The editorial schedule of this column, in which I write essays three weeks before publication, forces me to try to anticipate the future. However, not just any future. But yours. The hope is that what I choose to write about today lies in the intersection of evergreen and relevance that will make it interesting enough in 21 days to make you want to read it.
Today, however, it’s a little different. Because I currently have COVID-19. But I am confident that by the time you are reading this it has left my system. And this essay is about what I learned from it. So I write this in the past tense. That means I’m predicting my future here too.
Anyway, I managed to avoid COVID-19 for the first two years of the pandemic. But then I tested positive and got sick at the end of April. I learned the following:
1. Two years ago, I used Clorox wipes to scrub takeout and grocery orders down my stairs before bringing them into my house. And then when I placed them on a kitchen counter, and then off the counter onto a shelf or the fridge, I treated every surface with Clorox.
Today this is considered hygiene theater. We now know enough about the virus to understand that incessant cloroxing prevents it from spreading, just as push-ups prevent snow. But then there was so much unknown, so much (justified) fear that the theatrical felt practical.
Getting COVID was scary. There’s no value in pretending it’s not. I’m in good enough shape to play pickup basketball three times a week with guys half my age. But I’m also 43 years old, have an autoimmune disease and live with two unvaccinated carriers of infectious diseases called “kids”. It’s less scary now than it was May 2020 though. And not just because I’m vaccinated. But because of the oximeter I bought after reading Mara Gay’s harrowing essay on contracting the virus, which was an anxiety-relieving machine that reassured me my oxygen levels were fine. And because of what we now know about treatment — what medications to take, what activities to avoid, how much sleep to get — knowledge that just wasn’t as available two years ago.
I worry about the long COVID still existing in this nebulous unknown. But worries (which I have now) are manageable. Terror (which I had then) is not.
2. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that after two years without COVID-19, I thought it just wasn’t going to happen. Maybe I was lucky enough to have natural immunity. Or maybe that two years of hypervigilance, of masking everywhere, of eating at an indoor restaurant exactly once since March 2020 has earned me immunity. Like points earned after paying your credit card bill early. As if I had a psychosomatic protective shield against it.
I was (obviously) wrong. But it’s still a nice thought to have. i feel like a magician
3. My virus has been classified as mild. “Mild” is a funny word. Mild connotations banal. Noticeable. limp. But my mouth still hasn’t forgiven me for trying the “mild” sauce at this restaurant, only to be told that “mild” there meant “burning your esophagus so it drains to your feet.”
I had worse constipation, worse headache, worse fever, worse cough, worse sore throat, and worse bouts of fatigue. But what made this mildness so disturbing was that I had these symptoms all at once. It felt like I had five different mild viruses. Like seasonal allergies and mono having a baby. It also felt like (heavy sigh) a box of chocolates, with a new surprise every few hours. (“Oh, I guess we’re done with a dry cough today?” “Why are my sheets soaked through?” “Wait a minute…is that dizziness?” “I didn’t know we were playing the ‘Is that gas or diarrhea?’ game! “)
4. My whole house tested positive so we quarantined for a week. However, there were times when I sat on my porch for some fresh air and some neighbors, dog walkers, and other passers-by tried to speak to me. I’ve learned to be more tolerant of small talk. I no longer see it as the ingrown toenail of societal discourse. But for obvious reasons, I wasn’t in the mood, and most people read my body language and moved on.
However, one person did not and stopped to engage in conversation even as I got up and walked back to the door and kept my mouth shut. And then, in the middle of the question, I turned, opened my door, and went back in without saying anything.
My point is that if you’re a fan of the Irish exit but sometimes feel bad about getting COVID-19, you can do it guilt-free!
damon young is the author of What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays. He is a writer based in Pittsburgh.
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