My mind whirs less and attaches itself to familiar things. Work is finally possible, previously purchased food is eaten, and love still flows. This slowing down has been tempered, however, by another feeling that has surfaced: guilt. In unprecedented times, letting my guard down signals danger to the ancient flight-fight response system that streams through my receptors and synapses.
Is it unsafe to let up? What is the alternative – chaos and chattering fear on the viral precipice?
These questions arise as I try to normalize the abnormal. Two nights ago, I dreamed my apartment was on fire, which may symbolize transformation or my inability to fully comprehend what the pandemic is doing to me. It’s likely both because I am moving, happily, in two months and I am continuing to process my uneasy passage through Covid-19.
Making sense of all this is a staggering task. How do we do it?
Anthropologists and other researchers study how people interpret devastating, bizarre events, many of which are health-related. “Illness narratives” refers to the language, symbols and activities we adopt while seeking to understand and incorporate new ways of being into our lives. I have explored these things in my own work, which adds to the surrealness of dwelling under a planetary bell jar.
There are clinical narratives, the kind we tell our physicians, hospital administrators, pharmacists, and sometimes the Uber drivers who take us to the clinic. Often explanatory, they are told in ways that help the ones we tell determine the origin of the affliction:
“I first noticed the cough two days ago after visiting…” In these narratives, the medical ‘thing’ is positioned as a foreign guest- “the cough.”
We aren’t diseased. We have been visited by an unwanted invader who can’t be convinced to leave through the usual practices we adopt to strengthen and care for ourselves. Of course, there are those who milk the riches of illness by personalizing the ailment right out of the gates; it’s always been theirs for reasons feeble and deep.
For most of us, the thing becomes “my” cough when it persists or becomes chronic. The transition from host to reluctant owner reveals how porous the boundaries are between inside and outside, between me and it. This flexibility enables us to shift our ideas about all the points of reference that make up our personal models of cause and effect.
What is sickness if not a product of layered conditions? As they say in yoga class: everything you’ve ever done has brought you to this moment. It may not be comforting to think this way about a pandemic or a violent encounter, but it’s equally true.
Every step, breath, and nano decision we make paves the way for the next episode of emotions and events, our emotions and events. This doesn’t necessarily mean we are at fault, just that one thing leads to another.
Many have noted the swift onset of the coronavirus following the cataclysmic Australian fires. Surely, they’re connected given the floral and faunal devastation generated by climate change, which is linked with ongoing environmental pollution and the fast spin of post-industrial inequities. Twisted biospheres are ripe with instability and sometimes, they are places of no return. In all of this, what kinds of stories do we tell ourselves?
In her dead-on chronicle of American life in the late 1960s and early 1970s, The White Album, Didion tells us that we spin these collections of words “in order to live.” Do we adopt restitution or “happy ending” narratives or those driven by chaos?
How we travel between these interpretive spaces?
Is there another narrative?
How are you making sense of it?