We had gentle conversations with the children about a new virus going around. “You might hear about it in school. But you don’t need to worry about it. There is nothing to worry about.”
We watched, and we waited.
When Colorado started testing, I hopped onto our doctor’s chat line. “I have a cold, one that my kids just had, too. Do I need to worry?” No, came the response. There are loads of illnesses going around right now. If you haven’t been exposed to someone with covid-19, you’re fine.
We carried on as usual. I went to the office but stopped shaking hands and washed often. The kids went to school every day. We went to movies, we played at parks, and I shoved down the anxiety as best I could.
Until, within a few short days, everything changed. On our coasts, schools were shutting down. The game was shifting fast. The word “pandemic” was set in stone. Cases appeared in Colorado and multiplied. People were dying across the globe, and now here in the United States. The same chaos happening everywhere was happening at home — tests were in short supply, markets were tanking and, in our city, rumors swirled about schools and businesses closing.
Then my child came home with a new fever, on the same day I developed a hacking cough.
And I came unglued.
On the surface, I kept things normal in front of the children. I taught them about “flattening the curve.” I told them their school might close entirely, for a few extra weeks of spring break, to help protect others.
They took it in stride, planned their own home-schooling schedules, and we started our self-quarantine, a few days before the rest of the city. Easy-peasy. We watched movies, played board games, had silly dance parties and made homemade escape-room games.
Behind the scenes, though, I was melting down. My anxiety took over like never before. With each cough, I panicked more.
I did everything the therapists warn against. I began to obsessively check the news, looking for clues that my symptoms were caused by the coronavirus, or maybe not. I logged into the doctor’s chat line, for every new symptom, every day. I begged for a test, or maybe just for reassurance.
In front of the children, however, it was business as usual. I took medicine and told the kids I just had a little cold, no big deal.
But when their backs were turned, I took my temperature, again and again and again. I checked my oxygen with a portable pulse oximeter, over and over. And I sat online for hours, every day, on the doctor chat lines, asking every question I could about my illness, my medication, whether I needed to be in the hospital, whether I needed a test.
Repeatedly, they said no. My symptoms weren’t so bad, my fever was low, my oxygen was good. They gave me all the reassurance I could hope for.
It didn’t help. I started texting friends and family, seeking support from outside the medical community. They, too, reassured me.
With OCD, however, reassurance is never enough. Worse — too much reassurance makes the OCD grow.
In normal times, I try to be aware, thoughtful and compassionate. I knew, objectively, that I needed to stay off the doctor chat lines, off the urgent-care lines, out of the doctor’s office. I knew tests needed to be saved for those who were in immediate danger. And urgent care was for those who were suffering.
I also knew I needed to stay calm, not just for my children but for myself and others.
But OCD is illogical, relentless. In the evenings, I read bedtime stories to the kids. I snuggled them to sleep, then I ran back downstairs to recheck my temperature, which rarely went above 100.5. I clutched my chest, sure that my pain was coronavirus-related pneumonia, that I was sick, that everyone I loved was about to get sick, and that the world was never going to be the same again.
I tossed and turned, most of the night, every night.
Then, I would get up and make waffles for the children. “Want to play a game?” I’d ask. “Or have a scavenger hunt?”
We set up Harry Potter Clue, and in between turns, I logged on to the doctor’s chat, again, for a new symptom, a new plea for a test.
“Come on, Momma, it’s your turn!” My children called out, and I set the phone down, rolled the dice with enthusiasm, and escaped my panic for another three minutes, or four.
Finally, late one night, after one more attempt at a doctor’s chat line, I got an answer that shocked me. The doctor now suspected coronavirus. “There is community spread,” she typed. And at this point, “I assume everyone has it.”
She gave me a diagnosis — presumed covid-19 — with no test. Then she told me I was fine, regardless — other than my emotional state. To be on the safe side, and because I was panicked, she had another doctor call me, to make sure my breathing sounded appropriate.
It was at this moment, hidden in the dark corners of our basement — I could hear the children upstairs getting ready for bed with Daddy — that I realized I had spun out of control. My physical illness wasn’t driving this show; my mental health was.
I wiped the tears from my eyes. I thanked the doctor for her amazing service, for her hard work on the front lines. Then, I hung up. I shut off my phone. I closed my computer. And I went and held my children close.
I won’t say I’m not scared anymore.
But I also remember the importance of staying centered, as much as I can. Keeping control of my mental health, so that I can focus on other steps to protect our community. So that I can support others who might be struggling even more, who might not be surrounded by the same robust systems of support.
Now, after the lights are out and the fear starts to creep in, I control what I can. I stay off the doctor chat lines. I take DayQuil and drink hot tea while sitting in the recliner bingeing Netflix instead of news. I ponder what steps I can take to get out of my own brain — and help my children, my neighbors, others, in the best ways I know how.
And most important, I remember that the best thing I can do for my children is to be present — while playing games, while dancing in the living room, while cuddling them to sleep.
Rebecca Swanson lives in Colorado with her husband and two sons. Find her on Twitter @RebeccaLSwanson.