There is No Fine in Quarantine (2020)

A lot of childhood phobias are funny in hindsight — either things we can’t quite explain or things we can explain with hyper-specific clarity: rooted in one scary movie or a tall-tale told to us by a neighbor kid. But some phobias are so real we have them forever. I was chronically terrified of people getting sick and dying when I was little, which is only strange because I wasn’t personally traumatized by anyone close to me getting sick and dying before I felt this way. I would cry if someone threw up. If I had a low-grade fever I’d cry and ask my dad if I was dying. In grade school I would go to the bathroom to wash my hands multiple times a day, especially during lunch, because I was very worried about germs. Other kids would laugh at me.

I eventually learned how to manage this fear as a function of getting older. However this phobia was something of an early marker for who I’d be as an adult: I get stuck in negative thought patterns, fear bad outcomes, and when very stressed, repeat physical patterns that adversely impact my day. At its core, this is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and a strain of OCD. I see a counselor and I’ve learned how to broker these parts of my personality to continue to be functional. But they’re never really gone.

I admittedly was a COVID-19 doubter back in February 2020. I told friends I thought it was overplayed and did not see a future where it would drastically impact my life. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but somewhere in the second week of March before there were any shutdowns, I flipped the switch on myself and confronted the realization that life was about to become very fraught. I thought about how people I love may get sick and die, and I immediately spiraled back to my childhood self. I didn’t eat, woke up drenched in cold sweats, and I cried. It felt like I had built a mental-stability house of cards that got wiped out in one fell news cycle swoop.

People with GAD are accustomed to living in a world where their fears and concerns are often negated, dismissed, or minimized. Sometimes it is good to have our fears negated: I have absolutely benefitted from being talked off a self-constructed ledge. However, it has been something of a revelation to live in a period where no person, on this whole planet, can say “everything is fine” to me and be right. We are fundamentally not fine. For the first time in my life I’m occupying a physical realm that mirrors my mental landscape and while it is certainly not good, it’s also not all bad either.

People are now performing basic tasks with intention, hoping they do the right thing without messing up too bad. People are washing their hands compulsively until they are cracked and bleeding. People are lying in bed at night grappling with how backwards things are. People are thinking about how people they love may die. I feel a little more at home in this neurotic reality than I want to admit, because it’s one I’ve been living in for years.

From this perspective, it’s a day of reckoning for people living with anxiety: you can lean into your default setting when it calls for you without having to wish you were a better, more well-adjusted person. I’m trying to use this time to see and appreciate being seen, regardless of the mess I find, or the mess I present. We are all learning to hold the full scope of what is wonderful and terrible about our societal systems and ourselves, and some of us have been working towards this for a long time. COVID-19 didn’t invent suffering — it’s just making us think about it more with less distraction. My hope for the time that comes after this is we build a place where we can acknowledge our misery in equal measure with our happiness instead of in a hierarchy. We can be valid in our fear. We can be well in our sadness. We can be unsettled for good reason. And no one will feel compelled to tell us: everything is fine.

Kelsey is a spatial strategist, social designer, and creative observationist at the convergence of planning policy, climate justice, and social change.