Flattened by a Tire

Have you reached the limits of your COVID resilience?

Posted Mar 01, 2021 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

People are always telling me I’m resilient. I rather hate that word. I know it’s meant as a compliment, but it always makes me feel like a fraud. It’s true, I’ve survived a lot in my life, from suicide attempts to serious mental illness, but from my POV, my survival has stemmed more from luck than sheer grit. I don’t bounce back from casualties the way people seem to think I do. Quite the opposite—with every setback, I feel just a little bit more fragile. I’m like the proverbial camel, waiting for that final straw to fall upon its back. In the meantime, I do what we all do: I live.

What else is there to do with life?

It’s not a straight line. You rarely go from here to your intended there without encountering a curve or two that makes you veer slightly—or maybe not so slightly—off course. But it’s the twists and turns in a scenic highway that make it scenic, right? So I’m trying to welcome the unexpected with an open mind and a willingness to believe that eventually, I’ll get back on track.

COVID has severely tested this belief. It’s scoffed at my expectations and sneered at my plans. It’s upended all my tried-and-true ways of coping with the curves—like maintaining a social life, seeing (in person) my doctors, and even indulging in retail therapy where I can actually fondle the goods before buying them. Yet when people ask me how I’m doing during the pandemic, I say I’m doing surprisingly well. It’s like a mantra: Thank you, I’m doing surprisingly well. And up until recently, I thought I was. But then the silliest thing happened, and I realized I’m lying even to myself.

I got a flat tire. It wasn’t even a bad flat tire, as such things go. It didn’t happen on the freeway, or while I was driving, or even when I was in a hurry to get somewhere. It just happened—I was going out to buy some groceries, and I heard a “clunk, clunk, clunk” as I pulled away from the curb. There’s a lot of construction on my street, so no doubt I picked up a nail. An inconvenience, hardly worth crying about.

But I did. I sat in the car, turned off the radio, and sobbed for 15 minutes. I cursed the damned car, the construction, myself (not sure why, other than I was a handy target). If only I’d waited another hour or gone another day, maybe my luck would have been different, or destiny would have spun in another direction. I’m so horrible with car problems of any kind—they make me feel like a helpless little girl, not at all like the strong and resourceful woman people are always telling me I am. How I longed for a Rent-a-Husband to guide me through auto zone hell.

I stared at myself in the visor mirror. Was it really me thinking these desperate, whipped thoughts? Me, a feminist, a Vassar grad? Me, the author of three memoirs about how I’ve battled the shrieking demons of bipolar disorder and lived to tell the tale? I looked at my puffy eyes, my tear-contorted face. Yes, it was really me.

Worn out by my crying, I went back into the house and crawled into bed. I knew what my therapist would say to me: When you’re suffering, try to have some compassion for yourself. He swears it really helps, and I trust him; but the last thing I felt like doing was being kind, especially to myself. If I’d had the energy, I would have shaken my fist at the sky and called God down for a reckoning. But I didn’t. I wallowed in my misery a little more until I fell asleep, exhausted by my emotions.

When I woke up a few hours later, I figured it was too late to do anything about the tire, because all the repair shops would be closed. But it wasn’t too late to attempt a little compassion. It was hard, because I felt ashamed of what I knew was probably a wild overreaction. But was it, really? To my surprise, I found myself sympathizing with the woman who had sat in that car, all alone with no one to help her. It isn’t easy, being single in COVID world. It isn’t easy living through a pandemic, either.

I finally realized that despite telling people I’m doing fine, the truth is I’ve been experiencing an alarmingly high level of stress—we all have, as we wonder whether we’ll live or die, whether our democracy will survive the strain, who we will be when this crisis is over. The straws have been piling up higher and higher on the back of my poor camel, and it’s no wonder he finally toppled. All it took was that one last little thing to push me to the limits of my so-called resilience.

Suddenly I didn’t feel so pathetic anymore, or so helpless, either. I called AAA to come put on the spare. Then I went out and looked at the stupid tire. It didn’t look nearly as deflated as it had before. Maybe all it needed was a patch and some air—and a little dose of compassion.