"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Nervous Nellie And COVID–Scared Out Of Her Wits And No Place To Run

Mary Barker had always been a Nervous Nellie, afraid of her own shadow since she was a little girl.  She worried about crossing at crosswalks, looked in both directions, waited for the light to turn a solid green, and then – and only then – would she step off the curb.  She was afraid of swallowing a fishbone and even after her mother had squished the salmon into an orange pulp, squeezing and fingering it to be sure there was flesh and flesh alone, she picked at it around the edges.  It took her far longer to eat than the rest of the family who at first were polite enough to wait until she finished before getting up from the table but soon got impatient and simply pushed their chairs back and left, leaving dutiful, obedient Mary to complete the painful ritual of eating from the edges in, poking at the each successive clot of fish, and finally forking in the last fragments of salmon bits.

“No more fish”, shouted her father at the end of a particularly laborious meal.  A lovely bluefish, caught that day from the Atlantic, filet and grilled on the Weber, was chopped, mangled, and mashed before his daughter would even look at it.

She always sat in the Emergency Row of the school bus, in the right rear backseat of the car (the one farthest from the impact of a head-on crash), and in the back of the auditorium.  She covered her mouth and nose when she got close to someone speaking, washed her blouse with soap and Clorox every evening to disinfect it, practiced the best escape route from her bedroom to the outside in case of fire, said only one prayer at night (“Bless me, O Lord, and keep me safe”).  Getting through her own perilous, treacherous day was more than enough to hope and pray for let alone having to worry about others.

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Fortunately she grew out of most of her worst phobias and risk-aversion, but the essence of extreme caution remained.  She never got over her fear of flying, the Beltway, infected cuts, and street cats; but managed well enough to be considered for promotion and reward in her job.  Outwardly she gave no signs of her generalized anxiety and social hypochondria, made reasonable excuses to avoid the Bay Bridge, I-95, and loud musical venues; and was liked and welcomed by her colleagues and acquaintances.

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Sex and a satisfying love life were far more difficult to achieve, however.  There was always that niggling fear that her partner ‘had something’ or would take her to unsafe, loud, crowded clubs; undercook the meat, or drink intemperately.  She was cute, lively, and engaging; and men found her eccentricities appealing if strange.  There was always a break-even point for her – when she knew it was time to head for shore rather than risk sticking with a leaky rowboat – and in every case, however different, she knew what it was and when to cut bait.  As she got older the break-even point moved closer and closer to the beginning of the affair, so relationships had no chance of maturing let alone lasting; but at least for the time being she was happy enough with serial one-offs, particularly if the men were sexy.

She was never sure how she survived the AIDS epidemic back in the 90s.  She was convinced that she would get the disease and die a horrible disfiguring death; and was one of the very last to get the message that you could not get sick from doorknobs and air kisses.  She was a nervous wreck during those years, afraid of everyone who came within ten feet, scrubbing every last bit of clothing and her hands until they were red and raw, staying out of movie theaters and swimming pools, and buying the most expensive indoor air purification systems available.  

Unfortunately she grew up in the Fifties when the polio epidemic was at its height, no vaccine was available, and misinformation about transmission was rampant.  Her mother was among the most vigilant of her community and became obsessive about the disease.  If it hadn’t been for truancy laws she would have kept Mary home from school; but she made her daughter take the maximum number of allowed absences before truancy became an issue.  Polio is a disease spread by fecal matter and is not airborne, so most of the precautions taken by parents were unnecessary and punitive; but that did not deter Mary’s mother who became a scouring witch.

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As fate would have it, just as she was about ready to retire and lead a comfortable, monastic existence in her cabin in West Virginia, COVID hit.  All her hopelessly erratic and irrational fears of disease borne of her experiences with polio and AIDS came home with a vengeance. She felt vulnerable, unprepared, and angry.  How could this happen to her again?  The same fear of contagion, the same oppressive isolation, the same brutal scrubbing of hands, clothes, furniture, and doorknobs; the same fear of proximity and panic over crowded spaces once again hemmed her in.  The hardwired psychological errors programmed into her behavioral DNA which she had tried so hard to ignore or dismiss were up again and active.  Her fears kicked in again as they had decades ago, only this time her defense mechanism was as badly tattered as others’ immune systems. 


Early on in the epidemic, low on staples, and left to fend for herself as delivery services bent and cracked under the unfamiliar load, she prepared to go to the supermarket.  She wore two masks, goggles, surgical-quality gloves, and a raincoat; and even then hesitated before crossing the threshold.  What if…what if…what if….? she wondered as she dithered before the door.

Now by this time in most people’s lives – a time well past retirement age when there are but few, sparse, bare, years of existence remaining – one begins to prepare for the end, turning to religion or stoicism before it is too late.  Forget the past, what you have or haven’t done, love affairs missed or ended badly, mistakes made, opportunities taken, profits and losses realized; and get ready.  This preoccupation with the end of one’s life usually shunts aside any more pedestrian concerns – leaky roofs are notoriously never fixed, dinners get microwaved, and tax issues become someone else’s problem.  Not so for Mary Barker. Would that she could shunt and marginalize her fears of dying from COVID.  Unlike many of her friends of the same age who said that they refused to be sequestered, isolated, locked away from family and friends.  If surviving COVID meant incarceration, locked down in a gulag, then they wanted no part of it.  Better to die while living rather than to wrinkle, shrivel and die alone.

It all boiled down to this – fear of dying and staying alive at any and all costs.  It was this unspoken, hidden, but persistent fear that had fueled her paranoia for years.  So that was it, she said to herself.

Mary was not alone in this ahistorical fear.  It was an ancillary of the Law of Unintended Consequences.  Now that we can live to 100 and thanks to modern medicine, traffic laws, and a measure of civility we can expect to live that long; we are terrified and obsessive about keeping the death from the door.  Back in the days of the Napoleonic Wars when Russian and French troops clashed in monumental battles, tens of thousands of soldiers died in a single day.  Tolstoy in War and Peace describes the mayhem of the Battle of Borodino.  Amidst a hail of cannonballs and a withering fusillade of musket fire, Russian soldiers were almost happy.  If one had to die before age 35 (the average life expectancy of 1800), then it was far better to die a heroic, honorable death on the battlefield than a painful, slow one from an infected foot at home.  Life was not conditioned only by staying alive but by considering, accepting, and even welcoming death.

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Even though Mary had had an Aha! experience and understood the nature of her fears, there was little she could do about them.  it was far too late even after a miraculous epiphany to change.  She would have to act like a recovering schizophrenic.  “I know the people I see on my front porch are not real;  so as real as they seem, I will just ignore them”. Easier said than done, of course, but at least she tried.  “Too soon old, too late schmart” was an old Yiddish expression which also applied.  Not that it makes any difference to your dying or your life after death, but it helps to know what’s what.

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