When Dread Takes Up Residence in Your Heart

I hope this blog post finds you safe and healthy… How have you been holding up? The COVID-19 quarantine is well underway in Minnesota… And although I have pretty much adjusted to the new schedule (Paul & I haven’t gone anywhere since March 13th so life is just kind of puttering along in Duluth), I have still been having some rough days here and there. And it’s not just typical anxiety, although that has certainly been present. The other day I finally recognized the unnamed feeling I have been experiencing: it’s dread. No matter what’s happening around me throughout the day, the feeling of dread is always simmering under the surface.

I remember feeling this same dread acutely before my hysterectomy. I had to have emergency surgery, which was scheduled only six weeks before our wedding. The timing of the surgery was obviously stressful, but I was especially scared because the doctors weren’t sure if it was cancer that was causing the symptoms I was experiencing. But no matter how scared I felt, there was nothing I could do to alter the path that laid ahead of me. I just had to wait and see, for days and weeks until the surgery finally came.

And though these are very different times, the DNA of the emotion is exactly the same. Supposedly we’re still at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis in Minnesota, and already we’ve had 18 deaths, and 38 people are currently in the ICU. There will surely be many more deaths, very probably thousands more. It is truly mind-boggling and terrifying and heartbreaking. The situation going to get much worse, and there’s nothing I personally can do except for stay inside.

A quick note on staying inside: last night I was experiencing a very low-grade fever, and because I am an anxious human I texted my friend who is a doctor just to make sure I shouldn’t worry. We ended up talking on the phone for quite a while, and she said some things that I think we really need to pay attention to right now:

She said, “This is an AMAZING virus… It is constantly surprising scientists.” For example, there are now studies suggesting that the virus may be airborne, which means it could potentially be transmitted during regular conversations. There are also people who think that a six-foot distance is not far enough in between people to guarantee that the virus will not spread. And perhaps most astoundingly, as many as 25% of people who get the virus NEVER develop symptoms… This is likely one reason why COVID-19 is spreading so quickly and so far.

My friend said, “The virus does not spread… people spread the virus.” She recommended that we do not hang out with family members or friends in person at all right now — not even outside, and not even six feet apart. She said there’s just too much scientists don’t know to guarantee that we wouldn’t get exposed accidentally or be spreading it to someone unwittingly.

And of course she said it’s a devastating illness. She’s been caring for COVID-19 patients in the Midwest and she says it can take people so quickly that it seems unbelievable. I asked her if she ever imagined doing this kind of work when she went into medicine. She said absolutely not, and she is more anxious now than she has ever been in her whole life. She has children at home and a husband… I do not wish the stress she is facing on anyone. The very least I can do is my part in stopping the spread, which is staying away from other people.

My friend predicts that the next two months are going to be very difficult and very sad in Minnesota. Obviously, she thinks the virus will eventually pass and we will become better be equipped to deal with another outbreak in the future… But now is not the time to take any chances. This drastic narrowing of my universe – not touring, not seeing friends and family, and not feeling safe around people in general – it does make me sad and lonely. But when I think about the alternative — spreading it unnecessarily and risking even more human lives — I am more than happy to press “pause” for a while.

One thing that may be helping me to cope is my disability. I realized yesterday that this sort of drastic change and isolation is not entirely new to me. When I was 17, I had a spinal surgery that was supposed to have a 2-week initial recovery period with bed rest. Well, when the doctor opened up my back, he realized the bone structure wasn’t anything like what he had been expecting. So he had to throw out the rule book and do my surgery in an entirely different way. When I woke up from the operation, I was told that bedrest was going to be 6 weeks at least. I missed the first month of my senior year.

This news was quite a shock and at first, it was pretty depressing. But once you develop a new normal, if you are lucky or if you force yourself, you begin to find the things that bring you joy in your new circumstances. It is through these new, perhaps more muted, joys that you find enrichment and fulfillment during an otherwise difficult time. In the case of my back surgery, it was having friends come lay in my hospital bed with me and tell silly jokes. In this new normal, it is zoom chats and online concerts, and having longer phone calls with friends. It’s also just sitting outside by myself for a couple minutes or going on a short walk with Paul. Joy in this new normal looks like starting little seedlings in my windowsill, watching the bird feeder be swarmed by chickadees, cooking and watercolor painting.


Rather than counting down the days until this pandemic is over — which creates a warring mentality that can lead to disappointment if the ordeal takes longer than expected — I am trying instead to count the things I’m grateful for each morning (I list three things every day in my journal, which is a proven happiness-booster).

I know that many people are struggling right now… For some, it may seem impossible to find joy during physical distancing. If this is you, please PLEASE reach out to a trusted friend, contact an online counselor, or a text a crisis hotline. And please know that you are not alone right now… The whole world is in a similar boat, and so many people are feeling what you are feeling.

One thing that has really helped me personally is remembering that other people have made similar sacrifices and life adjustments throughout history. Whenever I start to feel a little bit frustrated or sad about being cloistered in our studio apartment, I remember that so many members of the military make huge sacrifices by leaving their families for months at a time, while putting themselves in danger. If that is a sacrifice they are willing to make for their country, then I should be more than happy to give up in-person socialization for the sake of the most vulnerable in our community, and for the speediest possible (and safe) recovery of our economy.  I am so grateful for the medical professionals and essential workers who have continued to do their jobs with dedication in the face of this pandemic. I really do believe that it is our civic duty to stay inside right now, in honor of their sacrifice and to make their difficult and frightening work as manageable as possible.

Aside from doing my Civic duty of physical distancing, I’m also going to try to offer what I can to society in the form of music, and hopefully be of service in other ways as inspiration strikes. And I can pray, and try to be there for my friends and my family and community. I will not refuse to do what good I can, but the truth is, people are still going to get very sick and die and there’s not much I can do to stop that. Physical distancing and trying to be helpful still don’t alter the feeling of dread that quietly infiltrates my mind and buzzes beneath even my happier moments.  I don’t think I am prepared for the grief that is coming our way… I suppose nobody can be, fully. And the fear that someone I love or myself will get sick or die is not overblown. There is no denying reality, as it will catch up with us eventually anyway. I hope that we can do our best through all of this to hold each other up and comfort each other the best we can, in our own unique capacities.

I don’t know what the future will hold, but it’s coming whether I like it or not. I guess all I can do is say, “Welcome, Dread. I see you and I will do my best to take good care of you, because you are a part of myself.” In this unusual time, I’m doing my best to guard my heart and mind… I’m trying to be careful about the news I consume, lest it leads me to despair. But I’m also trying not to be hard on myself when I’m struggling or feeling “off”… I wish the same for you. It’s truly one day at a time.

I hope you are doing alright, Friend. And if not, I hope you choose to reach out to someone who can help you cope with this strange and unsettling and devastating pandemic. Like it or not, Dread is our new roommate… at least for a while. Let’s try to make some space for Hope too.

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Author: violinscratches

Gaelynn Lea is a musician and public speaker from Duluth, MN. She is passionate about disability advocacy, personal growth, and authentic living. She was the winner of NPR Music's Tiny Desk Contest in March 2016.