The editorial schedule of this column, where I write essays three weeks in advance of publishing, forces me to try to anticipate the future. Not just any future, though. But yours. The hope is that what I decide to write about today exists in the intersection of evergreen and relevance that’ll make it interesting enough, 21 days from now, for you to want to read it.
Today’s a bit different, though. Because I currently have COVID-19. But I’m confident that, by the time you read this, it will have exited my system. And this essay is about what I learned from having it. So I’m writing this in the past tense. Which 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 in late April. Here’s what I learned:
1. Two years ago, I was scrubbing takeout and grocery store orders with Clorox wipes on my stoop before I brought them into my house. And then, once I’d move them to a kitchen counter, and then from the counter to a shelf or the fridge, I’d Clorox each surface.
Today, this is considered hygiene theater. We know enough about the virus now to understand that incessant Cloroxing prevents the spread like how 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 wasn’t. I’m in good enough shape to play pickup basketball three times a week with men half my age. But I’m also 43 years old with an autoimmune disorder, and I live with two unvaccinated vectors of infectious disease called “children.” It’s less scary now, though, than it would have been in May 2020. 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 has been an anxiety alleviation machine assuring me that my oxygen levels were fine. And because of what we know now about treating it -- which medications to take, which activities to avoid, how much sleep to get -- knowledge that just wasn’t as available two years ago.
I am worried about long COVID, which still exists in that nebulous unknown. But worry (what I have now) is manageable. Terror (what I had then) is not.
2. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that after two years of not getting COVID-19, I thought it just wasn’t going to happen. Like maybe I was lucky enough to have a natural immunity. Or perhaps that two years of hypervigilance, of masking everywhere, of eating at an indoor restaurant exactly once since March 2020, bought me immunity. Like points accumulated after paying your credit card bill early. Like, I had a psychosomatic shield from it.
I was (obviously) wrong. But it’s still a nice thought to have. Makes me feel like a wizard.
3. My virus was what’s considered to be mild. “Mild” is a funny word. Mild connotes mundane. Unremarkable. Flaccid. But my mouth still hasn’t forgiven me for the time at this restaurant I tried the “mild” sauce, only to learn that “mild” there meant “incinerating your esophagus so that it drains through to your feet.”
I’ve had worse congestion, worse headaches, worse fevers, worse coughs, worse sore throats and worse bouts of fatigue. But what made this mildness so disconcerting is that I had these symptoms all at once. It felt like I had five different mild viruses. Like if seasonal allergies and mono had 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 dry coughing today?” “Why are my bedsheets soaked?” “Wait ... is that vertigo?” “I didn’t know we were playing the ‘Is that gas or diarrhea?’ game!”)
4. My entire house tested positive, so we quarantined for a week. There were times, though, that I sat on my front stoop to get fresh air, and some neighbors, dog walkers and other passersby would try to speak to me. I’ve learned to be more tolerant of small talk. I don’t consider it the ingrown toenail of social discourse anymore. But, for obvious reasons, I was not in the mood, and most people read my body language and kept moving.
One person didn’t, though, and stopped to hold a conversation, even as I stood up, backed away to my door and kept my mouth stapled shut. And then, mid-question, I turned around, opened my door and went back inside without saying anything.
My point is that if you’re a fan of the Irish exit, but sometimes feel bad about doing it, if you get COVID-19, you can do it guilt-free!
Damon Young is author of “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays.” He is a writer in Pittsburgh.
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