I received a writing prompt from a friend in late March 2021:
"If you have to describe your pandemic experience in a story, what would it be? If this helps, maybe try to recall a time in the pandemic (the year 2020) that was unexpected or surprised you in any way?"
Here is my response:
This version of my pandemic story is woefully incomplete. It's filled, dominated, with pain, sadness, and misery. I guess that reflects the mindstate I have at the moment I write this.
My pandemic story is dominated by loneliness and a need for patience. I live alone 1000 miles from any family. I am unpartnered, and get most of my physical affection from contact with coworkers, friends, and casual playmates.
For me, the pandemic "struck" on Friday, March 13 -- the last day of class at the university at which I am a professor of mathematics. I had spent the previous few days preparing for an announcement from university leadership. The previous Thursday, I had taken the morning off of work to go to the grocery store, because I thought it prudent. At Festival at 10am on Thursday, March 12, 2020, I had my last hug for many months with a person with whom I am not in a sexual relationship. Friday, March 13, 2020 signifies to me the beginning of a period of intense isolation and depression.
I'm a transgender woman, and I've had complications in gender affirming care. Gender confirmation surgery was Summer 2019, but there was an unresolved issue that does not bear description here. Let it suffice to say that I had a surgery scheduled for the start of Spring Break 2020, 1.5 weeks after Friday the 13th of March. So, I found out the Monday after, on the 16th, that my upcoming surgery was to be delayed indefinitely. This meant a sharp experience of not-knowing. Not knowing when the surgery would take place. Not knowing how to keep myself ready to have surgery at the drop of a hat. Not knowing who was going to help care for me after the surgery.
I entered a period of intense self-isolation, which lasted til mid-April. Four weeks without touch, without presence, without substantial friendship, I found myself nearing the edge of a cliff, and retreated from it by accepting that I needed someone in my life -- someone who would touch me, who would spend time with me in person. I chose a person I'd played with twice. They have been a wonderful partner for me through the pandemic-- my "covid partner".
As I ventured through the loneliness of teaching from my dining room -- a change that many of my college students never recovered from -- I began to exercise compulsively, taking out my anxiety and depression on my body. I fell while rollerblading in May. I needed help caring for myself, as the road rash was pretty large. I had to invite someone new into my home. I cried while we washed my wounds, mostly not for the pain, but for the overwhelming fear I experienced from being in the same room as another human. The next day I got the phone call telling me my gcs revision was scheduled, for 8 days from then. I regretted falling, but thankfully, they did not delay my surgery.
My driver called me the night before my surgery and told me they weren't feeling 100%. So I was left to scramble for help, getting someone to drive me to Madison. Fortunately, a colleague volunteered.
At this point in my summer, the pain of loneliness was overwhelming. I cried daily, both at the loss of my contact with people, and for the loss of life I was experiencing through the news. I became addicted to the news cycle, and still work on breaking my habit of compulsive checking of the New York Times website.
One of the most poignant memories I have from the summer is from a walk I went on in July. I was on the phone with the grants manager at my university. I wanted to drop out of a grant writing workshop I was in that week, and amid a fit of panicked and anxiety-ridden crying. I walked past a house, where a guy had a dog off leash. There was no fence. Though the dog was presumably young, I was afraid of the dog I perceived as aggressively running toward me. I lost touch with reality as I veritably freaked out, and it took me hours to come back.
I was surprised at how a small dog running toward me brought me to dissociation. At how my depression was so overwhelming that the mere thought of another living thing being near me made me fear for my life. I am not yet recovered...
As the summer wore on, the pitch of politics entered a deep sickness. Trumpism and racism dominated the news, as the country utterly failed to overcome any of its many challenges. I feared for my life, both from the disease, and from the sick people who support(ed) Trump's depraved goals.
Fear dominated my fall semester. Leadership at my university sugarcoated and massaged statistics and phrasing when discussing the pandemic. I resisted the pressure to teach in-person after the Provost indicated that we were to "maximize in-person instruction", rather than maximizing the quality of instruction. I worked to increase accuracy and honesty of the university's "covid dashboard". And when in October it became apparent that a crushing wave of Covid was on its way, and that returning to in-person instruction after Fall Recess would severely increase the intensity of the pandemic, I worked with colleagues in my department to change the course of events.
We wrote a letter, sent to 500 people at the university, aimed at urging the university to "go online" after Fall Recess. I won't fuss over the particular sequence of events, save to say that after a newspaper story, a radio story, and two TV interviews, leadership did eventually decide on remote instruction at the end of the semester. In their announcement, they pointedly omitted the fact that anyone asked for it. What cowards.
During all this, I was living with a nose that just refuses to breathe correctly. My left nostril has been terrible for my whole life, and the lack of a left nostril for breathing purposes pushed me to the edge. I scheduled yet-another-surgery for December. This would also include a second attempt to reduce the size of my larynx. I had done a "trach shave" in Summer 2019, but my larynx was still pointy, and being on camera looking up all the time gave me intense gender dysphoria.
So, in November we finally planned to go online. This was good, because it meant things would be a bit less scary for me and the sequence of dental projects (a crown and a filling) and the surgery (a cartilage graft and a trach shave revision). But, because of the timing of these events, it meant that intense isolation was back. I saw my "covid partner" last in mid-October, and through January was not in the same room as a person except when grocery shopping, or at a medical appointment. This included touch -- the only time another human touched me from mid-October to January 1 was the two times the dental assistant touched my shoulder while injecting my gums for dental work.
December 22 came, and I had my second surgery during the pandemic. Again, a colleague accompanied me. Again, I recovered alone.
The one thing keeping me going during this period was my excitement about the possibility of seeing my family in Colorado after surgery. We planned carefully, to self-isolate, and for my travel to be by car, in one day on Jan 1, for the lowest possible risk. I drove those 15 hours to Colorado, having been isolated for two weeks before surgery and another week after, save for my post-op appointment. And when I got out of my car in Fort Collins, I could barely bring myself to hug my mother.
I have conditioned myself to be alone. To fear other people. To avoid physical touch, even though physical touch, including sexual touch, is at the very core of my being.
The 2.5 weeks I spent at home, with people!, were heartening and healing. I was able to relax into myself, find myself again. We played games, cooked and ate food together, walked, hiked, biked. We lived!
My family is one of the most positive parts of my life right now, and the pandemic has brought us closer together. Over the summer, we started eating dinner together weekly, and gaming weekly, too. My mom started calling me in the morning on weekdays, so that we stay connected. I now spend more time with my family (virtually -- remember, 1000 miles) than before the pandemic.
Returning to school in February was exciting. I coasted off the residual human connection I got from my several weeks with my parents and immediate family in Colorado. The beginning of the semester went great. But now, over half way through, I feel like it's last fall again, or last spring. Today, 11 students came to my noon section of Calculus. 11 out of 27. Why am I even teaching? What the fuck is the point of this?
This pandemic has brought me to my knees, in patience, loneliness, solitude, fear. I teach students who don't want to take my class. I struggle to be around other people, particularly indoors. I am daily afraid for my life and my safety. And now, amid this, states like South Fucking Dakota have the nerve to ban trans girls from sports. My body is a warground, and all I want is to love and be loved.
Honestly, I almost killed myself a week ago. I dissociated at about 1pm. I had the sense to ask a friend to take my firearms from my house, and I called another friend to help me make it through. And I did, I did make it through.
But on the other side of that moment, when I almost decided to end it all, I recognize that change must come for me. This fear cannot go on for me. I cannot live afraid of my neighbors, both for their views about my genitalia, and for the possibility of picking up Covid from them. The anxiety that still daily crushes me will only get better if something changes.
This pandemic has shown me just how fucked the US is. The January 6 coup attempt at the capitol is deeply disturbing, and moreso is the fact that Donald Trump was acquitted by Mitch "What an utter piece of shit" McConnell, with justification so preposterous as to merit depressed laughter. The US is racist, ableist, sexist, religionist. And it doesn't want to change. It seems to substantially not want me in it.
The pandemic has made me question everything I know and love. And though I want to give up, I refuse. I stand here now, writing this, in defiance of Covid, in defiance of bigotry and ignorance and apathy. Proudly female, trans, and cunted, proudly intellectual and mathematical. Proudly human.