This Is Us

Battling Covid-19 Showed Me the Limits of My Mind

I couldn’t think my way out of this disease, though I certainly tried

When I was six years old my grandmother took my cousin and me to Disneyland. I had been there before, but this time was different. This was a big kid trip. My cousin, seven years older than me, was not interested in “It’s a Small World” or “Dumbo” or “Peter Pan.” She had her own plan for the park: roller coasters.

Not long after making our way down Main Street, we said goodbye to my grandma, who preferred waiting to riding, and headed straight for Space Mountain. I had never been on a roller coaster before and I was terrified. My stomach whirred, my limbs felt floppy, and I wanted to run away every time the line inched forward. But I pretended everything was fine. I smiled and laughed. I feigned excitement. And I tried to think my way out of my fear.

Disney was a huge company, I reasoned, and they’d be in big trouble if anything happened to someone on one of their rides. They had to make them safe. They didn’t want that kind of liability.

This may seem like a peculiar line of thought for a six-year-old. But my parents are lawyers, so phrases like “limited liability” and “overruled” and the parental favorite, “asked and answered,” were frequently tossed around at home. The law had rules and consequences and a system in place. And thinking about all of that — stepping through it all in my mind over and over again — made me feel comforted and safe. Or at least safe enough to get on the roller coaster, white-knuckle the safety bar, and grit my teeth through the twists, turns, and sudden drops.

When I was four, I was diagnosed with leukemia. Throughout my treatment, recovery, and remission, my mind was my place to escape. It was my way of making sense of what didn’t, of controlling what I couldn’t. It was the one part of me that felt like it was still mine, where I could make better the things that were broken, imagine a parallel universe in which I was normal, and give structure to all the wobbliness of life.

Being a thinker propelled me forward in a number of ways. It kept me hooked into school and, as a student, it helped me find a way to stand out that had nothing to do with the cancer. It fueled my lifelong love of reading and took me to places that excited, soothed, and enlightened me. It made me want to understand people, deeply, and cultivate engaged, thoughtful relationships. Later, it helped me build and grow a career.

But when I got sick with Covid-19 this past spring, the limits of my thinking mind were exposed. Like an intense buildup of pressure that triggers a dormant volcano, Covid brought all of my deepest fears, anxieties, and vulnerabilities to the surface — about my health, my heartiness, my luck, my future. As I got sick and then sicker and struggled to recover for weeks and then months on end, these feelings spilled over, dragging me down under their weight.

The terror of being on the early end of a not-well-understood disease, of being at the mercy of a never-ending array of bizarre and worrisome symptoms, of feeling like there was no one who could help, of feeling better only to feel worse again, of being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, of my four-year-old asking me, “Mommy, can you please keep your eyes open?” was too much to bear.

Covid brought all of my deepest fears, anxieties, and vulnerabilities to the surface — about my health, my heartiness, my luck, my future.

There were many nights I feared I might not make it through. I worried that my body was too damaged from what it had already withstood — the cancer, two life-threatening pregnancies, a past year of difficult illness — to keep going. I wondered why some people, like my husband, seemed to fend off the disease fairly easily, while others, too many others, were met with its most vicious side.

That quietly nagging voice, the one that told me I’d never be free from the scars of my childhood, that danger and death are always around the corner, grew very loud.

And so, like I had that day at Disneyland and so many times before, I tried to make sense of everything frightening and uncertain in my mind. To make myself feel better, to make it okay. If I could just think my way through it, if I could just figure it out, if I could find the right information, do the right analysis, source the best experts, it would be okay. I would be okay.

I tried to keep pace with the latest findings, the speculative theories, the reports from people whose stories were similar to mine. I looked for causes and connections, trying to triangulate solutions, treatment, understanding. Somewhere in the puzzle was information I needed. I just need to find it, to think about it the right way.

But no matter how much I thought, it didn’t feel okay. One thought led to another thought, led to a worse thought, led to sheer panic. I’d feel better for a moment, only to feel the bottom drop out soon after.

My thoughts were not my helpers — they presented that way, like little soldiers trying to keep me on guard, trying to keep me safe, trying, once again, to make sense of what couldn’t be understood inside my body. But at best they kept me on a treadmill, trudging over the same ground again and again. At worst, they rocketed me onto a hamster wheel, spinning me round and round obsessively.

With the help of some wise folks, and the clarity — or desperation — that comes from being pushed to your breaking point, I realized I had to put some distance between me and my thoughts. I had to learn not to identify with them so much, to stop following them down their dark paths, to understand, as we say in meditation, that I am, at my essence, something other than my thoughts. And to realize that sometimes I just have to sit with the discomfort of my feelings without trying to think them away.

That requires faith — believing in the things I can’t see, or know for certain. In the absence of faith, thoughts can be a Band-Aid. And I’ve been covering my fears with Band-Aids for 35 years.

It’s exhausting.

There are productive thoughts — the thoughts that help us complete a task at work, put together a piece of furniture from Ikea, learn a new skill, or read a map (still working on that one). This is where our brain does some of its best work.

The mind is tricky. It promises it has it all figured out. It feels like solid ground.

These are not those thoughts. These thoughts never reach their end. They’re loud and busy and easily replaced with even louder, busier thoughts. But there’s another voice that sits in the middle of my chest that I’m starting to get acquainted with. It’s a lot quieter, steadier, certain. It’s strong. It comes from the place I connect with when I meditate. It comes when I quiet my mind and ask my heart what it knows. It’s often been drowned out, but I’m starting to realize it’s better at handling life than I thought, wiser than I gave it credit for, and that my mind works in service of it, and not the other way around.

Covid, and this surreal and heartbreaking time we’re all living through, it can just be too big for our minds to hold. I’m starting to think that might be okay, though — because maybe there are parts of us that are much deeper and more resilient.

My mantra for healing from Covid, and all that came before, is “I choose to fear less and believe more.”

Belief is hard. Harder amid uncertainty. Uncertainty can feel impossible to bear. Uncertainty, for me, equals danger, the specter of death. The mind is tricky. It promises it has it all figured out. It feels like solid ground. Belief, faith, they can start off as a passing breeze, fleeting and almost impossible to hold onto. But I’m starting to see that the more I choose to believe — in myself, in my ability to heal, in the things I can’t see, in the possibility for the future to be better than this still-challenging present — the more the breeze slows down and expands, until it begins to feel like the air I’m breathing.

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