by Carolyn Thomas ♥ @HeartSisters
In Italy, where my sister Bev and her husband Marco live, the government ordered a nationwide lockdown on Monday, March 9th last year. The country’s COVID-19 count there had exploded from under 10 cases to over 9,000 within weeks. On the same day, we here in Canada recorded our first confirmed death. Three days later, hockey-mad Canadians were stunned when the NHL cancelled the rest of its season.
Suddenly, this was really happening. . .
The World Health Organization officially declared a global pandemic. My friend’s sister was among the first people I knew to contract the virus, but with no symptoms until after she’d already passed it on to family members attending her birthday party. By the weekend, world leaders were advising against all overseas travel. Pools, libraries, banks, stores, restaurants, pubs, hair salons, Starbucks coffee shops – all closed down. I ordered my first mask from Etsy.
Remember when rumours of toilet paper shortages spurred a massive stockpiling of the precious commodity? For the first time in my life, I walked into beautiful Canadian grocery stores and saw aisles of empty shelves. At first, my brain couldn’t quite absorb this surreal sight. Perhaps, I wondered, the big delivery trucks were just late unloading their deliveries today?
One morning, I drove past a woman walking along the sidewalk pulling a little cart filled with 4-packs of toilet paper. I pulled over, rolled down my car window and yelled at her, “Where did you find toilet paper?!?!”
In the little corner store down the street, she replied. I rushed to the little store, parked the car, flew into the shop and grabbed half of the 10 remaining packs. (I really wanted to take the whole lot, but also didn’t want to be one of “those people”!)
Speaking of paper, the fantastic March paper sale that I attend each spring with my crafting buddies Irene and Viv was suddenly cancelled on the 16th. Strangely, this one seemed to hit me harder than all other cancellations and closures combined.
Then I learned that I could no longer be close to our darling granddaughter Everly Rose, age 4 at the time. I could occasionally meet her and her parents to watch from afar as she practiced riding her new bicycle. Not being able to hug or cuddle her, host sleepovers, or even walk her to daycare as I’d been doing for three years was the most heartbreakingly painful part of 2020 for me.
Because I live with coronary microvascular disease and have already had a heart attack, I knew I was considered at high risk for catching this virus, and at higher risk for ending up in ICU with a very bad outcome. I was afraid of what this virus could do. I also knew that strict precautions were in place more to help me than to help Rosie’s family.
I could barely keep up with the rapidly increasing changes to normal routines. My son Ben started shopping for and delivering my weekly groceries. I stopped walking with my Wednesday/Thursday walking groups, stopped eating at restaurants, stopped getting my hair cut. I left home for one hour every day rain or shine for a long solo walk. Our Sunday paper crafting workshops with Irene and Viv turned into 2-hour online events each week – and these have since continued every Sunday for a year.
In the early days of the pandemic, life seemed a blur: digesting news of the growing global reach of the virus, the deaths, and the cancelled hospital procedures in order to free up staff and space for higher priority COVID patients.
Most of it felt like All Heartbreak, All The Time.
And yet – weirdly! – sometimes it didn’t.
I remember one morning being out for my daily solo walk, for example. It was a perfect sunny day with a light breeze, I was walking my favourite path along the ocean, and thinking how “normal” this all felt – knowing at the same time that nothing was normal anymore. So much seemed unchanged, yet everything had changed.
I started listing my daily agenda on Twitter, and for weeks tried to include something that sounded productive.
But I knew that my forced “clean the hall closet” busy-ness had finally evaporated on the morning I was unable to come up with anything for my agenda except this:
“Make a decision about washing my hair.”
Not actually doing it. Just deciding.
What eventually evolved was the normalizing of what at first had seemed shockingly abnormal to me. Routinely wearing a mask when leaving the house now just feels normal. Routinely squirting hand sanitizer before walking into the pharmacy feels normal. Having only virtual visits with my family doctor or my cardiologist for the past year feels normal by now. It is what it is.
We even have a glimmer of new hope for normalcy as vaccines are being rolled out. I can hardly wait. *
I’ve often felt torn over this past year: I felt bad about what others have gone through, yet at the same time, I felt profoundly fortunate about my own circumstances. I’m already retired, I no longer have a mortgage, I didn’t have to worry about home-schooling or child care as so many younger parents did. So far, I’ve kept myself safe from this virus. And I’ve also learned that there are some surprising aspects of this abnormal normal that I like, as I described in my December essay, “Have I Been a Closet Introvert All This Time?
Despite the pandemic, I get that I share the privileges of white middle-class women who have little to complain about and much to be grateful for. I try not to ever take that for granted.
Last week, Dr. Bonnie Henry – who is our public health officer here in British Columbia – acknowledged that the psychological effects of prolonged social distancing have concerned her since the pandemic began.
“It can cause anxiety and has the potential to make other mental health issues worse.”
Yet although we do worry about these mental health effects, we also know that research results are actually mixed. This past December, for example, one study suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic is “associated with highly significant levels of psychological distress.”(1) But psychology professor Dr. Elizabeth Dunn at the University of British Columbia told a CBC Radio interviewer the surprising findings of her own recent study(2):
“The fascinating thing is that there are people whose well-being has actually gone up during the pandemic.
“Probably the biggest lesson from research on human happiness is that we are much better at adapting to new situations than we ourselves realize. When it comes to happiness, what’s more important are connections to others, a sense of belonging, and pulling together for the common good.”
Meanwhile, I knew that so many others were suffering out there – those who became sick, their family and friends who grieved alone for those who had died, the overwhelmed healthcare professionals who cared for the sickest, the people who lost their jobs and/or their homes, the children and their teachers, and all those who had to miss important life milestones – from high school graduations to weddings or even funerals.
Yet life last year continued to march on, as it does, filled with ups and downs, virus or no virus. My son and daughter-in-law, for example, announced they were expecting their first baby (due date is any day now!) ** And our darling Everly Rose started kindergarten and loves being a big school girl.
Meanwhile, my brother, sister-in-law, and two of their three children caught the virus, some more severely ill than the others. But unlike far too many families, all of ours did survive. And they were somehow able to bear what at first must have seemed unbearable.
As Dr. Elizabeth Dunn sums it up:
“If there’s one thing we know about humans, it’s that we’re capable of adapting to whatever life throws us, whether for better or for worse.”
1. Xiong, Jiaqi et al. “Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Mental Health in the General Population: A Systematic Review.” Journal of Affective Disorders vol. 277, 2020: 55-64. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2020.08.001
2. Aknin, Lara B., Jan E. De Neve, Elizabeth W. Dunn, Daisy Fancourt, Elkhonon Goldberg, John Helliwell, Sarah Jones, et al. “A Review and Response to the Early Mental Health and Neurological Consequences of the COVID-19 Pandemic.” PsyArXiv. February 19, 2021; doi:10.31234/osf.io/zw93g.
Image: Ahmad Ardity, Pixabay
* I had my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on April 17, 2021, and my second on July 2, 2021! 🙂
** It’s a boy! Zachary David was born on March 27, 2021! Baby Zack is my second grandchild and first little cousin to our Everly Rose!
Q: “What’s the most challenging ‘new normal’ you’ve had to adapt to during the pandemic?”
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote much more about women heart patients’ day-to-day life in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease (Johns Hopkins University Press). You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 20% off the list price).
– “Let’s all be palm trees together” in facing COVID-19
–COVID-19: Can facts help to minimize fears?
–Christmas lights amid the dark of COVID
–It’s okay not to feel “normal”
-When this is over, will it be “over”?
–Pandemic decisions: Bailey’s, bubbles and bikes
–The uncertainty of hitting that pandemic wall
–Most-read Heart Sisters posts from a crazy year
10 thoughts on “My year of living COVIDly”
Wonderfully expressed about such a horrid new reality.
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Very interesting topic – the normalizing of behaviors that on some level are pretty strange. I have never been one to live my life in fear but this past year brought quite a bit of that, being in the US where not only COVID but also politics has become very worrisome and political discourse is often dangerous. (Some of my friends have begged me to stop writing letters to the editor for fear someone in disagreement will retaliate.)
But, truly, this adjustment to living with a rampant deadly disease has revealed how adaptable we actually are. I found myself calculating risk when I had medical or dental appointments, deciding which to keep and which to postpone. During the post-holiday COVID surge I decided to postpone two appts that were pretty much routine and keep the follow-up with my cardiologist.
Our normalization of the abnormal is something I first noticed when we lived in Ankara, Turkey from 1973 to 1978. That was a time of terrorism, violence, bombings, etc. Turkey is not like that now.
We lived in a flat upstairs from some commandos and across the street from an apartment building that was bombed. The newspapers kept a running tally of the number of people killed in political violence along with the traffic fatalities.
We came to the US for a visit the summer of 1976. Upon hearing thunder, my immediate reaction was to immediately hit the floor until remembering that I was in the countryside of a tiny village, far from any political violence at that time. But it amazed me how easy I normalized behaviors such as staying away from windows, assuming that thunderclaps were bombs, altering my routes to work, finding friends’ bodyguards normal.
This past year, while we have personally been incredibly fortunate, has been very challenging and I really do not know what normal will look or feel like in the future.
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Hello Helen – the story of your Ankara experience was a chilling example of just how adaptable we can be, no matter what horror is happening out in the streets.
My niece was all set to move to Iraq a few years ago to join her hubby who was working in the oil fields near Mosul – right up until his crew was permanently evacuated because of bombing attacks. I also think of the poor people of countries like Syria whose country has been a war zone for years. How do citizens – especially little children – possibly go back to “normal” after years of trauma like that?
Meanwhile, we’re being asked to wear a mask when shopping at our Big Box stores. . . Puts the concepts of deprivation and suffering into perspective, doesn’t it?
And I hope you now have far fewer political issues to write those letters-to-the-editor about!
Take care, stay safe. . . ♥
Staying away from sick people was normal for me. Staying away from ALL people was not. Now it is.
Will it be easy to fall back into face-to-face relationships? Probably. Old patterns are easier to resume than it is to establish new ones.
Thank you for your insightful blog.
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Such a good summary of this bizare time, Kristie – “Staying away from sick people was normal for me. Staying away from ALL people was not. Now it is…”
For me, my comfort level depends on who’s involved in those face-to-face relationships. I can hardly wait to hug my extended family, my close friends and neighbours as I used to, but on the other hand, whenever I see “before times” pre-2020 pix or videos of crowded arenas, loud bars, huge theatres, busy shops, even choirs singing together – I just feel a weird creepy revulsion!
I wonder how long it might take me to get over that reaction? Thanks for your comment – take care, and stay safe. . . ♥
This year of living COVID-ly has reinforced to me how much of a social creature and extrovert I am, and how much I miss giving and getting hugs.
I have my husband and two grown children living with me so I’m never really alone, but I really miss my extended family and social groups, work colleagues.
I got news yesterday that I’m prioritized for the vaccines because of my heart disease, so I’ll feel a little safer going out for errands after, but I feel guilty that the rest of my family may not receive the vaccines for months yet.
People keep asking me how long I think this will last. “Forever” I tell them. This virus is here to stay in one form or another – like influenza, we will never be rid of it.
As a result, our society will have to change enormously.
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I agree, Jacqueline – although it’s wonderful to be getting your vaccine early, until our family, friends, neighbours and basically a significant majority of the population out there are ALSO vaccinated, we won’t have the protection of this herd immunity that experts tell us could one day protect us from getting sick.
I think it’s wise to have realistically low expectations at this time: the vaccines are starting to roll out (too slowly, in some areas!) but we are a long way – despite politicians’ eager promises who are lifting public health precautions as if it’s a done deal – from seeing the END of this pandemic.
Here on the west coast of Canada, our priorities for the vaccine are mostly age-related (after longterm care facility residents). This week, the 90-year old cohort started booking their vaccine appointments, today the mid-80s could start booking. Alas, my heart condition doesn’t give me a priority placement in the queue in our area.
Take care, and stay safe out there. . . ♥
The pandemic did for me what my heart conditions have been trying to get me to understand:
It’s Okay to not be busy!
I am a valuable person whether I am running around being busy or not!
I cannot be everything to everyone!
All of this self-understanding came because of the moments and hours of silence I allowed myself to be part of.
Scientists are beginning to understand that just like sleep, periods of silence are important for neurological health.
May we all come through the pandemic with a newly revitalized brain.
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Hello Jill – I love those valuable lessons your heart condition was trying to teach you! Sometimes it takes a full and complete break in our usual routine to be able to revisit what we do, and why we do it.
I’ve been thinking about a related issue a lot lately: how certain ‘new’ activities, thanks to COVID-19, have become completely normalized (working from home, just one example) – will we ever go fully back to the way it was just because we can?
Where once long periods of uninterrupted silence may have once felt uncomfortable (especially for those who are used to being “busy” all the time), you’ve turned silence into an opportunity.
Take care, stay safe . . . ♥