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Balancing Act: COVID-19 pandemic puts mind on perpetual 14-day cycle

PAT SNYDER
Pat Snyder

I've always been lost without my calendar.

I make a note of bulk-pickup day. I tickler-file follow-ups in case business email goes unanswered. And I count backward from every due date or arrival time to make sure I can make it.

But until the COVID-19 coronavirus, I was never much for counting forward. Maybe it's the catastrophizer in me, but even during the briefest encounter with a maskless face, I scramble to remember today's date and secretly add 14.

Same goes for wondering several hours after I picked up groceries if I wiped every single one down and wondering if I actually remembered to wash my hands after I opened the mail.

Each time I doubt myself, I take a deep breath and make a mental note.

"If I can just stay well for the next two weeks," I tell myself, "I've made it through the incubation period."

Still well, by Day 7, I quietly celebrate.

"Peak infection period's over," I say. "Odds are I'm just fine and so is everyone else."

I wish that pre-COVID, I had kept a record of every twinge, every cough and every sneeze I experienced in a typical day. Writing it all down would have seemed neurotic then, but now it would be just a helpful reminder that normal life is full of blips that usually lead to nothing.

I could have looked at the litany and remembered that my sinuses always run in the spring, Triscuits are so dry they always make me cough a time or two, and when it's 98 degrees outside, I've always felt hot without running for a thermometer.

I used to ignore all that, but now I keep a stash of anxiety-soothing cough drops. One, and the symptom disappears before the heart palpitations begin.

When I am not popping cough drops, I am holding conversations between my catastrophizing and rational minds.

This usually starts with a chart a friend had sent that declares whether a particular symptom is seldom, commonly or rarely associated with COVID-19.

"Rarely!" my rational self will be happy to note.

"Rarely" is not "never," the catastrophizer reminds me, never failing to add that it's possible to have no symptoms at all.

"Unlikely at your age," responds my rational mind, to which the catastrophizer brings up all those times all the younger members of my family were puking their guts out with the flu while I -- exposed to them all -- had not even one little ache.

The trouble is, I'm not so sure anymore whether the catastrophizer actually is catastrophizing or just being sensible.

The only way I know how to deal with all this day-counting and symptom-finding is to be perfectly attentive or take no risks at all. Neither is likely, but I'm happy to see that scientists and medical associations are trying hard to nail jelly to the wall and give us some guidance.

For example, one researcher suggested budgeting only so many risks a week. If you decided to get your hair cut, for example, you also would not go inside a store to buy groceries.

The Texas Medical Association went further and developed a color-coded point system for ranking risks from 1 (low risk) to 9 (high risk). This was helpful because it ranked activities I'm more inclined to do, like opening the mail or picking up restaurant carryout, as low risk and reserved the 9s for such things as going to a bar or eating at a buffet.

For a moment, I was fantasizing about some sort of color-coded calendar system that would rule out counting forward during low-risk events. But then I started looking at the outbreak numbers in Texas and its supposedly moderate-risk activities.

Would going to a dinner party at someone's home really be just a 5 if the party was large, the house was small and had terrible ventilation?

Maybe the real wisdom is to remember that all this, bad as it is, is temporary and focus on that undetermined end point when it is behind us rather than hopscotching through it a bit at a time.

Maybe it's even smarter to focus on the present moment and how I can use it to make the end point even more splendid, with a little gratitude dance mixed in.

Especially on Day 14.

Balancing Act author Pat Snyder is a northwest Columbus resident and life-balance speaker and coach. Contact her at PatSnyderOnline.com.