Are we there yet? Are we there yet?

by Carolyn Thomas       @HeartSisters

“Are we there yet?” – the timeworn wail from kidlets in the back seat on family road trips. When he was very little, I gave my son Ben five nickels at the start of one memorable trip (it was back in the 1980s, when a nickel was worth a nickel!) with one strict condition: every time he whined, “Are we there yet? How much longer?”, he’d have to forfeit one nickel. After giving up the first two nickels, we heard not one more peep from that little boy tightly clutching his three remaining coins. (Parents: if you try this strategy, considering inflation, you’ll probably have to give your kid five $10 bills up front).

After months of our current COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are as frustrated as Ben in the back seat. We’re hearing more every day about “re-opening” our communities, but are we really there yet?     .   

Not knowing the expiry date is maddening. Consider this comparison from Emergency physician Dr. Esther Choo at Oregon Health & Science University, who recently tweeted about a familiar scenario:

“My husband and I were running the other day and hit a hill. He said, ‘How long does this go on? 1/4 mile? 1/2 mile?’  I answered that I had no idea. We both lost steam instantly. So much of sustaining the mental game for a high intensity effort is knowing the endpoint.”

And that is the problem with a novel global pandemic, my heart sisters:  we simply do NOT know when the endpoint will be. Politicians who try to convince you otherwise are merely promising you pie in the sky, as if the end is somehow a circled date on the calendar. It is not.

The end of the COVID-19 pandemic, the re-opening of society and the abandonment of public safety precautions are moving targets, as Forbes succinctly reported this week:

“We will not hear a bell ring with an ‘all clear’ signal. Instead, opening will be in phases, which will differ regionally.”

Still, all of us long to be given assurances that by _______ (fill in the blank with your preferred date: Father’s Day, summertime, Labour Day), life will definitely be back to normal.

As I read recently on the breast cancer blog called After Five Years:

“I can eat an elephant a bite at a time – if I know how much is left.”

This blogger, a woman named Lauren, compares her current self-isolation with a recurring nightmare she used to have during her own cancer treatments:

“I would regularly have bad dreams. A nightly one was where I was running a marathon. Running and running and running, I would arrive at each mile marker, yet no one would tell me which mile it was, or how much farther I had to go. In the dream, I had no idea how many miles I had come, yet I knew I was exhausted.

“Like in my running dream, it is very hard to do something now when you don’t know how long it will last. Uncertainty is draining.

“But it seems with COVID-19, we are finding that the number, the ‘how long’, is always changing, ever fluid. We think we know what mile marker we are running toward, say 14 days, but it keeps getting moved. It’s exhausting.”

And promising an unrealistically early endpoint can actually make things far worse in the long run. (It’s like repeatedly telling Ben, “Soon, honey, soon!” in response to his “Are we there yet?” wails from the back seat – especially when we don’t mean “soon” at all).

We’re already seeing signs from countries who first battled the pandemic that a second wave of infection is indeed a significant risk. Some areas of China, for example, that were shut down by the virus and then re-opened had precautionary restrictions re-imposed last month because of the alarming spread of new COVID-19 cases. And much of the rest of the world is in fact still struggling to get the current wave under control.

The U.S., for example, as of 4 a.m. Friday May 1, 2020, had its highest single day COVID-19 24-hour death count ever: 2,909 people died of the virus. That’s almost as high as the fatality rate on 9/11. How on earth can this reality be interpreted as a country ready for business as usual?

Consider also what’s known as the Stockdale Paradox, as explained in Jim Collins’ book, Good To Great:

“Admiral Jim Stockdale was the highest-ranking United States military office in the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. Tortured over 20 times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973, Stockdale lived out the war without any prisoner  rights, no certainty as to whether he would survive to see his family again, and no set release date.

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,’ he said. ‘I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life.’

“He was asked:  ‘Who did NOT make it out?’

“Oh, that’s easy,’ he said. ‘The optimists.’

“The optimists were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas!’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again.

“And they died of a broken heart.

“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

When we demand a set-in-stone end date and a forced return to “normal”, we’re like those kids riding in the back seat. We’re not behind the wheel. We’re tired. We’re bored. We’re frustrated. We don’t want this to be happening to us. “Are we there yet?” becomes an impotent wail of protest.

But I love the way that Lauren at “After Five Years” reminds us:

“I promise you, you will once again have a day where COVID-19 doesn’t greet you each morning or shake you awake from dreamy innocence. A brain free from COVID-19 thoughts will greet you for a few seconds each morning, and then will linger a few moments longer, and eventually, it will start to stay around all day.

“And you will find that COVID-19, like cancer did for me, will become something that happened long ago.

“And you will have lived your way into normal.”

Please.  Stay safe.

Image of the Rockies:  Public Co, Pixabay

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:  I wrote more about adjusting to crises and other life changes in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease. You can ask for it at your favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (who are having a Spring Book Sale: use their code HTRY to save 30% off the list price).

.

Q:  Are you trusting that one day, you will have “lived your way into normal” again?

See also:

– Read more Heart Sisters articles about COVID-19 and heart patients

– Heart Patients Warned of Risks from Coronavirus (COVID-19) from The American College of Cardiology’s CardioSmart patient report

22 thoughts on “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?

  1. At some point in time when my brother and I were children and we went on road trips, my mother developed a stock answer to “Are we almost there yet?!” She would say “Ten more minutes!” — no matter how far we were along on the journey. We knew as well as she did that it would be a lot longer than ten minutes.

    I used the same stock phrase with my kids on trips. Once they (and we as kids) knew that was all they would get, they didn’t ask so much. It really became a little family joke all around.

    Quiets down the impatient children but doesn’t give the real answer that we all need right now. Maybe part of the issue is that we don’t even know where we’re trying to get to or what we will find when we get there?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Meghan, that last line says it all, doesn’t it? We just don’t know what lies ahead, we aren’t sure at all how we’ll manage, which may explain why so many cling so desperately to “opening up” society to somehow make it exactly as we remember it in every way…

      Take care, stay safe ♥

      Like

  2. Wow, I have been researching paradoxes as part of project to challenge assumptions and opinions but have only just heard of this one. Great article ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very well said, Carolyn! I have forwarded this on to several family members whom I miss dreadfully and know I will not see for some time still, esp the 2 grandbabies.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s the worst part for me during all of this – not being able to hug and cuddle my 5-year old granddaughter Everly Rose. I can however follow behind her while she practices her bike riding around the high school track (she just learned to bike with pedals this past week and is very proud of herself!) – but we’re still 6′ apart at all times…

      Stay safe… ♥

      Like

    2. Hi Carolyn, this is one of the best reads I’ve seen yet on the reality of the Corona Virus and how challenging it can be to truly accept reality when we not only don’t know how long it will last, but also when we have no CONTROL over what happens. Love that Stockdale Paradox example!

      I do have control over my own choices re how careful I am when out in public and of course in the hospital where I work – where we have very strict safety protocols – but I have zero control over what large groups of idiots on the street choose to do, or what stupid politicians choose to say out loud while encouraging us to ignore public precautions. I can only seek out the best information I can find and ignore the rest, and then hope I and my family emerge from this okay.

      Meanwhile I’m very glad that you continue to help us by writing such useful content here.

      You stay safe, too.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hello RNinNYC – a good reminder about the issue of control, and how we respond to being told what to do. I remember watching early-pandemic film on the news of Chinese cities with empty streets and train stations, thinking “Wow, this kind of complete lockdown might work in China – a dictatorship where citizens are used to this kind of government control – but it would NEVER work here in North America (especially in the U.S!)”

        Yet here we are, months later, having mostly decided to respect rigid precautionary advice on self-isolation and physical distancing for the greater good: short term pain for long term gain…

        Like

  4. Well said! And thank you for the mention! The waiting is the hardest part but I remind myself it’s a comma, and all things pass.
    Best,
    Lauren

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for weighing in here, Lauren. I’m glad I discovered your writing recently (thank you Marie Ennis O’Connor in Ireland for pointing me in your direction in her Journeying Beyond Breast Cancerweekly roundup” column…)

      I especially loved your observation “you will find that COVID-19, like cancer did for me, will become something that happened long ago. And you will have lived your way into normal.”

      This is true for virtually every catastrophe, isn’t it? In the moment, it’s hard to understand when or how we will ever get through this, but the earth somehow keeps orbiting the sun, no matter what. And one day, as you wisely say, we WILL be looking back at this surreal time in history…

      Thank you again – stay safe! ♥

      Like

  5. This was so helpful as I got up on day 50 of my shelter in place, feeling as though it will never end. I cancelled my annual mammogram and oncologist appointment, will reschedule when I feel safe going into a medical facility again. Fortunately I’m ten years out from surgery and radiation.
    Cancelled my dentist appointment.

    When I began having mild angina on my daily walks, I decided to increase my vasodilator and will send a digital message to my cardiologist. I’m connected with friends and family via phone and all the digital modalities, stay busy writing my memoir, making masks and starting to garden.

    But our collective situation weighs heavily with fear of the disease and fear of our blundering government.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, Sara! Day 50! Who could have predicted 50 days ago that we’d still be in this surreal situation? You reminded me of an important point when you list all the ways you’re keeping on with appointment plans and cancellations while keeping yourself busy: as long as we’re not in medical distress, most of us manage our day-to-day health on our own pretty well. For example: I spend in total less than two hours per year seeing my cardiologist, but that means I spend 364 days and 22 hours managing my cardiac conditions on my own.

      So as long as we can maintain this, we’ll be okay.

      In fact, for some of us, any niggles over our current diagnoses seem to place a distant second behind this new fear of the virus.

      Stay safe…. ♥

      Like

  6. Great piece Carolyn. Other than medical appointments I have spent the last 8 weeks at home. While I dearly miss my wide-spread family we stay close with phoning and texting. If life was otherwise straightforward, I could carry on indefinitely.

    However my daughter was suddenly widowed, my son’s wedding is postponed and I have to have surgery for cancer tomorrow. These are major life events for which virtual support is new to us all.

    Like Stockdale, we will prevail. Covid19 will be life defining for us all

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, Jenn…. I’m so sorry. It never rains but it pours.

      There’s no ‘good’ time for a terribly sad loss like the death of your son-in-law, but happening along with the COVID-19 pandemic, the wedding plans put on hold, and now your own cancer surgery TOMORROW, this must all be weighing so heavily upon you.

      I’m keeping fingers and toes crossed tomorrow, wishing you a safe and successful operation.. One day at a time, one step at a time. Please take care… ♥

      Like

  7. Thank you Carolyn for this most encouraging and uplifting message in these difficult times! When I feel the anxiety or despair start, I will always remember admiral Stockdale’s message and think of you!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Carolyn,

    What a good analogy. I remember many lengthy summer road trips from my childhood during which I’m pretty certain my three siblings and I drove my parents crazy by asking Lord knows how many times, are we there yet? (We often traveled with our dog, too, so imagine all that. Yikes.)

    The bottom line in regard to this re-opening or not dilemma is that doing so before we are ready will likely make matters worse. Most of us know that and yet…

    Wishing something to be true does not make it true.

    Take care. Stay safe.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Nancy – I was thinking while reading your comment that your family road trips (and mine as well!) did NOT include any of the fun tech that today’s kids can often enjoy in the back seat (happily watching movies or playing games on their devices to help pass the time!) We just had to stare out the windows…

      I agree of course with your bottom line: as eager as we all are to get back to “normal” life, it’s foolhardy to force this to happen too soon. As the old saying goes, “act in haste, repent at leisure…”

      You stay safe, too! ♥

      Liked by 1 person

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