Two Years, Eh?
Dispatches from my floor and the pandemically exacerbated linguistic divide between my brain and body as we pass the 2 year marker.
CW: mentions of pandemic-related mental health, suicide, domestic violence, and bodily health issues
My internal languages have changed since the start of the pandemic. I might even go so far as to say that I’m a bit of a bodily polyglot, at this point. After spending its first 28 years in relative linguistic singularity, my system has been hit by the extremes of the last two years like some violent language immersion program. Not only have new ways of speaking been introduced, but my preexisting networks of words and patterns have been overhauled, too. And upon reflection, this strikes me as reasonable. The media (and most of the rest of us) have been throwing around the word “unprecedented” for 24 months. But it doesn’t really capture the truth of how life-altering this pandemic has been, and will continue to be.
For one thing, I would hazard a guess that all of us, at most, have been 3 degrees of separation from a suicide, a suicide attempt, or a person experiencing suicidal thoughts during this crisis. Likely closer. Much closer. Domestic violence has skyrocketed, job security has foundered, financial futures have imploded, marriages have been pushed to the breaking point. We have lived with death's specter hovering for years. Folks who are immunocompromised have had to live with the knowledge that society does not think their lives are worth protecting. Folks with immunocompromised loved ones have had to live with the knowledge that their loved ones are under siege, while also fearing that they will expose said loved ones to COVID-19 by mistake.
We have all spent more time without one another than any human being should; literal fucking science says that the isolation needed to manage the pandemic has had, and will have, devastating effects on human development and mental health. We aren’t supposed to be without each other this much. We aren’t supposed to be withstanding this much. Of course we are getting changed by it. But by the same token, if we acknowledge the change, we must acknowledge exactly how foreign we have all become to our past selves, and to the lives and world that we knew before the world shut down. And while some of those changes have been positive, many of them confuse at best, and devastate at worst.
I, for one, have spent much of 2022 thus far trying to not only find a means of communicating with my various physical and emotional systems as they now exist, but to convince them all to find a common tongue amongst one another. You see, I focused on numbing out as many of my feelings and thoughts as possible from March 2020 on. The way my personal institution responded to this, and to life in the pandemic, has been to isolate its different departments from one another. Additionally, each of those individual departments has established a unique code of conduct that make how I experience emotions, physical pain, and things like basic organ operations entirely different from how I experienced them in the Before Times. My project now is to figure out what each one is doing, why, and how they might communicate that with everyone else. I am starting this language learning process, in many ways, from scratch. You will be shocked to learn that it is very hard.
For starters, my headaches and their kin have become quite sophisticated with their private languages over the last 24 months. I’d be impressed if I wasn’t so irritated. My factory settings once were simply “lump in throat” (needing to cry, anger, and feeling-too-many-emotions-that-I-don’t-know-how-to-parse), “scalp too tight for my head and/or faux narcolepsy” (anxiety), “generalized face ache” (gnashing teeth and stress), and “fog” (when I’d eaten wheat by mistake, was differently anxious than tight-scalp anxious, was over tired, or over caffeinated). Now, they run a gamut the length of a dictionary. There’s this awful, burrowing thing that happens in my eye socket when I’m trying to not feel a specific emotion, or avoiding a specific thought or memory. A sensation akin to a slowly flexing fist lives in the base of my skull.
When I resist crying, the interior of my throat seizes. When I need to cry, but cannot quite get it to happen, there’s this all-over clutching from the top of my head to my collar bones. When I am angry, my head detaches from my body as if it were a helium balloon. When I am happy, the balloon thing also happens, with the additions of my being bouncy and obnoxious. When I am overtired, my head feels like a lead weight. When I am one and a half drinks into an evening, I feel as though the nozzle of a vacuum has been pressed to the back of my head. I could go on— the list is long, and ever-lengthening.
My internal organs, meanwhile, have been putting in their own linguistic time. I’ve had chronic health problems for years, specifically in the 28.5 feet of my gastrointestinal tract that do not include my mouth, esophagus, and stomach. Over the course of the pandemic, my symptoms have intensified, then reversed, then reverted, then reversed again so many times, I can only chart a trajectory by waving a hand vaguely at a calendar. The one common denominator has a been intensified emotions. On the one hand, this is completely normal for GI issues. But on the other, it has been absolutely absurd due to the strain of this global crisis. The shifts in my symptoms began early in the pandemic, when one of my roommates had a 3-month-long case of COVID-19 (from she is also still suffering; she’s a long hauler). During those three months, I almost lost my mind with fear and worry and anger, and my body bore the brunt of it. I woke up daily inside of a panic attack, afraid my roommate had died or fallen into a coma overnight. I was afraid that I was going to get sick, afraid that she was never going to get better, and furious that there was nothing to be done for her. The ICUs were out of beds, and her doctors told her to just “hang tight” until she either got better or couldn’t breathe (at which point she could in good conscience call 911). It was a living nightmare, one that many of us have fought to wake up from at some point since this all began.
One Sunday night, a few weeks into my roommate’s being ill, I lurched awake around 1am, stomach roiling and body feverish. I still don't know if it was COVID-19. I did test negative for antibodies a few weeks later, but beyond that, all I know is that for the subsequent week, I could barely get out of bed. I had had GI flareups before. I have had flareups since. This situation had me in so much gastrointestinal discomfort, had me so saturated with exhaustion, I barely remember any of it. Minimal urination, no bowel movements, no appetite, no energy, pain. I’d been that sick before for maybe, maybe two days, tops, after eating a large amount of wheat by mistake or getting overwhelmed with cumulative stress, I’d be laid out for 24 to 48 hours, then be able to mainline painkillers and get on with things. But a week of those symptoms? It was as abnormal as everything else that was going on. My body just shut down. And over the two years since, my GI stuff has gone on to rewire itself completely.
There are weeks, at this point, where I feel like my body just does not work. The two decades’ worth of data I’ve collected on my own operating systems no longer applies in the same ways. For example, the GI symptoms I knew to look for in terms of romantic discomfort or anxiety never arose over the course of the relationship I was in during 2020 and 2021. Instead, my body communicated in new languages that I was illiterate in, and I missed it all for months. And then, when recognizable symptoms did arise in response to other triggers, none of my usual management tools seemed to work. Is something new wrong? I thought constantly. In fact, still think, constantly. New discomforts have taken up residence, and different patterns shape my days. I'm chasing ultrasounds and scopes and tests through the Canadian medical care system even as I write this, trying to determine if I have become ill in new ways, or if the strain of living in fear of my own death or of inadvertently killing someone else, with no end to the situation in sight, has just changed me irrevocably.
My emotional landscape has become its own foreign country, separate from the various nations that divvy up my physical self. I wonder what I am feeling multiple times a day, because I literally don’t know. I can’t tell. I stop what I am doing and ask, either mentally or aloud, “what do I feel right now?” because I am experiencing physical indicators that would suggest I am emotionally activated, but my mind is strung out on a balloon string a thousand miles away from the scene and offering minimal insight. I realized in late December of 2021 that I had been avoiding my own feelings and thoughts since March 2020. Aware of this, I decided to commit to undoing those patterns, and bring my physical and mental selves back into communication with one another. But it was, and is, not unlike coaxing a very stubborn horse to to start sleeping in a stable instead of outside. It could do the new thing I’m angling for, but why would it, when sleeping outside has been the thing for years?
My emotional self has been out on its tether for quite some time and likes it out there, thanks very much. I am trying desperately to convince it that there’s better to be had if only it would seek out some symbiosis with my physical self. I have greatly reduced my alcohol intake. I’m back in therapy. I have increased my anti-anxiety medication. I have decided I want to feel better. But it’s hard. It hurts. Friends ask why I walk so much, and I tell them the truth: it takes an hour, maybe two, for my thoughts and feelings and physical self get their translators in order and start communicating. If I was a runner, it might happen faster, but I’m not. Running smashes me around in ways that even I, an admitted recovering athletic masochist, cannot tolerate.
I walk, listening to the music that I think is most sad, and try to bring me home, in all her emotional disarray. I dream of eventually being able to cry regularly again. It’s still impossibly hard to do. I lie on the carpet under the window in my apartment, phone far away, a pillow or a book or a yoga block pressed under my sternum or between my shoulder blades, right where the weeping sits, and wait. The mind-body connection was always challenging for me, but the pandemic has opened up a chasm between the two and populated it with zombies. One day, it’ll come back, my various systems not only communicating, but no longer needing translators. I have to believe this, otherwise I will explode.
It is difficult to talk about how a current thing is shaping us. I have certainly struggled with it. On the one hand, it makes total sense that we have all been irrevocably rewired by this pandemic, but on the other, we’re still living inside that rewiring because the crisis isn’t over. The water that we’re swimming in is dangerous and unpredictable right now, but it’s the only water we have; is it worth talking about how dangerous and unpredictable it is? Or should we just press on, grit our teeth? I can only speak for myself, but having tried since March 2020 to put my head down and just “get through,” I feel like we really need to talk about this dangerous water. How we have friends under 30 who are either dead or suffering from heart problems because they contracted COVID-19. How we can’t meet newborn relatives for fear of illness. How communities have splintered. How we have had to give up on some relationships and build entirely new, other ones. How the fatigue is reasonable, because the body isn’t built to tolerate years of trauma. How the media and various governments are pressuring everyone to “return to normal” even as science says returning is dangerous, and society itself is past the point of “returning” to whatever “normal” was, and we really need to NOT return to normal for the sake of human rights if we get down to brass tacks.
It is easy to think that you’re nuts, with your anxiety or fear or FOMO or whatever else, but you’re not. This capitalist world is gaslighting its citizens, framing what we’re experiencing as commentaries on our own limitations instead of the ways in which we have been failed.
We have changed because there has been no other option. But society at large is going to keep on pretending that nothing has happened. Our new interiors, our new languages, are evidence of our capacities for survival. It has come at a cost, and we deserve to be able to hold both. To give respect where respect is due, to learn our new selves and worlds, and to grow into whatever new spaces may have opened up over the last two years, yes. But also to grieve the fact that this was never supposed to happen to any of us.
I am doing my damnedest to love the me I have right now, the life I have right now, and the ways in which I have survived. But I also grieve the me I lost in March 2020. I wonder how she’s doing— where she is, what she’s working on, who she loves. I wonder if her large intestine works. I try to wish her well, then turn back to the now-me and remind her that she isn’t inventing it— that so much is still hard and scary, that being tired is not unreasonable, that very little is certain and that that is hard. I try to listen. I’m trying to learn my new languages.