If you ask me how I am feeling, I will tell you I am marginally okay.
In the age of a modern day outbreak, I can’t tell you I am well or fine — those platitudes seem to describe a different, more carefree time before Coronavirus insidiously crept into all our heads.
Slowly, freedom has been peeled away. The shapeless virus called COVID-19 has become larger, more pervasive and insidious. What was first a series of heartbreaking headlines from distant lands is now lingering right outside my door, so I go inside and hope.
Being safer at home makes it feel dangerous everywhere else. From behind my mask, I can’t smell the sweetness of blooming Wisteria anymore.
Like I said, marginally okay over here.
Three month into staying at home, I still feel anxiety, anger and grief, but I also feel gratitude for health and safety. These feelings often swirl together and cross sides creating a nebulous storm on the inside while on the outside, I calmly lead my family through their day.
Because I am mom of two kids, ages 8 and 5, who count on me to maintain some semblance of calm, I can’t fall apart. Moms like me run towards projectile vomit with bare hands and a plan. We run into burning buildings with a blanket and a bucket.
We get things done.
So in a pandemic of course it’s family-first, feelings later.
I coordinate Zoom calls for my first-born son to engage with his teachers and classmates. I print out assignments and spend what feels like hours trying to figure out new basic math concepts (I only cried twice). I try to balance the 8-year-old’s Zoom school schedule with my 5-year-old’s remote preschool song time schedule and countless FaceTime conversation requests from many different little human beings, who miss seeing my kids at their schools.
Like most Americans, I have a new way of getting food to feed the family. I stand in long lines and suffer panic attacks when people infringe on my 6-foot comfort zone.
I keep working at home, calmly on the outside, while the storm of feelings brew on the inside. But I am not okay.
Things I normally love to do feel empty and belabored. I am a writer by birth and trade. When spoken words fail, I sing them bravely through written words. But in my social distancing world, the white screen of my Word document screams at me with its emptiness. Then I go sanitize the doorknobs and light switches again.
The storm swirled on the inside, but one feeling keeps bubbling to the surface: guilt.
In the age of COVID-19, I feel guilty. I live in a blue house in the suburbs of Los Angeles. We have a grassy front yard with succulents and a back yard with a pool waiting for hot summer days. My kids can do their remote schoolwork in a sun-drenched illegal room addition built long before the house became ours. So when I want to put my hands in front of my face — without actually touching — and lament my fate, guilt hisses in my ear, “You have it better than most. You have no right to complain.”
In a way, my guilt is valid. Many families are facing an uncertain future. A record number of people have filed new jobless claims. Those who are “lucky” enough to have a job, work at their own peril.
My brother and sister-in-law both work in hospital emergency rooms. Their approach to COVID-19 is when, not if, they are exposed. They, like many other health care workers, have taken extreme safety measures to protect their young children. Their fear is acute because their bodies, which they use to save others, will become weaponized against the people they love most.
What do I have to complain about, my guilt demands? Should I — still of sound body and mind — be crying over a little freedom lost?
Guilt makes me compare my hurt to other people’s hurt and tuck away the sadness. It invalidates my feelings before I feel them, because I should be grateful. I should appreciate life, livelihood, family, chirping birds and blooming flowers I can no longer smell.
But the truth is social distancing, sheltering at home and feeling like a ticking time bomb of anxiety sucks. And I hurt.
I mourn my personal space and my creative ability to express myself in written word. I fight back tears to see my 8-year-old social and academic interactions reduced to 2-dimensonal faces in boxes on my laptop. And I want to raise my fist in the air when it rains and our world gets even smaller.
Yes, I can focus on gratitude to help shape my perspective in this uncertain time, but it should not be used to torpedo any feelings.
The COVID-19 outbreak dramatically shifted all our lives in different ways and the feelings that come with missed milestones, canceled events, missed human connections are all real and valid.
So I tell you I am marginally okay because that is the truth. Don’t tell me to count my blessings.
Sometimes the margin skews more towards good, like when we all went on a worm hunt and rescue after the rain. Sometimes it skews into darkness, like when my oldest son dug his fingers into my arm said he wished he weren’t here anymore, so he could be free. These moments, and their feelings, can live side-by-side as real examples of what it is like for my family and I to live through this time.
No guilt needed.