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Stephanie Land | Longreads | April 2020 | 12 minutes (3,059 words)
Almost a month into COVID isolation, I curled up on my bedroom floor under the window I’d opened to rid the room of my children’s lunch aromas — the ketchup and chicken nugget smells that relentlessly crawled up the stairs every day before noon. John Prine’s “Souvenirs” drifted out of my laptop’s speakers, drowning out the blaring screens full of TikToks and my youngest’s kindergarten Zoom meetings that were even more ridiculous to see in real time. On my own screen was the ever-faithful blank document, its cursor drumming, reminding me of my inability to produce, my failure to do my job that day. At least I showed up. Kind of.
I fingered the carpet inches from my face, watching the dog hairs vibrate as I breathed in and out. It was the hair of our newest dog, the husky. Everything in our bedroom seemed coated with a layer of it. Last fall, my husband and I drove nine hours down to Salt Lake City to adopt her on the same morning the pregnancy test came back positive. The twins would have been somewhere around 24 weeks by now. As big as eggplants. Imagine that.
I began 2020, the year of perfect vision, wondering if I’d ever be able to write again. The last time I’d written anything creatively was August, when I realized I wasn’t able to go to the grocery store alone anymore. It happened in that moment between turning off the car and opening the door when the panic attack occurred. This was only a few days after we’d returned from our honeymoon. I was on my way home from the therapist’s office. I’d made a frantic appointment after I woke up to a message from an acquaintance that began, “Thought you might want to know” and continued with the information that my abusive ex was in town. This was the man who’d strangled me and kept me imprisoned in his anxiety for a year after that — yeah, that one. Someone saw him in town the night before at a bar. “He was with a girl,” the messenger said. “They looked pretty cozy.”
My panic attack wasn’t about that specifically, though in some way I guess it was. I’d ended the appointment with my therapist by admitting I was too embarrassed to go out in my small town because I’d gained 25 pounds in the past year. “I can’t look people in the eye,” I’d said, “because I just start telling myself what they must be thinking.” My ex’s snide attitude toward anything but his idea of a perfectly fit body was at the root of this. He had been my daily critic of what I wore, ate, and the progress I’d made, through exercise, to shrink my body to the smallest size possible. It was my ex’s words, but in other people’s imaginary voices.
For the six months before that, since people started referring to my first book as “critically acclaimed,” every time I saw myself on a television screen doing an interview with a morning show host, I saw my ex watching it just long enough to turn to the person next to him and say, with arms crossed, “Look at how fat she is.”
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For 15 minutes that August afternoon, I gasped for air with the windows still rolled up, hot tears falling on my bare thighs, before I felt safe enough to drive home. I’d offered to pick up a few things for dinner, and now I’d be forced to admit I hadn’t been able. That I’d had a panic attack in a grocery store parking lot because I couldn’t go inside alone, fearing I’d run into someone I knew, or didn’t know. A lot of people had approached me in that grocery store since my book came out. Some wanted to tell me their story, often with tears in their eyes, then ask, “Can I just give you a hug?” I felt pressured to say yes. Now I’d admitted out loud what I imagined them thinking, and that seemed to make it real.
After that, whenever I had to go somewhere in town, my husband always came with me. He was a good buffer for those situations — something to physically put between myself and the person who wanted to talk to me. Every person who made eye contact became a potential “fan” who’d ask for a hug, only now I saw it as a potential threat. An imaginary mockery of my appearance, an invasion of my private life, the one I kept close since the swarm of interviews started the year before.
Over Christmas I miscarried the twins, and the pit of pregnancy loss consumed me. I stood in that cyclone of grief. It made rooms spin, made me clutch at the walls. I didn’t leave the house for weeks. Contemplating the act of walking out the front door made my constant anxiety attack ramp up from simmer to boil.
“I don’t know how to be in this world anymore,” I kept saying to myself, and then out loud to my husband. The world I referred to, always, was the one I’d been swept into over the prior year: an author of a bestselling book, a public figure, a public speaker. A world that had, up until then, resembled an out-of-body experience and now caused me to crash into my real self — the one who hid at home because she couldn’t face grocery stores alone. They were now the same person. They always had been the same person, only now I couldn’t leave the grieving part of me at home.
In the first few days of January, I stared at my calendar, showing a nine-day paperback tour and three speaking gigs with one coming up that weekend. I felt a heavy foot inside me stamp on the floor, bellowing a deep “No.” Canceling wasn’t hard. Just an email, really. But three months later, lying on that carpet, watching the dog hairs bend with my breath, I still wondered if it was the right decision. The sole breadwinner for a family of five, I saw the word “FAILURE” blink before my eyes in time with the cursor on my computer screen.
The decision had been so necessary when I’d made it that it was simple. I couldn’t do what was expected of me, so I didn’t do it. Inwardly, I said it was just for January: it seemed good to put a deadline on this grief, this depression, this reeling and spiraling into the worst kind of failure, which made it hard to look my three kids and husband in the eye. But they didn’t know the depth of the hollowing of my inner self that made me ache the most. The writer inside of me was dead, and I had no idea who I was without her — but I knew I had to get her back.
Several friends suggested therapy, but I shook my head. I knew what I needed to do. I quit drinking alcohol first, then cut, for some reason, gluten, dairy, and sugar out of my diet completely. My schedule shrank as it became more rigid, adding intermittent fasting and hours on a fancy spin bike I bought after my back had gone out the previous summer. I told myself this was all for the best chance at a healthy pregnancy when my husband and I decided it was a good time to try again. I needed that higher purpose. It couldn’t be about losing weight and fitting into my old jeans, even though those goals became my cheerleaders on the sidelines. All of this work had to go toward something bigger than me so the rest would quietly click into place. My past experiences of falling apart, picking up the pieces, and putting them back together said, softly, “Just give it time” and I knew they were right.
It’s probably telling of my personality that I gave myself not only a deadline, but a structure and regimen for my existential grief. I thought of what my writing professor, Walter Kirn, told us in class one day — “The not writing is just as important as the writing.” — and stopped pressuring myself to create.
Then the pandemic hit.
My speaking gigs for the next several months vanished. There had been eight in all. The income was supposed to not just pay our monthly bills, but pay off debt and taxes, and get us approved for a home loan. I’d spent the last month not only coming to terms with being an introvert and a public speaker at the same time, but also embracing the opportunity to advocate for people in poverty. I’d combined the life I had outside my home, where I flew across the country and a car service waited to take me to my hotel, with the one where I made pancakes for my children on the weekend.
Before, I’d been so disconnected from what happened “at work” that I had no memory of entire book events and half of several speaking gigs. As I worked through my new regimen for recovering from grief, I’d somehow combined the two versions of my life into a warm coat and carefully zipped it all together. Then something completely unexpected happened. When the public speaker inside me had to step down due to lack of opportunity, the writer in me stood, arms stiffly at her sides with hands in fists, chin up, and ready to work.
That first week of COVID quarantine I sat at my desk, a place where months before I’d spent multiple afternoons quietly brushing my thumb over a baby hat, unable to imagine my life being empty of soupy grief. Now, sitting in that same chair, I started to push out one-thousand word essays and articles with a familiar ease.
At first I figured I was writing in the absence of PTSD: I no longer sat in fearful anticipation of the worst, because the worst was here. That allowed me to be rational and practical. Now there was a date on the calendar indicating when we’d run out of money, and it was up to me to extend it. I needed to produce, and I did. This action was not only achingly familiar, I was doing it in the same murky, stress-filled environment where I’d written during the five years I worked as a freelance writer while I raised my two girls on my own.
As the shelter-in-place rules stretched to our area in Montana, everything else clicked into the most familiar of places. The act of budgeting groceries and shopping only twice a month for multiple people was my forgotten normal, and I was at home in its return.
For nearly 10 years, I’d lived on a food stamp budget, which allots a little over a dollar per person per meal. When our food stamps ran out, I used whatever was left on my credit card, purchasing rice, ramen, and pancake mix, hoping it would stretch until the seventh of next month when my EBT card balance would be replenished. Any activity my daughters and I did outside the house had to be budgeted according to how many miles we’d drive and how much money in gas it would cost. Eating out — even a Happy Meal — was a rare treat.
“It sounds strange to call chronic poverty an ‘advantage’,” Felisa Rosa Rogers recently wrote in Vox, “but in this case it might be.” Living without the ability to go out to the store, the bar, the movies, or a restaurant didn’t seem to be the only thing that gave my writing some renewed focus. I also felt myself fall into a familiar place of uncertainty, but of the kind that didn’t trigger the anxious side of my PTSD. After a couple of weeks, it started to make sense. The anxiety over running into someone at the grocery store was no longer an issue, since my husband was the designated shopper. I didn’t have an event coming up where I’d have to read a 45-minute speech in front of hundreds of people, then mingle with them at dinners or cocktail hours before flying back home. Those uncontrolled environments while traveling and being a public figure were gone, and I was brought back home, into myself, and surprisingly able to work.
I could clean the house, organize cabinets and closets, and bake bread from scratch. I could spend the morning drinking coffee while typing furiously to fulfill an assignment, smelling my husband’s chili made from dusty cans of beans and frozen ground beef that would feed all five of us for days. I could be present in moments: the older girls baking while the youngest played with dirt in the yard, the curious dogs following her, hoping for a treat. Somehow the chaos of a pandemic had caused the static television screen of anxiety in my mind to switch itself off, and I could obsess over writing instead.
The pandemic gave me what to write about. As someone who had written almost exclusively on social and economic justice for six years, watching the media suddenly pay attention as the country’s service workers, dog walkers, nannies, and house cleaners lost their jobs was fascinating to me. It was as if people finally noticed there were millions of workers without sick pay or savings and tried to feed and house their families on minimum wages. These people that I’d been advocating for, these “invisible” people were now called the essential workers, and they had been forgotten until, rather suddenly, an entire country’s economy depended on them showing up for work at the risk of their own health.
For a precious couple of weeks, I feverishly wrote notes to myself at all hours of the day, scribbling in a notebook I kept close for whenever an idea for an article bubbled up in my mind. I’d missed these actions — pitching editors, receiving emails of acceptance and edits, then seeing the piece go live — which somehow gave me a sense of movement through the stagnancy of being isolated at home. I had this lifeline to the outside world that not only connected me to others, but gave me a sense of doing something important. When I’d been all on my own, I had to write after the girls went to sleep with the nursing infant in my lap. I’d been isolated then, too, only then I was still an invisible writer. I’m not really sure which I prefer.
My friend sent me a text about John Prine’s death right before my oldest daughter told me our little beta fish had died. I nearly laughed out loud at the context. When my children came downstairs with the empty fish net, the toilet still flushing, one spoke of Mr. Goat’s spirit staying with us all and I had to force myself not to scream. Over a thousand people had died that day. Humans. One of them an artist whose songs had helped me drift through the most agonizing moments of my adult life. Instead I saw the beauty in their sadness about a stupid little fish. They hadn’t lost anyone they’d known or loved yet, but part of me knows that won’t last. We’re all stuck here, waiting for it to get worse. They tell us to brace ourselves for it on the news countless times a day.
I’ve written this whole essay while sitting on the bedroom floor, listening to John Prine’s songs on repeat. The guilt of wanting everyone to leave me alone is constant, and sometimes my children’s nonstop movements are too noisy and chaotic for me to bear. Maybe, in that sense, I need the writing. If I’m feverishly typing, everyone knows I’m working and to leave me alone. It’s the only time I don’t feel shame in asking for that space.
Our new normal in the destined future still seems distant and intangible. There’s nothing that’s concrete or definite, like a paycheck showing up at its expected time. Though I appreciate my speaking agent’s enthusiasm for rescheduling my lost gigs, I wonder if it’ll be possible to travel that much in the fall, when they expect the virus to surge through the population again.
Since this all started, I’ve averaged 100 miles a week on that fancy spin bike in my office, and lost about 20 pounds. Before it snowed on Easter weekend, my husband talked about running a half marathon in our yard. It’s like we’re both finding obscene ways to move forward, move beyond all of this. We distracted ourselves with a surmounting wave of hope while we discussed whether to try for a baby again, which resulted in staring at a positive line on a pregnancy test.
“I’m excited,” I said. “Like, I feel really happy about this.” I watched my husband try to feel the same.
“It’s going to be different this time,” he said. “And kind of scary. It’s going to be this way at least until August.” I knew what he really meant: he wouldn’t be able to come with me to the eight-week ultrasound. Last time, we saw two embryos when we’d expected one, and neither of them had a heartbeat.
I remained hopeful over the next several days, trying but failing not to fall into rabbit holes full of baby names. Every morning, I grabbed a pregnancy test out of the pack of cheap ones I’d bought in preparation. As hormones increase, a positive line should grow darker. Instead, it grew more faint. Then, one morning, it was gone.
I spent the entire afternoon that day sitting on the linoleum floor in our bathroom, mindlessly staring out the window with a pile of snot-filled tissues next to me, still listening to John Prine. When “Hello in There” played, I cried all over again because I’d said those words with my hand on my stomach just a few days before. Then he sang the lines about old trees just growing stronger, and I looked out the window at the trees in the neighbor’s yard. There are two with the tops blown off, a widow-maker suspended until another storm finishes the job. But it has buds on it all the same.
* * *
Stephanie Land is the author of MAID: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive and a writing fellow at Community Change.
Editor: Sari Botton