Self-Isolation: An Unexpected Emotional Tripwire


My family and I were sitting on the couch last Wednesday, watching “Everybody Loves Raymond” on TV Land, as we always do. It was the one where Marie is badgering Amy and Robert about the thank you cards from their wedding. While we laughed about what a nag mothers can be, I anxiously stared at my laptop, waiting to start my virtual physician visit.

The day prior, I woke up feeling off. Super tired, scratchy throat, an occasional booming cough that seemed to launch straight from my sternum. I was nervous about coronavirus, but my rational side had already decided it was something scary that happens to other people. When I got the call from the doctor, I ran up the stairs to my room so I could take it in private. I didn’t want to scare the kids – they had no inkling that I was even sick. By the time I scaled the mere six stairs to the upper landing of our split-level ranch, I was completely winded. I started the call sounding like I was fresh off a cardio session.

The doctor informed me in a very matter-of-fact tone that I most likely had COVID-19 and I should act accordingly. This was likely his 100th consult of the day and his bedside manor was shot. He explained that I was low risk – 36 years old, clean bill of health, non-smoker, with no known contact to a COVID-positive person. Of course, there was no way of knowing that for sure. Illinois had been in shelter-in-place mode for weeks and the only time we left the house was to grab groceries, and we did that sparingly. Still, despite my efforts to keep my distance, the grocery aisles were narrow and teeming with mask-less shoppers. I counted the days since my last grocery trip – four days.

Low risk meant no test referral. He explained that a positive test wouldn’t change the treatment plan since we’re just managing the symptoms, not the virus itself. He prescribed me an inhaler, a slew of vitamins and orders to take Mucinex, and then instructed me to self-isolate for seven days.

I’m not going to dwell on the illness itself here. I’m not knocking on death’s door – not today, at least. Fatigue, labored breathing, erratic body temperature, yada yada yada. You can Google “COVID” and get the run-down of every possible symptom. Fact of the matter, this is a highly infectious, nasty little virus that seems to manifest differently in each person. Simply stated, it’ll make you feel like a crappy sack of potatoes. Instead, what I felt compelled to do on this, my fourth day of my isolation sentence, is to share the emotional symptoms.

When you’re infected and isolated, your physical body becomes a battlefield, and your spirit becomes the collateral damage.

I knew that this was going to be an emotional rollercoaster the minute I walked back down the stairs to tell my family what the doctor said. My 11-year-old daughter burst into tears. I tried to convince her it was not a big deal and she sobbed back, “How can you say that? They cancelled school because of it!” Okay, good point. Well, I’m going to be okay, I rebutted. She asked how I could be so sure.

I wasn’t sure, not sure at all. Regardless, I felt my job at the moment was to reassure my children so I promised I would be fine. It felt a bit hollow, but they bought it.

My husband stripped the linens off our bed. We decided that for the isolation period, I would stay in my daughter’s room and it would be off limits to everyone. No one could use the downstairs bathroom except me. I wouldn’t leave the room except to go to the bathroom and occasionally sit in my socially distant chair in the living room. We tried the “social chair” for a night and decided not to do that anymore. For one, we weren’t sure if the mere act of me breathing would be putting a toxic cloud into the air. And then there was the fact that I could not sit upright in a chair for more than 15 minutes before I had to lie down.

When you’re infected, you’re not supposed to touch anything in the house. If you do, it needs to be immediately sterilized. My husband is taking this very seriously – not allowing me to self-serve and when I do slip up, he puts on the gloves and grabs his bleach concoction and starts to spray.

Words cannot express how awful it feels to watch your doting husband furiously scrub his hands to the point that his skin is peeling and cracking – all because he touched something you touched. I watched him scrub his hands after accidentally touching my hands when he was giving me pills. If there was a sexy scale, with Gisele Bündchen on the one side, well…watching a man sterilize himself after touching your body – that’s the complete opposite of Gisele.

And as I wallow in this self-pity, I have to emphasize how critically important it is that he take these steps. He has to do it, and it’s no picnic for him either. He’s having to slather on moisturizing hand cream like an old lady at a Clinique counter. He has to hand deliver all my quarantine snacks. Trust me, if you think it’s shameful how many rounds of secret quarantine snacks you’ve had today – imagine having to ask your tired husband to get all of them for you. I had to stop making eye contact after the fifth round of Triscuits.

And then there’s the situation with my kids.

I’m not the most tender, physically affectionate woman in the world. But to not be able to hug, kiss, or snuggle my children under these circumstances? It’s torture. Yet they’ve been so well-adjusted through all this. They respect the distance. They make me cards and leave little bins of miscellaneous toys and treasures to serve as mementos. They go about their days as best they can. It’s been a cold winter and recently we’ve enjoyed glimpses of spring. As such, they’ve been outside playing basketball in the driveway, taking walks through the wooded prairie path, and drawing pretty pictures on the sidewalks. And all the while, I stare at them from the window of my isolation chamber, like a creepy pandemic ghost lady.

I have an N95 mask on the bookshelf near the window. I once considered putting it on and poking my head out the window at dusk to see if I could spook them, just for kicks.

I did not. There’s sick, and then there’s sick. I know my limits.

When it comes to navigating this whole thing with my family, the lowest point was this afternoon when I walked down the stairs to go to the restroom and my 6-year-old son, recoiling in feigned horror and disgust, exclaimed, “NO! DON’T COME NEAR ME!” It was a throwaway joke. He forgot it as soon as he said it, quickly re-focusing on his tuna sandwich. My daughter and husband seemed unphased by his silliness.

But I’m not going to lie, it felt like a dagger to the heart. Oh, how I wept. If only coronavirus could be expelled through my tear ducts as easily as it entered them.

I know this whole thing will be a mere blip on the radar in a few years. A bad memory, and probably a good story for my grandchildren. It’s a good story now, isn’t it? Everyone keeps reminding me that it’s going to make good material for my blog, maybe some future memoir or screenplay. I’m certain it’s made good fodder for other people’s dinner conversations. While I’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from my co-workers, friends, and community, I’m also fighting the insecurity of being a circus side show, a compelling curiosity for people who up until now have only experienced coronavirus through the news.

“This girl I knew from so-and-so has it,” they can say during their next Zoom happy hour. Wow, interesting!

As I deal with the emotional and physical ramifications of this uncomfortable situation, I seek the humor. I try to conjure a joke or enjoy topical internet content. Unfortunately, some of the memes have lost their luster now that I’m on the other side of this. But I’m conditioned to crave that levity, so I’m constantly trying to downplay my feelings in the spirit of “perspective.” After all, things could always be way worse. I could be gasping for breath, I could be in the ICU, I could be on a ventilator, I could be dead.

I’ve seen a lot of posts from people trying to dole out a harsh dose of perspective for people. They’re even bringing Anne Frank into this – disregarding people’s struggles with isolation by reminding us that we could be crammed in an attic right now. I suppose that’s fair, but what benefit is there to this unrelenting invalidation of people’s emotional response?

More repressed trauma, of course. It’s the American way!

And since we always MUST find the silver lining of everything – oh God, the requisite silver lining, the positive takeaway, the KEY LEARNINGS – I guess I’m grateful for the opportunity to rest. I’ve been using a newly gifted oximeter to check my blood oxygen levels for the last few days and I’ve been happy to see them in normal range, despite the wheezing. Sometimes I wonder what the oximeter would have said a week ago, just before I fell ill, when I was in the throes of a grueling 60-hour work week.

Because I’ve been forced to just sit here, I’ve learned so much more about my daughter by staring at her bookshelves and open notebooks and doodles. I’ve felt an immense tug at my heartstrings as I’ve looked the photos with her sweet little friends. She’s accepted that she’s probably not returning to school this semester. The last exciting weeks of 5th grade, the grand exit from elementary school, will be spent in this house with her parents and little brother. She won’t complain, she’ll let it roll off. But I know, deep down inside, she’s hurting.

As I reflect on this, I recognize that whether sick or well, old or young, we’re all slogging through this unchartered territory together. We can keep stocking up on Tylenol and toilet paper, research the merits of hydroxychloroquine, and suck on inhalers in lieu of any real at-home treatments. But what we shouldn’t fail to care for is the emotional repercussions of this journey.

Because at the end of the day, the collateral damage is usually the most costly.

3 thoughts on “Self-Isolation: An Unexpected Emotional Tripwire

  1. Rachel, know that you are surrounded by love from your family and friends near and far. Know we’re all thinking of you. Follow all the protocol, you delightful, talented girl! We need perspectives like yours, so keep a journal when you feel like it b/c you write so well! Will be looking forward to hearing from John that you’ve turned the corner on this, and you will!!
    Sending you love!! Marilyn

  2. Rachel- we just heard the news from Vicki via Instagram. We know you’ll beat this. Hang in there!

  3. Hi, Rachel, heard you were outside yesterday, then read the notes you’d written regarding yesterday that your dad sent me. From what I’ve gathered this Covid is two steps forward, then one back, maybe like slogging through waist high muddy waters. It sounds like you’re dealing with it well, kiddo. Be sure to get your rest. I’m sending you a big hug and, of course, much love!! Marilyn

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