From “Not Right Now” to “Now or Never”

Maybe I have to accept that living well means leaving the old me behind.

Sometimes I think about old horror movies or ghost stories where a trapped spirit is roaming around a haunted house.  The common cliché is that some trauma or tragedy or unfinished business has bound the spirit to the place and they cannot move on until it is resolved.  Often the ghost is confused – they don’t realize that time has passed or who they are talking to.  Sometimes they don’t realize they have died.  Often that is how long-covid feels to me.  I am still moving around in the world, but I am barely an echo of who I was.  I am mostly bound to my home, unable to fully grapple with or resolve the great trauma that has trapped me.  People engage me through an ethereal fog while my experiences drift out of phase with the normal passage of time.  In many ways my life ended in March 2020, but my confused spirit has not yet received the memo. 

 

Perhaps one day I will physically recover completely, and my spirit can move on.  Even if I do, the person I was before is gone.   That is a little bit sad, because I kind of liked that person and I was excited to see what they would do with their life.  There is some grief for lost experiences and opportunities.  I don’t really know what to think about this new residual ghost person yet.  Perhaps this all sounds a bit melodramatic, but my existentialism has by necessity lurched from theory to practice.  I can’t do the things I did before.  My brain can’t think the way it did before.  I don’t feel things the way I did before.  The way I process information, store memories, and experience my senses has changed.  Separated from the norms and expectations of daily social interaction, even my identity has begun to evolve.  The clothes I wear are different.  The way I style my hair is different.  The mental image I hold of myself is unrecognizable from the person I knew before I got sick. 

 

What’s left that defines a person?  Ironically it is my broken body that holds most strongly onto the connection with my old self.  The daily physical pains and sufferings are the common threads tying past to present, proving I am very much not a ghost yet.

 

If we frame moving abroad as a new beginning, as an inflection point between an old life and a new one, then the story of my new beginning must find its origins with my changes as a person.  I am not the same person I used to be, and the life I held has fled away.  It no longer binds me.

 

Uprooting

 

My new reality also brings new perspective, where it seems the internal changes are matched by changes in the world around me.  Or perhaps the world is the same as ever and I am filtering it with a different kind of understanding.  Either way, I find myself detached and sometimes repulsed from people and places that once felt comfortable and familiar.  You cannot tell by looking at someone whether they hold concern for the health and safety of others – whether they have the capacity for empathy, or to forego personal comforts for a common good.  In a land of hypotheticals, we can assume the best in others.  As years of global pandemic transform these hypotheticals into daily dilemmas, these rosy outlooks have been shattered.  My faith and trust in my community – friends, family, neighbors, and strangers alike – has been shaken to its core.  I think the damage may be irreparable. 

 

This is not only in reaction to covid.  Over the past several years I have watched my community, out of fear or malice, fight or oppose or destroy all variety of things I hold to fundamental to human dignity and living well.  It is not hyperbole to say that several levels of government (and large parts of the population) want to criminalize me as a person.

 

If community is the soil that holds and nurtures our personal roots in a place, then here I find yet another precursor for my wanderlust.  I have become alienated from my old home, and I no longer believe I share its future.  I have changed.  But the world around me has changed as well.

 

Greener Grass?

 

The saying that “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” has always rung true to me.  Everywhere has problems.  Everyone has flaws.  You see most clearly the places and people closest to you.  With this in mind, and with the ingrained sensibilities of an urban planner, I have always believed that we should not run away from challenges, and that if we all work to make the places where we are better, everyone everywhere benefits.

 

This philosophy has guided the general trajectory of my life and my career – work to make things better where I am and with others build a brighter future.  It’s not easy.  It’s usually thankless.  It can require personal and professional sacrifice.  The rationalization I tell myself is that this effort is rewarded eventually, when my community sees real change for the better.

 

Now as I live with long-covid, I find it harder and harder to justify my “work where you are” worldview.  First, I no longer really have the physical or mental capacity to do the work.  I can look at a screen for a couple hours on a good day.  If I plan and rest for days, I can walk a few blocks.  I now struggle to converse with more than one person at a time.  All of the writing, talking, working, walking, meeting, and more that was so essential to engaging and mobilizing people is beyond me now.

 

Even if I still had the capacity to do the work, I’m not sure I still have time to do it.  The world is two years into long-covid and understanding is still very incomplete, but early research and lessons from other post-viral conditions paint a sobering picture:

 

Studies now show that even mild Covid is linked to brain damage and accelerated aging of the brain.  Researchers worry that conditions could degenerate over time.  Other research shows cognitive and memory problems after covid set the stage for conditions like Alzheimers and dementia.  One study suggests that covid patients are dealing with levels of cognitive impairment that are similar to the decline a healthy person sees between the ages of 50 and 70, and that this damage may never fully heal.  There are also research connections now between the mitochondrial dysfunction caused by covid and age-dependent cognitive disorders.

 

Beyond the brain, studies are also showing the long-term cardiovascular outcomes of covid, including non-hospitalized patients with mild cases.  I am now at increased risk of cerebrovascular disorders, dysrhythmia, heart disease, pericarditis, myocarditis, heart failure, and stroke.  One study looked at the overall morbidity burden and estimated that on average, someone with my age and case history will lose five “high quality life years.” 

No one knows what happens to people with long-covid in three years or five years or ten years, but we can make some informed predictions.  We can look at the type of issues we are facing today and the risks and recovery patterns in other chronic post-viral illnesses.  Research on different conditions and previous pandemics suggest that my new health challenges could be lifelong.

 

Looking Forward

 

Over the years, there are many things my partner and I have told each other we want to do someday.  Someday did not necessarily mean “in retirement” but we set aside all sorts of goals and dreams for “not right now.”

 

I don’t feel that we were spinning our wheels.  We were working toward different goals, investing in our careers and communities, and building the foundations for our life together.  But with all my new risks, “not right now” seems more like “now or never.”

 

Suddenly, my old “work where you are” philosophy seems better suited to people with more hope to realize the rewards and more health to weather the trials.  If the wheels of progress turn too slowly where I am to achieve the quality of life I desire with the time I have left, then maybe I have to accept that living well requires living somewhere new.  Somewhere that already reflects my goals and values.  A place where others have already fought and won the battles for a better life.

 

With much regret for what I may now never achieve, and much hope for what might still be possible, this train of circumstance leads me finally to the major decision to move abroad. 

 

As a new person.  In a new world.  Without a moment to lose.

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