When I’ll feel Covid-safe around people

August 26, 2022

Two-and-a-half years into this damn pandemic, I’m still spending a whole lot of time alone, and it’s hard. I miss people. I miss regular socialization. I miss dating. Actually no, I don’t like dating. But I miss the potential for a relationship. I miss sex. I miss casually hanging out at a friend’s house, going to the theater, visiting to a museum, not having to rely on New England’s unpredictable weather to determine if I’ll get to see people. I miss parties and Meetup groups and all the other random in-person indoor stuff that I took for granted.

Yet, so many people are out in the world, acting like there’s no pandemic anymore, or like getting Covid is no big deal. Most others seem to be somewhere in the middle, being somewhat cautious but still socializing and attending work and school in person. A lot of my family and friends in the middle have been asking me when, if ever, I’ll be willing to go out again. I think they expect this question to trip me up, to prove that my expectations are unreasonable.

But the truth is, I have a mental list going of things that will make me feel safe enough to join my family for Thanksgiving dinner or to go to a play, and they aren’t at all unrealistic. I just wish they would happen sooner than they probably will. Here are some of mine and I’d love to hear yours, so I know what other excellent possibilities are out there.

  1. Widespread mask use. This wouldn’t make me feel comfortable in all situations, but in many. Today I called a dozen hair salons and the only ones that have people wearing masks are out of my price range. The others say they don’t have any protocols, no masks. WHY NOT?!?!? The pandemic is not over and they’re only prolonging things and making it harder for people like me. If everyone wore masks I still wouldn’t go to the theater, but I’d feel more comfortable at the grocery store. Please please please wear masks, people!
  2. Masks that 100% (or maybe 99%) protect the wearer. Speaking of masks, this would be huge. I’d feel much better about the 90% of unmasked grocery shoppers in the store with me if I knew that my own mask would provide all the protection I needed. Then I wouldn’t have to rely on others so much to protect my own health. Of course, these would also have to be affordable and widely available. And if they were reusable, that would be even better!
  3. Accurate tests. If at-home tests gave fewer false negatives, and if they gave positives as soon as someone was contagious, I would 100% be hanging out indoors with family and friends. Would I go to crowded events with strangers? Nope! But at least I’d get to be around people I love. And it would open up dating possibilities, too. I still wouldn’t want to go to restaurants, etc. on dates, but at least as we got to know each other, I’d feel safer being indoors alone and maybe even kissing *gasp!*
  4. Vaccines that prevent contracting Covid and/or transmission of Covid. Back in 2020, we thought vaccines would save us. We talked about herd immunity. The problem was that the vaccines we got don’t prevent anyone from getting Covid or from passing it along to others. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled we got vaccines that reduce the likelihood of hospitalization and/or death. I just want more. If we had vaccines that stopped people from spreading Covid, I’d be hanging out with my vaccinated family and friends, because I wouldn’t have to worried about them giving it to me or about me giving it to them. If we had vaccines that stopped people from getting Covid at all, I’d be feeling much safer as I go out in the world, and then I’d probably go back to being in public spaces again.
  5. Vaccines that prevent long Covid and disease latency. It’s hard for me to explain to most people that I’m not worried about dying from Covid. I’m most worried about getting long Covid. And right now, the vaccines help me avoid dying, but they don’t help me avoid long Covid. I wish they did. Honestly, if long Covid didn’t exist and if we didn’t have a concern about disease latency (when symptoms might appear years or even decades later, like with post-polio syndrome), then I wouldn’t be so concerned and I’d be happy to at least be around family and friends, and I would consider being out in public spaces more. For me, this would be a gamechanger in a way that I find hard to explain to most people.
  6. A near miss: a cure for long Covid. To be honest, I’m not sure how much this would help at this point. Before I was worried about disease latency, a long Covid cure would have been enough to get me out and about again but now, unless it would also cure any future symptoms, I don’t think it would do the trick for me. There’s just too much at stake with the disease latency risk. I watched a loved one deal with post polio syndrome for years and the possibilities with Covid latency feel too real to me.

So that’s my current list. I think that some of these are more likely in the short term than others. #5 would be amazing, but I’m not holding my breath for that one any time soon. #4 feels more likely, but only if we don’t lose momentum in terms of funding research and innovation. The ship has sailed on #1. Let’s face it, too many people are selfish assholes. They don’t believe they’ll get sick and don’t care of others do. But #2 and #3 feel like they have potential, even in the near future.

Experts are already working on creating more accurate tests. Imagine what a gamechanger that would be! Sure, I still wouldn’t want to hang out with a lot of strangers, but it would open the door to feeling comfortable with family and friends. I’m thinking about all of the people I’d want to see who, right now, I’m not visiting with indoors. It would be amazing!

I don’t know if anyone is working on creating masks that better protect the wearer, but I sure hope that they are! I’d love to have more control over my own safety. Not only would I be able to spend more time with family and friends, but I’d feel more comfortable around strangers, too. No, this wouldn’t be the perfect solution, but it would open up the world for me and at this moment, that would be enough.

Even before the pandemic, I struggled with loneliness. I’m an extrovert who lives alone and who, due to health issues, often doesn’t go out for days at a time. I’m at an age where my friends are mostly married and have kids in addition to working full time, so they are understandably busy with their families when they aren’t at work. I get it, but it also makes it harder for me to spend time with them. That left me spending a lot of time home alone, taking walks alone, and doing activities alone. And that was before the pandemic. Now I’m so much more isolated and damn it, I just want to be around people! I want to spend the weekend with friends out of town, hug my mom, kiss a date, go to a party, and feel safe wandering the aisles of the craft store. Is that so much to ask?

For now, though, I’m sitting at home. Today I’m seeing a friend – via Zoom. It’s not the same, but it will have to do. And despite what so many others think, I’m not planning to sit at home alone forever. I am not wrapped up in fear with no foreseeable way out. I see a way out. I just need scientists to make it happen. Please.

What about you? In what ways do you think there could be a safe way for those of us who are at higher risk to socialize again? I’d love to hear your ideas!


I’m ok but not really

July 15, 2022

Maybe it’s my imagination, but lately it seems that people are asking, “How are you?” more than usual. I’ve hated this question for decades. I feel stuck when people ask: do they really want to know? If so, how much should I share? This issue isn’t new to anyone with chronic illness. I’ve written about it before, as have a lot of other folks. But these days, I’m dealing with something else: normalizing my own not-okay-ness.

Let’s start with my real answer to “How are you?”, what I’d say if I were being honest with them and with myself, and then I’ll break things down.

I’m fine. Ok, I’m not really fine, but I’m fine enough, you know? I’m getting by. I’m surviving day-to-day and it’s good enough. I mean, sure, it’s not really good enough, but it’s as good enough as it can be right now, you know? It’s doable. I’m overwhelmed. I’m exhausted. I’m doing an elimination diet that is stressful and overwhelming. I’ve going to in-person occupational therapy twice a week which is a lot logistically, and that’s before you account for doing the exercises at home every day. It’s supposed to be twice a day but I. Just. Can’t. I’m still trying to do my physical therapy every day. I’m exhausted, did I mention that? I haven’t slept well these last few… days? weeks? And I’ve been having nightmares since the pandemic began, too. I’m anemic and my thyroid levels are off. Those two are probably related. I’ve waited months and I’m finally getting an iron infusion next week, since supplements don’t work (no, I don’t know why I can’t seem to absorb certain nutrients) and I’ve had bad experiences with the infusions in the past so I’m really nervous. The last two times I brought someone with me but with the pandemic, I can’t do that this time. I wish I could bring a dog to cuddle. Anyway, I’ll be glad to get that over-with, but it can take weeks, or even months, to feel the effects. Oh, and I got my period this week so I was extra emotional and I lost a lot of blood. I had to spend time washing blood out of clothes and going to the bathroom every hour or two to deal with it. I’m sure that’s not helping with the anemia, either. Did I mention the new pain I’m having? And the two new diagnoses I got this week? I might have forgotten that. And it’s summer and while for some reason I hoped it would be different this time, it’s not. The heat and humidity bring additional pain, and it sucks. And Covid cases are soaring and people still aren’t wearing masks which is so damn disrespectful. Plus several friends have told me big secrets recently and I really want to talk those things through with someone but I can’t because they’re not my secrets and eventually it’ll all come out but it could be a long time and meanwhile I keep worry about these people that I love so much. All I want to do is sit on my couch and read a good book, watch movies, and crochet. But I can’t. I have to do my occupational therapy and physical therapy and prepare meals and go to appointments and do housework and try to do at least a little bit of volunteer and paid work. But you know, I’m fine. Because I feel like I have to be. I’m getting by, one day at a time, and that’s enough, right?

That’s what I want to say. But I never do. Some people hear bits and pieces. I’ll tell a friend that my heavy period is probably making my anemia worse and is probably why I’m extra fatigued this week. Several folks know about the stress around the elimination diet. A few know about this and others know about that and some don’t know anything because I just don’t even want to deal with answering a bunch of follow-up questions. And through it all, when a good friend who also has chronic illness asked this week how I was doing, my answer was still to say that I was fine. Sure, this was partly because I just didn’t want to talk about all of the crap I’m dealing with. It was partly because I didn’t want to bother her with everything. But it was also partly because I truly believed for a moment that I was fine, or at least fine enough.

Even I can tell that I’m really not fine. Come on, look at that answer above. That is not a “fine” answer. But I’m continuing to live my life, and it’s giving me the illusion that I’m ok. I’m so tired that I’m not processing my feelings, I’m just pushing them aside. It’s the exact opposite of what I’ve been learning in therapy but at the same time, even my therapist agrees that sometimes I need to compartmentalize. Sometimes it’s helpful for self-preservation.

And maybe that’s what believing I’m “fine” is all about right now: self-preservation. Because if I think too much about the many ways that I am so obviously not at all “fine” then I may loose my shit. And frankly, I’m too tired to have the really good crying session that I probably need right now.

I think that sometimes we need to give ourselves the illusion that we’re doing okay as a way of surviving it all. I feel like it’s ok to do this, as long as it doesn’t last too long, and as long as I recognize what it is that I’m doing. At first I really believed I was ok. Now I see it for the facade it always was, but I’m still using it, holding up the shield of fine-ness while knowing the shield is fake. Eventually everything will break through (probably at my therapy session next week, the first in several weeks due to my therapist’s vacation) and then I can hopefully go back to seeing the truth. But until then, I’ll keep hiding behind my fake shield, because at least it’s helping me to get through each day.

Does anyone else do this? Do you ever truly believe you’re fine, even for a minute, when it’s obvious that you’re really not? Does it help? I’m curious to hear others’ perspectives and experiences.


The problem with the “don’t make events about food” advice

February 22, 2022

Maybe you have celiac disease or another food restriction like me, or maybe you have another limitation that causes issues for you at social gatherings. If so, you’ll relate to this. And if that’s not you, this may put things in a slightly different perspective for you.

I grew up in a family that made a big deal out of food. Holidays, were always about food. I get it, that’s how Jewish holidays are. Challah, hamentaschen, wine, matzo ball soup, latkes, and kugels were all staples. Thanksgiving had turkey, pies, potatoes, and kugels. When we visited family out of state or they visited us, it was all about the food. We thought about it, talked about it, spent lots of time preparing it, and of course, enjoyed eating it. As I grew up, I often felt sick after (or during) these events, but I often felt sick after (or during) a normal meal anyway, so it’s not like these were any better or worse. It wasn’t until my 30s that I stopped eating gluten.

Image credit Heartland Mom on Pixabay

I have often wondered how my grandmother would have handled things if she’d still been alive when I went gluten-free. She was the stereotypical Jewish grandmother, always cooking and baking, expressing her love through food. We would arrive at her house after a several hours long drive, having stopped for lunch on the way. She would ask if we wanted food when we arrived and we’d say no, we’d already eaten, so she would put out a “snack”. It was a large snack! Then a few hours later dinner would consist of chicken, brisket, at least 2 kugels, challah, salad, and more, along with multiple desserts – for only 6 people! I’d like to think she’d have found a way to adapt her meals for me, but I know she wouldn’t have stopped focusing on them.

The surprising (at first) thing with eliminating gluten is that it doesn’t only effect what we eat, it effects our social lives. Dates are tricky when I can only eat at certain restaurants. Going out with friends is tough when we can’t spontaneously grab food while we’re out. Attending weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other events is frustrating when I can’t eat the food provided. Multiple surveys have shown that the social aspects are the hardest part of living with celiac disease. So the advice that we hear over and over is logical: don’t make events about food, make them about people. And after all, shouldn’t we all be doing that anyway?

I get it. If the focus at Thanksgiving is the people instead of the table of food, then the people who can’t eat all of the food, and who might be nervous about the food, can still have a great time. If the Passover sedar is about the people and the prayers and we let the matzo ball soup and brisket be secondary (or even tertiary) incidentals, anyone with food restrictions will have a better time. It makes sense.

People > Food.

It took me many years to figure out why that advice felt off to me.

I remember a family vacation. We were in a big rented house, and I had been careful to cook food in advance. It was annoying to have to do this, and definitely took away from some of the fun, but it was fine. There was one night when everyone wanted to eat at a fancy restaurant. The family had been to this city many times over many years and loved this place. I’d only been once and, frankly, I hadn’t thought it was so wonderful, but whatever, I’d have been willing to go back. The thing is, they didn’t have anything gluten-free. My choices were to go there and not eat, or not go. I chose to not go. I found another restaurant in town that had gluten-free food and my mom chose to join me. My mom and I had a fantastic time, actually. We walked around town and had one of the best meals we’d ever had together. The food was amazing, the ambience gorgeous, the company perfect. My dad, aunt, uncle, cousins, and cousin’s wife all went to the other restaurant, and I won’t pretend I wasn’t hurt. I understand they liked this place and wanted to go, but it hurt me that they didn’t place my feelings and their desire to be with me above their desire to eat at a specific restaurant. They talked about it a lot in advance and a lot afterwards, too.

Holidays and family gatherings have been different since I went gluten-free. When my mother hosts, she makes sure the meal is either completely or mostly gluten-free, with any gluten foods kept separate and reminders to all to keep their serving spoons away from other foods. Accommodations vary when others host. But either way, it’s still about the food, and food is still stressful. Even when the meal is 100% gluten free, I no longer get any joy from focusing on food. It’s simply associated too much with negative things for me. Plus, the talk about the food isn’t limited to the food on the table, and that’s even more stressful. I am immensely grateful that my mother goes out of her way to make me feel comfortable eating the food at her events, but I still wish we could focus less on the food altogether.

As for me hosting a family event, that’s not likely to happen. For one thing, my apartment is small and I don’t have a lot of space. But for another, I have no desire to host. Some people love to cook, decorate, and have lots of people over for a party. That’s not me, and it never has been. Plus, even if I wanted to do that, I don’t have the energy for it. I can cook a meal OR attend a gathering, but I certainly can’t do both, never mind hosting duties. When I go to someone else’s home and bring food with me, it’s always something that can be prepared a day or two in advance because doing it the same day is too exhausting for me.

But let’s be realistic. Even if I could find a way to host, there would still be the issue that the gathering would be all about the food because I might be able to change the circumstances, but I can’t change the people. As soon as they walked in they would ask what we were eating, and the conversation would often turn back to food throughout the gathering. If I made all of the food then I wouldn’t be worried about that food in particular, but I still don’t like these conversations. Inevitably people talk about other foods and about restaurants, and at best none of this is enjoyable to me, at worst it upsets me, triggering all sorts of past trauma.

I don’t have a solution. This is something I’m continuing to work on for the sake of my own mental health. I can talk to my family about it and maybe they will occasionally make an effort, at least some of them would, but I know that most would not even try, or they would soon forget. This is ingrained and it’s something they enjoy. I just wish the thing they enjoy so much wasn’t the thing that brings me the most grief.


Is it medical trauma-induced anxiety or rational concern?

August 17, 2021

Heads up: I’ll be talking about my Covid-related anxieties. If this is going to make you anxious, you may want to proceed with caution or skip over this post.

I’m stuck. I’ve been stuck for a long time, but now, suddenly, I’m running out of time to become unstuck. There’s a big event in just over a week and I’m supposed to be there. It was supposed to be last year around this time, but as the pandemic got worse, they decided to move things back by one year. I wondered at the time if one year would be long enough. I’m still wondering.

These folks are so close to me. They’re like family. In some ways, we’re closer than family. Last week she told me that if I come, she’ll pick up food for me the day before when she’s in town to do other last-minute prep, and she told me to double-check the restaurant that she thinks will be safe for me, but that of course I can choose any restaurant in town that I want (it’s a small town, so not a big deal logistically.) How sweet and thoughtful is that? She’s preparing this enormous party (think like a wedding, bat mitzvah, or quinceaƱera), planning every detail, including hiring caterers, and she thought about my food needs! I told her that I planned to bring my own food and she said that she knew I’d be bringing a lot of food for the trip (I’ll be staying in a hotel overnight if I go) and that she didn’t want me to have to worry about bringing Tupperware to the party. I’m telling you this to illustrate how sweet and thoughtful my friend is. Wait, did I say that already? Well, it should be said again, because she is!

We’re close, and we would do anything for each other. But now “anything” is being put to the test. The party will be all outdoors. There will be a formal part, with 150 people sitting in chairs for 2 hours, everyone wearing masks. I will try not to melt in the August heat. Then there will be talking and food. Then back to the hotel to rest for a couple of hours. That night there’s a party with 100 people. Almost no one will be wearing masks at the party. Many of the adults will be vaccinated, but there’s no way to know if they all will be. I don’t know if the teenagers will be. Of course, the kids under 12 (there won’t be many, but at least a half dozen) won’t be vaccinated. People will be eating, talking, and dancing.

I can try to sit at the edge for that first part. Drag a chair away from the crowd and wear an N95. I can stay away from the people talking and eating in the afternoon, and eat my lunch in the car or back at the hotel, if I’m willing to wait that long. At night, I can try to keep my distance as much as possible, again wearing an N95 (can I wear the same one again or do I need a new one?) I’ll need to avoid getting close to people I would typically be hugging. I wouldn’t dance, even during the culturally traditional dances during which I may no longer back to dance fully, but I would typically at least stand at the edge and clap and wiggle a bit. Instead, if I go, I’ll be pretty far from the action. I can keep my mask on when others eat, and eat my own food afterwards. It’s all doable. But I’m anxious about it.

(Side note: I know that this entire event would take a huge toll on me. I would need time to recover for all of my usual health reasons. No part of this would be easy, even if Covid weren’t a consideration. It’s just that those other parts wouldn’t stop me. I already decided that it’s worth feeling bad for a few days or more in order to be there. It’s Covid that’s the issue now.)

The problem is, I can argue both sides of this really well. I know that the odds of me getting Covid are really really small. My state (where the party will be) has one of highest vaccination rates in the country. Everything will be outdoors. I will take every precaution. I’ll wear N95 masks. I will socialize only with 2 friends, both of whom are as careful as I am (and who, as of today, are still planning to attend.) We will eat together, away from the others. At the hotel, we will check in and go straight to our room, and stay there until it’s time to head out to the afternoon party. In the morning, we will head home. It will be good for me to get out of town. It will be good for me to be around people I love. I want to support my friend and her entire family.

Now for the flip side. The Delta variant is pervasive. Yes, we have a high vaccination rate, but it’s still too low for herd immunity. Vaccinated people can transmit the virus. I have plenty of reasons to think that if I get Covid, I’m at risk for a more severe case. I got the vaccine, but I have reason to believe it could be less effective for me than for others. People will be talking and dancing, which will expel more air. There will be few masks. There’s a tent, so even though it’s outside, air can’t travel up. During the first part, we’ll be spending 2 hours sitting in chairs. I’ll try to be on the edge of everyone, but I’ll probably still be near others. We’ll be outside, but still, the proximity will bother me.

I could go on and on. And I have. Several months ago I didn’t think I’d go, but I was hoping that might change. Last month I was pretty sure I’d go, and I felt good about that decision. That’s when my friend and I booked a hotel room. We were ready! Then Delta surged and case counts skyrocketed. And now I’m in hell. My therapist this morning actually said that (well, she called it “purgatory”.) She feels that if I don’t go to this party, it will be due to anxiety, not legitimate Covid concerns. Her reason: I’m so careful because of my anxiety that that itself means I’m incredibly unlikely to get Covid. She’s probably right.

But still, I’m anxious. I keep thinking about all of the potential ways this could go wrong. Every time I think about missing this event, my heart breaks a little bit. This is a major life milestone for people I love and I want to be there. Our friendship will survive if I don’t go. She knows how much I want to be there and how much I’m trying to make it work out. She knows that if I stay home, it won’t be a decision that I make lightly. But I want to be there. I should be there.

The thing is, after 30 years of health problems, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that I’d be walking into the lion’s den. I’ve experienced medical trauma after medical trauma after medical trauma during those years. I have been scolded, gaslighted, and maltreated by doctors. I have been sickened, ignored, and abandoned by healthcare systems. I have lost relationships with people close to me. There’s some part of people that thinks, “It will all work itself out just fine.” I don’t believe that. I’m not sure that I ever have.

Maybe a few weeks from now I’ll tell you that I skipped the event and I’m glad I did. Or maybe I’ll be filled with regrets, as we find that no one got sick and I could have safely been there. Or maybe I’ll go and be glad that I did. Or I could go and get sick and regret it, even though I know that last one is incredibly unlikely. But for now, I have a few more days before my self-imposed deadline to decide. I sure wish I knew what I was going to do.

I welcome your input. I feel stuck, and I’d really like to get unstuck. Two days ago I was pretty sure I was going. Yesterday I was pretty sure that I wasn’t. Today I think that I might. Can you offer me anything useful here to help me sort out how much of my concern is reasonable and how much of it is the result of past medical trauma that has no bearing on this decision?


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