At this point, I check the news only three times a day. The rationing is keeping me steady. When this all started a few weeks ago, broadcasts from the various corners of the world helped me make decisions. I pulled my son out of school a day before the county caught up. The conversation with his dad about the decision was tough — I had to make the case for why our boy’s academic well-being was less critical than flattening the curve. This meant providing evidence from the Italian news, from scientists who were begging for distancing in the absence of any kind of coordinated response from our leadership.
Like so many people, I read and read and read. Tracked curves from around the world, learned why South Korea looks so different from Iran. Then not 24 hours after I made the call, our school board followed suit. That early vigilance validated, I continued to gulp down news from every source I could find.
I hit capacity about six days in. That was when I enacted a news ration. That’s a misnomer, of course — it’s actually not a restriction on what’s coming in because that’s not where the scarcity lies. The resource in limited supply is attention. My own cognitive load is taxed and so some other part of me has to dial it down. The unending stream of news overburdens my heart, my mind, my spirit. As the strain grows into something almost physical, I can feel the stress fractures spiderwebbing across my psyche.
I am so very not alone in this. Every friend has a version of how the fear is taking root in them. Even as we adapt to the changes, deal with the lost job or the kids home all day or the obstinate parents, some part of us is wobbling precariously. It’s stress eating or knocking back too much beer. It’s a simmering rage that explodes at random or numbness. It’s hyper-control or our kids’ academic schedules. Some folks — and how I wish this compulsion would bloom in me — are plugging their anxiety directly into action by upping their pressure on local, state, and national leaders.
For me, dreams are where the strain is most evident. Up to now, my go-to anxiety nightmare was rising water. Tsunamis sweeping up a crowded coast, or me in a house on stilts in a flooding bayou, or a simple drowning in a churning sea. No one is going under in my dreams now. Instead, the men are hunting me down. One is stalking me, trying to kill me. Men are gathering for a gang rape. I am married to the wrong man and can’t get out. My partner is sleeping with the scary neighbor and I can’t disentangle myself from the mess.
Every night I fall asleep entirely out of gas and wake up still on empty.
So now after my third dose of the news, it’s anything else. Literally anything. This shouldn’t pose a problem, because anything is the whole universe. Within easy reach: Work. Because teleworking means I’m probably avoiding work to check the news, so maybe just get back to it? Also, tidy something. Because working from home in a small condo with a teenager nearby 24-7 means the house is always about two spills shy of Grey Gardens.
Anything instead of the news has been sending a note to a friend. Stepping out onto the balcony. Petting the dog. Checking in with the kid. Singing a song. Saying a little prayer. Or standing there.
Yes, love. Just stand there.
How is this so much harder than it sounds? Why is the list of distractions even necessary at this point? This is the same catalog of anything-elses I used two decades ago when I quit smoking. It’s the same one I use to break out of emotional eating. The one to get through heartbreak. And yet, with all this practice, I still have to draw up the list and enforce it all over again in every new crisis.
Admittedly, my spirit is a bit weary. I’m entering this coronavirus chapter dragging a net full of grief. In the span of four months, four people I care about died. Two of them were young, dear friends, Eric of a heart attack at 46, and Paraag of colon cancer at 37. My partner’s housemate, Elizabeth, died by suicide. And my partner’s father, Colin, died after a rapid decline from an unidentified illness.
Grief has laid itself across the whole of my fall and spring, and it is a heavy, bristled creature. I don’t even know what to write about this. Grief triggered an almost debilitating depression, which clogged every creative and spiritual channel, which led me back to counseling, which started to lift the weight. So entering this chapter of pandemic preparation has me, at the very least, back on my feet. A little steadier.
So yes, love, it’s quite alright to just stand there. And it’s understandable that a reminder might be necessary from time to time.
Today, I have circled back to the news at three different points through the day. The quota met, I am done. We know the number of cases reported in Virginia as of noon today (219, and we’ve been keeping track since Day 1 and the grim math to track the curve.) I learned that a 12-year-old without underlying conditions is battling for her life in Atlanta. That the first person died in Fairfax County yesterday — a man only a few years older than my partner. That in parts of Europe, people are no longer allowed outside even for exercise.
That is more than enough. So for the few hours that remain of this Sunday, I am going to do anything else. Walk the dog (again) and notice the tulip poplars dropping their fat tongued petals all over the sidewalk. Check in with the boy who is playing video games now after a bit of time in the sun throwing a frisbee in a deserted park. Move him in the direction of his turn at dinner, and savor the burgers and rainbow potatoes in whatever form he presents them. At some point, we’ll play a board game and fuss over bedtime.
In between, I’ll stand here. Just stand and take one more blessed breath.