Anxiety in the Time of COVID
Updated: Oct 2, 2020
June 30, 2020
Some people measure COVID by the ebbs and flows of case numbers. I measure it by the waves of my anxiety.
The first time I remember feeling concerned was mid-February. I was in an airport - remember those? - on a short trip to San Diego and I ran into a volunteer from work traveling with her cousin on my flight. Her cousin was wearing a mask because he had recently been traveling in Asia. (I can’t even type “traveling in Asia” without gasping for breath right now.) This person was going to be sharing air with me in an enclosed space for more than an hour. Had he been exposed to the virus? Could he spread it? Impossible to know. That was the first time I felt the invisible belt of COVID anxiety tighten around my chest and make it hard to breathe.
March was the hardest month. Information changed by the hour and we had to adapt at work. I stood in front of a giant white board for hours with the director of the Food & Nutrition Center mapping out a way to shift our food pantry operations from a daily indoors client shopping model to a pre-bagged parking lot distribution three days a week. Our Senior Lunch Program shut down completely and then reopened as a to-go program. Case managers were ordered to work from home. I helped draft press releases, messages to the community, and social media status updates. I volunteered to help at the food distributions, risking exposing myself to the public. At home, I stocked up on toilet paper, dog food, and canned beans.
Meanwhile, my parents had been planning a trip to come visit. My 70+-year-old parents (one of whom has diabetes) were going to drive up to the Bay Area from LA on Friday, March 13th. In the days prior, I told my mom that I didn’t think it was a good idea for her to come. She ignored me - she wanted to see her grandchildren. They arrived Friday afternoon, the day my kids’ school announced they were shutting down. I didn’t hug them - I had been at work exposed to who knows what germs? I told the kids not to get too close, but of course they ran to hug their grandparents. That night, I could not sleep. Anxiety swirled in my brain and squeezed my lungs. I counted what ifs instead of sheep. What if we had exposed my parents? What if they ended up in the hospital? What if….? (I can’t type it.) My dad panicked as well, and the next day, my parents cut their trip short and drove back to LA. When they were gone, I could breathe a little better. Soon after, the Bay Area announced the first Shelter-in-Place Order.
April and May were a blur. Working at the food distributions in the parking lot, I entered a state of hyper-vigilance that can accompany anxiety, leaving me exhausted at the end of each shift. I tracked who touched what and whether they sanitized their hands afterward. I refused to share my pen. Did that person cough? Sir, do you need a mask? You cannot come in here without a mask! I struggled to breathe inside my own thick, cloth mask.
I cleaned at home and I cleaned at work. At home, I attacked germs with a vengeance, cleaning the two bathrooms and the kitchen frequently and constantly sanitizing high-touch places like doorknobs. Each time my husband brought home groceries, I wiped down every square inch of counter and cabinet handle and finished off with a Lysol spray. At work, I wouldn’t enter the building without first wiping down the handle of the front door. Before settling down at my desk, I cleaned high-touch surfaces in the office kitchen and women’s bathroom - the men were on their own. No spot went neglected - I wiped obvious places like the water dispenser, coffee machine, and microwave handle and more easily overlooked items like the mini metal trash dispensers in the ladies’ bathroom stalls. One day, I scrubbed the filthy doorbell at the entrance to the office, making it ring so many times that I had to send out a page to staff that it was me and not a crazy person at the door - or was I the crazy person?
I hatched a plan to quarantine my family for two weeks so that we could go visit my parents for a week in June. My anxiety mostly took a vacation as I didn’t leave my house for two weeks except to go outside for walks. We ordered groceries online, put off errands, and kept the kids home from the skate park. Arriving at my parents’ house and seeing the smiles on my kids’ faces made it worthwhile. They couldn’t wait to jump in the pool, throw water balloons at my mom, and watch Wicked Tuna with my dad. However, the tight feeling was soon back in my chest as I watched my parents make frequent trips to the store for unnecessary items, invite a friend over, welcome handymen inside without wearing masks, go get their hair done, and hang out with their cleaning lady in the kitchen. Meanwhile, cases in Los Angeles County topped 100,000.
Sunday, June 28th, we left LA and headed back to the Bay Area. We drove past a gym with masked clients running on treadmills indoors. We stopped for lunch - I insisted we use a drive-through to minimize contact with other people. I felt my entire body tense as I prepared to enter a public restroom armed with sanitizing wipes and a mask - there was no way to avoid using a bathroom for more than five hours after having birthed two children. Nearby, unmasked customers entered a pretty crowded Denny’s restaurant for sit-down dining. The tightening in my chest was replaced by pounding. Anxiety turned to anger. I couldn’t believe how casually people were treating this. Is it worth risking the health of yourself and others to eat inside a Denny’s? The day before, I had received a text message that someone at work was feeling ill with COVID symptoms. While we drove, I got another message - a different staff member had tested positive. The onsite Food Pantry had to be shut down for at least a week.
It is now Tuesday, June 30th. Staff members who have come into contact with the positive case are quarantined at home and are awaiting their test results. I, having been away from the office for three weeks, have not been exposed. With so many staff members out, they need me to help at the Senior Lunch Program. I woke up before the sun and was unable to fall back asleep despite using calming breathing techniques. I prepare for the day, amped up and cranky from the lack of sleep. I close my eyes and allow the anxiety to wash over me like a wave. It will pass.