Jan 25 • 13M

We All Have Long COVID Now

Dispatches from Ward 6B

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This is a content warning. There is content. You have been warned.

There are two wide white hallways connected by three shorter wide white hallways to form two squares. There is a nurse’s station in the center of one square that creates a panopticon for the rooms that surround it. My room is 4B. 

There are windows with blinds behind glass. Stand far enough away from them and you can see the city outside, enormous and forever. The closer you get, the more the blinds obscure your vision until if you want to see the world you must press your nose to the glass, eyes exactly between two slats. When I get the angle just right, I can see the elevated subway tracks in the distance.

There is a bed with sheets and three blankets because I am always cold and maroon pajamas that don’t quite fit: too short. There are fluorescent lights and people checking on me every fifteen minutes, 24 hours a day, for the first three days. There are no shoelaces and no dental floss. I unravel my bedsheets at night, quietly, because dental hygiene is important. Cotton thread is far from ideal, but it works if you’re careful.

You can shave your face under supervision, but there are no hairbrushes. The VA facility was designed for men. I am the only woman here. There is a bottle of combination body wash and shampoo but if they think I’m putting that shit on my keratin-treated hair they’re crazier than I am. My hair becomes lank and tangled. I ignore it as best I can for four long days until I erupt at the sexism of it all and then they finally find a wide-toothed comb I am allowed to borrow, use, and then promptly return.

Other than that there is waiting, endless waiting punctuated by various doctors who arrive without warning and are never really enough. They ask questions, ask how the meds are going, discuss diagnoses, try to help. My therapist arranges one remote meeting. Twice while I am there, a psychology intern comes to the floor and talks to us one on one. She does a surprisingly good job. They all do. They are trying their best. But it isn’t enough. Maybe 2 hours a day, tops. The other 22 are blank space. Fluorescence. Nothing.

Once upon a time, I’m told, there was a lot more than this. You could descend to the fifth floor and work out in the gym. Group therapy, art therapy, music. Dogs sometimes, a big one who liked to be pet. I almost cry when a nurse tells me about the dog that used to be, before COVID hit.

After COVID, the program shrunk to a single activity coordinator who coordinates activities in the square rec room with one giant square table like some kind of nightmare adult kindergarten–or so I am told. She is not here. She has COVID. Everyone is very apologetic but it’s a kind of “these things happen” apologetic. As though it can’t be helped. No one seems willing to consider the insanity of hanging an entire inpatient therapy program on the health of a single individual. The just-in-time shipping of the psych world.

The only thing left is something they call a “coffee social" twice a day on weekdays, where you get a Keurig coffee and a packet of oreos and a movie: the full substitute teacher experience. The movie is always either Marvel or something too shitty to be Marvel. There is nothing wrong with Marvel movies but I do not enjoy them, and I don’t drink coffee. It makes me anxious. So I stay in my room instead.

There is no Internet but that’s a good thing.

There are books that I brought from home, which I finish in 3 days. After that, there are books on the rec room shelf. I comb through the endless inventory of romance novels and Star Wars books and find 5 things I might enjoy reading. Steinbeck. Balzac. Vonnegut. Frederick Douglass. William Gibson, just for fun. This is a very bad place to be an elitist prick, but here I am anyway.

I ask one of the nurses—the one who found me the comb—to print Slouching Towards Bethlehem for me, and she does. She finds time to lead us in meditation the next day, though I can see how busy she is. Buys me a copy of the New York Times unasked. I will never forget her as long as I live, or the sheer animal pleasure of news after 5 days of silence.

There are drugs but not the fun drugs, just the ones that are supposed to fix whatever broke inside of me. They seem to be working.

This place is saving my life and killing me at the same time.

I have a lot of time to think, alone in my room. I write endlessly in my journal with the bendy ink cartridge part of a pen. I go through an entire cartridge and half of another. I unravel my bedsheet and stare out the window at the lighted windows of the trains as they pass, over and over again. They never stop being beautiful. Soon I will be on one of them, going home. Most people don’t get a second chance after a Game Over like mine. For now, I’m waiting to respawn.

COVID is ravaging New York City. Omicron. This variant will recede eventually. But I am here now, trying to be alive, I am here and there is nothing here.

I am one of the lucky ones. A lot of mental health facilities in New York City have closed entirely. The tattered shreds of the American psychiatric system are burning away before our eyes. Are there no jails? No union workhouses? Prisons turn a profit: you are always welcome there.

I think about the children falling behind in their studies and social development after 2 years of interrupted learning. What will the COVID generation be like? I think about how over 60 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 25 report themselves as lonely. Layoffs and housing insecurity and social isolation with no end in sight and this puritanical notion that getting together with friends is not merely inadvisable at this time but downright sinful. We are all sinners, which only makes us angrier at those whose sins are worse than our own.

I am vaccinated and I am boosted and I believe in science and I do not want anyone to die. I do not want to sacrifice essential workers and teachers to the furnaces of relentless capitalism. I take COVID very seriously. 

It would be foolish to pretend that COVID is the only thing that kills people.

My room is only a few doors down from the rec room where the Marvel movies play and I can hear the explosions and I think about decades and decades of Hollywood poison, the thing that’s really killing us: the hideous lie of the happy ending. It is a uniquely American disease, this idea that there is always a clean resolution where all problems are solved. An ideal outcome just around the corner that has everyone either living happily ever after or getting exactly what they deserve. 

And God have we been searching for that ending, as hard as we can, we have been searching for two long and horrible years. As I write this today, back in my own apartment, #DoneWithCovid is trending on Twitter. Thousands of people converged on Washington DC last Sunday to give angry speeches and carry signs with offensive Holocaust comparisons because nothing about this pandemic matches up to a world where a couple plucky protagonists can solve all our problems in 90-180 action-packed minutes.

But back in Ward 6B I am not thinking about those people. I am thinking about the other side. “My” side. For whom no sacrifice is too great, no demand on the individual too unreasonable or too much to bear. Lockdown for two weeks. Two months. Two years. Just do the right thing. It’s not that hard. Try to think of someone other than yourself for two fucking seconds. Don’t even think about lifting restrictions as long as this disease spreads among us. Don’t you dare travel, see friends, gather or eat at restaurants, you are killing us all.

“Oh, so you’d rather put everyone in danger, you selfish piece of shit?” you think angrily as you read this, missing the point entirely. There is no happy ending. There is no ending where we are all OK. Nothing is OK. I should know. They are playing some movie that involves a ship that sails across the ice looking for some CGI-rendered relic that will save everyone from what appear to be zombie wolfmen, this is a real movie that is really playing and I am getting hot water from the coffee machine so I can brew some herbal tea I quietly purloined from the cafeteria where we eat three times a day and I am crazy but I am not wrong: the golden ancient relic will not save us, individual heroism will not save us, there is no Iron Man and there is no Batman and we are on our own.

The decision, as always, is not whether we should stop people from suffering but rather to decide who will suffer. You can get as angry at this description of reality as you want to but it will not change.

The answers are all imperfect and the halfway-decent ones are all systemic. Rapid testing, for one thing: free tests for everyone, enough to test every few days, for the foreseeable future, maybe forever. We just sent $850 million dollars of “lethal aid” to Ukraine. Our prisons cost us over 80 billion dollars a year. Our military budget is $778 billion dollars. Meanwhile, manufacturers destroy millions of rapid tests and lay off workers because the tests weren't selling well enough that week and there is no long-term planning under post-industrial capitalism which is also why the shelves are empty but it is the greatest system and the only system that can save us but 886,000 of us are dead now and that’s just from COVID. God only knows what the real fallout has been.

We could easily test everyone, all the time, and pay for sick leave for anyone who tests positive, no questions asked. It wouldn’t save everyone, not even close, but it would let us more safely get back to work, back to school, back to events and bars and clubs and all those other things that are essential, yes, essential, to human flourishing and even human survival. I shuffle somnolent to get my blood pressure taken three times a day by nurses whose job it is to deal with the fallout of this gutted program. They are babysitters now and we view each other through the mutually antagonistic lens of the roles we have been assigned and I feel myself more child-like every day. I am here because I am dying, actually dying, dying like anyone with a fatal illness is dying, and I want to live. I want to want to live. And I am trying. I really am.

There is no happy ending but there is a better ending and acting like COVID is the only consideration isn’t it.

What is the point of this, other than to torpedo my own life by confessing my unforgivable sin: an illness that frightens people. What will it change except to make my life worse. I left Ward 6B two weeks ago and I got on the train that I watched from my window in the hospital and from that train window I looked at the building I spent six days in and then I stared at the cell phone in my hand, a phone I knew had to turn on eventually, and I wondered what waited for me there. What waits for all of us.

There is no good way to end this, which I guess is kind of the point. There is no ending really, happy or otherwise. If you’re lucky, anyway. 

Everyone on the subway is wearing a mask and I hope we are all vaccinated and whatever happens the trains will keep running, relentless and beautiful at the same time. And we have to figure out which one to take, what to do now, with the world the way it is and the scars we have to bear.