I went 22 months without catching Covid.
But a few weeks ago, as the Omicron surge began to ebb in New York, I caught the virus. Luckily, I’m double vaxxed and boosted, so the worst of my symptoms were congestion, a woozy brain, and wild, detailed dreams. But the indirect side effects, which I was not expecting, were far worse.
I’m a single mom, and my 5-year-old son was at his dad’s home when I tested positive. I FaceTimed him that night to tell him the news. He collapsed in tears on the screen, barely able to look at me for fear that I was in danger. I comforted him with a brave face and asked to see his latest Lego Mario creation. He stayed away from me during the duration of my symptoms, and I went the longest I’ve ever gone – 10 days – without hugging my little boy.
Aside from the ache of being away from my son for so long, I found myself surprisingly angry. Over the last two years, I regularly scoured the internet for rapid tests and medical-grade masks, spending a small fortune to have them on hand quickly. I stopped dining indoors, and I had avoided the gym for weeks to limit my exposure, losing endorphins and other health benefits in the process. And none of it “worked,” because here I was, quarantined, sick, and letting my son and my co-workers down. My infection at the time felt unnecessary and unfair.
I’m a booking producer for “Morning Joe,” which, turns out, is a job that can be done competently from my home in Queens, especially when so many guests join us remotely from their homes, rather than in studio. My son and I spent his Pre-K year on a screen mostly locked down in our apartment, where school was capped at 40 minutes a day, because that’s the amount of time Zoom gives away for free.
That said, I’m well-aware of my unusual luck and privilege. I work at a company that provides good healthcare. I’ve had rapid Covid tests on hand for a long time, and I’ve been able to get a PCR test within walking distance of my home, even if the wait is long. My son and I are healthy, and we got our jabs within hours of becoming eligible.
Over the past two years, I’ve comforted friends, family, and parents when they catch Covid. “It’s not your fault,” I would tell them. “It’s a virus, not a spiteful person. Its only goal is to replicate. You’ve been making smart choices, wearing your mask above your nose, and minimizing your risk. It’s not your fault.”
Yet, I felt the surprising pang of shame when I tested positive. It was a feeling that surprised me, even though I’d counseled loved ones who felt the same. I turned to Dr. Benjamin Miller, a psychologist and President of Well Being Trust, a national foundation dedicated to advancing the mental and social wellbeing of our country.
“We may feel a bit embarrassed about getting Covid,” Dr Miller told me. “But if you have done all you can to protect you and your family, you shouldn’t feel shame. It is pretty common for people to worry about what others think of them if they do get Covid, but Omicron is so contagious that even those who are most protective of themselves are getting it.”
Immediately before I reunited with my son, he caught Covid-19, too. His sniffles were so mild I might not have noticed them in “the before times.” But his test strip turned undeniably red, and I alerted his school, which informed me he had to stay out of school for 10 days.
As many of you know, 10 days is a long time. The screen time rules I’d clawed back to a reasonable place were out the window again as I worked long days with a restless child padding around the house. About a week in, journalist Bari Weiss went on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” and said she was “done with Covid” to rapturous applause and Twitter criticism. In that same spirit, I’m done with traffic in midtown and rising gas prices! But that doesn’t change the outcome.
Madelyn Fernstrom on stress: Know what you can controlMay 2, 201907:48
I also asked Dr. Miller how he suggests we move through the crushing stress, fatigue and anger many of us (myself included) are feeling after two years and counting of Covid-19. He advised that we “recognize that there are certain things out of your control. Trying to control those things only leads to frustration and anxiety.”
Could it be that we somehow understand that we can’t control traffic or the price of gas, but that many people falsely feel that we can somehow control Covid, either by ignoring it or back-talking it?
There’s also a common desire to get “back to normal,” as if normality is something that we deserve, or as though we’ll get to magically rewind to a set of circumstances that no longer exists.
My child has spent some of his quarantine watching a YouTube video about the end of dinosaurs and the “the illusion of continuity.” The phrase “illusion of continuity” haunts me. I’ve learned normality is an illusion. We live now, there’s literally no way to return to a time when things were different.
Grieving the loss of an old normal is reasonable, and many people are stuck in the anger, denial, or bargaining stages. My hope is that we can move through these feelings and toward accepting that things will never be exactly the same.
It’s something I’m working on. I spent some of my recovery time doing guided mindfulness meditations on an app, which I did when I was pregnant with my son. Mindfulness teaches us to observe and be curious about the world without judging it as good or bad. I’m a long way from that level of acceptance, but I hope to get there. After all, the future will be determined by our behavior and how we manage ourselves, not how we cling to the illusion of control or a wish to return to another time on the clock.
Cat Rakowski is an Emmy-winning journalist and a booking producer for MSNBC's “Morning Joe." She lives in Queens with her son, Lincoln. Follow her @catrakowski.