By Peter Ilgenfritz
May 26, 2022 - 11:17am
I tested positive for COVID last Monday after an afternoon walk with a friend in the Arboretum and not being able to smell the lilacs that were supposedly quite fragrant.
“You have COVID!”, she said, joking. I knew I had congestion and a cough from springtime allergies. I knew I didn’t have COVID. At least I didn’t when I’d tested last week. But that afternoon back at the office I took another test.
I couldn’t believe it – two lines! What does that mean, two lines? I read the instructions. Re-read them. Took another test. Two lines! Examined and re-examined the little pictures. COVID! No! It can’t be! The illness that had been in so many other people was now in me.
My first instantaneous thought before thought was “Don’t tell anybody!.... Deny, cover it up….Go on as if everything is normal.”
It was my first sign that something powerful happens with the onset of a disease, a diagnosis. Immediately, our minds can race to some old story to put “meaning” on it. For me, an old story of moralizing illness. An ancient belief that I had done something wrong, I was at fault and had in fact “sinned” by getting sick and had done something unconscionable and probably unforgivable by perhaps making others sick. And like a little child who doesn’t want to be judged and lose connection, a first thought – “Don’t Tell!”
In the last week I’ve had a slew of such “crazy” thoughts, old stories that have come up and grabbed me as I’ve been recovering. Fortunately, while the thoughts have sometimes momentarily taken over and fully inhabited me, for the most part I’ve been able to look at them and see them for what they are and how in fact they are trying to protect me and keep me safe.
Yes, fortunately last Monday, I was quickly able to see the “crazy” thinking of denial and cover-up and stepped into telling my colleagues and calling my friend with news they needed to know. I was deeply gifted that no one has shamed me or blamed me for having COVID. But somewhere deep in me, perhaps in many of us, a connection has been made between illness and shame.
In the last week, I’ve watched my thoughts agonizing over how I could have gotten sick, what bad decision I must have made and didn’t know I’d made. I watched my mind grabbing for every hard decision I’ve made and questioning my ability to choose wisely. Felt racked by guilt for who I had or was going to make sick in the coming days.
Today I’m feeling almost all better – congestion and cough cleared and no longer in need of an afternoon nap (although perhaps that is something I should continue, so I just took one!) So while my brain has cleared enough to write this post, I share a few questions and observations about what has come up for and helped me through the most challenging part of living with COVID – my “crazy” thinking.
How did I miss hearing this kind of “crazy” thinking from others I’ve known with COVID? Was I not listening? I really didn’t have a clue until now what a mind wrestling with illness can do. So today I wonder, What is the meaning you put on illness? Where might those thoughts have come from? What does your more mature and adult mind know about what illness? What happens when you meet those old stories of illness with compassion?
What were your experiences of illness as a child? I know that spring allergies have been part of my life since I was young and I know that sometimes I used not feeling my best as an excuse to stay home from school, not because I was actually that sick but because I wanted some care. I don’t actually know how often I did that but what I do know is that because of that distorted way I used illness, it’s challenging for me to lean into self-care with myself when I am sick. Sometimes I can judge taking care of myself for not pushing myself when I should be. I need the guidance of others like my doctor to help me find the right path.
My doctor told me, for example, “Peter, run the marathon you were supposed to do on Saturday with your friends next year. You don’t want to push your body in its healing.” His good advice didn’t mean I believed him, however! When I woke on Saturday feeling better I was convinced I could jump in the car, drive to Maine and run the race. Fortunately, I paused and googled advice from several running magazines which all affirmed just what my doctor had said. In fact, I needed and took two long naps on Saturday!
Who cared for you when you were sick? Who can care for you now? I am someone who readily seeks out comfort and care, affirmation and support from loved ones when I am sick. Since they are not here with me now, I was grateful I had some zoom conversations with friends and colleagues that gave me an opportunity to share my “crazy” thoughts out loud. As I did so, I started laughing at the absurdity of them. That so helped and felt so good – to separate what I was thinking from what I really know. I also know that I can isolate when I am not feeling well. Fortunately, I saw that thought for the unhelpful response that is and called a few friends. That helped!
And yes, I got outside. The sky, the brilliant green leaves, the flowing water, yellow flowers, the moon and starlight – all of it is such an essential part of healing. Just getting outdoors moved my mood and turned my thoughts into a wider wonder from what increasingly felt like a closed small room. Taking some walks, doing some yoga when I felt better all helped me move my moods. One of the most challenging things of being in hospital is the inability to escape the closed walls of that room. I think now of one person I visited who listened to music often – what a gift that must have been to bring them into a wider field of being.
Where is your illness an opportunity to grow? I experienced often last week how my thoughts kept making me smaller, their own way to protect me from yet more vulnerability and uncertainty. I didn’t blame the folks I knew who had COVID. I didn’t think they had done something wrong or been someone who was wrong in their “being” because they were sick– but I certainly thought that for myself. At least with feeling judged, we have something to hold onto. What if all we have instead is the truth of our vulnerability, the uncertainty that is life? How might that be a gift and make for a wider, deeper connection?
And so, I got curious about wondering if my experience of illness could also make me bigger as much as it was seeking to make me smaller. I certainly had a lot more personal empathy for folks I knew with COVID. I called them up or emailed them. I let them know I was thinking of them.
On Saturday, I start a retreat with the Animas Institute focused on Bill Ploktin’s book, Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche. It’s a short book and good read and helped me in its descriptions and exercises to begin to understand a bit more about the origin and effect of my so-called “crazy” thinking. Maybe no, not so “crazy,” just truly so human.
What if COVID is an opportunity to connect us in our vulnerability? I flew into Seattle the day in January 2020 when the first case of COVID was diagnosed. I flew out when the second case was discovered. I remember thinking (again, illness “crazy” thinking) that “they” were sick because they had just been to China, that this was a disease like so many others that would be confined and contained and experienced by “others”.
It was my nephew who early on in 2020 saw what COVID could so easily become. I remember wanting to comfort him, to tell him that it wouldn’t be that bad. I remember worrying about his worrying. And he was right. What he saw is what happened and is happening with COVID, a disease affecting “them” has become a condition affecting all in some ways, and some of us, communities of color, the poor, in devastating ways.
And so, as a week ends and my healing continues, I give thanks for a steady recovery. I am humbled by the way my “crazy” thinking leveled me at times and what I’ve learned from watching my thoughts. I’m grateful for the healthy choices I made and have further empathy for why we all sometimes make less healthy ones.
As the pandemic continues, I open my heart and pray ever more deeply that we might care more deeply for ourselves as the beginning of the way we care most deeply for each other and our wider community. That this challenging and changing time may become the opportunity for the meeting with compassion and healing of these “crazy” minds of ours for the sake of the wider hope and deeper healing of the world.
Image credit: sunrisehealthinfo.com