Summer of choices while recovering from COVID-19
By Fiona Lowenstein
Every winter, when temperatures drop, days become short, and I find myself cancelling plans in favor of sinking into my couch, I contemplate moving from New York City to a climate that would be kinder to my seasonal depression. But when summer arrives, and the tree-lined streets blossom with music, laughter, and BBQ smoke, it all feels worth it again. Suddenly, I’m a social butterfly, struggling to choose between beach trips, outdoor concerts, and long dinner parties with friends. However, this summer I’m facing different choices. Seemingly mundane decisions like whether to run to the deli for a 2AM Haagen Dazs bar, or what movie to see in theaters, now have scary potential consequences. In our current pandemic summer, when faced with a myriad of difficult choices, it sometimes feels easiest to just stay home.
The power of choice
We often think of choice as an essential element of the human experience. With choice comes freedom – freedom over your own body, freedom to love, and marry whoever you want, freedom to express yourself authentically. But, the choice can also be exhausting. As COVID-19 infection rates rise globally, and some U.S. states deal with devastating implications of re-opening the economy too soon, Americans are facing life or death choices that should never have been put in our hands. As we grapple with yet another “new normal” – the opportunity to frequent bars, shops, and restaurants in states where hospitals face ventilator and bed shortages – many of us are likely to experience decision fatigue.
With decisions come consequences, and it’s important to note that we’re currently facing two different types: public health consequences and individual health consequences. The question of whether or not to wear a mask, for example, is a decision that has public health consequences, because wearing a mask protects those around you. Regardless of your age, health status, or access to good medical care, wearing a mask is crucial. Wearing a mask properly, mitigates health risks for people that you come into contact with who may be more vulnerable. Based on my direct experience I can tell you firsthand that contracting COVID-19 can be extremely harmful and deadly for people of all ages, including those in good health.
Understanding the consequences
The question of individual health consequences is rather complicated. When COVID-19 first hit the United States, I saw a lot of articles promoting health and nutrition protocols that claimed to help individuals avoid contracting the virus. Some of these protocols suggested tried and true methods for boosting the immune system, like getting as much sleep as possible. Others relied on fatphobic and often racist myths about the correlation between body size and vulnerability to COVID-19. The choices to get more sleep, eat more vegetables, take vitamins, or stop smoking, are all individual choices in that they may have an impact on an individual’s health, but likely will not have a significant public health impact. If you’re starting to wonder whether “unhealthy” individuals can cause a public health crisis, consider that much of the information we’ve been fed about the so-called “obesity epidemic” and its supposed strain on our healthcare system is rooted in fatphobia, and meant to distract you from the real problem: that our healthcare system has been broken for a long time. This is all to say that there’s a big difference between shaming someone for leaving their house without a mask, and shaming someone for continuing to smoke weed in their living room during a pandemic.
A day or two before I experienced my first COVID-19 symptoms, I reached out to a close friend and regular cannabis user to ask whether she was considering quitting smoking because of COVID-19’s impact on the respiratory system. She told me that she didn’t think stopping would create major improvements in her lungs quickly enough, and that she’d rather hold on to her coping mechanism during this especially anxious time. I am a regular cannabis user, too, and enjoy a good joint, so I wrestle with whether or not to “quit” smoking for good. At this point, the decision was made for me. I entered the hospital for COVID-19 on March 16th after experiencing severe shortness of breath. My illness lasted nearly three months, and my symptoms were wide-ranging and debilitating. While I did use cannabis to mitigate some of my lingering symptoms, I haven’t touched a joint since February.
Reflections during quarantine
In some ways, contracting COVID-19 in the first week of quarantine helped me avoid decision fatigue. The question of whether or not to smoke was only one of many dilemmas I was too overwhelmed to even consider. In March, April, and May, when others were trying to decide whether to attend socially distanced picnics, order takeout, or travel across state lines to be with family, I faced no such conundrums. Everyone’s way of life changed drastically in March, but contracting COVID-19 meant my life became exceptionally limited. I couldn’t speak or walk easily for close to a week, and it was another month before I was able to digest any of my favorite foods. When people on my Instagram feed were complaining about quarantine boredom, I was gearing up to eat my first salad in months, or take my first walk around the block. While getting sick with COVID-19 was one of the most terrifying and devastating experiences of my life, it gave me a useful perspective through which to understand decision-making, and how quickly we can lose that capacity altogether.
But, my friend was right; this is an anxious time, especially those of us who choose not to ignore the news. In the past two months, I’ve seen a significant decrease in the number of people wearing masks in New York City, despite an uptick in infection rates amongst NYC residents in their 20s. When I go on Instagram, I see people in badly impacted states like California gathering with friends, eating in restaurants, and hanging out in crowds. I’ve read stories about “COVID parties” and the devastating impact of these events. In March, New York was in a crisis, but most people around me seemed to understand the gravity of the situation. Now, I’m not as sure. In many ways those of us who are still concerned about COVID-19 are carrying a heavier burden this summer, because we have to make up for the actions of those who refuse to pay attention.
As someone who lived with COVID-19 for months, I’ve struggled to moderate my emotions around this pandemic. And I feel increasingly alone in my justifiable fears and anxieties. In the midst of this emotional discomfort, I’ve realized the importance of self-care and grounding rituals that I abandoned when I was sick. I’ve been meditating daily, FaceTiming with my therapist, exercising and resuming regular cannabis use. I’ve also found some new ways to cope with the mental health burden, such as connecting with other COVID-19 patients and survivors. I’ve found myself thinking back to my friend’s explanation of why she wouldn’t be quitting smoking at the start of the pandemic. Sometimes personal coping mechanisms are necessary to sustain the hard, long-term work of making responsible decisions that don’t jeopardize public health.
Celebrating summer responsibly
This summer, I’m choosing to live cautiously. I stay in my apartment, other than my daily masked walk through the neighborhood. I bike to the farmer’s market once a week to buy fresh produce. I work from home and relish long Zoom calls with friends, now that I have my full lung capacity back. It’s important to note that we each have a different framework through which we make decisions, and that privilege and experience play a large part in this. I stay home, because I’ve seen the impacts of COVID-19 firsthand, because I currently lack the funds to travel, and because I’m privileged to be able to work from home and live in an apartment I love with a supportive partner. After months of forced self-isolation and illness, the ability to make even the smallest of choices is both paralyzing and exciting. And for the time being, I’ll be sticking to simpler questions that only have individual health consequences, like whether to relax with an edible or finally try a celebratory joint.
Fiona Lowenstein is a writer, speaker, producer, editor, and wellness practitioner based in NYC. They are also the founder of Body Politic, a queer feminist wellness collective, events series, and media company aimed at creating content and events on accessible wellness for marginalized populations.
Learn more about Fiona here
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