I remember looking down at my abdomen shortly after having the first of two surgeries to complete the j-pouch procedure for treating ulcerative colitis. It was open surgery, so I had a line of staples closing the surgical site that was about 8 inches long. I spent most of those first weeks with a pillow clutched against my abdomen because it felt like my guts were going to fall out. I couldn’t imagine how I would ever complete a simple sit-up again.
Yet, I did recover. I can do the things that seemed beyond reach in those first days and weeks, but it didn’t happen right away or without effort. As the country becomes vaccinated against COVID-19 and we consider next steps, I am reminded of that feeling of having no idea how I would ever be whole again. Restarting a face-to-face life is off in the distance: hazy to the point of being unrecognizable. I’m struck by the similarities between resuming life after surgery and resuming life after a pandemic. They happen slowly, with the individual steps being so small they are almost imperceptible.
Even Errands Loom Large
This week, I went to a grocery store for the first time in a little bit. I went early in the morning, so I thought it might be a less crowded time. However, it was still quite busy.
I was probably in the store for a total of 10 minutes. Standing in line took up most of that time. It felt like much longer because the entire time I felt a “fight or flight” response. People were wearing masks but physical distancing is pretty much impossible when a store gets crowded. Standing there, waiting, made me uncomfortable. Running a simple errand made me feel out of control.
What Does “Comfort” Feel Like? (I’m Seriously Asking)
I suspected I might not feel comfortable in public, and this trip confirmed it. However, having battled inflammatory bowel disease for so long, being uncomfortable is almost par for the course. I still remember the times, two decades ago now, where ulcerative colitis would have me running for a bathroom. Shopping outings could only take place in areas with public restrooms. My local multi-level mall was a complete nightmare for me. For that reason, trips were kept short and only at specific times. During this pandemic, going out feels similar to those worst years with ulcerative colitis.
It was the same recovering from surgery. It began with doing small things: getting dressed without assistance. Making a simple breakfast or lunch for myself. And then taking a short walk outside. It took time to understand how to expand my boundaries and set new daily limits. For months, I was uncomfortable in crowded places because I had this idea someone could bump into me and hit my abdomen. It was 6 weeks before I returned to work part-time. It took so much effort to bring myself back physically and emotionally to the world because it seemed too loud and unforgiving after the long quiet of recovery at home.
GenX Is Next In Line for Vaccination
These past few weeks counting down to when I am able to get vaccinated in my state, I have been thinking a lot about our “re-entry” into everyday life. I don’t have a good timetable for when we will feel comfortable being indoors around others again, but it will likely be based on a combination of the positivity rates and the vaccination rates in our town and in our county.
I have children who are too young to be vaccinated. I know that children often don’t experience long-term effects after infection with COVID-19, but I’d rather they never caught it at all, if I can help it. There’s not a good timetable for when they can be vaccinated yet, and we don’t know for sure if vaccinated people can still pass the virus. For those reasons: nothing much will probably change even after my own vaccination. We will have to wait for the kids to receive theirs and for guidance from our local health department.
Physical Scars / Mental Scars
Just as I looked down at that big scar that ended my bikini days but started my real life, I am now looking out at the toll the pandemic has taken as well as the increasing vaccination and the decreasing positivity rates. I didn’t have a plan on how to manage life first with an ileostomy and then with a j-pouch. I could only feel my way through trial and error, armed with my own common sense, abundance of practicality, and the good advice of those around me. It sounds like the plan for “going back to normal” after the pandemic will be much the same (even though I don’t really know what that phrase means).
For a while, all the limits will be the same because vaccination isn’t a “get out of COVID free” pass. But at some point we will each need to make our own assessment, with the data we have, about the activities in which we will engage. When will the “fight or flight” feeling in public end for me? When will I stop looking around at people at the grocery store, the mall, or the movie theater, and wondering if we are a risk to one another? When will I feel comfortable hugging a friend without worrying I am doing something that may harm them? I’ve been known to hug relative strangers: will that be something I ever do again?
Redrawing Our Lines
Decision fatigue is real and it has been a constant problem during this entire pandemic. We have to work hard to seek out quality information about relative risk and understand it. After being vaccinated, people who have high exposure potential at work will be a little safer. It might be a little safer to run an errand in a crowded place. Being around others who have been fully vaccinated will also be a little safer. But even so, getting the entire pandemic under control will be necessary before we can radically change our day-to-day from whatever that currently looks like for ourselves and our families.
Just like driving again or having a salad for the first time after abdominal surgery, making changes to our lives over these next months will need careful consideration and will start out small. It will be much like taking a short drive or a few bites and waiting to see how it all turns out before we commit to doing more. In time we will be back to the things we long to do with the people we miss, even if some of us (and that’s namely me) have some social anxiety or awkwardness at the start.
But for now: we need to find that resilience that’s deep within ourselves, keep up with the public health advice we’ve been following all this time, and look forward to our recovery and that first worry-free hug.
More On Post-vaccination Decision Making
- What You Can Do Post-Vaccine, and When – The New York Times
- Can You Loosen Safety Precautions After Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine? – Verywell Health
- You Got Your COVID-19 Vaccine. Now What? – Verywell Health
- Key Things to Know About COVID-19 Vaccines – Centers for Disease Control