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Chronic Illness and Coronavirus

A letter to our healthy friends.

Katie Willard Virant
Source: Katie Willard Virant

“Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” –Susan Sontag

Dear Healthy People,

Welcome to the borderland, where we who live with chronic illness make our home. Our passports have been stamped multiple times, and we’ve become nimble travelers as we traverse between the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick. For many of you, this is your first time here. Perhaps you had a vague knowledge that the kingdom of the sick was on the map somewhere, but you’ve never the opportunity to come up close, to straddle the boundary line between the kingdoms, to fear that you’ll get pushed over into the hostile, unforgiving country of illness. We can guide you and let you know what to expect. We’ve been here a while and we know the terrain well.

You’re afraid of a lot right now. We understand. For one thing, you’re used to living in your body without thinking about whether it will let you down. You breathe without gasping, you move without aching, you eat and drink without fear. On the borderland, where the threat of coronavirus looms, you may be starting to realize that this ease could be taken away from you. You may be noticing your body in a way that is foreign to you, doubting it, wondering if it’s functioning. Is your cough benign or an omen of a darkness you want to run away from? Are you tired because it was a long day or is the fatigue you’re experiencing the rumbling of your body beginning to revolt?

You’re also afraid of other people. Can you go to work, to the gym, to your uncle’s funeral or your sister’s wedding? Are you being paranoid or safe? Many of us here at the borderland live with weakened immune systems. Long before coronavirus became a threat, we’ve been gathering our chips and placing our bets on social interactions. We’ve inwardly screamed when a co-worker hacks all over us as he proudly proclaims, “This flu isn’t getting me down." We’ve cried over events we’ve had to miss because attending would be too costly to our health. We've pressed our faces to the windows of our homes, yearning for the freedom of life outside.

You’re also afraid for your livelihood. If you can’t work because you’re sick and/or quarantined, you wonder how you’ll pay the bills. Maybe you’re strategizing how to work while sick because not working would destroy the financial well-being of your family. Maybe you’re constantly running numbers in your head, wondering how long your savings will support you in the event your work life gets derailed.

You’re likely afraid that the system is too broken to care for you adequately. You’re reading about the extreme scarcity of resources and thinking, “How can this be?” You’re reviewing the fine print in your insurance plan, trying to ascertain what’s covered and what is not. You’re taking in copious amounts of information every day and trying to sort through the contradictions and half-truths and outright lies. We know. We’ve been facing this for years as we grapple with the often poorly-understood diseases with which we live.

You’re worried about your family. If you’re sick, who will parent your children? Will you be too much of a burden on your spouse? If you live alone, who will care for you?

You may feel anxious and/or depressed right now and not understand why. This. This is why. The fears you’re carrying are affecting your mental health. Here at the borderland, we’ve found that we have to acknowledge the costs of living like this to stay sane. We’ve learned to make space for our grief while simultaneously looking for pockets of joy. We advise you to listen to music, talk to your friends, step outside and breathe in the spring air. We advise you to honor that you’re in a difficult country with rocky terrain. Sit and rest when you need to. Call a friend to commiserate about how hard this feels.

It’s likely that most of you won’t stay here at the border for long. Eventually, you’ll go back to the kingdom of the well where the sun is shining, and that’s a good thing. Can we ask you to do something for us, though? Please remember your stay here. Remember how helpless you felt; remember how isolated you were; remember the fear that coursed through you even when you tried your best to put it out of your mind. There’s no safe passage out for us; this is where we live. So when you’re back in the kingdom of the well, please remember us. Remember your visit here when you advocate for policies that improve our living conditions. Remember your visit here when you’re frustrated that we can’t meet your needs due to illness. Remember your visit here when you’re tempted to overlook us because our fear and grief remind you of something unpleasant you’d rather not reckon with. Please don’t forget us when you’re gone from this place we have no choice but to call home.

Your friends,

Permanent Borderland Residents