The flip side of toughness

I have no interesting updates because being quarantined at home makes me boring and unmotivated. I haven’t thought I had anything to write about until now.

As I’ve established several times before, I am finding a strength and toughness within myself, especially as my husband goes through cancer treatment that’s likely to end in his eventual death. Being strong and tough and keeping a positive attitude are relatively crucial in this state.

Yet, something that I’m also realizing is that strength and toughness cover up a heart that’s broken. Right now, I have my husband’s shoulder to cry on, though of course there are also many thoughts that I battle with in my own head and never tell him about. But what will I do when he’s no longer here to provide a shoulder to cry on?

I’ll get through it, of course. I am a survivor if nothing else. But at the same time, I don’t want my toughness to turn into sharp edges. I’ve seen the same thing happen to other tough people; they developed a hardness that’s nearly impenetrable, especially after a great loss.

I want to maintain my softness, my ability to be easily moved by the plight of others. I don’t ever want to lose my squishy insides despite what I’ve been through. I want to continue to be moved to help others, even if I have far less means to do so than I do now.

I’d like to come through this feeling like a champion, a warrior, with the hard-gained wisdom that comes from such a profound loss. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me for having lost the great love of my life at too young an age, the same way I don’t want pity for having MS. Okay, in the beginning, I’m sure I’ll want appropriate expressions of grief; how could I not?

But I want to eventually come through it without a hardened exterior or interior. I don’t think I’m at much risk because that doesn’t seem to be who I am but grief does weird things to people.

I’m finally over it

The loss of my former best friend, that is. I’ve written about it before in previous posts. But I woke up today and realized that I no longer missed her at all, hoped for an apology for how badly she treated me, or harbored a secret wish to have her back in my life. I was just happy that she was gone.

For a long time, I was lost in this spiral of wondering how someone who supposedly loved me could have been so cruel and intentionally used my secrets and insecurities to hurt me. It seemed so deliberately mean.

Over time, I cared about her less and less because of how she treated me (or tried to, as not caring about people goes against my nature.) She was essentially a middle school bully at her core, leading me to believe she had always been an actual bully herself, which I had suspected for some time. After all, you don’t suddenly learn those traits in adulthood.

I also knew I was not the only person she’d treated that way. In fact, most of her friendships end after a short time, and so did her first marriage. Most people can’t tolerate her for long. Her ex-husband said he needed therapy because of how much she fucked with his head, which she said was “hilarious” and “ridiculous.”

She said I was still too hung up on middle school, but for me it was a traumatic time (like it is for most people) and for her it was awesome. I told her about that as an explanation of what had happened to me and how it affected me. Not having had similar experiences, I guess she couldn’t offer empathy. Instead, for some reason I’ll never understand, it made her vicious.

I was not “hung up” about those years but there was something about our relationship that continually reminded me of them. I shouldn’t have told her about that traumatic experience because she threw it back at me to diminish my feelings. She wasn’t a safe person to share secrets with and it took me far too long to realize that.

Meanwhile, she still seemed stuck in her childhood and teenage years as the best time of her life, which actually makes me really sad because that’s 30 years of growth and personal development she missed out on. While the rest of us were growing up, she was still trying to recapture the magic of her adolescence. She’s like a 45-year-old teenager, which she’d probably take as a compliment.

I never realized how contagious her unhappiness with herself was and how deeply it affected me. I always needed to make some improvements to my self-esteem, but after almost two decades of friendship with her, I felt much worse than ever. She influenced my lack of self-esteem and reinforced it. It was only with some time and distance that I realized how negatively she had influenced me.

When I see her name and comments pop up in my FB memories, I see that most of the time she was just displaying how little we really had in common. I do have other friends with whom I don’t have much in common, but those friendships have something mine with her never had: respect for me and others, a humble spirit, being multi-faceted and interesting. She was physically beautiful, sure, but there was nothing deeper to her.

It actually took many years for me to finally end a friendship that had far outlived its usefulness in my life. In all honesty, I hadn’t liked the person she’d become over the years…or rather, hadn’t become. Instead of maturing, she actually seemed like she was regressing, quite intentionally so. She resisted signs of maturity as getting boring and seemed terrified of getting older. She always acted like she had something to prove by being such a nontraditional adult, but really she just seemed immature. For many years, I was immature, too; maybe it was what initially drew us together. But once I started to grow up, she didn’t have a place in my life anymore.

But then something interesting happened during the time I was trying to get over the friendship. As I cared less and less about her, I realized that I actually really liked who I was. Now, I feel like I’m flourishing, not in spite of but because of her absence.

It turns out that I’m a generous, strong, talented individual. I actually like the way I look. I’m a pretty decent parent who has worked hard to develop compassionate, interesting, independent children (though of course I still know my failures as a parent, too.) I try to be really kind and helpful and the people who know me see that. I’m getting through the hardest time of my life without her, and my other friends are commenting on my positivity and strength.

I think she found my positivity threatening because she always called it fake. Just being in contact with her brought out my negative side, which I’ve worked hard to master. Even if she didn’t find my growth threatening, I still realized I couldn’t continue to grow and be her friend anymore. Even before I got over her, I knew I deserved to be treated better, which was the first major step. She lost me in large part because of her refusal to grow up and treat me with respect.

The good news is that I’m proof that you can get out of friendships with people who fuck with your head and make you feel like your entire existence is worthless. You can come out of it stronger, even learning to love yourself in the process. Now I finally feel free.

Hoarding talismans

I don’t think anyone ever really knows what they’ll do in a crisis before it happens. I finally figured out that my approach to handling the pandemic is really a misplaced reaction to the idea of my husband’s death.

Instead of running away from it or (better yet) facing it head on, I’m going into hyper-preparedness mode about the pandemic. I’m normally pretty minimalist in my decor yet I’ve been filling up all the empty space in my house with things we may need someday. We are privileged to have more space than we really need.

That spot by the bay window in the kitchen where I always thought a little bistro table would look cute now holds a case of Diet Coke for my daughter and a backup case of sparkling water for my boys. My pantry, fridge, indoor freezer, and chest freezer are all packed full.

My beautiful dining room with the high ceiling above my beloved bought-used-at-a-discount Pottery Barn table is now surrounded with cases of both toilet paper and paper towels on one end. I’ve taken over the entire dining room, save for the family still being able to eat there. I also have an ironing board set up in there with my sewing machine and piles of fabric for making masks.

By now, my hyper-preparedness is spilling over into almost every room except the kids’ bedrooms. Another delivery of toilet paper is on my bathroom floor, next to the two (!!) 25-packs of my razors and the 6-pack of my allergy nose spray. As soon as it looks even remotely possible that we could run out of something, I’m back on Amazon, Target, or Costco’s websites to order more to be delivered.

Perhaps the most ridiculous purchase I made was not the case of toilet paper, like my husband initially thought, but the 28-pack of Swiffer dusters I bought in hopes of encouraging me to dust more often.

It’s not a good look for this former minimalist, I’ll tell you that much. Unquestionably, this is the messiest my house has ever looked. In my defense, though, I’ve been sharing my supplies generously with people who need them. I’ve already given away almost a quarter of my toilet paper. I made a (what was huge to me) cash donation to the local food bank and probably will make another, and helped a friend with her rent. I’m not just keeping everything for myself while I let others rot. That’s not who I am.

At the same time, I realized that every little order I place, every mask I volunteer to make, is my little way of hoarding talismans, doing magic spells to try to keep people safe. When my daughter goes out, I make sure she has the mask I made for her. I found a place that may still have hand sanitizer in stock so I can try to find some for her.

But it’s deeper than just wanting to protect the people I love. It’s a rare slip into magical thinking.

If I never run out of anything, my husband won’t die.

If I make enough face masks for him, my husband won’t die.

If I stock the pantry enough, my kids and I won’t starve if he does die.

For the same reason, I also have an extremely aggressive savings plan to reach by the end of the year and I’m over halfway there already, even despite all the hoarder-like stocking. I’ve only ever seen the amount of money I am trying to save once in my lifetime, when we got the proceeds from selling the house we owned here before at a nice profit.

He and I have talked about this. We know that no day can be taken for granted anymore. Right now, he’s cancer-free, but that could change while he’s off chemo. And if he catches COVID-19, he very possibly might not even make it to the end of the year.

There’s really no way to make sense of death when it seems so imminent. Something primitive in my brain took over and said that now is the time to stock up on everything. I don’t think his death is that imminent, as he seems perfectly healthy right now. But once you hear the phrase “stage IV cancer” applied to the person you love most in the whole world, something beyond rational thought takes over.

So I’m being quite unlike myself in having this incredibly messy home filled with a ton of stuff. But really, all the *stuff* is just a substitute for the control I don’t have, which the pandemic triggered in me. I’m trying to hoard enough talismans to keep away the event that I never want to arrive.

Day number eleventy thousand of quarantine

I’m not as much of an introvert as I thought I was. I miss going out and seeing people. I miss brief conversations with randos. I miss my normal life. Turns out that I don’t hate seeing people, I just enjoy time alone (not this much, though!) and I find certain individuals particularly exhausting to be around.

Things are still going well overall, though, despite my fears about the virus. I’m grateful that I can still afford to go to therapy while it’s no longer covered by insurance for the time being. Therapy helps.

I do still feel somewhat guilty about doing so well financially while so many are struggling. My mom pointed out that I shouldn’t feel guilty because we had so many years (god, so many years) of struggle ourselves that we finally deserve to have something good.

At the same time, I’m always aware that it might not last. My husband could lose his job in the recession that’s brewing. His cancer could get worse while he’s off chemo. He could get Covid and die from it. For that matter, I could get Covid and die from it. My MS has kept me in this weird bubble of invincibility and yet I know I am not immune because no one is.

In the meantime, I’m choosing to focus on what’s good. My husband, kids, and parents are all currently healthy and so am I. Sometimes I lie awake listening to my husband snore and feel so grateful because it means he’s alive. Someday I know I will miss that sound.

I finally paid off all my back taxes. I paid for two months of our Marketplace health insurance without little more than a blink. $1400, just like that. And we still have 3 months’ rent in savings with hopes to accumulate even more as quickly as we can, just in case he does get laid off. Or if god forbid he dies. Money equals security to me and creating a safety net is very important to me.

At the same time, I’m also following through on doing all the things I’ve always said I would do if I had a lot more money: saving it and also being more generous with it. I’ve been far more generous to people in need than I ever have before. Still, it’s very weird and foreign to look at my life and our bank account and see that we’re doing well. We finally got our shit together just because circumstances turned in our favor for once.

But I also know not to count on this being permanent because that’s not how life works. For as long as this lasts, I’m just going to enjoy the ride and keep doing what I’m doing. But only a fool assumes the good times will last forever.

Everything is changing, yet nothing is

Still locked down in my locally-imposed (but weakly-enforced) quarantine at home in hopes of limiting the spread of Covid-19. I’m going a little crazy being at home but my fear of bringing home the virus to my husband is much greater. I can barely tell what day it is anymore.

Yet some things are changing. My husband is no longer on chemo, recommended by his oncologist as a break but my husband was going to ask for it anyway. The risk of exposure to the virus by going to his large university hospital is too great. Plus, my husband wanted to take a break from it to allow his immune system to come back up.

He’s still NED, no evidence of disease. I guess that’s what they used to call remission but they don’t use that word in stage IV. It’s assumed that the cancer will come back, they just don’t know when. The chemo was supposed to marginally reduce the chances of its return.

But now his cancer treatment is on hold because of Covid-19. I guess this will answer the question that’s always been in the back of my mind anyway: what if he didn’t continue chemo?

Here’s where I feel like an optimistic idiot: they say there’s a 70-80 percent chance of the cancer coming back without chemo. But why shouldn’t I assume that he can be in the 20-30 percent in whom it doesn’t come back? There was only a 40 percent chance that the fertility drug I took to conceive my first child would work at all and it worked the very first cycle. The odds that my third child would have been conceived at all were even smaller yet considering both my fertility history and my husband’s vasectomy.

I’m a believer in long odds. I believe in miracles. The fact that I got out of Michigan at all (thanks to help from friends and circumstances that worked out at the time which no longer would) feels like one of those miracles. Perhaps foolishly and naively, I believe my husband can get his miracle, too.

At the same time, in the midst of a global pandemic like this one, my mind has gone to some dark places. What if my husband and I both die, leaving our kids orphaned? Especially once my husband’s life insurance kicks in, they’d have a good start. I believe that we’ve taught them well enough about how to function as independent adults. That was always one of my main goals in how I raised them.

But still, that’s not something I like to think about. Therapy has helped me learn how not to stay stuck in those kinds of catastrophizing thoughts for long.

Still I wonder what the next year holds. When will life return to “normal”? It ended so quickly that it leaves me feeling disoriented in a new world. Will my husband get laid off from the amazing job he’s spent so long working toward?

Because the future is so unknown, I’m just doing the best I can. Trying to stockpile money in case he does get laid off. Helping other people the best I can. Finding a balance between generosity and saving, between fear and hope.

Notes from a pandemic

I’m not even sure what day it is anymore or how long I’ve been stuck at home.

I find that I have two major moods: gratitude for how good my life still is in spite of the pandemic and a steady underlying beat of anxiety.

The anxiety is manifesting in weird ways. On the surface, I don’t feel very anxious. But I know that I am because my MS symptoms are really acting up again. I also know I’m anxious because I’m going into panic-buying mode. When I found out that I could order from Costco and have it delivered to my house, I went even more crazy with over-buying than I normally do at Costco.

Mind you, none of it is to hoarder level. And of course, they’re out of stuff every place is out of, like toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Instead, I’m stocking up the small deep freezer in our garage, which my mother-in-law bought for us last year. Soymilk is a regularly consumed product in my house and it’s getting hard to find, so I got a case of shelf-stable soymilk.

It’s like all of a sudden, my preparedness has gone into overdrive. I’m sure it’s some type of OCD, my sheer terror over running out of anything. It’s always been my job to keep the house well-stocked and I’m taking it even more seriously now. Hell, I just noticed that we were starting to run low on hand soap, so I ordered a case from Amazon. Me plus more money than usual equals hyper-preparedness.

I’m going to start making masks for all of us tomorrow when the elastic I ordered gets here, for the rare occasions when we have to go out. I’m sending some to my parents, too.

But I know that the real issue behind all of this is that on some subconscious level, I think that if I prepare enough, the virus won’t get me or my family. I’m doing all my shopping online so at least I’m putting myself at minimal risk and none of the rest of us are leaving the house, either.

Yet, alternately, I also feel very consciously grateful several times a day. We could be so much worse off than we are. In fact, we were so much worse off than we are now for many years of our lives. I’m still finding ways to be generous to others, as well as to dump lots of money into savings.

The future is unknown and uncertain. This crisis is making it clear how deep the cracks are in society and especially in terms of access to healthcare. We have the worst possible leader for a time like this.

But at the same time, even if disaster strikes me and our fates turn for the worse, I know I’ll get through it. In the meantime, I’m just trying to enjoy and appreciate what are good times for me. My husband is working from home and I love that. My kids are all here and are healthy and safe. I can afford to stock up, be generous, and save money at the same time. I think it’s important to know how to be happy even during scary or uncertain times.

It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)

For those who don’t know, “It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)” is an old song by R.E.M. Despite its title, it’s actually a pretty cheery and upbeat song. J put it on the other day before dinner and it just really seemed to fit everyone’s mood.

Everything in the world seems to be going to hell, and yet overall, I’m still pretty happy. My husband’s new job is great so far. Because he’s ranked higher in the company than at any of his previous jobs, he gets to work from home. We really enjoy being around each other so it’s been great having him at home.

I finally did my 2019 taxes yesterday after putting them off because I was afraid of how much I’d owe. But instead, J finally fixed his withholding and we’re actually getting enough back to pay off all of our back taxes. It will be so nice to have the government off my back after worrying about them for the past few years.

Plus, there will be about a month’s worth of rent left over, which is going straight into savings. If we get the stimulus checks they’re talking about, that’s also going into savings. (Though if the coronavirus passes and my husband doesn’t die, I’ve already stated that I want a new mattress.)

My husband is taking a chemo break for a couple of months until his new insurance kicks in or the immediate risk of the coronavirus passes. We will have interim insurance but it’s very high-deductible and doesn’t cover his oncologist anyway. He wants to try to build up his immune system after tanking it with chemo. Since he’s currently in the “no evidence of disease” state, it’s probably going to be okay to take a break. And that break means he’ll be feeling good, we can spend more “adult” time together, and life will be back to normal until he starts it again.

Of course, I hope the cancer won’t come back and be unbeatable this time. I live in fear of him catching the coronavirus because he probably wouldn’t make it. But despite all this, I’m still mostly at peace. I’m finding ways to help other people because it feels like we have so much abundance.

Maybe the worst-case scenarios will come true. After all, he already has cancer, and that certainly seems like a worst-case scenario come true in itself. But for now, especially because I don’t know how much time I have left with him, I really am trying to enjoy what time we have. Someone on my FB said they always knew I was brave. If this is bravery, it doesn’t feel like a heavy burden to bear.

Anxiety getting to me

This whole pandemic thing is starting to freak me out and it’s exceeding the level of my coping skills.

The grocery panic is a little surreal but I’m staying relatively positive about that. Instead of it adding to my anxiety, I’m looking at the random selection of food items as a fun new game.

Where the fun stops is when it comes to thinking of my husband getting Covid-19, though. His immune system is so compromised that I’m not sure he would survive it. On the other hand, though, I’m not entirely convinced that he doesn’t already have it right now. He’s had a bad cough (like horrifically bad) since Saturday and was running a mild fever—though his normal body temp runs low. It’s hard to know if his illness is due to Covid or just a bad garden-variety cold that his body couldn’t fight off.

My worst-case scenario all along in him taking this new job was what if he dies before the life insurance kicks in mid-May? I would be completely and totally fucked. I have two months’ rent in savings but I would have to find a full-time job before that ran out. And I probably couldn’t afford to stay in the house I’m in, which would mean scrambling to move. Neither of my two oldest kids are working right now and it looks like we’re heading into a recession.

But that’s the worst-case scenario. I’m hoping and praying that what he has right now is just a cold, not Covid. That he’ll make it through okay until he’s eligible for life insurance at least and hopefully much longer.

But I tell you: this whole pandemic has turned my whole world upside down because I feel like he’s so fragile. I just want to wrap him in a bubble and keep him safe so I can keep him here with me no matter what.

Life in America during a pandemic

Of course, it’s a total shit show so far. Did anyone expect anything less, between our national indifference and our president who’s proving exactly why he’s unfit to lead?

So let me tell you how it’s unfolded here so far. More than a month ago, before there were any U.S. cases yet, a friend of mine tipped me off that it was coming. I bought some extra bags of beans and rice, a couple bags of flour, and a big tub of oatmeal as emergency food. At that point, I think my husband thought I was crazy or paranoid. To be honest, I thought that maybe the friend who told me in the first place sounded a little paranoid.

Then the first wave of cases appeared in Washington state and suddenly the store shelves were cleaned out of both beans and rice and flour. Another week later, I wanted to get more toilet paper because I felt like we were running low but my husband told me to wait a week.

By that next week, there was no toilet paper to be found anywhere. I got creative and ordered one of the last cases of toilet paper from an office supply company, along with some paper towels and facial tissues. Within an hour, the office supply site was completely sold out of all of the above.

Now, in addition to all paper products being unavailable, now meat and eggs are also sold out everywhere. We don’t eat much meat other than chicken but that’s nowhere to be found. Stores have limits on how much you can purchase but it’s still all cleared out everywhere.

So instead we are preparing to go virtually vegan if necessary, eating a lot of starchy stuff I normally try to limit like potatoes and bread. We’re going to see just how creative we can get. In many ways, this level of scarcity reminds me of the time when I was the poorest. Only now, it’s not lack of money preventing me from getting more but the panicked behavior of others.

The truth is that I get why people are scared. I am, too. The news reported yesterday that they found a case about a mile from where I live. The virus is spreading through the community now, and no longer the risk isn’t only among those who recently traveled. The cases go up every day, exponentially.

Meanwhile, I’m still worried about my husband catching it because he’s on chemo. I’m worried about my parents (who are 65 and 70) and I’m very worried about my 95-year-old grandpa who lives in a senior home.

I’m worried about the fact that this has already sparked a recession. Is my husband going to lose his new job? Are my oldest two kids going to be able to find jobs at all? And that’s just how it affects me immediately. So many small businesses will close. So many people who worked low-wage jobs in retail and service industries, who were already living pretty lean, will be out of work. There’s just more pain all around and that’s hard for me to deal with.

My youngest is a junior in high school and all the schools are closed now. Nobody knows how long this will last. He was supposed to take his SAT the day after they announced the school closure. When will he be able to make it up? A big part of his college depends on that test, especially because he performs well on tests.

Overall this just has my anxiety cranked up to 11. I can’t even reassure myself that everything will be fine because I don’t know if that’s actually true.

You can’t outrun the apocalypse

That title sounds either like something from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or about the coronavirus/COVID 19. But it’s not at all about the former and only a bit of the latter.

Usually, I have songs that get stuck in my head for days and days. Most often, they’re sappy, cheesy songs from the 80s that I find unpleasant to have in my head, but I don’t dare name them because inevitably I’ll offend someone who loves those songs.

But all this week, I’ve had a very coronavirus-inspired song by Ani DiFranco stuck in my head. The song’s called “Garden of Simple” and the specific lyrics that have been replaying in my head are:

The bacteria are coming

To take us down, that’s my prediction

It’s the answer to this culture of the quick-fix prescription

I always found that song to have the ring of truth to it. A global pandemic is not something that surprises me in the least. If you look throughout history, we were due for one. In fact, I’m actually a bit surprised that it didn’t happen sooner.

I queued up that song to listen to as I drove to Target in search of more emergency supplies. The scene there was nothing short of apocalyptic, with aisle after aisle full of completely empty shelves. It made me glad that a friend tipped me off over a month ago that shit was about to hit the fan and I started stocking up then.

But when I was listening to that song in the car, it instantly put me back in the same state of mind I was in when the album first came out. It came out in 2001 and I was still listening to it regularly at the time of the 9/11 attacks.

I guess 9/11 was the last time I had this sort of impending doom about the world around me, though in many ways that was better because people were more inclined to help one another than to hoard ridiculous amounts of supplies while leaving none for their neighbors.

But I also realized that it was in response to 9/11 that I finally decided that I needed to move back to my hometown. I wanted to grow my own organic food (which I was never motivated enough to do well), learn to sew and make bread and make soap. The latter two I did particularly well, I might add, and made my family’s bread for years and still make our soap.

Once I got back to my hometown, my wannabe homesteading interests didn’t last. I quickly regretted the move and wanted an undo button. But then I found out I was pregnant (surprise!) with my third child a couple months later. So part of me tried to hang on to this quaint idea that I’d save my whole hometown. (This is where it starts to have some fuzzy underpants gnomes logic, since I didn’t actually have any concrete plans for how I was going to singlehandedly save my town from itself and everything that sucked about it.)

The parallel between the last major panic I felt during 9/11 and this one is similar in many ways. The future seems even more uncertain now, especially since this time my husband has cancer. It may not be a faceless enemy this time but I still have that same sort of lurking dread that something bad is coming and I don’t know when or from where.

But the real difference between that time of uncertainty and this one is that I no longer think of running away. The place where I grew up doesn’t feel like a safe place anymore. Maybe my lack of desire to escape is due to maturity and wisdom or maybe it’s just a benefit of therapy.

What I do know is that this is not the time to run. No matter how uncertain and sometimes frankly terrifying my future feels, the only person I need to save is myself and the little family I’ve created. I need to summon up all the strength I have—which often doesn’t feel like enough—and stay and fight.