Fear of Dying Sick and Alone in New York City

My new apartment in Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, has a view. Laying on my couch I can see the sky draped above an eclectic juxtaposition of historic and simply

Fear of Dying Sick and Alone  in New York City
  • PublishedMay 7, 2020

My new apartment in Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, has a view. Laying on my couch I can see the sky draped above an eclectic juxtaposition of historic and simply old Brooklyn brownstones, and newly constructed mid-rise buildings. The late afternoon urban portrait is the most striking; waves of sunlight cascading over a staccato of beige, white, and yellow rooftops, casting shadows upon blue and brown facades.

I share this because since moving into this apartment on March 4th, this view from my couch has been my anchor, the constant I’ve relied upon to remain unchanged. The colours, the sky, the symmetry, the perpendicular lines of solid brick enclosures protecting hundreds of humans, reminding me that while the world may have flipped upside down, gravity is still intact.

Oh boy, I have needed this reminder on multiple occasions, motivated by the singular goal of making it from my bedroom to my couch, often crawling around unpacked boxes or bracing on the walls for support. I’d use my negative reserves of energy to lift myself onto the couch, catch a glimpse of this view, and fall back into a wheezy, sweaty, achy, nightmare inducing slumber.

On semi-functioning days, I’ve found myself getting lost in thought gazing outside, feeling less alone imagining the lives inside those buildings. Who are they? Are they ok? Have any of them died? Sometimes I wonder how the Springtime air can be so crisp, and the sky so perfectly blue while bracing the weight of all the souls, now 10,000 plus, accumulating…somewhere, out there, in the dearly beloved city I call home.

It’s difficult to reflect back on the past seven weeks, let alone attempt to provide a reasonably coherent narrative. A snapshot version is relatively unremarkable and potentially uplifting: I live in New York City, the US epicenter of Covid-19; I got sick; I quarantined at home; it was a horrible and scary 34 day marathon; I’m so grateful to be alive, back to normal health, financially secure, and able to transition from surviving to supporting. But that snapshot lacks the chaotic mess of being a human being living through a once in a generation global crisis, one that happens to perfectly encapsulate my very worst fears – dying sick and alone.
In the long months, and eventual years to come, many of us will resort to a distorted version of history (technically all of us will, human memory is inherently fallible). We’ll vaguely recall, or even forget, the minutes of sheer panic, hours consumed by worry, for our own lives, the lives of loved ones, for how bad the devastation could possibly get. We’ll skim through the hard stuff and focus on how we met the challenge, overhauled our lives, learnt how to work-parent-teach-cook-socialise-function within the confines of our living perimeters. “Everything changed, life was crazy, it sucked but we survived, we made it through.”

The thing is, I don’t want to forget, at least not anytime soon, but I know that the details will eventually evaporate. Though I marvel at our ability as a species to adapt to crisis and duress, I worry that in our desperation for normalcy (rather, a decrease in uncertainty) we’ll snap back into the norms, inaction, cynicism, and indifference that helped scale the ongoing destruction of Covid-19. And by nature of who is dying – the old, poor, and here in the US, black and brown frontline workers, we’ll diminish the suffering, forget the thousands of lives extinguished, and how we failed to protect the most vulnerable among us.

In protest of forgetting, I’m recalling, documenting and sharing my remarkably unremarkable welcome to a pandemic journey before adaptation kicks in. For what it’s worth I’d highly encourage you doing the same, be it through journaling, pictures or videos. Rest assured you will forget what all of this was really like.

Do you even remember when it hit you? The realisation of just how BIG This all was, how fast life as we know it was changing, the “Oh [insert go-to curse words]” moment of “This! Is! Happening!?!” Do you recall what scared you the most and where your mind took you? Was it the surreal doomsday predictions, or the naked chill of vulnerability, or the whiplash of closures and question marks that made you realise how I/we really are not prepared for this.

Initially, I was not calm and most certainly not composed. As New York hurtled towards a lockdown the second week of March (now referred to NY State on PAUSE), I was ping-ponging between “Death is coming!” dramatic anguish, bleaching light switches and scrubbing fingers raw red-alert anxiety, and fury towards the actions, or lack thereof, of dangerously selfish individuals and disgustingly incompetant leaders.

But despite the surges of all the dark emotions imaginable and amidst the crescendoing cacophony of sirens, I sat on my couch perched atop the assumed safety net of knowledge and preparation. I might have been the epitome of emotional instability, but physically I was fine. As I had the privilege of working for a tech company with a very flexible work from home policy, I was more than prepared to hunker down and had been exclusively doing so since moving.

I’ll admit, there was even a part of me that was ever so slightly relieved. I’m a proud introvert and a shamelessly single hermit. Being alone, working from home, and embracing solitude in all of its forms is not – under these conditions – fortunately not a drastic lifestyle change. If anything, I was looking forward to no longer feeling guilty for relishing comfort, and excited for all the work and unpacking I’d accomplish.

“Yes it’s going to suck, but we need to FLATTEN THE CURVE!!!” I typed to my brother during a heated WhatsApp debate. “It’s irresponsible to keep the office open, we share bathrooms with a health clinic!,” I (rather aggressively) proclaimed to my company’s leadership team. I was proudly preaching from my platform of newly acquired and unabashedly self-assured pandemic expertise, ready to wag the ‘told you so’ finger at those who weren’t getting it, congratulating myself for caring about public safety and my thoughtful acts of self-protection.

That is until I started to feel slightly, then pretty, then definitely, off. A very different kind of off.

Some additional context here is necessary. Living in NYC has gifted me with asthma, and most recently, a still undiagnosed condition that causes debilitating chronic fatigue, amongst a slew of symptoms including shortness of breath. A mere nine months ago, I found myself in a Brooklyn ER struggling to breath, having collapsed at a doctor’s office. Experiencing the rapid deterioration of my health with no answers, help, or end, in sight was traumatic. But I learnt, or had no choice but to learn, how to live with and attempt to manage the daily uncertainty of chronic illness.

Point being – I don’t play around with health matters and I’m hypervigilant when it comes to my body. I started following the spread of the virus in January, attuned to any and all ‘known facts’. Upon hearing news of the first confirmed Covid-19 case in NYC (on March 1st), and aware of how the virus was significantly impacting those with underlying health conditions, I immediately refrained from any and all direct human contact. Potential romantic opportunities were cancelled, I bid adieu for now to close friends; getting sick couldn’t be or become an option, protecting my body was my number one priority.

Remembering how confident I was makes me laugh, and cringe. I knew I was vulnerable, but I didn’t realise how so, or rather when my vulnerabilities were most exposed, and to what extent. Even worse, despite all my proclaimed knowledge and finger wagging preparedness, I was ridiculously unprepared for the most important and obvious thing, actually getting sick. I never even considered getting sick, or stocking up on basic illness essentials such as a thermometer and Paracetamol. ‘This’ was still happening out there, past my literal perimeter to the very unfortunate elderly, or the healthy but reckless New Yorkers still brunching and partying.

Well, apparently, the universe has a cruel sense of humor, and so began my dance with Covid-19. Kicking off with a prelude of disbelief, denial and obfuscation. An initial fever on March 13th discounted as ‘new apartment blues’, a cough so mild and phlegm so unremarkable, it barely registered. I ignored the dizzy spells – I’m accustomed to frequent lightheadedness – and as my energy levels began to diminish, I assumed it was just my body being ‘my body’. It was the gastrointestinal symptoms that finally caught my attention, abdominal pain and diarrhoea that couldn’t be explained. Wait, could…could I possibly have caught it? How? When? How?

That was my moment by the way. The ‘this is happening here and now and I really am not prepared for this’ moment.

Thoroughly blindsided and humbled, I switched gears into survival mode leaning on lessons acquired from past battlefields, gathering whatever I had available – mainly fluids, fruits and vitamins – to become my immune system’s biggest cheerleader. I remained positive, powering through under the guise of resilience. Yes, it felt awful to be feverish, aching and motionless on my couch, but at least I wasn’t experiencing shortness of breath. And I had a view to sooth me. It was mild and manageable, and I was already recovering by March 25th, with symptoms seemingly abating.

Until the interlude presented itself with impressively bombastic flair, crushing all optimism and shattering whatever floor I presumed to have landed upon. I went from breathing normally to slight wheezing to deep, painful rasping over the course of two hours. My lungs felt fuller and heavier with each, all the more difficult breath. I was petrified. Of hospitalisation, of becoming a statistic, of dying an anonymous number. I couldn’t breath lying down, my head felt like exploding sitting up. I knew hospitalisation was to avoid at all costs, last minute option, but I didn’t know how bad things needed to get for that to be the correct option. ‘Call back when you get worse’, a doctor I’d waited hours to speak to informed me, failing to define ‘worse’. Should I call back when I go into acute distress? When I lose consciousness? When I’m dead?

I did get worse but didn’t call back. I’ve learnt that when no one, yourself included, can help you, when you have zero or very limited control over events it’s easiest, and often most effective, to just let go. Let the cards fall as they may, whatever happens happens. The following 36 hours were already a dark, fuzzy hole. Lulling myself to sleep, jerking awake from the chills. If I could breathe I could sleep, and vice versa, and sleep is probably the best thing I can offer my body, I rationalised. I don’t remember at what point the fever finally broke, but it did and I finally had the energy to shuffle to the couch and see the sunlight, and sky, and buildings, and life. The worst felt over, I had hit the floor and landed on the right side of existence.

That was the actual bottom, however, the rest of the dance was a relentless, horrible slog. A mush of time and days, symptomatic ups and downs, never-ending anxiety, the drudgery of pushing through hour by hour. Each night you go to bed hoping to awake ‘recovered’, a snap back to normal health. Only to be greeted with the all too familiar gut punch sensations of the virus hijacking your cells. Some days I did feel much better and convinced I was nearly done, only to relapse by evening, cursing the virus gods in despair.

“I’m going to haunt you for the rest of your life if I die tonight,” I mumbled to a dear friend and doctor trying to assure me I was not in fact having a heart attack. I called another and just cried, “This is too much, it’s all too much.” It was utterly exhausting, with the lack of any guarantees and drumbbeat of what if’s causing the most strain.

But it did get better, and could have been much worse. And despite all the anguish I had so much to cherish, so much privilege and fortune to thank for, so much love to feel and even laughter to experience; that I could giggle at my mother’s exceptionally creative, Al-Shabaab-like homemade masks, while doubled over in pain is a testament to the idiosyncrasies of survival.

Now that I’m back on my feet, worrying about work deadlines and toilet paper (still an issue here), doing what I can to support friends who’ve lost loved ones, communities who’ve lost incomes, I’m relieved and struggling. Hopeful and humbled and fearful and furious and motivated.

Most of all simply grateful. For my normal dysfunctional, vulnerable, and undeniably resilient body. For the view, for a view… And now a document, an unremarkable footnote in history, a buttress against tomorrow’s memories to be used as a reminder of mine and our collective fallibility, hubris, strength and determination.

At the very least, when I start declaring how well I transitioned to living in a pandemic in the years to come please feel free to call my bluff and throw my words, and humanity, right back at me.


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