Today is the first day I’ve been alone in eight weeks. I simply could not have anticipated how a global pandemic, Covid19 (formerly known as the Coronavirus) would impact me. I mean, going from feeling like the strongest opponent in the world after coming so close to the brink of death, to a near full recovery was an almost euphoric feeling that was quite short lived. In fact, I swore I wasn’t going to write about this. Eight weeks later, here I am, writing about it.
Here’s the thing, in mid February, one week before I was to finish my 26 months of Leukemia treatment, a friend approached me at a birthday party. She works for a couple of hospitals in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She said, ‘Michelle, you need to get yourself an N95 mask. There’s a really bad virus coming and it’s going to kill a lot of people. Please stop going out, there’s no way to stop this virus and you’re immune system is already compromised. Please just get a mask. It’s the only thing that will protect you’.
Soaring high above the clouds knowing that my treatment would be done in a week, I thanked her for the heads up. I had just been to WAR and I WON and nothing was going to bring me down – especially not some dumb virus. Besides, Donald Trump had just carried out an unsanctioned assassination of a major Iranian government official and the heat was on. Whispers of World War III, whispers of civil unrest and in the US – racial tensions, human and animal rights and the second amendment all under attack, all being defended and offended. Unfortunately, so much of that hateful behaviour spilling over into Canada with mosques being burned to the ground and Canadians with pre-historic ugly souls discretely whispering hateful slurs in the ears of our government candidates running for election. What better way to take the attention off the ugliness spilling out of our closets than to shift the focus to a virus that, rumor had it, would kill hundreds of thousands of people…if not more.
Exactly three weeks after finishing treatment and two weeks after ringing the cancer bell, I found myself packing for a 4 day cancer survivors retreat. In that time, the coronavirus has become part of every day conversation. It hadn’t quite made it to Canada with any real force so, despite second guessing my decision to go, I went. I figured, what safer place to be than with a group of cancer survivors who already live life with the hygienic habits the rest of the world was unknowingly about to adopt. If you’re interested in reading about the retreat experience, click here.
The day we arrived at the retreat center was organized chaos. Everyone finding their rooms, unpacking, introductions all around. I hadn’t even finished unpacking when a news bulletin hit my phone announcing that Ontario schools would not reopen after the March break. That schools would remain closed for two additional weeks following the break. I sat down, staring at my phone incredulously. I simply couldn’t believe that schools would close over a virus. It was the first time I thought to myself, ‘Maybe this is as serious as Rebekah said it would be’.
In hindsight, those four days were blissful. We spent that time doing some hard work but also talking together, sharing space together, walking together, laughing and eating together. And it was the last time many of us would do that with anyone outside of our housemates for the unforeseeable future.
It was early morning on day 4 that the retreat concluded. Everybody said their goodbyes, no hugging rule be damned, before lugging their bags to the bus or their cars to make our way home. I put my bags in my car, got in the drivers seat and turned the engine over to beat back the chill in the air. Then I checked my Google Maps app for the closest Tim Hortons. I had been waiting for this simple pleasure since getting to the retreat. There was no Tim Hortons, Starbucks or McDonalds there to satisfy the very particular caffeine cravings of most everyone in attendance.
When I pulled into the Tim Hortons drive thru, my first thought was, ‘Score! The drive-thru line is so short!’. My next thought was, ‘How do I disinfect a Tim Horton’s drinking cup?’ I didn’t realize then, that this was the start of our new era. Simply put, there is no way to disinfect a Tim Horton’s cup. Or money. And much as so many people like to think, wearing gloves in the drive thru simply increases the chances of spreading infection; unless those gloves are changed after every single interaction. Which would put any business OUT of business in a heartbeat.
So, here we are. Eight weeks later.
The reality of the situation took some time to steep for me. Kids not being allowed to play on city parks, parents not listening and allowing it anyway before the cities taped the parks off to enforce new rules. People coming up with creative ways to skirt the rules by gathering in community center parking lots and all sitting on the hood of their cars or in the beds of their trucks – and being ticketed. Learning how to go for walks or bike rides on the neighborhood sidewalks, or even streets to avoid coming within six feet of anyone who doesn’t live in your home – even your friends, neighbors and extended family. Parents doing everything they can to cope with the reality of working from home or having been laid off while assuming the new role of teacher.
Once I acknowledged the reality of the situation we all find ourselves in, it occurred to me that what the entire world was experiencing was familiar to me. Seeing the reaction of humanity reminded me so much of the day I was diagnosed with cancer and the days that followed:
Here is the one massive difference. Cancer patients have to stay away from others to protect themselves. The entire planet has been asked to stay away from others to protect each other.
I can remember being really sick and some ‘friends’ taking a step back from our relationship. Some people I had worked with for years and talked to almost daily that I never heard from again. Some that I hadn’t heard from in years and swooped in to save the day, only to swoop back out just as quickly. I couldn’t help but be reminded then of an old movie starring Ethan Hawke called Gattaca. The premise of the movie is, people are genetically engineered for perfection and anyone born not in that way is considered an ‘invalid’. They are limited to what historically has been jobs that are looked down upon while the cool and highly esteemed jobs are reserved for the ‘valids’ – the genetically superior.
So many times through my treatment, I told myself I was being silly. An insecurity caused by my very unfortunate situation. I mean, no one goes through cancer unscathed so that feeling of being treated differently must just be me…right?
Well, as I often tell myself these days, and thank you to Glennon Doyle for helping me put language to this, my inner knowing always knew that I was, indeed, being treated differently by some people and I was, in fact, not experiencing some psychotic break that made me all of a sudden feel insecure and unsure of my own thoughts and feelings. Don’t get me wrong, there were definitely moments of psychotic break but this was not one of them.
Let me put this into perspective a little better. It has been very clear to cancer survivors all over the world from the very start of this pandemic just how threatening this situation is – I was just late to the party. There have been social pushes since the start to remind all humans of our shared planet that those of us who are immunocompromised have life goals to achieve, tiny humans and sometimes big humans that rely on us for love, shelter and protection and that they – the people of the shared planet – may very well be our savior or our executioner. The show of solidarity among the compromised and supporters of the compromised has been heartwarming. Between Pink Pearl Canada’s gratitude campaign in honor of AYA Week, that seemed to morph into acknowledgement of effort of first responders, doctors and nurses, truck drivers who are ensuring we are fed in this great time of need, the shows of gratitude for our ability to be home safe with our families but still able to use technology to keep us connected visually. And the #stayhomeforcancer hashtag among countless others encouraging others to protect us. The goodness in people could be seen all around the world.
My family and I have been completely isolated for 8 weeks. Our only contact with the outside world has been one grocery shop per week and the supply pick ups or drop offs for homeschooling or work around the house. In the early weeks, what I noticed was empty roadways. Empty parking lots. Empty Tim Hortons drive thrus. Mass support in the fight against an invisible killer from which we have no chemical protection. Neighbours and friends from shockingly far and wide offering each other help so those who need it could avoid as much outside exposure as possible.
People cooking more, people baking with their kids, going for family walks and bike rides, painting rocks and leaving them around their neighbourhood spreading messages of encouragement and inspiration. Even in the face of such uncertainty, people took the time to spread good. In fact, I’ve never been more proud to live in the community I do because the outpouring of support for medical heroes, essential workers and the compromised has been admirable.
As the weeks have rolled on, there has been much unrest. We are not meant to be stuck inside, we are not meant to be alone, many of us are also not wired to be in constant high degrees of contact with others – I’m talking about me and you, introverts. The weather has started to turn and the days are getting warmer and some people are pushing the boundaries of the current normal, much like I did one morning during the early days of my treatment. I missed my daily routine so badly. I missed being normal. So, I had a shower, brushed my teeth and put 4 pounds of sunscreen on as my medications demanded while listening to music one morning. And I danced for the first time since falling ill. And then I blacked out and hit the floor.
I couldn’t have imagined how hard it would be to self-isolate even though I’ve kinda already been doing it for so long. I’ve spent my life wanting to be surrounded by people but over the last two years of spending so much time alone, I’ve become accustomed to the quiet. Solitude. And as that had become my new normal, it too was ripped away from me with the same careless fury of my version of normal when I received my cancer diagnosis.
I mean, people are rioting the shutdowns and claiming governmental conspiracy and we are all going to be controlled like cattle now, or at least that’s what some believe. I, myself, have been more frustrated and short with my family than I have been since the early days of treatment. All things considered, this version of normal with all it’s lack of privacy, lack of certainty and new responsibilities and expectations are not my idea of a party. But here’s the good news. It isn’t going to last. In fact, I believe we have a once in a lifetime opportunity right at this very moment, before the world entirely opens back up. As a human being, I would even consider it our duty to ourselves, our children and all of the generations to come after them to seize this opportunity.
As I mentioned earlier, we were on a crash course to certain destruction before the universe bitch slapped us in the face and forced us to all but STOP. Stop working, stop rushing, stop fighting, stop ruining our planet, stop ruining our bodies (or else). While some of us have not stopped due to necessity, the message from mental healthcare professionals through all of this has been consistent – this is a time that calls for all of us to slow down and lower our expectations of ourselves (and others). This time calls for great compassion, forgiveness and consideration. Empathy and kindness. None of us are going to get out of this unscathed, some of us are going to come out of this will unimaginable trauma. And allowing the lessons to pass us by, undiscovered and unharnessed would simply be a colossal waste of sacrifice. Sacrifice of time, energy, protection…and life itself.
So what ARE the lessons?
The lessons are simple but will not be so easy to turn into action without the support of the masses. The lessons are, we have been living our lives at a rate of 500 KPH and it has gotten us things – money, technology, possessions – bigger houses, fancier cars, faster smart phones – but the expense has been our health and our home – not our houses but our planet. It has been at the expense of our physical health as chronic illness and cancer rates continue to rise. It has been at the expense of our mental health as we understand as it continues to gain more public attention and acceptance. It has come at the expense of our quality family time – and loading our kids up with extra-curricular activities to make us feel better when are aren’t around much doesn’t count. It has come at the expense of what some might consider the total destruction of what a family unit used to look like. And for what? To make more money to pay for the services we need, to allow us to go out and make more money to pay for those same services. All the while, our animal populations continue to plummet, our pollution levels rise, there are some nutrients that have been so processed out of our agriculture that we can’t even get enough of them in food anymore to sustain our optimal health – industrial farming.
The lesson is, what we were doing was not working and new normal is the best shot we’ve got at saving ourselves and our planet from extinction.
Over the last eight week we have clearly seen with our own eyes, the positive impact we humans can have on each other if we choose to put aside our differences and support each other. We can see clearly which jobs are really essential – take that Gattaca!!! We can see clearly how the time we are spending with our immediate families could be different and benefit us and our children going forward if we prioritized our time with them. We can see how important our time is with those outside of our immediate family because of how terribly we just want to hug them.
And we can see clearly, how unimportant all of the other stuff is because in the face of uncertainty, when our security, control and comfort is threatened, the only thing that will remain, maybe even stronger than ever, is our relationships with other humans. Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean we don’t need to strive for things. We need homes we can be proud of, we need experiences we can remember when our bodies start giving up, we need technology to see our family members who are far from us. We need these things. We need progression. We just don’t need it to happen at 500 KPH.
I don’t know what the answer is to redefining our futures. The fact is, while pandemics have happened in the past, they’ve never happened in this era. People, the economy, technology and medical advances have all changed. Mental health continues to gain ground in the spotlight and shine awareness on our need for well-being, mindfulness and balance. We can choose the direction we want to go in. We can choose to move forward with our eyes wide open. We have the unique opportunity to decide exactly how we want to spend the rest of our lives or we can choose to go back. Back to what wasn’t working. Back to certain destruction. But if there’s one thing I do know, it’s that going backwards never works out.
May 10, 2020 was the lowest number of new cases of Covid19 reported globally since March 31, 2020. Daily new cases are falling, maybe they will continue to do so until this virus is beat, one way or another. Maybe we will see another surge. Who knows. What we do know is, we have the ability to change the course of humanity. So, what are you going to do?
Be safe and take good care. We’ve got this.