Before I even attempt to tell my story, I must acknowledge some basic facts. My problems pale in comparison to many others. I have been lucky to not lose a loved one to COVID, to not lose my job because of it, and to come out relatively unscathed from my own exposure to the virus. I acknowledge that I am privileged and that what I focus on below is truly a “first world problem”. With that being said, I can only write about what I know, explain exactly what kind of impact this has had on my health. (Spoilers: The primary target has been my mental health.)
It was about this time last year (late February into early March) that the virus revealed its hideous nature to the majority of the American public. The cat was out of the bag, this was not what our “leaders” were claiming it was; this was nasty and COVID-19 was a full-blown pandemic ready to strike a country woefully under-equipped. This was the first moment my anxiety started to become affected by the effects of the first major global pandemic in 100 years, and it was two-fold.
Firstly, I was feeling the hassles of dealing with potential broken plans and communication with an industry that was scrambling to make sense and change policies: travel agencies and airlines. Twenty-twenty was going to the be the year that I firmly put my flight-phobia to rest and explore some places that were incredibly meaningful to me. MLB had announced games in Mexico City and London, and I seized the opportunity to grow and expand via cultural immersion. OK, so I mainly wanted to catch some baseballs in foreign countries, grab some new music from foreign bands, and eat some vegan versions of local cuisine, but the London trip also allowed me to push the boundaries even further.
My grandparents had gone overseas back in 2001 and visited England and the Hungary/Slovakia area. So that was my template for my European tour. Why? Because I’ve always wanted to see London (Doctor Who, great music, and a cultural epicenter of Europe) and I’ve also always longed to visit the land where my last name, Voda, comes from. Two small border towns in the caves of Hungary and Slovakia hold the key and I could finally see what my ancestors saw, what my grandparents got to experience, and maybe even meet up with some family who still lives in that area. But no, COVID.
I dealt with the crushing blow of cancelled plans – which I do not deal well with at all – and the insane hassle of trying to recoup expensive airfare. I eventually got over the latter “trauma” but the plans cancelling? Well, pause that for later, this character makes a full recovery and definitely is NOT dead.
Secondly, there was the uncertainty of the virus. Talk of death, long-term health issues, lockdowns, severe economic impact, and a frustration with a regime that I already had no trust in made everything feel… shitty. Triggers for my anxiety are centered around death and health issues. I try to work on them, but when the frequency of them being addressed in every news story seems to be amplified exponentially everyday, I couldn’t escape the constant battering done by those thoughts. I was insistent on limiting exposure and having grandparents and even parents with health issues that could increase risk of complication or death? It nearly paralyzed me. I wanted to do the right thing, but the lack of understanding due to it being a developing NOVEL disease meant that even science had to play catch-up.
Then the summer came. It was kicked off by national and global headlines coming out of my state, my former community. George Floyd. Murdered.
I had moved out of the Whittier neighborhood maybe a year before this brutal tragedy took place. But it took place within a couple miles and then the fires and protests that followed seemed to be encircling the neighborhood and city. I saw nearly every business in my old neighborhood boarded up, fires and destruction happening less than a mile away on Lake Street, and a nation trying to portray things to fit their narrative – many being unkind to pinning hatred on the oppressed and beaten, just because that was what the cowardly leaders of our nation were saying. It was pathetic and made me go from anxious to depressed.
I wanted to be there for the city and neighborhood(s) that I had called home. A part of my heart will always being in Minneapolis, since it has so many of my favorite places, holds some many meaningful memories, and gave me my first home in what I consider my “second life” (post-divorce… which I can talk about later, if folks are interested in huge storms in my mental health journey).
All while this happened and I was feeling powerless while trying to balance activism with not spreading this disease, I kind of forgot to keep my health in check. The first wave of anxiety (“Beginning”) had passed, and this new wave seemed more like a common frustration and depression for many people who shared the same beliefs as me. I saw that this story wasn’t just going away and that Black Lives Matter finally entered the conversation and lexicon of nearly every American (and globally). So I kind of when from depressed to malaise. I couldn’t do the things I normally did in the summer. Going to baseball games meant waiting outside of the gates and hoping that my hobby of catching baseballs survived by generous workers who would slip a ball through a gate.
With so much of my normalcy being taken away and my former neighborhood being treated like a war zone (seriously, go look at the photos), I just sort of gave up. I swapped my normal routines of travel, adventures, and activity with… sleep, staying up late, and working from home. I love the idea of working from home, but that’s if it were to allow me to live where I wanted, travel places while still working, and be able to keep hard limits on work time. And while I wasn’t the overachiever putting in lots of overtime, I did let negative aspects leak into my daily routine. I got up only a few minutes before I started working, took showers less, let the anger of work spill into the home, and still haven’t set up a proper desk. I sit cross-legged on the floor and use a low coffee table for my computer station.
So that was the decline in caring. An apathetic glaze that was being reapplied until an incredible thick shell had enveloped me whole.
Then September happened. I got the Rona. I was stupid and let my malaise turn into apathy towards the virus. It had already struck one of my parents and they are still left with lasting impact – Long-COVID is VERY real and not to be dismissed. I felt like it was inevitable that almost everyone would get it. Our administration in charge of “fighting” this disease was pushing the herd immunity harder than locking things down in order to protect the people. I’ll admit it, I was burned out, feeling hopeless, and just wanted out. So I did just that and boy did I pay the price. I still don’t know the exact specifics of how, when, and where, but while that is a downfall of our country’s lack of focus on contract tracing, it is also my fault. I didn’t do all I could have done and I contracted SARS-Cov-2… and spread it to my partner.
Let me tell you this, the “standard” sickness from COVID is sucky. Being sick for two weeks blows, and for a good week or more it is the worst cold/flu you can imagine. It isn’t the standard cold, don’t believe that false narrative for a moment. This kicks your ass. But the worst part for me was that wonderful passenger in my brain that I described in “Beginning” above. Anxiety, specifically medical/health anxiety during infection drove me to multiple breakdowns. I mentioned to my partner on multiple occasions (which she still brings up and vividly recalls), “I cannot do this. I can’t take this.” I wasn’t saying it in anger or frustration. I was saying it in a timid and overwhelmed fear-riddled mind. I honestly felt like eithe rmy body or my brain was going to give up.
I could go into more about those two weeks, but it is nothing that hasn’t been described by others already. I also don’t think that the infection should be the sole focus, because I am still concerned about the ramifications. I did not get Long-COVID like my parent. My physical health seems to be basically fine. The one aspect that I question and worry has been impacted is my mental health. I don’t think I have brain fog, but my anxiety attacks have definitely increased in severity and frequency post-infection. I have read a few other articles of personal stories from those infected and what has lingered for them, and I take the silver-lining that I am not alone.
Admittedly, my anxiety has seen its fair share of cycles. Before COVID, I think I was in a mid-level part of my flow. I wasn’t at my worst, but coming off of a good place before that, I know it wasn’t great. The situational anxiety caused by the pandemic definitely made things worse, but it still never really blossomed into full-on attacks. After I got it, the attacks were back. The racing heart always makes me nervous. I fear a heart attack (and death), but the more I have become exposed to anxiety attacks, the more I have worked on accepting it as a response and not a heart attack. But the strange thing about these attacks was that they often happened in the middle of the night. I wasn’t waking up to the attack happening, but rather waking up, then feeling on edge, and then my heart randomly cranking up the beat to the mid/high 100s. I hated it.
These night attacks happened more and more frequently. I was still scared every time, but trying to keep it scientific and working on being an observer helped. I would log the approximate times, take notes on heart rate, and work on being present (not on catastrophizing a near-future). I am thankful to say that either this technique truly works or I have gotten much better. The frequency has definitely decreased and the severity even seems under control (less tachycardia episodes).
Around this time, I started to look towards a brighter future. I wanted to re-plan the things that I had “lost,” work on reclaiming the 2020 dream in 2021. Surely this couldn’t last forever and no more than a year! I expanded my Europe trip, since the baseball games were not going to be rescheduled in London any time soon. I put together a list of dream places and started doing what I love most, planning the ultimate trip. I seriously love planning and researching trips. If I have a desire, I become obsessed. (Remember that.)
A new president meant optimism. Without diving into politics much, I will go on record saying that I do not care for either major political party. Reform in lobbying, campaign fundraising, and term-limits for Congress are all huge factors in my disdain for current politics. However, we also just came off of one of the most divisive executive branches in American history. The time for some sort of peace, even if it was just changes in how we speak to one another, was needed. The new administration seemed to also have a plan to attack the virus and not just be completely unorganized and hope for a miracle or herd immunity.
My planning for that giant trip was basically complete. I was living out the adventures in my head, building things up, coming up with questions, trying to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, and just generally… NOT BEING PRESENT.
This hurt my relationship with my partner. I acknowledge that my focus on things becomes obsessive and for someone who isn’t included or not similarly obsessed? Well, they are left feeling under-appreciated and on the outside looking in. Add on top of this their own mental health struggles (and me not being present), plus the general unhappiness that happens when people are locked in together with no escape, and you are headed for a disaster. So many people have not been able to do the things they need in order to recharge, they have not gotten away from this nightmare of a life, and their energy and time into relationships has been flipped upside-down. Time with friends and family is down, since we have tried to do the right thing, and time with each other has skyrocketed. If we are both in bad places, then how can we expect to be creating something good together?
We nearly lost each other. In fact, we are still working it out. Things are complicated, but recognizing that we are in uncertain and unprecedented times allowed us to reset our attitudes and work on a path forward. But remember that obsession for the trip that I brought up? Well, while it nearly caused a split, my partner respected my need to recharge enough to accept that I still need to do it. The bad part? We STILL don’t know if it is possible. With just over four months until I would depart, it’s looking more and more likely that my dream will be canceled for a second time.
I know. First world problem, this is the very definition. But like I have been mentioning in my story, I believe that normalcy and being able to finally recharge is crucial to mental health, at least it is to mine. I’m not a good friend, good partner, or good worker without being able to pursue what makes me happy. I know that I cannot do it all the time. I know that people have it worse and often don’t get the luxury to “recharge” or even focus on mental health, just surviving is hard enough. But if I’m being honest to myself, I know that recharging has always been a major help in my anxiety and depression.
After that divorce I spoke of above, I was in a state of depression that still makes it hard to remember nearly an entire year of my life. But the one thing I remember and will recall fondly is going to Atlanta with my best friend, and doing it over what would have been the eighth anniversary of my marriage (and the first one after the split, though I believe we were technically estranged at that point, not divorced?). I had been living a horrible pattern for months before that trip. Work, take care of the dog, cry, and sleep – that’s about the entirety of my existence. My obsession wasn’t focused on what makes me happy, but it was focused on the depression, focused on the word divorce, and focused on catastrophizing. So this is exactly why I need to find balance, to find ways to apply my obsession towards what makes me happy… but also remember that I cannot dive fully into that either.
I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I want my vaccine so that I can travel and finally do my dream exploration of Europe (and beyond), even if it has to wait until 2022. I want the vaccine so that people stop dying, stop getting sick, and stop losing their livelihood (jobs, escapes, and families). I want the vaccine so that I can finally spend meaningful time with my parents, so that I can see my grandparents who I haven’t seen in over a year and are well in their 80s. I want the vaccine so that we can unpause this horrible game, so that we can have a new normal, and so that we can shift focus towards things we’ve neglected.
The mantra I’ve clung to during this time is simple: Be here now.
I’m working on being present while doing my best to build a brighter future. Just please do not be so harsh on yourself. Find a balance that works for you and try your best to be there for others in need. I think that’s all any of us can do.