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Pickle Me This

March 26, 2020

What Are You Going Through?

“What are you going through?” is the question, a line from Shawna Lemay‘s Rumi and the Red Handbag (which I’ve included on a new list at 49thShelf of books in my library I want to reread). And it’s a particularly pointed question for right now, when we’re all going through it, when “we’re all in this together,” except we aren’t, of course. I’m still struck by the essay I read yesterday about a woman whose husband has been brutally ill with the Coronavirus, and this from the perspective of their teenage daughter:

“I took out the kitty litter,” CK says, “and I saw some people standing on the corner, and I was like, I want to see strangers! And then I heard them saying: ‘It’s actually been really nice. It’s been a chance to connect as a family.’ And I was like, No, actually, I don’t want to see strangers, and I came back in.”

My hardships pale. Compared to those who are ill, or caregiving, or grieving. Those who are unable to find childcare, or who are put to work in unsafe situations for minimal pay, or who struggling to put food on the table. For those whose support services have been cut, or whose lifesaving treatments have been cancelled. Compared to those workers who head into the eye of storm, while the rest of us are hiding in our houses. Even comfortably. Sheltering in place.


I had been freaking out about the Coronavirus for a while, since the end of February, waking up at night with anxiety, which seemed weird and almost laughable, but it kept happening. We’d been booked to travel to the UK last week, and I’d worried about travelling at such a heightened moment, about the coughs kids always have, and I’d been worried about us staying healthy before our flight anyway, which is a gamble at the best of times. We were applying hand sanitizer quite religiously, perhaps obsessively. On the last Monday before school ended, I had a doctor’s appointment, and friends were taking my children to their swimming lessons that night, and the anguish I was feeling at this situation was definitely out of proportion, though it didn’t help that I was sitting there in the waiting room with the 24 hour news channel screaming from a big screen.

Something wasn’t right, and I started seeing Twitter threads of devastation in Italy. We were leaving for the UK in less than a week, and cancelling our trip was just impossible. (So many things were impossible two weeks ago.) So much money on the line, and we couldn’t throw that away. (Since January, I’d been reading about people living under lockdown in China with absolutely no understanding that such things could ever been connected to me.) On Tuesday, I spent two hours on hold with the airline, only to be told that since there was no travel advisory, we weren’t eligible for a refund if we cancelled. What if we went then, I wondered, but ordered a boatload of face masks? I even looked them up on Amazon, which is anathema to me, but there was no availability anyway until early April.

By Wednesday it was clear though—things were bad. To travel to Europe would be lunacy, whether there was a travel advisory or not. I was starting to realize there was space between the lines of what public health officials were saying, that they were telling us we could go abroad…but that was not the same thing as saying we should. That there was really no one in charge here was something astounding to consider, but also that we had the power to use our own minds and make responsible choices. I did a panic shop that afternoon after picking up my kids from school, which sounds less shameful when you consider that I don’t have a car and had to carry home everything I purchased, and my children are still pretty excited about that trip to the grocery store “because you let us buy everything we wanted.” Mostly chips.

On Thursday, Harriet went to school, but we kept Iris home with a cough we would not have paid any attention to under normal circumstances. Over the course of the day, Stuart gradually stopped fighting my state of high alert and conceded that this was something. This was the day after all the sports were cancelled and Tom Hanks got diagnosed, and Sophie Trudeau the next day. I’d stayed up on Twitter late into the night, and then woke up in the middle of the night in a panic that was only abated by me going downstairs and turning my computer back on to discover that Twitter was not as terrifying as my mind was, which is really saying something.

I kept both kids out of school on Friday and Stuart worked from home, and it was here where our self-isolation began, and the idea of us ever having not cancelled our trip became hard to imagine. We were over it, though still profoundly disappointed, especially as Stuart’s dad has been very ill, and we were due to meet our baby niece, and it’s very hard to be apart from family with so much dire business going on. (This was also while the official UK policy was “Many people are going to die….”)

I could not eat. I wasn’t sleeping. I discovered that phoning friends was a lovely kind of reprieve, something I hadn’t done in years. I felt safe and comfortable at home, lucky for so many reasons, glad we’d done the panic shop early and avoided the rush. I felt overwhelmed by grief and sadness, and sorry for my children, and so much disappointment, and the idea of so much devastation still to come. The idea that nobody really understands what is happening, or how to fix it. Glimmers of hope too. Thinking of my relative comfort, and how to hold that in the same space as my fear for the future, but also awareness of the much more difficult situations that other people were going through. The nurses. The clerks at the grocery store.

I did not do very well last week. I kept calling it my roller coaster/ hamster wheel. I’d be doing a puzzle and have to go lie down because I was having a panic attack. The weight on my chest that is either anxiety or a deadly respiratory illness. I kept looking online, desperate for good news, but there was nothing, and I kept waking up at three o’clock in the morning, convulsively shaking. I was so scared, my body on high alert, and I had been right about everything, is what I was thinking. For weeks I’d been in a panic, and everything I was afraid of kept coming true.

And I keep thinking about all those people who are much more experienced at living with uncertainty than I am, how naive and silly I must sound. “Welcome to my world,” is what they’re all polite enough not to be saying out loud.

On Wednesday night, I watched Crocodile Dundee, which I can’t stop talking about, but it was such a turning point for me. I went to bed and slept all night, though waking up feeling okay in the morning made me not vigilant enough to resist indulging in behaviour I’d come to be sorry for, a whole afternoon refreshing Twitter, bad news and more bad news, and that night I went to bed and had legitimate nightmares. I started to see that feeling okay would have to be a conscious choice here, one that took more work than the submitting to the lazy river of media consumption (when will there be good news?). I’d spent too long scoffing at the idea of mindset and staying positive—what’s the use of that when everything is shit? But when everything is shit, I realized, mindset is all you’ve got, and being unable to eat or sleep, or get through the day without five panic attacks is not the way to stay healthy.

So what has helped me?

  • Music! The radio is usually a constant soundtrack in our house, but lately it’s just upsetting noise. In very 20th century problems, our CD player broke last week, but then we finally signed up for ad-free Spotify and now I have all the music in the world at my fingertips.
  • Avoiding the news: I was turning to the news for answers, but nobody has any of those (yet). Once a day or so, I will read the news online at a reputable source. I have stopped following charts and tallies. They are not helpful. Everything is bad. I know it. I don’t have to steep in it.
  • No social media after dinner: The exception is Instagram, which is just wall-to-wall sourdough bread right now. Stupid movies and TV shows are good. Books are even better. Rereading Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books is the best thin ever.
  • Counting my blessings. Even though this makes me feel guilty and I wish that blessings were more fairly distributed.
  • Little rituals: good things to eat. Watching the sunset. Hugs with my loved ones. Talking to friends and family on the phone. Making food last longer. Making somethings out of nothings. Leaving chalk drawings on friends’ sidewalks.
  • Connection! On Zoom, Skype, out the window, across the street, on the phone, etc. etc.
  • Moving! This really helps me with sleep. I have been riding my exercise bike, which (another blessing!) mercifully I never got rid of, even though it’s been sitting in my closet for four years. Taking walks when we can. We’ve also done a couple of online fitness classes, and I really loved these (especially when the instructor’s cat walks in…)
  • Feelings check-in—and sharing my feelings with my children, when appropriate. I think it’s helpful for them to know that complicated and difficult feelings are to be expected in hard times, and that sharing those feelings is normal and even helpful.
  • Everyone in Italy is not dead. I am not being flippant. The situation in Italy is terrible and we should be (and are) doing everything we can to avoid it, but also remembering that most people in Italy are perfectly well inside their homes and waiting for some semblance of life to begin again is something that keeps me going when it seems like the entire world is on fire.
  • Things in China have gotten better. My high school classmate who lives in Shanghai has written a post about how things have gotten better there—and how we know a whole lot more now than they did when things started getting bad there in January. She also has some really practical tips for getting through the weeks ahead.
  • You don’t have to fix everything. You don’t have to save all the local businesses, and carry the burden of healthcare workers, and feed the homeless, and hold the anguish if all those who are ill. (If you can, however, maybe donate to your local food bank.) You don’t have to feel terrible if you cannot do all these things. It doesn’t help anyone if you do.

I’ve been functional for almost a week now, which is not so important in the grand scheme of things, but which is hugely important if you happen to live in my head, or in my household. Staying at home and not falling to pieces honestly is the best thing I can do for our overburdened medical system at the moment, and if this is what’s required of me, then I am happy/grateful to deliver.

I hope that you’re able to take care of yourself too. xo

9 thoughts on “What Are You Going Through?”

  1. Beth Kaplan says:

    Nothing to add to this as always brave and beautiful post except – we’re all in this together, Kerry. If there’s one good thing about it (and the good thing I thought would automatically result, the demise of the orange blowhole, is in doubt because of his high approval ratings – WTF? Seriously, WTF????) is the flow of information and kindness and humour and artistic stuff on the ‘net, linking us, feeding us. I’m looking out my back door at a huge raccoon foraging in my garden. Life goes on. Spring will come. This will end. You are brave and beautiful.

  2. Rohan says:

    So much of this is so familiar, and your steps for coming into a better place are so sensible. I really appreciated your friend’s post from Shanghai too. The idea that this is temporary — scary, challenging, but not infinitely so — is really helpful.

  3. Kelsey says:

    Lovely. Thank you, Kerry.

  4. And blogging is a positive thing to do to!

  5. Clara says:

    It’s tremendously helpful to hear what other people are going through. Thank you for your words.

  6. Dora Dueck says:

    Glad for you and your story.

  7. Lori says:

    Many of the things that have helped you manage the wobbles have helped me, too. I’ve also found it useful to think about my grandmother during the war years -young and home alone with babies while my grandfather was off with the RCAF – and to imagine what she would have given to have it as easy as I do. That little surge of bravery can get me through a few Twitter refreshes. 🙂

  8. Diane says:

    oh gosh, this is really doing heavy things to you. I think you are doing some very useful things to divert your attentions from the darkness. Keep it up. You’re doing just fine. I shared this quote in last week’s blog, “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” — Leo Tolstoy ~ War and Peace. So with that in mind, to you the warrior I wish you patience and light.

  9. Kate says:

    All so familiar.. The sobs, the guilt, the surrender/collapse moments.
    I’m really taking refuge in my kids, which bothers me a little as I feel worried I’m crossing some parenting line. While not relying on them for my own mental stability, I am seeking surety in physicality. Hugs and snuggles ad nauseum,when I can feel them off screen.
    I’m not getting out enough, but am finding bliss in cooking, for the first time in my life. This is Not to say the food is fancy, just stick-to-your-ribs good. Ahh. Life.

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