The Perfect Enemy | Opinion | The Stories We Tell About Covid, Sickness and Health
July 1, 2022

Opinion | The Stories We Tell About Covid, Sickness and Health

Opinion | The Stories We Tell About Covid, Sickness and Health  The New York Times

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It took me so long to catch Covid-19 that by the time the virus finally struck, I’d started to assume I’d already had it or, better yet, maybe some people just weren’t susceptible, including me. That’s it, I decided: I must be immune.

I tested positive on Easter Sunday. It was perfectly terrible timing, since we had just attended a family gathering in Charlottesville, Va. My mother had been there, along with her sisters and brother. We’d huddled together eating scalloped potatoes and apple pie. We’d breathed all over one another. Then we’d hugged everyone goodbye and driven back to Washington, D.C., where I spontaneously decided that my husband, our two kids and I should take coronavirus tests. We’d all tested negative before driving down, but a second test seemed like a righteous way to finish the holiday. I wanted science to assure me that we hadn’t done anything wrong; I wanted the endorphin bump of proven virtue.

Instead, I watched two lines materialize and understood that I’d exposed my favorite seniors to a deadly disease. I climbed the stairs to our bedroom, shut the door and stayed inside as I slid first into snuffles and sneezes and then into a sleepless fever.

Nobody else at the Easter gathering ended up getting Covid-19, which I accepted as another incomprehensible but, for once, merciful aspect of this confounding virus. That’s not to say I was pleased. The psychological tension that had built over two long years of uncertainty collapsed into a terrible sense of futility, as if I’d embarked on a detour that had wound its way through many landscapes and seasons, only to wind up in precisely the place I’d been trying to avoid.

During my solitary week in bed, I had time to think about everything that had happened over the past two years. The closed schools, the friends and family we hadn’t visited, the fraught decisions my husband and I had hashed out, each one leaving its ugly aftertaste of doubt — had we been reckless or too careful?

Our children had suffered fear and isolation while we calculated and recalibrated. Most of the people we knew had done the same. In our collective zeal to sterilize our surroundings, we shrank from one another, left families to fend for themselves and dismantled the economy. Now I thought, “For what?” Everything we’d endured trying to outrun the pandemic looked, through a fever haze, tortured and ultimately pointless. Even though I knew that this demoralizing narrative, too, was untrue — I was objectively lucky to have caught the virus after being vaccinated and boosted — I couldn’t shake it.

Not long before I got sick, I spent weeks gathering oral histories of the American pandemic. The interviews had left me with one overarching takeaway: None of us knew what we were doing.

A hairdresser in the Midwest, who had split from her old friend and business partner in indignation over the other woman’s refusal to wear a mask, had balked at the vaccine — and didn’t want to be identified, lest her customers get spooked. A single mother in the South had blocked her teenage son from going out but allowed him to work at a day care. Every interview contained immense sorrow (my interview subjects had suffered in ways that hadn’t even occurred to me), punctuated by abrupt breakdowns in logic. People had made irrational choices; they couldn’t tidily explain themselves.

I’d found these conversations, on the whole, refreshing. I recognized the ambivalence and contradictions, because I had them, too. The virus was little understood, the science was scant and discouragingly mutable, and so we settled on stories and updated them as needed. And the uncertainty hasn’t ended. We’ve heard mixed answers to the fundamental question of whether the pandemic is ending, over or ongoing. But sanity demands we organize our days around some basic narrative, and so we must simply adopt one and hope it’s true.

Even at the best of times, when it comes to health and medicine, we all live in our own realities, drawn from the particular experiences and fears our minds contain, rife with irrationalities and imagination. Watching my father die slowly of cancer just as I was coming into adulthood made me feel that life was fleeting, hospitals were depressing and being careful was a waste of time. Somebody else might have started running five miles a day and juicing, but not me. I emerged with an outsize tolerance for risk and a skepticism of the medical arts. Naturally, both came into play during a pandemic.

When the pandemic started, our family lived in Singapore, where we sweated for months through a claustrophobic lockdown, as people could be fined and jailed for violating mandates. We moved back to Washington that summer, but the experience left me deeply, albeit quietly, leery of restrictions. I could never completely disentangle Covid rules, civil liberties and authoritarian impulses, no matter how many well-intentioned American friends tried to persuade me of the wrongness of my thinking.

Despite my many doubts, I tried to avoid Covid. I never consciously worried about getting sick, but I dreaded infecting someone vulnerable. Elderly people in my orbit, mostly parents and other relatives of friends, were dying.

In the fall of 2020, one of our sons joined a learning pod. All the pod parents pledged to observe collectively negotiated restrictions.

Gradually, however, I pieced together an important detail: Three of the five families in the pod had other children going back and forth to day care, and not the same day care, either. As time went on, we’d sometimes hear, via the grapevine of indiscreet children, that someone in the pod had gone to a movie indoors, or a parent would let slip that he’d attended a work happy hour. Each of these opened yet another gap in our collective defenses, and they were so numerous that the pod itself was a fakery, a kind of dream architecture built from our respective illusions.

Here’s the thing, though: I didn’t care.

I couldn’t stand to care anymore. In fact, I was sympathetic. It was all so human and predictable. Everybody wanted to cheat a little. We all perceived our own desires as needs while classifying the desires of others as luxuries.

All of those memories came surging up in the wake of my Covid. It all looked exaggerated and hyperbolic alongside the relatively unremarkable illness I’d just suffered.

“It really is just a virus,” I told friends ruefully. “I feel Covid has been demystified,” I’d say.

I spoke too soon.

Two weeks passed, then three. I felt better, but my usual restless energy was simply gone. Friends and neighbors reassured me that a slow recovery was normal. Some people had taken a month to feel like themselves again.

So that became my organizing story: I’d had Covid, but now I was recovered, except for lingering fatigue and sore joints. I kept chanting this optimistic incantation, even as the aches became more frequent and severe, right up until the night my body was gripped by such intense pain, I could hardly move. Shuddering violently, teeth chattering, I finally dragged myself to a doctor.

She was blunt: I had a kidney infection, and she was inclined to send me to the hospital. I could go home after getting an antibiotic injection, but if any symptoms got worse, I’d have to go straight to the emergency room.

“Kidney infection!” I said indignantly. “Where’d I get that?”

“You probably got dehydrated,” she said. “And your immune system was down.” I should have sought treatment earlier, she said; Covid was an infection, after all, and infections can sometimes lead to various complications.

It all collapsed then. Not just the certainty that I was recovering when, in truth, I was getting worse but also the bigger story I’d been telling myself for two years, about how I, a relatively young and healthy person, was impervious to fear and invulnerable to sickness and would float painlessly through the pandemic.

I did the worst thing possible: I submitted my ailments to Google, where I found research linking Covid to kidney problems. The studies were frustrating in the manner of all Covid studies, like books half written, peppered with acknowledgements of the limited data. The cases mostly concerned patients who had been hospitalized with severe Covid.

That wasn’t me — I’d had a comparatively mild illness and a plain old kidney infection — but I didn’t like the coincidence. I also disliked thinking about my organs, which had heretofore functioned without complaint. The anxiety and fear that I’d observed with detachment in others flooded, at last, into my mind. I found myself watching eerie lockdown videos from Shanghai and wondering, “Do the Chinese authorities know something we don’t?” From nonchalance, I slid into paranoia.

But that sudden fear, too, was just another story. It might prove more or less useful, more true or false, than the stories I had before. Either way, at heart it was another vessel to contain immovable facts: that I don’t understand this virus and I can’t control my fate. Yet another story in a sequence of stories from this pandemic which has spawned a million justifications and narratives and comforts and nightmares that one day, I hope, will congeal into a single story that lives quietly in memories of the past. The kind of story we tell and no longer have to live.

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