sick

The Covid Diaries

Day one:
My husband felt crappy last night, and I feel crappy today, but we have a plane to catch. We’re exhausted, I told myself. Visiting friends in San Diego, three days at DragCon — we’re just….exhausted. Denial and snug masks propped up that illusion until we got home, opened a couple of rapid tests, and swabbed our nostrils thoroughly. Four drops and fifteen minutes later, two bright red stripes confirmed that after two years of isolation and caution, crash courses on epidemiology and hygiene, vaccines and boosters, and the steamrolling of social media, public health, and common sense by an appallingly widespread selfish idiocy, Miss Rona had finally come for a visit. Ok, people, I thought, this is not a drill. By the time we crawled into bed, we were both feverish and bracing for the worst.

Day two:
Getting out of bed was pointless. In that fuzzy just-woke-up moment after I opened my eyes, I didn’t feel that bad. Achy, a little cloudy, I got out of bed to brush my teeth, but when I reached for the toothpaste, just extending my arm to grab the tube required a full body effort. Any remaining energy went into brushing and rinsing. Feeling vanquished, I slunk back to bed and struggled to fall back to sleep, caught in a new battle to keep my freezing feet and hands warm, to cool my sweltering torso, and to keep my mind from swimming toward the darkest scenarios.

I eventually got out of bed and managed to down some water and ibuprofen, but when my confusion teamed up with the daylight, I felt like a drunk vampire, singed by the sun but still stumbling around. Back to bed. I slept, I drank some more water, I slept some more. I swung from hot to cold to hot again. I needed a distraction, but opening my laptop sent spikes into my eyes and down my spine. I opened the email app on my phone, but the words looked like ink smudged across the screen. I dimmed the screen and scrolled through Instagram, but nothing made sense, so I put the phone down and reached for the TV remote.

The distraction I needed would keep my attention but not make me think too hard. Damn it, I thought, why are only five seasons of Murder, She Wrote streaming? I’ve always had a soft spot for procedurals that feature female detectives. J.B. Fletcher was my first real pop culture devotion. As a youngun, she taught me that a sophisticated plot or any realistic aspect at all is quite unnecessary to make a great show. All you need is a busload of mostly-forgotten character actors, a bulk shipment of shoulder pads, and Angela Lansbury on a bicycle to forget the world. It’s a formula that always draws me in and that transcends cultural boundaries. Many years after meeting Mrs. Fletcher, I cheered on Jill Scott and Anika Noni Rose, as Precious and Grace, bucking the patriarchy and putting the pieces together in Botswana in The №1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I reveled in the polish, sass, and remarkably convenient combination of skills that Essie Davis’ Phryne Fisher and her niece, Geraldine Hakewill’s Peregrine, used to best the corrupt cops of 1920s and 1960s Melbourne in the Miss Fisher franchise. To get me through the coming days, I needed a stiff cocktail of J.B, Precious, Grace, Phryne, and Peregrine. I needed to see smart, strong women save the day. I needed period fashion and design porn. Stat.

The TV gods are kind and merciful, and they sent me Lauren Lee Smith’s Frankie Drake and her band of overqualified and perpetually overlooked gal pals who took on the toughest cases in 1920s Toronto. It’s hyperbolic. It’s melodramatic. The plot holes make Belgian lace look like sheet aluminum. But the fashion is marvelous, and being able to spot who-done-it in the first seven minutes continually boosted my confidence that I was not, in fact, lost to a fever dream.

Day three:
My morning routine of taking the dog out and supplying her morning pill & peanut butter, starting the coffee, fixing a bowl of cereal, and an hour of Mariokart while catching up on the world via NPR has been replaced with a wake-up dose of ibuprofen, donning the most comfortable layers I could find, and sulking downstairs to curl up on the couch. I finished the first season of Frankie Drake Mysteries yesterday, and Lauren Lee Smith’s new do caught me off guard. Her chin-length bob of wavy, bright red hair grew into luscious, past-the-shoulder locks. After a few episodes, it occurred to me that I should try to eat something.

I barely mustered the strength to walk up the stairs to the kitchen. What the…had my legs atrophied? Were my lungs on strike? Every muscle in my body gasped for air. At the top of the stairs, I hunched over, grabbed my knees to keep from toppling, and caught something like my breath. This is new, I thought. I flashed back to my father in his last years, slowly declining from a stroke that had steadily transformed a once-athletic and svelte body into a frail and dependent old man. Even aided by a walker and one of his 24-hour aides assisting him, a journey from the kitchen to his bed was an exhausting endeavor. Even warming a cup of soup seemed more than I could accomplish, so I fixed a bowl of cereal, tossed in a few berries, and settled into the couch to attempt to eat it.

The rest of the day was a rotation of sleep, ibuprofen, sleep, cough syrup, sleep, and ibuprofen. I downed four spoonfuls of chicken soup for dinner before declaring myself exhausted and reaching for one of the eight fans we acquired at DragCon last week to cool my burning neck and chest.

Day four:
From the accounts I’d heard, I expected to be coughing uncontrollably throughout my infection, but the coughing started only today. The good news that came with this development is that the fog that had clouded me for the last few days started to clear. The bad news, though, is that the back of my throat burns, and each cough feels like a thumbtack being pushed into my pharynx.

Other than the friends we’d traveled with, I haven’t actually told anyone I was sick. Maybe we should finish that will, I thought, mindful of the quick turns that seemed to characterize this illness. I thought about posting something on social media, but my inability to make sense of words on the screen halted me. I thought about calling my sister, but the very thought of talking exhausted me. I’ll be fine, I resolved. The world doesn’t actually need to know every detail of my life.

“Put it out into the universe,” they say. My sister called an hour later. I think we talked about symptoms and where I might’ve been exposed, and I’m pretty sure that we caught up about a few other things, but as soon as the call ended, I couldn’t remember anything we’d talked about. Is this the “Covid brain” they talk about?

I was feeling better. I sounded worse, I looked worse, but I finished a piece of toast with a smear of peanut butter for lunch, and I ate an entire (small) bowl of soup for dinner. That’s progress, I thought, but when I weighed myself before bed, I was shocked to see that I’d lost six pounds.

Day five:
More proof of progress: my OCD is back, baby. Coming into the living room, I was suddenly aware of the mess we’d made over the past few days. Neither of us felt much like tidying, and dishes were piling up. I spent half an hour cleaning, swapping the clean and dirty items in the dishwasher. Getting dressed, instead of grabbing and going, I anguished over the clothes to wear. It’s good to feel like myself again, I thought, never before actually enjoying my daily battle at the dresser. I noticed the unkempt scruff that had emerged around my neck and on my cheeks, and my undercut had grown from buzz to bushy. That had to go.

Tonight, a new season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars returned, but the merciful and kind TV gods did more: like gay manna from heaven, TWO episodes dropped. My husband put some effort into making soup from scratch — I marveled at his ability to stand for more than 10 minutes and actually cook. Dinner ready, we settled in for a night of sick gays enjoying sickening drag. The first episode was more than we could hope for, but the second…the second…tomorrow I’m going to have to watch it again to make sure this wasn’t a fever-induced delusion. It was more than an episode: it was a moment in culture. The Snatch Game is a highlight of the franchise that parodies The Match Game and challenges the cast to deliver impressions of celebrities. Among fans, queens are revered for their successes and bitterly persecuted for their failures. When Alyssa Edwards tanked her impression of Katy Perry, Ru made her issue a public apology, and in the most recent season, the game was so bad that all but one queen had to lip sync for their lives. Tonight, though, the game featured the best performances that RuPaul’s protegays have ever given. Raja as Wayland Flower’s Madam and as Diana Vreeland, Trinity as the Devil and Leslie Jordan, and Jinkx Monsoon as Natasha Lyonne were enough to lift my spirits, but I swear that the moment that Jinkx looked at the camera as Judy Garland and asked, “Is that my camera?,” she cured my Covid. We immediately rewatched the Snatch Game, in part for the joy of it and in part to reassure that we hadn’t succumbed to a hallucination.

Day six:
Before my husband woke up, I’d rewatched the Snatch Game twice, tickled and entranced by Jinkx’s Judy. I finished a bowl of cereal and even attempted a cup of tea, my first bit of caffeine since Miss Rona came to town.

That can’t be right. I stepped off the scale, let it reset, and returned. Nine pounds? The last time I lost weight this quickly I was caught in an anxiety spiral. For a few months, the stress of life, work, and my own self-dissatisfaction teamed up to, among other things, suppress my appetite. When my face and body betrayed weight loss, colleagues and parents of students went out of their way to comment on it. “You look great!” “Have you lost weight?” “How’d you do it?” I responded to each, “The anxiety diet. I don’t recommend it.” To a person, each laughed encouragingly, but not a single person took the bait or asked, “Are you ok?” In the course of three months, I lost thirty pounds.

My cough has grown worse, but Frankie Drake’s hair has gotten better. Her long red locks of season two were suddenly short, severe, and platinum, and her pals were building confidence and expertise through covert detective work. I suddenly panicked at the lack of episodes beyond the fourth season and scrambled to find information on the production of season five. By the time I discovered the series’ cancellation, it hit me, Hey, I can read again. That’s progress…right? It’s the little things.

Day seven:
Ten pounds. In the week since we returned home, I’ve lost ten pounds. Suddenly, Emily’s classic quip in The Devil Wears Prada, “I am one stomach flu away from my ideal weight,” wasn’t funny to me anymore. My other sister texted me, having heard the rumor that I’m sick. I gave her the quick summary and joked, “On the upside I lost 10lbs so, #silverlining.” Not missing a beat, she responded, “I need to get Covid. How many Covid’s can I get?” I laughed but couldn’t let the joke go this time. “Meh. Not worth it.”

I rewatched the Snatch Game twice before noon. The fog seems to have lifted, but goddamn I’m tired. Not tired — exhausted. Existentially, emotionally, and eternally exhausted. Early in the afternoon, my husband was feeling more energized to do some gardening. “Don’t push it,” was all I could muster in terms of support. Zombielike, I made it upstairs, pausing half-way through each flight to catch my breath and push out a few coughs, and crawled into bed. I was asleep before I could even pull the blanket fully over me.

After a couple of hours, I roused, less hammered by existential dread and mildly refreshed. We ordered dinner, the first “meal” I’ve eaten in a week and started the newest episode of DragRace España. (We watch a lot of DragRace, if you haven’t noticed.) Then we watched Jinkx’s Snatch Game again.

As a freshman in high school, I missed six weeks of school. Initially, my mother thought I was faking or at least hypochondriacally exaggerating, but, in fact, my 14 year old body was taken down by mono and pneumonia. Most days, I slept until about 9am, and the bulk of the day was spent watching TV. It was the glory days of daytime watching — I’d watch Days of Our Lives, Another World, and Santa Barbara. Then I’d nap and then spend my afternoon with Phil Donahue, Sally Jesse Raphael, and Jerry Springer. Then I’d nap again, and Mom would wake me for dinner. Occasionally. I’d sit down at the piano to run scales and work on a few pieces, but dizziness overtook me after 20 or 30 minutes, so Phil and Sally beat Beethoven and Gershwin for my attention.

Within a couple of weeks, I understood the meaning of “cabin fever,” the wild restlessness that builds in confinement. My only escapes out of the house were weekly trips to the doctor for blood tests and x-rays. Despite the virus occupying my body and sapping my energy, I’d experience swells of energy, but the chill of November and December in Chicago kept me inside. To release it, I’d sprint back and forth down the 30’ hallway that connected the house’s bedrooms. It was a big house for a big family, but I was the last one at home with my parents, so running back and forth wouldn’t bother anyone. After three or four laps, I’d be panting and fatigued, hunched over at the end of the hall to catch my breath and make sure I didn’t pass out.

Teachers sent a little bit of work home, but none expected me to do any of it. That put a dent into my academic progress — within two weeks after my return to classes, I was failing Algebra, and my largely unsympathetic English teacher was unmoved by my request for some flexibility in catching up. “This is an honors course,” he told me, which was apparently asshole-English teacher speak for “suck it up, kid,” before turning his back to me and continuing to write on the chalkboard. By the end of the year, he’d bounced me off of the honors track, which, I learned a year later, also disqualified me from any AP English courses. On the other hand, I also missed the most terrifying unit in PE: swimming. I loved to swim, but I didn’t love the idea of being surrounded by naked bullies-in-waiting in the locker room or that one coach who lingered and gazed a little too long while supervising the showers. To this day, I panic at the sight of numbers and any mathematical challenge, but at least I missed a month of PE.

This was well before social media was a thing, so except for the very-occasional phone call from a friend to ensure I was still alive, I was isolated. I don’t remember my siblings ever coming to visit or to cheer me, but, in all fairness, at the time our family’s sympathy was already being directed to a different sibling in crisis. Illness, it seemed, was an exercise in isolation, in learning to sit with myself, with my thoughts and feelings, and I got to be pretty good at it. On a retreat during my Junior year, I was introduced to “The Invitation,” a brief and earnest meditation about authenticity and relationships by Oriah Mountain Dreamer. “I want to know,” she concludes, “if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.” Most 17 year olds, I guessed then and know now, haven’t had the chance to sit with questions like that, but three years before, I enrolled in an intensive course in self-awareness. Could I be alone with myself? Absolutely. Do I like the company I keep in those moments? Sometimes.

Who would’ve guessed that the loneliest six weeks of my teenage-life would’ve prepared me for the most impactful global catastrophe of my lifetime (#sofar)? The months of isolation that began in early 2020 weren’t that hard for me. Sure, all of my relationships in real life were relegated to the virtual world, but I had J.B. Fletcher to keep me company…not to mention other old friends who have kept me company over the years, like Blanche, Dorothy, Sophia & Rose…and Buffy…and Phryne & Peregrine…and Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford and all of The Women…and Bette Davis, Celeste Holm, Anne Baxter, and Thelma Ritter who taught us All About Eve…and Barbra and Madeleine who tickle us in What’s Up, Doc?…and the brilliant minds of A Black Lady Sketch Show…and all the other fabulous women who live in my head rent-free…and Jinkx and Alaska and Trixie and Katya and Heidi and Raja and Sasha and all the drag performers who pay them homage on RuPaul’s stage. Could I be alone with myself? Am I ever, really, alone? Do I like the company I keep in those moments? Fuck, yes.

Day ten:
According to my doctor, today is the day I can resume normal life. Yeah, but who wants to be “normal”? Ten days later and ten pounds lighter, I packed my bag and ventured out. Besides some new graffiti on a local monument and a new slew of posters on light poles, the world doesn’t look so different. I can’t say I’m much different either except for a more rabid reaction to the power players and the members of the public who denied and diminished the severity of the virus, whose selfishness or idiocy perpetuated its spread, and whose hubris has resulted in 1 million (and counting) deaths in this country. The campus minister in me, the eternal optimist, has scrambled for two years to understand that mindset, to find some common ground or at least a doorway into their denials. All I’ve found is pity, condescending pity on the people who never had the time and space to consider, could you me alone with yourself? Do you truly like the company you keep?

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Bill Hulseman

Bill Hulseman

Ritual designer & officiant, educator, facilitator | billhulseman.com