Monday, March 15, 2021

Coping in Confinement: How My Restless Self Lived through the Eras of Polio and Covid

“Get in a straight line, children. We’re going to the gym to get our polio vaccines,” the teacher said.  

We second graders were old enough to listen to the news and overhear adults talking about the dangers of polio. I wasn’t sure what polio did to the body, but in a magazine, I had seen pictures of children and adults confined to an iron lung, only their heads visible from the tubular machine. Laying still everyday looked uncomfortable and confining. I wondered if the children were ever allowed to get out and walk, run, laugh, or have any fun. Being confined day after day would surely challenge my restless nature. I craved movement and made every effort to get out of the house.

I knew enough about polio to know I didn’t want it, but I had heard nothing about the polio vaccine. Perhaps my parents had signed a permission slip, but they had not prepared me for this. Even though I just ate lunch, my stomach was gurgling and in knots. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t even know what the word “vaccine” meant, and had no idea what it looked like or felt like. Ready or not, I was on my way to the gym to find out. I listened to my teacher’s instructions and stepped in line behind a classmate. 

For years, virologist and medical researcher Dr. Jonas Salk had worked tirelessly to find a way to prevent polio from spreading. In the late 1940’s, the polio outbreak in the United States disabled more than 35,000 people each year. Though I don’t recall my parents limiting my playtime with other children (our sandbox was a popular gathering place), I have read that many parents were afraid to let children outside to play especially in the summer when the virus peaked. Finally, in April 1955, the oral vaccine was ready for distribution. Dr. Salk was regarded as a national hero.

On vaccination day, I followed the line out of the portable trailer where our classroom met on the school grounds. We cut through the playground on that cool spring morning. The main building had become overcrowded and a new school was being built three miles north.

We entered the school building and found our way through the doors of the gym.  My teacher led us to a table where we received a small white paper cup. I peered into my half-filled cup curious what the vaccine was like. It looked like water. I followed the example of the children ahead of me and swallowed the tasteless liquid. I was relieved to receive the vaccine and discover there was no harm or discomfort involved. The vaccine program developed by Dr. Salk has made the United States polio-free since 1979. As a young vaccine-recipient, I was thankful to be spared a life of confinement in an iron lung machine. I would have had great difficulty lying still on my back for any period of time. I couldn’t handle the thought of not being able to swing on my swingset in the backyard where I had the physical and emotional space to be my full self.

Just a few weeks ago, sitting in an uncomfortable aluminum chair in the waiting area of a repurposed Marsh grocery store in line for my first Covid vaccine, I remembered vividly the day of my polio vaccine in second grade.. As a child I was relieved to avoid polio. Now decades later, I found myself  grateful I had not contracted the coronavirus and was finally in line to get vaccinated. I had been filled with anxiety from the time the state’s lockdown was put in place in March 2020. My daily pattern had become consumed by carefully sheltering, wearing masks, carrying around bottles of hand sanitizer, and washing my hands until I thought the skin would fall off. Receiving the vaccine would not only reduce my chances of getting the virus, but also relieve the anxiety I’d felt under statewide Covid restrictions that in turn restricted my natural way of relating to the world. I tend to be a movement-oriented person who needs to get out, exercise daily, and find places of meaning in my life, most of which involve being of help to other people.

Sheltering at home, I have missed volunteering at the IU North Hospital cancer center where I served for 10 years prior to Covid-19 and in an elementary school classroom where I helped for five years. It’s hard to feel like myself when I’m not able to give love and interact with those who need care in the hospital or in the classroom. When the lockdown began, I was so sad and angry about not being able to volunteer that I threw out my school entry badge and hid my red hospital volunteer jacket with the ten year “star volunteer” on the lapel under the carpet in my trunk. I could not bear to be reminded of the loss of contact with people and meaningful work in God’s kingdom, so I put any remembrance of those things out of my sight. 

The past months brought a change of lifestyle in other ways, too. Curbside pickup and delivery became regular words in my vocabulary. In the past, I rarely ordered items online, instead enjoying the process of going to the store, pondering my choices, and touching the things I wanted to buy. All of these familiar practices were gone and no one knew when regular shopping would return, especially when the shutdown of non-essential stores in mid-March continued through the end of May. Online shopping became my new, unwelcome reality. 

Particularly devastating was my lack of ability to go swimming. All gyms and exercise facilities were closed for 2 ½ months. Swimming is a body, mind, and spirit experience for me. The water is like a counselor ready to receive my thoughts or emotions, whatever comes to mind while I go back and forth in the pool. The water is accepting, and holds me. Swimming between lane dividers offers containment. Counting laps in my head brings order. Order and containment are two of my ongoing emotional needs. Finding ways in every day life to nurture these needs offers reassurance, and that made the Covid closures especially difficult for me. While I enjoy the feeling being contained, my anxiety rises when I feel confined. I felt a sense of loss and sadness as I looked at my swim bag filled with goggles, swim cap, arm paddles resting in the backseat of the car, and my swimsuit on a hook in my closet. 

Although I walked two days a week, I did not receive from walking what I did from the total body immersion in the water. I had no other safe activity but walking, and walking, and more walking. Fortunately, in mid-March the temperatures weren’t too cold. Every day, for the next ten weeks, I walked for three hours. At first I didn’t like walking so much. I missed interacting with people in the locker room and in the halls of the YMCA. 

There was no community in walking, or so I thought. I did see a few people with their dogs, but people often didn’t speak to each other in those early days of the virus as the risk of contamination was unknown and no one wanted to take a chance to spread the disease.

In time, however, walking felt similar to a labyrinth experience. When I left home, I knew my destination, my half-way point where I turned around and started my return path. In walking a labyrinth, the first stages involve shedding what is on your mind, a time of letting go. When you reach the center, your mind is clear,ready to receive what God might offer. In a labyrinth you can stay in the center as long as you want, however, when I got to the midpoint of my walk, I paused briefly, took a deep breath, and started home.  I did feel like I had released various thoughts scrambling around in my head when I reached the middle, and felt refreshed and open on my return trip. 

I have always practiced mindfulness, being aware of what is around me, noticing details to stay present. During those many weeks of walking during coronavirus distancing, I found mindfulness helped me create a connection to what I was seeing. For example, I noticed bird nests from the past spring, visible in leafless trees. I observed their shapes. I noticed if they were lodged in the crook of the tree or hanging from a branch. I wondered what the bird used to make the nest. I saw pieces of yarn, plastic bags, tags from clothes, string, branches, and dried leaves. Noting how the nest was constructed led me to research how birds made mud to hold their nests together. 

Then, as I took walk after walk past the same house, I watched the stages of a bee hive being built. In time, I noticed small trees surrounding the hive. One day, the owner of the house was outside when I walked by. Wearing a mask, I asked a few questions, curious about what he was developing. He described placing certain plants around the hive to attract bees, and how he planned to collect honey. 

I had several routes I walked, and often I went into other neighborhoods not my own. One of my favorite paths went by the backyard of a house with an outdoor swimming pool. The pool was covered with thick plastic for the winter, anchored by rope attached to the side of the yard. Even though I was walking daily, my restless nature, only fully assuaged by swimming, needed a more fulfilling outlet. Each time I walked by the yard with the pool, I wanted to jump over the short fence, pull the ropes, remove the cover, and jump in the water. I missed swimming so much that, in my imaginary dip in that backyard pool, I almost didn’t care if I was arrested for trespassing, I just needed to get in the water! 

As the months continued, I had trouble connecting with the phrase I heard every night on the news, or on a commercial, or when the governor made a special report on the virus: “We’re in this together.” I didn’t feel like anyone was with me during this time. I felt lonely and displaced. I couldn’t understand or join in the implied camaraderie adversity might bring. There was no sense of me helping anyone or anyone helping me. When I saw others not taking the same strict precautions for safety that I was (having good times with family and friends and going on trips and vacations) I felt frustrated. If we were really “all in this together” I felt everyone would sacrifice interaction with those who were important to them, just as I was careful to do. 

With lack of adequate space at home, I often retreated to my car, driving to a retention pond that I could see out my back window. There, I would park and watch the small waterfall in the center.  At least I could see water moving even if I couldn’t be in it. I reveled in the feeling of containment my car offered for emotions unraveling inside, feelings that were difficult to express. 

Preparing for Christmas in December 2020 was about as difficult and impersonal as it got. I was used to buying gifts in person, maybe going to one or two stores to find exactly what I wanted, wrapping them simply, and mailing the gifts to out-of-town family members. Choosing, preparing, packaging, and watching the gifts wait on the floor of my office have always helped me add love to what I was sending. I would walk by the gifts I had chosen for each person and think of how they would wear each item, or how they would play with each toy, or what they would experience as they read each book. It used to be that I savored the connection I was building and imagined all of my thoughts pouring into the gifts, adding a dimension of care not possible with mechanical and impersonal online ordering.

Even our zoom Christmas was impersonal. Yes, it was wonderful seeing everyone’s faces, but the energy of people being together in one room could not be recreated on the screen. Virtual hugs are a poor compensation for the real thing.

It is the lost time with our small family that has been most heartbreaking to me. We’ve had limited contact with our daughter and son-in-law who live thirty minutes away. They have continued to work through these challenging days and don’t want to take the chance of giving us the virus. Our interactions have taken place through windows, and in the summer and fall, through a few short outdoor masked gatherings in the backyard.

We have a grandson born last May who we haven’t met. Our planned trip to visit him in Oregon was canceled. I had no idea that in 2018, when I was watching friends and family having fun and dancing at our daughter’s wedding in Oregon, that it was the last time our family would be together for the foreseeable future.

People throughout the world have experienced disappointments, deaths of loved ones, inability to fully mourn these losses, and disruption in routine and relationships no one ever imagined. Parents are stressed to the max, combining jobs, helping children learn virtually, and managing the change of normal routines. The fear of the elusive virus has affected those who are healthy as well as those with chronic illness. During the height of the polio crisis, although fear for the lives of children was pervasive, physical separation and isolation for weeks and months were not part of daily life for those without the illness.

Although others were dealing with circumstances far worse than mine, I was cautious not to compare my feelings with the difficulty of others or minimize what I was experiencing. Feelings are feelings and need to be honored. 

Living long enough to receive medical treatment for two diseases of global proportions makes me feel fortunate to participate in medical history and to receive the protection these vaccines have offered. I mourn for those who have lost family and friends from the virus, for their inability to be with them at death, and for missed opportunities to share their grief with family and friends. I also mourn my own losses. I have missed the time that would have been used to build memories with family, to explore interests more deeply, and to serve people who are sick. 

Right now, I can’t give a hurrah speech about how I came through hard times and emerged a new person, or how I am grateful for these past eleven months. I am not a new person. I am grateful to be alive, but I am not grateful for the way my life has been altered these past eleven months. That is my reality. I am a struggling person at the high end of life expectancy longing to spend time with my family, serve others, and enjoy the people and places around me, . 

Despite my hurt and anguish, I have been grateful to keep working with my writing coach, Darcy Wiley. From the sweltering months of summer through many weeks in the cold of winter, we have met weekly on the balcony of her house. We have continued our sessions in all seasons, picking blackberries together and watching her garden flourish, sweating in the hot summer, and noting the leaves as they changed color and fell to carpet the ground in the fall. The winter snow made the short walk from my car to the balcony sometimes treacherous, but with caution, I made it.  We have worked together on expanding and editing my essays, and have enjoyed the creativity of photographing my artwork against the background of her house for use in my blog posts. Masked and distanced, we have found the balcony a creative way to add adventure and fun to our weekly time together, peppered with visits from her young daughters who were selling fresh garden-grown vegetables, bracelets, or slime at a stand in the front yard, or just needing a moment to get a thought from their mother. All of this added surprise and delight to our time. When temperatures dipped near 25 degrees, we realized just how hardy we were. We wore snow pants, boots, hats, hooded coats, heated lap blankets, and gloves lined with hand warmers to keep our in-person connection, only resorting to online meetings in storms or uncertainties about sickness. 

I was also able to continue weekly counseling sessions because of a special type of online conference call platform insuring confidentiality, helping me grow further emotionally, allowing me to stay grounded when I experienced a difficult trigger late last year. Coming through these times and learning how my past affects the present was my focus each week rather than dealing with the effects of a pandemic. I could work and change what I was experiencing emotionally, while most of the pandemic was out of my control.

Finally, in late May the governor cautiously allowed gyms to re-open. Returning to the pool was joyous although it took a few visits to get back into the rhythm I was used to in the past. Going to a public place created anxiety at first, but using great caution, I heeded the guidelines facilities had to follow, adding my own adaptations, such as showering at home instead of in the locker room when I finished swimming. Getting back in the water was my first taste of normalcy. I was so thankful to feel my muscles stretch and welcomed a rhythm that felt like home. 

Still, the fear of Covid followed me when I went to swim. Hearing about people who had socially distanced and taken precautions yet still suffered with the virus made me hypervigilant, not wanting to get too close to anyone walking in the hall or to stop and talk to people I knew but barely recognized with their faces covered with the required mask. 

In the days after I received the first vaccine, I did venture out for a quick stop at Target, but have kept a low profile otherwise. I am still in the middle of this strange moment in history, or maybe coming to the final stage of it as the vaccination we prayed for has become a reality. Sometimes when a person is in the middle of a challenging event, distance is necessary to assess the impact of the experience. I am waiting to see what I have learned from these months of isolation.

Although I did not deal personally with the Coronavirus nor did I know anyone who had the disease, I have had many disappointments. Not being with local family and family far away. Missing out on holding my first grandchild and supporting my daughter during those early weeks of motherhood. Not attending church in person. My restless self has struggled in lockdown and isolation. I have a past history of loss which seems to trigger me when events of deprivation occur but which also allows me to connect and feel compassion for the suffering people in our collective grief and loss. 

Now that I have received the second vaccine, I have less anxiety and can see life more clearly. I will continue to ponder the effects of this last year for some time. I can’t necessarily say it’s been a positive experience. Many times I’ve felt I should be coping a lot better than I have. This has been hard. Yet, when I look back, I see a woman who has kept going, forging ahead with counseling, writing, art, least some of the things in life that are important to me. Maybe I have coped better with my limitations than I gave myself credit for. I did not withdraw. I did not become a hermit. I didn’t collapse. I kept walking. I kept moving. I kept going. 

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