Starting my COVID vaccination is thrilling, liberating, a massive relief. It’s also terrifying. (Content notes: depression, anxiety, American assholes.)
It’s like a year ago, we slammed on the brakes.* The roads all turned into lava or something, and we slammed on the brakes and pulled over. And we’ve been living in our cars ever since. We’ve been eating junk food from the gas station; getting crappy sleep in the back seat; doing video calls with the people with we love, trying to shut out the pain of not touching them, not having touched them for months.
A year ago, we slammed on the brakes. And now the road crew is on their way. I’ll be able to start the car soon. I’m excited, elated, relieved beyond measure.
But I don’t know where I’m going.
Where was I going a year ago? I’m not sure I remember. That place might not even be there anymore. And even if it is — I’m not the same. Living in your car for a year because the roads are made of lava? It changes you. In the last year I learned how to bake, how to make marmalade, how to use an Instant Pot, how to spend a year killing time even though I’m fifty-nine and years are in increasingly short supply. I am both tougher now and more fragile. I’ve learned that I can endure through trauma that never lets up — and that I can be broken in ways that aren’t going to heal. I’ve learned that when I’m deeply despairing and losing hope, what keeps me going isn’t the thought that things will get better. It’s the thought that I don’t need to be happy right now, I don’t need to be okay right now. All I need to do is hang on.
I’ve hung on, and I’m glad. I am thrilled to be getting vaccinated, delighted that I’ll soon be seeing the people I love: hugging them, touching them, seeing their whole faces, crying probably, hugging them again. But I’ve spent the last year learning that other people are dangerous and scary, that I should avoid them as much as I can. My depressed jerkbrain is crowing that she was right all along: I should never see people or leave the house, I should stay inside and watch TV and never feel anything again. Being mostly isolated for a year has been heartbreaking, disabling — and much too easy for me to get used to.
How do I unlearn all that?
How do I decide where I want to go, when I’m not sure who I am?
I don’t even know where I can go now. I’ve taken damage in the last year. My depression is worse; my anxiety is worse; my physical health is worse. Extended depression and trauma cause real harm, like actual brain damage: memory loss, difficulty concentrating, loss of motivation. To pound the metaphor into the ground: It hasn’t been good for the car to just sit on the side of the road, and I don’t know what it can do anymore. I don’t know what’s going to get better on its own, what’s going to take time and work to heal, what’s never getting better. I know I need to pick a direction and start moving. But I don’t want to commit when I can’t trust my power or stability, when I know I’m fragile and multiple traumas knock me into a pit.
And I’m afraid of how I’m going to feel. Once I start moving again, I’ll start feeling again. I’ll ease out of the zombie haze I’ve been in for a year, putting one foot in front of the other with little awareness and no intent. The haze will lift. And I’ll start feeling what I haven’t let myself feel for a year — the grief, the fear, the scarring, the rage, all the things that would have made it harder to put one foot in front of the other. How fucking ironic; soon I’ll be moving again, and one of the first things I’m going to do is stop, pull over, get out of the car, and scream.
It’s like that. Except while all this has been happening, millions of other drivers have been careening around the roads, spinning their wheels in the lava and spraying it at the rest of us, laughing at the warning signs that scream FOR FUCK’S SAKE STOP YOUR CAR, YOU’RE KILLING PEOPLE. They’ve decided that the lava is a liberal conspiracy, that the people begging them to pull over just want to steal their freedoms. Every time the road crew clears a highway, they dump on more lava. They looked at the grief, the fear, the trauma — and decided to make it worse. They love their country, and for them that doesn’t mean we all pull together in a crisis. It means hanging on to their piece of it and screaming at the rest of us like angry raccoons. They love their country, they say. I don’t. I hate my country, and am afraid of it, and am deeply ashamed of it.
I promise you, I will be okay. Whatever the hell that means anymore. Not dying or dead? Only sometimes miserable, and experiencing at least some pleasure? Continuing to grit my teeth and hang on, with a vague hope that things might eventually get better” That’s a low bar. These days, when my friends and I ask, “How are you?”, we’ve learned to brace ourselves, not knowing if we’re going to get trivial details of marmalade techniques — or four hours of screaming and crying, punctuated at the end with, “But I’m basically okay. How are you?”
I have no idea what “okay” means. I have still less idea of what it’ll mean in the coming weeks and years, in the Aftertimes, in the new new normal. Whatever “okay” means, I promise that I’ll be it. I’ll be fully vaccinated in a few weeks, and I promise you that this makes me happy, excited, relieved, grateful. But it also makes me apprehensive, uncertain, terrified. And I don’t want to pretend that that’s not true.
So, that’s me. How are you?
*”We” might not be you, by the way. I don’t mean everyone. I mean me, and anyone who reads this and thinks, “Yeah. that’s me.