As someone with a generalized anxiety disorder (what Jew doesn’t have this?) and illness anxiety disorder (formerly known as hypochondria), when I first heard about coronavirus, I was obviously immediately worried. I checked Twitter daily for reports out of China, then Italy and Spain. At work for Michigan Hillel, we started to hear of students who were sent home from study abroad, but everything on campus still seemed normal. Then, of course, things escalated quickly, and by the Wednesday after our spring break, U of M moved its classes online and our Hillel shifted to virtual mode.
Even though Michigan didn’t yet have a “stay at home” order, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. My hypochondria convinced me that I either already had the virus or would get it and then spread it to others, an all-consuming anxiety. I’ve often been able to come down from panic attacks by reminding myself that the fear is irrational and unlikely (plane crashes, for example), but this didn’t feel irrational, and it didn’t seem unlikely, either.
I begrudgingly deleted Twitter from my phone after too many sleepless nights of scrolling and retweeting. If I didn’t have enough to be anxious about, my 90-year-old grandfather had gotten sick (non-COVID related) and started hospice care. On a Monday morning, I called my doctor and asked for an emergency Xanax refill.
That night, my back and chest started hurting, which I attributed to anxiety. Overnight, I developed serious leg pain. By Tuesday afternoon, I had a fever of 102. This was not anxiety. I was sick.
Over the next few days, other symptoms developed, my fever continued, and my heart raced. My Fitbit congratulated me for what appeared to be 23 straight hours of cardio exercise based solely on my heart rate. I relentlessly googled “COVID-19 daily symptoms,” “coronavirus in your mid 20s symptoms,” and various combinations of the two. I tried to convince myself I had a badly-timed flu, but filled out my doctor’s COVID-19 online screener anyway. They recommended I be seen.
At the doctor, my flu and strep test both came back negative and they decided to test me for COVID-19, which, you guessed it, left me panicked. The doctor said it would take three to six days to get results back, and I couldn’t leave isolation until then.
My grandpa died peacefully at home two days later. As is Jewish custom, funerals happen very quickly after death. Due to new guidelines, only our immediate family could be graveside. There would be no shiva, already a strange and unsettling way to mourn. Experiencing the death of a loved one is always challenging, but Judaism has specific traditions to help mourners feel supported by their community. In normal circumstances, my menschy grandfather’s funeral and the following shiva would be packed. My family was robbed of the appropriate ways to mourn, and I wasn’t sure if I could even attend the burial.
Just hours before the funeral, I called the doctor and was informed my results were not back yet. I was devastated. Though there were some minor lingering symptoms, my fever had gone down and my body aches had improved. Had this been normal times, I would have by all accounts been considered better. But, in this world, without the test results back, I had to remain isolated. I watched my grandpa’s funeral alone in my car, waving at my family through the window as they each took a turn shoveling earth into the grave, with no opportunity to do so myself.
Fast forward one week. As an extremely anxious rule-follower, I hadn’t gone anywhere or seen anyone despite almost all of my symptoms subsiding. Ten days after I was tested, the doctor called — it’s usually not good news when they call. I had tested positive for COVID-19. Although I felt some relief at having a diagnosis, my anxiety began spiraling into whether or not I could relapse or become reinfected. Was it possible I could still get really sick? How long did I have to stay isolated? Could I get this again?
I immediately FaceTimed my mom, expressing that while I was physically okay, I was emotionally unwell. I texted my friend, an internal medicine resident, and told him to expect that my hypochondria was going to be even more insufferable now. I called my boyfriend and told him it looked like he couldn’t, in fact, come quarantine at my apartment with me as we had hoped. I emailed my therapist, anticipating that I had a lot to process.
Over that next week, I had a lot of phone calls — with work, my family, close friends, my therapist, the county health department, and my doctor. Because it had taken 10 days to get results, anyone I had contact with prior to my quarantine had already passed the 14 day self-monitoring period. I was relieved that one of my biggest fears all along — passing the virus to someone else — didn’t seem to happen. My county health department care manager said she was proud of me for how well I had self-isolated, and that I’d done all the right things to keep others safe. And yes, an A+ from the health department is a hypochondriac’s dream come true!
While I’m incredibly thankful I’m no longer feeling sick, managing my anxiety post-diagnosis has been a challenge. I know how lucky I was to have been tested and to have had a mild illness. I also have a strange survivor’s guilt. There is a very real emotional toll with the positive test result. Other than losing my sense of smell, my symptoms felt no different than the flu, yet for so many, COVID-19 is devastating.
Now I find myself googling “COVID-19 reactivation” and “long-term impacts of COVID-19 illnesses” just as frequently as I was googling the symptoms. I constantly wonder if that chest pain is anxiety or residual virus. Given that we don’t yet know the strength of immunity, I also don’t feel like my positive test result has given me much confidence leaving isolation. As an extrovert, being alone for so long has been one of the hardest parts. I am considered “recovered” by the state of Michigan, yet I’ve only gone to the store once, with facemask and gloves on.
So what’s the story here? I was incredibly anxious about getting COVID-19, and then I got it anyway. And now I’m still anxious. But that’s not the end of the story.
Judaism teaches us that whoever saves one life, it is as if they saved the entire world. I’ll never know how many lives I potentially saved by strictly adhering to isolation, but I do know that because I tested positive, I was given an opportunity to tangibly save even more people by doing the mitzvah of donating my plasma, hoping that my antibodies will help seriously ill people recover.
In accordance with pikuach nefesh, the Jewish value of saving a life, we have all had to make sacrifices and face challenges. For me, I sacrificed mourning my grandfather properly, I’ve had to endure complete isolation for weeks, and I had to confront some of my biggest fears. But we all have a choice of what to do next. For me, knowing I still have that power, that choice, somewhat eases the residual anxiety from dealing with the illness.
And so, I’ll be donating plasma as often as I can. I’ve also signed up for a few different research studies, and I’m looking into other ways to volunteer myself in service of others. We can all be doing the mitzvot of supporting small businesses, checking on our neighbors, and staying home. And we can continue to make conscious choices every day to keep ourselves, our communities, and the world as safe and as whole as possible, despite all of the sacrifices we are being asked to make. There’s nothing more Jewish than that — not even anxiety.
Header Image drawing by SlyBrowney/iStock/Getty Images.