel to Facility B for a diagnosis, and Facility C for treatment, and so on. Being well from head to toe and inside to outside takes time, money, transportation, and support. This fragmentation helps explain how the United States has long had relatively poor patient-satisfaction with our healthcare system.
And boy oh boy! I am dissatisfied with Mom’s experience.
To get into the ortho, she had to see her regular healthcare practitioner, first, before being referred to a provider in the ortho practice. You can bet that during that initial visit, you will not see the ortho surgeon who can officially diagnose and initiate a course of treatment. The wait between appointments is agonizing, taking weeks, months. On top of it, her provider has taken personal time several times, further delaying her diagnosis and treatment. Of course, healthcare practitioners need to take time off. That’s not my point.
My point, then?
Months passed as she navigated a fragmented healthcare system during a pandemic, her knee continuing to swell, the pain too. And it’s not like she can stop. Like many older women, Mom lives alone.
She cared for Dad up to his death; now she has to piece together a jigsaw puzzle of caregivers when it’s time for her to get help.
Plus, she stays active to ward off depression and heart disease. No one told her to stop walking or even slow down, and her days filled with cleaning, running errands, and hiking up a mountain trail. She did all these things on an increasingly inflamed knee, and while waiting for her next appointment, and, hopefully, a diagnosis and treatment plan.
Finally, a crisis came. And it had to happen in a pandemic.
When we got into the ortho surgeon’s practice, we waited for about an hour (his morning packed with surgeries). It took him less than 5 minutes to diagnose her and recommend knee replacement, and if she wanted to preserve her mobility, she needed the replacement ASAP.
Scheduling knee replacement isn’t easy, especially in a pandemic. She requires a note from her regular practitioner, clearing her for surgery. Mind you, this note has to come for her practitioner, someone who was out for a personal matter. Matter of fact, as I’m writing this, Mom and I are still waiting for word on the clearance note; she’s getting the run around, and she's running out of time.
There are a lot of ticky-tacky steps that must be taken. Presently, we are identifying and securing resources (e.g., buy a walker, arrange transportation), planning for care for herself and the pets (e.g., figure out how she can get to the vet to get insulin for her old cat), figuring out how she can buy groceries, and assessing which of her household chores she can continue doing—and which she cannot. And we must do all this is before the surgery. On top of it, she must have a COVID-19 test, and the surgeon wants her to have the vaccine before her surgery, requiring umpteen phone calls, internet searches, etc.
In the meantime, thankfully, we learned about instacart, and we ordered her first delivery of groceries (give it plenty of time between order and delivery; we got ours nearly 7 hours after the promised delivery time). Still, it’s proving to be an invaluable resource.
Also, thankfully, after finally reaching someone at the health department, we learned about vaccine interest forms. The problem with these forms is the same problem with the management of this pandemic: there isn’t a centralized approach to vaccine distribution, leaving it a terribly fragmented undertaking — for families and the nation as a whole. Different populations in different areas will have to track down the appropriate forms. Check the local health department. If you can get anyone to pick up. They are swamped! It’s a pandemic—never mind.
At last, Mom and I located the vaccine interest form she needed. The form is online, so I completed it and submitted it for her, then we monitored her email account for updates (INHALE! EXHALE). We got the run-around, but finally, we got her scheduled for her first or two doses.
Turns out, getting her to and from knee surgery is the easy part. It’s the small tasks and decisions pre- and post-surgery that are complicated. The procedure itself takes about twenty minutes, but the aftermath will ripple outward. She’ll have in-home therapy for the first two weeks. Then, there will be PT for several weeks at the local wellness center. And each step to recovery will be made even more complicated by the pandemic.
Unable to drive for four weeks after the surgery, she will have to be driven by family who stay with her. We, the family members, must take time off work and come from places that have those spiking COVID rates. Thinking ahead, we’re investigating the public transit system, especially paratransit for those unable to drive or access a regular pickup spot. But here’s another surprise (not really): there’s an application form that must be downloaded, completed, and submitted to a ... You guessed it! A healthcare practitioner for certification. Certainly, practitioners have TONs of time in a pandemic.
I’m compelled to write this post because I am overwhelmed by holding down a household and a career while also assisting Mom through a tough time. She deserves support. But, as usual, I am heartbroken at the idea of people who have to navigate both basic and not-so-basic healthcare in a pandemic.
I’m also heartbroken about the inequities that plague our medical system.
Mom has insurance. We don’t live in a healthcare desert, enabling her to have in-home therapy. Mom has children with salaried jobs and who have access to family medical leave. She will have rides to outpatient therapy, as well as to and from surgery. We are people living middle-class lives. We don’t live in a food desert, so we can get deliveries from grocery stores and restaurants, and we have the means to pay for those services. And, if Mom needs it, we will hire someone to supplement her house cleaning and to take care of the gardens she spent decades designing, planting, and maintaining.
Can others say the same?
Do others have the time to call the overrun and underfunded health department a billion times to track down the vaccine? Do others have an in-home computer and stable internet connection to complete the billion forms? Do others have reliable transportation and cell service to doggedly track down overwhelmed healthcare providers to write surgery-clearance notes and to complete paratransit forms?
The other day, I drove Mom from her appointment to various facilities. I have a reliable car and enough money to fill the tank. I got out of the car and walked into facilities that were swamped. Or, in the case of the health department, I entered a shuttered, desolated waiting area, the staff isolating in the back. Regardless, I have a job that gives me flexibility to run around town, wait in busy facilities, or leave empty ones and spend hours calling and researching online.
Basically, in a pandemic, there is no such thing as "basic" healthcare, and it's going to take a lot of love, and patience, to get through this.
Kelly A. Dorgan is a professor, writer, and researcher specializing in illness, gender, culture, and communication. Connect with her on Twitter https://twitter.com/KADorgan and her website https://www.kellydorgan.com/.