How I’ve Reluctantly Mastered Social Distancing to Survive
As a professional writer for the past 15+ years, it’s easy — and even obvious — for me to say, “I regularly socially distance myself in order to get my work done.” Just as writing is my choice, so, too, are my decisions to work from home, to toil independently on particular projects, and to make myself a Team of One when necessary.
But over the past three months — after a medical emergency followed by major surgery — I’ve learned what it’s like to socially distance myself in matters of life or death.
Six days before Christmas, my large intestine perforated, spilling waste into my abdomen. I remember sitting in the Emergency Room, hearing a trauma surgeon tell me I’d be admitted for observation and prepared for emergency surgery. And in the space of that brief discussion, I knew what it meant to have to drop everything — and everyone — I cared about, stepping into forced isolation, focused on one thing: my own survival.
As I sat in a hospital room for the next 10 days, I ached for the life I’d left behind, filled with meaningful human connection beyond the helpful medical staff keeping me safe.
I missed my family, my friends, my everyday life.
To be sure, family and friends visited every day, but the gaping chasm between our lives was unmistakeable. I would willingly remain in this room, and in this hospital bed, socially distanced, hooked up to sugar water, infused with pain medication, injected with anti-coagulants and flooded with antibiotics, until the danger passed. My family and friends were free to go back to their regular schedules, to their social connections, and to the freedoms afforded by unrestricted, interactive lives.
In the rare moments I rose from my bed and stared into the mirror, I saw an unrecognizable heartbreak and longing for the life I’d chosen to put on hold, suspended and reconfigured into this abnormal separation which I nevertheless knew to be necessary for survival.
For 10 days, while doctors shut down my digestive system and gave my ruptured colon a chance to heal, I did not eat or drink. I did not watch TV. I didn’t ask for my laptop or a pad and pen. I grew increasingly anxious about what the future held, and spent much of my time fighting “what-if” thoughts.
Thank God for the regular visits from loved ones. They kept me distracted and engaged in life. But during the hours in that room by myself, when the nurses were tending to other patients, when my phone was out of my reach, when my fear seemed to get the best of me, I knew, perhaps for the first time in my life, the reality of being socially distanced.
Truly, one of the most agonizing parts was my fear of The Unknown. Would the doctors’ plan work? Would their efforts be worthwhile? Would my body know how to protect itself? Was I actually safe? Were these new ulcers I’d developed in the hospital just a physical manifestation of my stress and loneliness? Were we simply delaying the inevitability of surgery to repair my body’s sudden betrayal?
Thankfully, the doctors’ strategy worked.
The perforation sealed itself up, and after 10 days, I was finally discharged. However, the need for social distancing wasn’t over.
I’d avoided an emergency bowel resection — which carried significant risk of receiving a temporary colostomy — but I left the hospital knowing I’d need to schedule elective surgery to remove the diseased and damaged section of my intestines within a month or two.
For the next two months, I did my research and gathered several doctors’ opinions, then scheduled surgery for February 27th. I knew I’d probably lose one to two feet of large intestine through laparoscopic incisions in my abdomen.
What this meant was turning down clients I knew I couldn’t take on.
What this meant was suspending the launch of a new business.
What this meant was knowing I’d miss important events, like my son’s parent-teacher conferences, the final sessions of a remarkable class, and multiple social engagements.
What this meant was actively staying away from sick people, large crowds, and circumstances that put me at risk for a surgical delay.
What this meant was saying no when I wanted to say yes.
What this meant was socially distancing myself from almost everything.
What this meant was stocking my house with food and medical items I’d need during my convalescence.
What this meant was facing my fear.
The life I’d expected to lead in February looked nothing like how it really was. To be sure, at times I was deeply scared…resentful…even envious of others’ seemingly carefree oblivion to matters of health. I was irritable. Sleepless. Not myself. Life felt unfair, and I was pissed.
And though mad, I never questioned my choice to socially distance myself. I knew I didn’t have a choice. I knew I had to do this to survive.
My bowel resection surgery was a success, and after five days in the Intensive Care Unit, I was released to the care of loved ones. Then, after several days of round-the-clock TLC, it was time to go to back to my own home and resume an independent, post-surgical life.
And this is where I found the struggle the hardest.
That first day alone in my house — healing but still heavily bandaged and bruised — was the scariest. This is when I felt the most isolated, alone, and overwhelmed by the silence. Spoiled by the previous week’s intensive TLC, I now stood in my living room by myself, still shaky and foggy and forgetful from the effects of general anesthesia, overcome by a new and unfamiliar kind of pain — not from the sutures bound with surgical glue — but from feelings of complete and utter isolation.
I found myself shivering, bursting into tears, heartsick and semi-panicked. I couldn’t believe how often I reached pathetically for my phone, wondering with whom it best to bare my broken heart. I felt vulnerable, secluded, distanced and lonesome.
The irony is, my wonderful neighbors were within sight through my picture window. Loved ones were just a phone call away. My social networks hadn’t gone anywhere. But in my mind, in those moments of overwhelming isolation, the feelings of desolation grabbed me in ways I’d never known. I was far too weak to drive or shop, and I was restricted from lifting items or attending major social functions. I needed rest and isolation to heal and protect my body, but I was desperate for the comfort of other humans.
Social distancing was, at first, one of the lowest feelings I have ever known. It was also one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever given myself.
How We Do This
As humans, we’re built to unite when hardship strikes. Whether it’s a fire, a tsunami, a catastrophic weather event, an injury, a death, an act of terrorism, or an epidemic like the opioid crisis — our natural response is to come together to solve, to soothe, to protect, and to heal.
But what we face now, as COVID-19 spreads exponentially, is not only a fight against an invisible virus, but also a fight against human instinct. In this case, in this pandemic, we must go against our inclinations by socially distancing ourselves to survive, and we can do it.
Until now, most of us have never faced such dire, surreal circumstances, which leave many of us questioning whether “This too shall pass” or if “I’m less at risk than others.” There is also, of course, that nagging sensibility in the back of our minds, the one that asks with nervous defiance, “How can anyone stop me from living my life?”
The truth is, no one will force you to socially distance yourself. We must all step into this willingly — not only for the sake of our own health, but for the health of others.
Right now, it’s imperative that we reassess life as we’ve known it and face the real and imagined fears of changing course — if only for a period of time.
When I learned I must socially distance myself, my only priority was myself. Now, facing the spread of coronavirus, my decision to withdraw and retreat is a no-brainer.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from my own recent experience, it’s that the brief adjustment to social distancing is far more difficult than the day-to-day existence. When we choose to socially distance ourselves, we can still remain connected through phones and computers. And, these interactions can even take on profound depth and dimension.
Had I not socially distanced for three months, I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of reconnecting with so many people. I’d have missed out on numerous, reassuring exchanges with my parents, my kids, my neighbors, my friends. I’d have missed out on reconnecting with people from my past. I’d have missed out on gaining the perspective I needed. And I might have missed the life-changing opportunities to stop and appreciate those who are in my life.
There is no question that the three months I socially distanced myself seemed to drag on forever — but I survived.
It’s over. And I’m still here.
Yes, life goes on.
Yes, we will survive this — as long as we collectively agree to put some aspects of our lives on hold for a bit.
It won’t be easy, and it’s unquestionably necessary.
Each of us has a choice.
What will yours be?
Christine Wolf writes about the human condition. Follow her work at www.christinewolf.com.