The Isolation Equation: Why I'm not dying to see you

by Stephanie Mumford Brown

Solitude sucks. But, I have concluded, it beats the alternatives. Even more so if you’re an athlete.

I’ve now made through all three major holidays alone, all of them solo for the first time in my life. (Valentine’s Day is still lurking, but that’s got its own craziness, pandemic or no.)

You may not yet share my conviction that indoor socializing during this Covid Winter is a risk not worth taking. So let me count the ways.

1. Death. The statistics are grim enough, but it’s the anecdotes that kill me, so to speak. I pore over “Those We’ve Lost,” a full page of Covid obits that runs regularly in the New York Times, and many of these people are younger than I. Yes, they may have had underlying conditions that ushered in the reaper. No, I don’t have any co-morbidities besides age. But there are too many cases of marathoners and mountaineers dying inexplicably of Covid-19. Science doesn’t yet fully know how this virus kills.

2. Destruction. Most people who get Covid-19 don’t die, but most of them don’t feel normal for weeks. Moreover, their bodies may house further damage that reveals itself much later.

Y’know that classic story of the healthy young athlete who suddenly keels over dead on the playing field? That’s acute myocarditis, a heart inflammation most often caused by a virus. Researchers studied 26 Ohio State athletes months after they recovered from mild Covid-19 cases, with minor or no symptoms and no hospitalization. MRIs and other tests found definite heart inflammation in four athletes and probable problems in eight more—that’s 15 percent and approaching half in total. A German study of 100 patients who had recently recovered from Covid-19 found that 60 percent had myocarditis, independent of any pre-existing conditions.

This virus is sneaky as well as nasty. There’s growing evidence it can damage lungs, heart, kidneys, brain, maybe the entire immune system, in ways that hang on or don’t even show up until long after the acute illness is gone.

Loneliness may drive me crazy at times, but I’ll go even crazier if I can’t run. I know this from early 2019, when an injury kept me housebound for nearly three months and ruined the runup to a spring racing schedule that would have promoted ongoing sanity. (See “Braining while training” for more about the ways aerobic exercise keeps your head on straight.) And I certainly don’t want to get nine miles into my first half-marathon this year and collapse with a hearty surprise.

So Point 2 here is The Convincer for me. If I get sick, there’s a remote chance of death but a high chance of disability, at least temporary, possibly permanent. That’s where Covid-19 separates from influenza.

3. Destruction of others. What if I’m a symptom-free Covid carrier? If I infect someone else, I’ll feel at least as bad as getting it myself. The “bad” here may be ethical and emotional rather than physical or cognitive, but it’s still bad.

In a few months—not years—vaccinations will yield herd immunity if we get to the 70 percent mark. Those of us with enough trust and no contraindications to get shots will be back to something like normal even if the herd isn’t there yet.

There’s Company in Loneliness

Yeah, yeah, but the relentless, thrumming mundanity of daily life is getting really old. How are we going to survive this winter of our discontent without a spontaneous jailbreak?

First, we’ll remind ourselves we’re all in this together; we’re not alone in loneliness. Covid killed FOMO—we’re all Missing Out, so never mind the Fear Of.

Second, digital proximity is better than none. After initial foot-dragging, I’m getting Zen with Zoom. Accept the awkwardness, invest a bit in improving your skills and your lighting, and don’t start a call without agreeing on its end. (Open-ended videoconferencing lingers like that sourdough bread you learned to make last spring when you leave it out on the counter: tasty at first, eventually stale.) Zoom and its brethren aren’t going away when the pandemic ends, so you might as well get used to talking to a screen.

Third, remember telephones? I’ve been using a phone at work for decades, but Covidlife has me doing social calls for the first time since adolescence. Yes, especially with boys.

Phone conversations are less transactional than emails and texts, and tone of voice conveys meaning better than emojis. For us practitioners of sarcasm and irony, conversations benefit from a vocal seatbelt.

My personal formula for fighting the isolation blues combines solitary productivity with outdoor exercise and digital indulgences: the gifts of the Internet Magi (Amazon, Facebook, and Netflix), family holiday Zooming, Facetiming my oldest bestest, and my two-person streaming-movie discussion club. Your equation may vary, but if you don’t yet have one, please find one.

Because the end is near. And if we’re all going to get there in one piece, we need to make peace with a little more deprivation.

Stephanie Mumford Brown is Chief Wiseacre at Wiseacre Press, where she’s trying to compile the missing assembly instructions for the second half of life. Want to make sure you don’t miss any of her pearls of wisdom in this and other publications? Subscribe by emailing LIST to wiseacrepress@gmail.com.


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