What I miss most

Over a year ago, I had to quit my writing group. Not because they didn’t accommodate my disabilities, but even with accommodations, my body was too tired and painful to go to someone else’s house after work. I almost cried when my groupmates reached out last month and offered to meet over Zoom. Not only did I get to stay at home, but I had energy to enjoy it.

The pandemic continues to create new opportunities for me. This week, encouraged by my writing group experience, I signed up for a virtual writing workshop with one of my favorite authors, Samantha Irby. (Check out her new book, Wow, No Thank You.) The workshop challenged participants with the following prompt: What do you miss from your pre-pandemic life?

My immediate reaction was NOT MUCH.

Do I miss forcing my disabled body into the office every day? Peoples’ disregard for my health and safety? My friends forgetting to check on me due to busy schedules? Inaccessible authors’ events and writing workshops?

Brimming with gratitude and sarcasm, this is what I wrote:

I miss the fear I used to induce when wearing a mask. Before Americans cared about breathing, my N95 declared I was different. In a bad way, of course. I chose a black fabric to discourage any double takes. On the bad days, when my muscles ached with inflammation, I hummed the Imperial March as coworkers and grocery shoppers scurried away. No more wasting energy on small talk or pretending to fit in. Most people worried I was sick or weird–the difference didn’t really matter as long as it didn’t affect them. Only the bravest, people who had been through hard shit too, made direct eye contact and befriended me.

Now that masks are cool, I can’t distinguish the empaths from the assholes. Are they wearing one to protect others too or do they only care about themselves? Worst of all, I’m no longer protected from expectations or criticism. Recently, when I took off my mask in order to load my groceries into my car with adequate oxygen flow, a customer lectured me on the importance of masks. My disability parking permit just doesn’t wield the same power.

Remember me after COVID-19

Dear able-bodied friends, family, and co-workers,

We need to have this talk while your emotions are still raw – while you’re restless and missing your old life; while you’re anxious about your finances; while you’re worried you might die.

This pandemic has been challenging for me, but not in the ways that it is challenging for you. In many ways, I am actually thriving. For the first time in four years, my job is now accessible. My co-workers don’t forget to include me in staff meetings and I don’t have to worry about life-threatening allergic reactions. Without a commute, I finally have enough energy to make dinner every day. My body no longer screams at night.

Many stores that were previously inaccessible to me are now offering curbside pickup and free shipping. Grocers are offering special hours and facilitating social distancing, so I can shop safely. Even my doctor is offering telemedicine. The masks I wear in public are cool now.

The outreach and support I’m receiving is phenomenal. Every day, multiple friends and acquaintances offer their help. They ask me how I am doing and what I’ve been up to. Community members set up a Facebook group to help neighbors like me with errands. Organizations are offering free food, online courses, and mental health resources.

So why I am boiling with resentment?

Because your entire life has changed for the worse and you want to talk about it. You want to vent about the challenges of self-isolation and the fear of illness. You’re struggling to adapt to the uncertainty.

All of your feelings are valid.

But so were mine.

Five years ago, my life was similarly turned upside down by illness. I became confined to about 10 buildings due to severe reactions to fragrances and other chemicals. In other words, no shopping malls, air travel, or dinners with friends.

When I got a disability parking permit, one friend suggested I take advantage of all the places with tough parking. What I really wanted was for her to visit or at least call, but she never did. If she had, she would have realized I could barely walk. I lost many friends because they thought my lifestyle was a choice.

While medical debt threatened my financial stability, I almost lost my job too. My office was not safe, but my manager (at the time) told me working from home wasn’t feasible. After months of stressful HR meetings and medical documentation, I convinced my manager to allow me to work from home one day per week, even though I needed more. It has not caused any performance issues in the past four years.

I will never forget my first birthday in isolation, the year I didn’t receive a single card and no one visited. When I needed support the most, people forgot me. People argued that if I wanted to be included I would need to lower my accommodation expectations. Sometimes it’s just easier to spend Christmas alone.

This pandemic not only validated my grief, but confirmed that I’ve been unnecessarily suffering, because people were unwilling to adapt. 

I finally feel like I belong in society, and I fear that will be taken away. I feel an urgency to share my story and build empathy. My body depends on it.

How can we use these terrible experiences to build a kinder world together?

I know we are capable.

My body pranks me every day

It’s hard to make friends with mast cell disease. Sometimes, work is the only place I get social interaction all week, and even then, I spend most workdays alone in a HEPA filtered office with no windows.

Of course, my personality and service dog are magnetic, so I’ve managed to forge a few relationships on the way to the bathroom.  These colleagues have always taken a genuine interest in learning about my illness and disabilities. They make me feel welcomed and supported.

So naturally, I decided to prank them.

My colleagues were blindsided by my trickery, because I told them I was strictly off-limits on April Fool’s Day. My body does not handle pranks well. Any strong emotion, positive or negative, can trigger my mast cells and send me into an allergic tailspin. I declared this publicly last year on March 31, and then went home to craft my prank.

On April 1 at 2 p.m, when brains and tummies begin grumble, I skipped down the hallway, inviting them to my office for a treat.

“I made brownies!” is what they heard. “Gluten free!” I shouted to my co-worker, who can relate to my food sensitivities.

One by one, they followed me to my office, salivating like Pavlov’s dogs. Their eyes immediately located the brownie pan on my desk covered in aluminum foil.

“Help yourself,” I urged them. They eagerly peeled back the foil, revealing a piece of paper on the bottom of the pan lined with brown letter Es.

“Brown Es!” I cackled, as their bellies gurgled with disappointment. Turns out, my colleagues were really hungry that afternoon. For the rest of the day, every time I emerged from my office, I was greeted with a groan. But every groan felt like a gold star.

*****

Later that evening, I had trouble swallowing. My throat had been bugging me all day. It swells and itches frequently from mast cell reactions, so as long as it’s not life-threatening, I try to ignore it.  However, if it persists for more than a few hours, I begin to worry it’s a virus.

Eventually, I went to my bathroom mirror and aimed my iPhone flashlight into my mouth, expecting redness and inflammation. On the right side of my throat, there was a glaring white mass partially blocking my airway. I gasped while trying to keep my mouth open.

I have cancer! This whole time I’ve been blaming my mast cells and now I’m dying of cancer! Nobody is going to believe me. What are the chances! How the hell did this go unnoticed?

I began to mentally get my affairs in order. Who will take the poodles? Is it too late to plan their estate? Will I have time to burn my diaries? I turned off the flashlight on my phone and google “white mass throat cancer.”

For the first time in the history of the universe, Google assured me I did not have cancer.

Through hundreds of disturbing photos, Google taught me about another bodily horror: tonsil stones. As if kidney stones and gallstones aren’t enough. Google was less certain whether tonsil stones could be removed at home or not. However, the idea of setting up another appointment with doctor unfamiliar with mast cell disease persuaded me to give it a shot.

I thought the biggest challenge would be avoiding infection. No, the biggest challenge is most definitely not throwing up. I was certain I had eliminated my gag reflex after countless gallons of colonoscopy prep and oral contrast, but every time I tried to gently nudge the stone with the end of a sanitized toothbrush, I gagged. As my tonsil finally released the stone, my stomach released my dinner.

I wish I could say this was a classic case of karma, but my body pranks me almost every day. My mast cells’ favorites include stroke-like migraines, temporary deafness, and the occasional shart. In fact, I even blame my mast cells for the stone through inflammation. (My CSF leak was pretty close to my right tonsil.)

Today, I’m happy to be isolated at home, a safe distance from my co-workers. The Internet says April Fools’ Day is canceled out of respect for the COVID-19 pandemic. I couldn’t agree more. I just hope my mast cells got the memo.