When Your World Withers Away

Hi. My name is John, and I’m a COVID Longhauler.

Looking back, it’s clear when this little trend started. It was back in January, which, not surprisingly, is when it first hit me that no one knew what the fuck they were talking about with my Longhaul symptoms. It’s also when my father-in-law died. And a few months after my second dog died, which was a few months after my first dog died. And a few months after my aunt was paralyzed by a previously undiagnosed medical condition just a year after starting her dream retirement in Italy. And my 94-year-old grandma broke her hip. And and and and…

What I see now is that, since January, I have been slowly paring back… gradually shrinking my world and eliminating anything and everything that is…. oh, what’s the word? Problematic? Too much? Annoying? Nasty? Ugly? Revelatory of my own diminished brain capacity? It’s probably some combination of all of these and more.

And now that I’ve noticed it, I realize just how far it’s gone.

The original decision was to temporarily cut out a particularly problematic family member who has been particularly problematic at random, unpredictable intervals in my life and the lives of way too many others for way too long. She just so happened to be randomly unpredictable yet again on the morning before my father-in-law died, something that had been coming for a few months (Thanks COVID).

When you’re in the midst of grief and are trying to support your wife through her own grief while she plans and participates in a funeral and takes over the care of her mom in emotional and practical ways after months of taking care of her dad in emotional and practical ways, well, sometimes the pause button is a useful life feature.

Of course, unpredictable people and those in their orbit aren’t typically very understanding of the need for a pause and, perhaps not surprisingly, took things to Defcon 1 with nasty words and lightning speed.

Which was probably for the best. Like I said, I had other priorities and, thanks to Longhaul COVID, extremely little left to give anyone else, especially those whose modus operandi is to drop bombs on loved ones with impunity and no remorse.

So I pulled back, reined it in, shrunk my circle.

And then, I see now, I stopped texting people and writing people back on various forms of digital communication. These are people I love, people who have done me no wrong, people who have shown me consistent love and compassion, people who never say nasty words to me, never are randomly unpredictable, never fly to Defcon 1. Good, quality people. So what was the deal there?

Part of it is the dominant form of communication. All these people live there, which is to say, not here. Thus, they require screens for me to reach. One of the odd symptoms of Longhaul COVID I’m dealing with is the inability to be in front of screens doing anything except passively watching Walter White screw up his life for more than a few hours at a time, sometimes a few minutes at a time. I can’t explain exactly what happens except that my brain just freezes. It sends signals to my body to STOP NOW! It feels like something is short circuiting.

This is problematic for a person who makes a living by working in front of a screen and who has very few (no) friends in the local area.

The first to fall off were people on the periphery. I just couldn’t.

Then came the people who are oh-so-attracted to empaths like me, the people whom I love dearly but who have come to rely on the free therapy I provide them while offering very little in the way of actual mutual friendship. See my “Epic Longhauler Rant” for more on that little feature of my life. I frankly had zero fucks to give for anyone who knew what I was going through (and I’m not just talking about Longhaul here) and still spent 58 minutes of every hour session… err… conversation amongst friends relying on me to untangle the same shit I untangled for them during our last session… err… conversation amongst friends.

Then came my Dungeons & Dragons group. These are guys (and gals) I went to high school with. Elementary school, even. And I’m a total nerd who loves D&D despite being Brad Pitt-like sexy with tremendous abs (under a few layers of fat). But the games are on Tuesday night starting at 7, and by then my Longhauler brain has been mush as of late, and when you factor in that we play via the geek equivalent of Zoom, I just can’t. I want to. I love my character. He’s a rogue thief with a hidden split personality. And I love the escapism. But I just… can’t.

I even failed to respond to my aunt as she was going through rehab and planning to move back to the states, and she’s the closest blood relative I”ve got in terms of someone who actually understands who I am and what I’m about.

So all of a sudden I looked around and realized what had happened and took stock of what was left. There’s my wife of 24 years, an amazing woman who has gone through so much since all of this began. There are my sons. There is the child from Burkina Faso for whom I am host da-da while he is going through medical treatment here. There’s my mother-in-law, to whom I promised my father-in-law just hours before his death that I would take care of to the best of my ability, which hasn’t been much. There are my co-workers and the people I write stories about.

And that’s about it. That’s been enough.

I added back increased attendance at the yoga studio near me, a place where weirdo hippie woo-woo people like I truly am can go and be weirdo hippie woo-woo people without fear of judgment. I do restorative yoga twice a week now. I can go and not say anything or I can go and talk with the other weirdos and the instructor about things deep or shallow. It’s an oasis.

I have been spectacularly devoid of friendships for long stretches of my life starting in the sixth grade, when the kids I had grown up with decided en masse that I was no longer good enough to hang out with. I found other friends. And they left. Found some great friends. And they left. For one reason or another, not the least of which is my own idiosyncrasies and occasional introversion, no one seems to stay for too long unless I have a government contract binding them to me or pay to feed and clothe them.

So here I am, still dealing with the effects of Longhaul COVID, still dealing with the grief of losing my dogs, my father-in-law, my ability to walk reasonable distances, climb a flight of stairs without effort or think deeper thoughts whenever I choose to. And I put an incredible burden on the one person who loves me and hasn’t left to listen to all the crap I should be able to rely on my buds for.

But alas. You can spend a lifetime wishing for things to be different or stop looking off in the distance and deal with what is.

This weekend, I dipped my toe back in the water of expanding what had been only shrinking for four months. The guy I’d consider my best friend … only real friend — guy friend, anyway — texted after disappearing for two months. He’s going through a lot, too. He said he’d like to catch up. Instead of ignoring his text, I wrote back. We worked out a good time to talk. I left yoga and went to where my youngest was having baseball practice, sat in my car and talked to my friend for a good hour while hearing the random “ping” of aluminum bats.

The conversation wasn’t all about him. I caught him up on what’s been going on in my life — the sleep apnea and Longhauler stuff, yes, but also the successes at work and joy of having a college freshman on the dean’s list with an internship this summer in his chosen field. At the end, he told me it was good catching up with me and that we need to do it again … sooner this time.

I think I’d like that.

I know eventually I have to do something with the family members in question, if only because it’s time for me to hit the pause button again to set our ride in motion once more. People tell me not to wait, that you never know what could happen, to which I say, “Exactly!” as I read yet another article that talks about how people who have had something that I have tend to die younger. and then seriously ponder just how much time I’ve got left while wondering why why others don’t seem to believe the “You never know what could happen” thing when it comes to me.

There are people I genuinely want to reach back out to and re-connect with. Myla. Alysia, Paul, The Other Paul. I want to start playing D&D again and see how crazy I can make Stitch and his alter ego, The Dipper.

I want to find local guy friends. There are some possibilities. Mike. Jared. Sometimes it’s hard to be the only one who reaches out, especially after all the times people have gone away.

This Longhauler shit sucks, man. I’m not who I was, physically or mentally. I now have limits on what I can do with my brain. I can no longer just write and write and write and create and create and create. I have to write-and-stop, write-and-stop. Pick it up again tomorrow. Or the day after. Or next week.

My world has shrunk. I’m OK with a lot of that. But maybe it could be bigger. Just a little bit?

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