My jaw locked a year ago. This is called TMJ disorder. Last February, just before the pandemic, I went to the doctor and then got bumped around with referrals to the dentist and then the specialty dentist to investigate what the hell was going on. At first, I thought my cancer had moved into my jaw, but the specialty dentist assured me that was not the case. I just had regular ole TMJ disorder, probably due to stress. I clench my jaw when I’m anxious. I’ve been doing that my entire life and it finally caught up to me, just in time for the pandemic.
Also, in early February, I flew to Toronto for a week of Bird’s Eye View book launch events. My people really came through for me in the Big Smoke – I had seven events booked in five days. While this was super and people were very kind to me, I was extremely stressed out by all the extroverting and public speaking anxiety and fell into my hotel bed exhausted every night. My jaw remained locked and I shovelled small forkfuls of soft food into my mouth. I ate lot of ramen. I haven’t eaten an apple or a carrot in many months.
The first case of COVID popped up in Toronto in early February too. I presented a Conversation about Kindness at Sunnybrook Health Science Centre, where the first patient in Canada had just been admitted. It seems ludicrous now that I spoke to a full auditorium of health professionals, but COVID was not yet fully upon us. The official pandemic was about six weeks away.
Funnily (or not), I acquired H1N1 when I was at a health conference in 2009. The hospital sponsoring me insisted I share a room with another mom to save them money. My roommate mentioned her husband was sick at home, and sure enough a few days later, I didn’t even have the energy to stand up in the shower. I flew home and tried my best to cover up my cough on the plane so I wouldn’t get lynched. This was the days before masks.
H1N1 put me flat on my back for two weeks and I gifted the virus to my daughter, who was then 13 years old. She got Tamiflu early in her illness and thankfully was not as sick as I was. I felt horrible about getting her sick. I probably spread it to people on the plane too. (You can send me hate mail if you want).
Where am I going with all this? I don’t know. Arthur Frank tells us in his book The Wounded Storyteller that it is impossible to create a narrative when you are in the midst of a crisis.
We are in the midst of a crisis with COVID-19.
I’m having flashbacks to when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The difference is that it is like everybody has cancer now. We are all afraid of dying. Our mortality is staring at us right in the face. I spent my cancer ‘journey’ (what a stupid thing to call it, like it is a trip to somewhere awesome instead of the most terrifying experience of my life) in a deep depression where I lost family and friends and felt like my head was in a vice 24 hours a day. On top of that, I had a mostly miserable patient experience at the cancer hospital, which I wrote all about in my book, so I won’t rehash the whole thing here. Suffice to say, I have serious medical PTSD whenever I even have to drive past that place.
How does this connect with COVID? I'm not sure but let's keep going.
When I had cancer, I was afraid all the time. In this pandemic, it feels like my whole family has cancer, and I’m afraid of them dying too: my son with Down syndrome who is high risk for COVID (but isn’t even a priority on the vaccine list), my daughter who works on the ‘front-lines’ (gosh I hate the army terminology in health care) as an RN in a children’s hospital but who knows when she’s getting vaccinated, my eldest son who lives in the US (enough said), my husband who has high blood pressure, compounded with stress from work and pressure to support his family.
Every minute of every day, I am fearful that one of them will get sick. The vice around my head is back, slowly but surely it is getting tighter and tighter.
We are all living under terrible stress. Of course, this isn’t good for our health but please don’t tell me not to worry. If you aren’t worried living in the midst of a global pandemic, there might be something wrong with you. Living in denial and pretending everything is okay – and blissfully travelling and going out to restaurants - is not good for our collective public health. Stop doing that.
When I had cancer, there were a few things that gave me comfort: a meditation class, where I learned how to breath while I was under the radiation machine. Long aimless walks in leafy Vancouver neighbourhoods. Finding a compassionate therapist. Taking a poetry class. Visits from my adult children. My husband enveloping me in his arms, assuring me that I was safe.
I need to find new comforts now and so do you. My jaw remains clenched and I bet your jaw is clenched too. My long walks have dissipated in the winter now that I’m a full-time home-schooling mom. I can’t see my adult children in person. I struggle to write in a coherent way. I still see my therapist over video. And while my meditation practice has lapsed, there is one thing I can still do.
I can breathe. We all can breathe. The thought of catching COVID and not being able to breathe terrifies me. So, let’s all collectively breathe as long as we possibly can.
One breath in. One breath out. One step at a time. One breath at a time. One bird at a time. I hope we will get through. I can't promise we will, but I do know that all we have right now is this moment.
Kimmy Schmidt says when life gets unbearable:
I learned a long time ago that a person can stand just about anything for 10 seconds, then you just start on a new 10 seconds. All you’ve got to do is take it 10 seconds at a time.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Relax your jaw. Write shitty disjointed essays. Go for a walk in the rain. Do what you have to do to keep going.
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