Pain happened like a disaster: something I couldn’t imagine before, something I couldn’t stop imagining after.
I have lived through several disasters. Disaster is highly bimodal. I remember its speed and its slowness. Human minds have a trick of either dilating or muting experience when we need it, a kind but also devastating time machine that traps you in some moments and blurs you past others. Disasters have a different rhythm than the rest of life.
Because of this you get disaster brain, and disaster brain is weird. Priorities change. When mudslides happened to my town, traffic stopped but emergency medical teams moved fast. When a wildfire burned down my brother’s school, the fire raced but we had to wait, days, for a shift in the wind to let people through, to uncover what had really happened.
It took only twenty minutes for pain to first emerge and then flourish in the middle of my torso, the world’s worst houseplant. I was sitting on the couch thinking about nothing in particular. I had just finished work. I had recovered from covid. I had started taking my dog on long walks again. I was fine.
It took six hours in the emergency room. I pulled up papers on my phone. Mostly, in emergency rooms, you cannot be anything but a houseplant. I seek refuge in research when I need a distraction, which I credit for the absurd amounts of projects I have completed in my life. I am a doer when something is being done to me, productive in fury, prolific in fear. I read about motivation. I read about math. I read about blood clots. I read email. The charge nurse came out to tell us that this was a terrible day on which to have had an emergency. I texted my brother, the only person in healthcare I have ever trusted, a person who worked in a hospital during mudslides. You are being taken care of, he texted immediately. They know what to do with hearts.
The pain crawled down the plank of my rib and sent nerve cell messages to me in tinsel-sharp bursts, scattering pinpricks I could receive but couldn’t understand. I thought about pings. I thought, I hear you.
Long covid was the thing I’d been afraid of so I knew a lot about long covid and that knowledge meant nothing to the pain. I kept a log of symptoms, timestamps from the couch. What else can you do? It was a bad case. I knew I would have a bad case. That knowledge meant nothing, too; when I got it I simply did the best that I could. Every nurse in the ER takes your heart rate and none of them ask you for your very meticulous covid data log. They called an EKG for me, they called an EKG for nearly everyone. I practiced counting heartbeats for six hours, uncertain of my autonomic system and its electrical magic. I wondered who sitting next to me had covid a month ago. I wondered who had covid now.
The ER shook me off. The pain didn’t. It felt like there was a clamp around my chest, every moment, unceasing. I feel it now. When I was waiting in the ER the nurse told us that their CT machine was broken. If you are wondering whether you get a discount from the ER for the unavailability of diagnostic equipment you must not live in this country of mudslides, of wildfires, of long covid.
The pain transcended my ability to describe it. It danced. It kept me from sleeping. The most accurate thing I've found to say was that I felt very wrong all of the time. I recognized this as disaster brain, trying to interpret normal things upside-down. I told a doctor no one knows what this is so I'm calling it spooky chest feelings. Sounding like a person with disaster brain, the doctor told me, covid is a monkey wrench. We don’t know.
I felt a great deal of pain. I feel it now. The main thing I’ve taken away from doctors is that it would be a very good idea to not get covid again; the main thing I’ve taken away from the people around me is that this is a good idea not shared. I read about ventilation, I read about fans, I read unselfconsciously cruel messages from people who are surprised to hear that long covid exists. I read much kinder messages from friends who have it. I responded to far fewer things than I want to. I stopped cooking dinner, I stopped walking my dog, I stopped being able to trust sitting down, because I was sitting down when the pain started.
The pain is a climbing plant. It has scaffolded itself up the inside of my chest. It is hard to breathe, all the time. When I saw my little brother’s school on tv–no, not the one that burned down in the wildfire, the other one–what I remember is disaster brain. I stopped in an airport and people whirled around me. On the television, a chyron about a shooting. I felt my heart try to stop. I felt my lungs try to freeze.
After disaster, I read about disasters. Maybe there are better ways to cope but that is mine. Every disaster in my life has changed me. Mudslide, fire, shooting, diagnoses. There is a moment in the uneasy time machine of disaster brain when it finally tells you that you have to save yourself. You’ve been waiting for someone to come but it will have to be you.
I am in pain and there is nothing to do about it; we are a nation in pain and no one much cares. It all compounds. We are all in this time machine rattling us around to the tune of unknown probabilities, the unpredictability of whether you will have symptoms like mine after covid, the uncertainty of when they might emerge. But unlike the mudslides, the fires, and the shooting, no traffic has been halted for us.
But I know disaster brain. I know there is no one coming but you. I move forward, I write this down, I make it real. I keep stupid logs maybe just for myself but maybe for someone like me sometime in the future that doesn't exist yet. It feels like we’re hiding, together, me and my heart and my lungs, trying to dodge something. I can breathe. I’m just constantly on the edge of trying not to. On the inside of this pain, I care hard enough about everyone else feeling this that my heart hurts. They know what to do with hearts. I don't believe they do. We are alone together.
One of the hardest parts of dealing with disaster is communicating. I recently read a book about the 1964 Alaskan earthquake, about Genie Chance reading every name of a survivor as they found them on the radio, broadcasting to anyone listening. The sociology of disasters tells us that information like this is critical even when we don’t know what to do with it. The names of other people who are with us.
Disaster networks us together. So here is my name too, in the time machine of long covid. I try to think about the pain as a friend, a message, a ping. Here we are. Ok, I think back at it. Here I am.