By Chelsey Drysdale
In the late ‘80s, a mysterious illness hit me with debilitating vertigo, plastering me to the same family room floor where my parents and I now treat the Roku box like a shrine during this COVID-19 quarantine. When I lifted my head off the floor, the world spun upside down.
That same year, my periods were a bloodbath. Vertigo, puberty, and a self-imposed pressure to be perfect triggered my first panic attacks. At school, I breathed into cupped hands, fearing I’d pass out, exposing my failure as a person. (I never did.) Windowless classrooms, test torment, and an inability to spring from my confining desk to run down the hallway made my hands clammy and my heart pound in my ears. This same claustrophobia was resurrected three decades later when COVID-19 made it essential to wear masks in public.
At 45, birth control pills having staved off unbearable periods for decades, my PMS morphed into an angrier, gloomier PMDD. Aimless rage and hopelessness hijacked my foggy brain for the same week every month. My hormones seethed like a second puberty. Adolescent angst and middle-aged distress are nature’s cruel bookends. Aging singles like me who never had children want a moratorium.
For a few years, stopping and starting the pill has been a seesaw game of “which is worse?” Then in November, an unprecedented red tidal wave rolled in and wouldn’t quit.
“This must be what it’s like to have a miscarriage,” I thought one morning at 4:30 a.m., shaking and terrified. Yet, I’ve never been pregnant.
My abstinence is miserable, just like in high school. I’ve had sex on three occasions in eight years because I quit sleeping with men who don’t care about me, and, during a global pandemic, dating—something I already deemed fruitless—is an even more distant memory. At 47, finding an available mate in this six-feet-apart, masked world makes less sense than Amazon delivering a live unicorn.
In 10th grade, I often wondered, “Will I ever kiss a boy?” Now I wonder, “Will I ever kiss another man again?”
I chalked up the two crime scene periods to perimenopause, not long before COVID-19 halted society. In February, unaware it was one of my last trips to a restaurant, a friend said, “You have fibroids.” By then I’d been taking the pill daily since early January, trying to suppress my cycle, with no luck. I have experienced breakthrough bleeding every day since.
In March, my annual medical visit was postponed from April to August. I was nonessential. My doctor was only seeing pregnant women, reaffirming my middle-aged irrelevance.
I cried at the thought of bleeding my way through summer. I mailed a letter and secured an online visit instead. While conferring via video chat, my doctor suggested my first-ever ultrasound and ordered a blood test. He mentioned performing an endometrial ablation, making it impossible for me to conceive.
I suppressed a laugh. “That’s fine,” I said. Ten years ago, an ablation would have been devastating. Now, I want to rip out my uterus by hand.
However, my anxiety about walking into a medical building masked during a pandemic, riding an elevator, and being in close quarters with strangers who may have been exposed to a virus that could kill my family is higher than it has been since I gripped my desk with sweaty palms in my senior advanced composition class, hoping no one would smell my yearning to bolt—from what? Myself?
I feel trapped like I’m back in that claustrophobic school. I circle the inside perimeter of an imperceptible cage, my house-arrest release date undetermined. The world spins upside down. The laxer neighbors get with social distancing, the more imprisoned I feel because wearing a mask in public causes instant panic.
The grocery store, once unremarkable, now incites dread. On a recent trip to Albertsons, an entitled man broke the six-foot rule, his oblivious smile on blatant display. He stood too close behind me in the checkout line, as I hyperventilated inside a painter’s mask, only my worried eyes and wild quarantine hair exposed. He pointed to my nostalgic t-shirt and said, “I went to that Depeche Mode concert in 1988 too.” I resisted the urge to drop my basket, tear off my mask, and sprint outside screaming.
At Whole Foods, in a hurry to return to my car, I raced to unload my cart. This time I was the unmindful customer reprimanded for getting too close to the conscientious woman paying for her groceries in front of me.
“Ma’am, please step back,” the checker said. I looked up, confused. The other customer lurched from the credit card machine as if the cute plague-invested cows on my home-sewn cloth mask would lunge at her. I burst into tears. My reading glasses fogged up. I wanted to reassure her. I promise I’m careful. I promise I follow the rules. I promise I won’t get you sick.
Will those of us paying attention to science ever stop being afraid of each other again?
When my mind drifts to people suffering on ventilators, unable to speak, alone and untouched, their loved ones at home powerless, I can’t bear the crushing collective pain, and I’m overcome with guilt over my piddly, privileged Orange County white woman midlife crisis.
But anxiety is not rational.
On paper, my lifestyle prepared me for this drastic shift. It was easy to cancel my Super VIP ticket to the Cruel World Festival and a trip to the Midwest. Live music, travel, and face-to-face interaction are on hold, but I live in a house with a yard and read books at a fire table; I’ve telecommuted since 2008; I’m not on any dating apps; I’m not responsible for homeschooling a child; my therapist reminds me of my worth; and my high school pals meet online to stay sane. My buddy’s nine-year-old triplets pop onto my laptop screen to share their Animal Crossing finds; I wave hello to a friend’s 12-year-old, whom I last saw when he was two; I talk to a friend’s fiancé, while he kisses the top of his future husband’s head. And, while I can’t see my best friend in person, I can still hear her infectious laugh. I have two loving parents with whom to cook and hug each night. I text my sister to discuss books, and my nephew reads us hilarious stories in the backyard, even though we can’t touch him. No one I love is sick (yet). This is what joy looks like now.
It’s not enough.
Chelsey Drysdale’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station, Bustle, Brevity, Ravishly, Green Briar Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine, Reservoir Journal, Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers, and other international publications. She is a Best of the Net Anthology nominee and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize.