Sometimes the mask gives me a headache. It pulls on my ears, which tugs on my temporal lobe, constricting cerebrovascular flow and cutting off oxygen to the brain, making it even more difficult to connect with loved ones than it already is while wearing masks. After eight months of hanging out with this constant barrier between us I sometimes suspect that I’ve forgotten how enjoyable the company of friends can be. Add to that the cold weather, the desperate attempts to brunch on the block and socialization has become synonymous with stress. I tell myself that I’m doing the right thing. I’m keeping everyone safe, following all the rules, though not at no expense. On my walk to the train this morning the newly frigid wind kept causing the face shield to hit me in the face, as if it were a high school bully bitch-smacking me for being so cautious. At one point the shield almost blew right off, which would have been bittersweet, but I caught it just in time. I rock the shield now in addition to a mask because the levels are up in New Jersey.
Oh yeah, did I mention I moved to New Jersey? Since the pandemic I left my hometown whose nickname is “the greatest city on Earth.” A lot of people did. My wife is from New Jersey and wanted more space. Everyone wants more space, somewhat ironically, since we’ve never been more isolated.
Before CoVid my brother would come over weekly for Sunday dinners. He’d show up around 3:00 and stay until 11 since dinner alone would never satisfy how much of each other’s company we require. Sometimes my cousin would join, other times various friends would, and occasional nightcaps were at the French wine bar just one block away. I try to steer clear of victimhood, but I believe this shit’s been harder for us extroverts. Before CoVid my wife and I were building a community. We enjoyed a weekly date night, if not two, as she’d occasionally pick me up from work on and fraternize with the girls in my office while I finished up with my last patient. I’m an acupuncturist. Before CoVid I was seeing twenty-five patients a week in my beautiful new office space, which took a big leap of faith and investment to move in to. Now I see closer to five, my landlords are losing their space, and I’d have to downsize even if they weren’t. I worry about finances, my future, also my clients who rely on me for their health. Before CoVid I had a good friendship with a great mentor, but there were things we didn’t see eye to eye on when everything hit, which ended that dynamic. Do you remember where you were when everything hit?
It was morning rush hour on Friday the 13th. My wife and I stood on the Q train platform at 86th Street, on our way to keep my mom company for her procedure at the hospital. The vibe in the train station, the entire city was eerie: For the past week straphangers had been looking at each other sideways in response to simple coughs, practically running from sneezes and for good reason. Apparently, we were already drowning. There was a musician seated at the base of the steps on the subway platform blowing the darkest of tunes into his horn that permeated the entire station. Normally I appreciate subway artists. Normally it adds to the magical romance of New York and helps pass the time, but in this instance it made our five minute wait feel like five hours. He must have been talented, as his rhythm and choices of notes perfectly captured the global moment and my emotions. My wife and I stood silently waiting, she more worried than sad, me probably the inverse, both of us absorbing his sounds. We couldn’t have been the only ones who felt it: A melodic foreshadowing of a worst case scenario to follow: Chaos and depression, confusion, anger, polarization, and death. Traditional Chinese Medicine recognizes as many causes of death as does biomedicine, but only one final impetus to human departure. It is the separation of yin and yang in the body. A lack of communication and interconnectedness that finally breaks down the operating system and gives way to the next chapter, the ultimate quarantine of existence.
After mom’s (successful) procedure I went to work for the day with wide-eyed naivete and alpha skepticism: “It’s like SARS, it won’t really hit us.” (most Americans need to be firmly reminded of our mortality) “It’s just another strain of the flu — we’ll be fine.” As the day progressed the people whom I interacted with were more panicked. One coworker told me Spain was in shambles. Another said two of her friends that she’d seen the previous weekend were stuck at home, sick as dogs, and should she be worried? I told her she shouldn’t because honestly, what are the chances that an international pandemic is going to destroy us? But for the first time in my life I was conscious of how close a person was standing to me and I remember trying to subtly back my chair away from her. I had plans to go see my friend’s play in Greenwich Village that night. One of the funniest people I’ve ever known, I looked forward to a night of good laughs, drinks, and good times. Finally, just before entering the treatment room to talk to my penultimate patient of the day I got a text from my younger brother: “One of my coworkers was supposedly exposed to someone who’s being treated in the hospital. Could be a case of freakin’ out, but my throat ain’t feelin’ too good. Should I send you a pic of my tongue?”
Holy shit. I put my phone in my pocket and stared at my patient, desperately trying to place my focus on him, wanting so badly to be present and good at my job; but all I could think was my favorite person in the world could die.
In Chinese Medicine it is important to see the patient’s tongue in order to determine whether a particular pathogen or chronic illness is attributed more to a heat imbalance, a cold imbalance, an issue of fluid retention, systemic dryness, or any combination of the above. It’s the only muscle in the body that we can readily view, and the muscles of the body tell us a lot.
I texted my wife: “I’m not going to the play tonight. I’m coming home. Order food. I have to stop at the herbal pharmacy. My brother is sick!”
The next morning, for the first time in my life I put on a mask and gloves to leave the house. I took the crosstown bus and brought him various soups, bone broths, and Chinese herbs. I rang his buzzer and put the shopping bag on the floor between the two front doors. I waited for him to come downstairs, pointed to the bag, waved and bowed to him with the prayer sign. We each put on happy faces, acknowledging the obvious humor in the situation, but beneath the surface I was terrified. There was an international pandemic, upper respiratory in nature, that had already killed thousands. My brother has a sore throat and for the first time in our lives I just communicated with him only through glass walls. I thought of the musician in the train station. I thought of my wife, my mom, and myself, how we’d been with my brother at the hospital all day the day before. He wasn’t answering Mom’s calls and I had to lie to her when she called: “What? He’s fine, get outta here!” Thankfully, within 48 hours he was. Was it the herbs? Was it one of those asymptomatic cases, or even just psychosomatic? My brother’s too cool and complacent (“lazy and lethargic” as Mom describes it) to get an antibody test, not to mention skeptical as to each test’s validity, so we’ll never know. But he’s safe and sound now… back in horrific ol’ 2020.
The first two weeks of the quarantine served as an apparently much needed vacation. In typical New Yorker fashion, I don’t think I realized just how tired and over-stretched I must have been. For 16 days I felt the happiest, healthiest, and most carefree as I had in recent memory (albeit with the looming asterisk of a potential apocalypse). Dinners were celebratory. At 7pm we’d cheer as we cooked and at 7:10 I’d plate the night’s special, accompanied most often by either a cab, cotes, or margaux. Breakfasts were decadent, with the priciest eggs and roasted veggies topped with top shelf olive oil, followed by an extra cup of coffee each day, because why not?! The world is on pause, if not departure. Home from school for a snow day, if not a snow year, why should I care what I intake or how late in the day I do so? I slept great and felt energized. I’d do yoga and care for the home by day, get buzzed and catch up with friends and family on the phone by night.
Around week four I hit a wall. Maybe it was the dramatic cut-back on booze in the interest of self-care. Maybe I ran out of people to call or exceeded the dosage for rest and isolation. In medicine dosing is everything. With the improper dosage an otherwise ideal prescription can turn deadly. Suddenly, the once hip-hop party that I’d turned every meal-prep into had transformed into a mind-numbing, tedious task in repetition: Prep, cook, clean, repeat. We went 79 consecutive days without eating take-out, a record that we’ll hopefully never break. “Groundhog day,” and my wife and I were no exception to the planet of married couples exchanging frustrations and getting on each other’s nerves. I heard the divorce rate in China skyrocketed, which in my opinion is unfortunate, as nothing of our present reality is exemplary of real life. My wife is a doctor, fortunately absolved from the front line, but was slammed for ten hours a day with tele-health patients pleading for reprieve from their stress and anxiety. By the end of each day her forehead would hit her desk (kitchen table), exhausted by the complaints, hopeless for a light at the end of the tunnel. I would retire to my room each afternoon for a mid-day siesta, a victim of conflicting physiological signals that desperately wanted out with nowhere to go. One night my brother walked across town and stood below our third story window just to exchange a ten-minute dialogue and see our faces. It was fun and funny. It was so sad.
In May I remember rooting for the rioters, the renegades not consciously protesting anything, but out simply for their own personal gain and/or angst. I know I’m too old to do that shit and it wasn’t something I necessarily condoned, but I think they captured the rage we all felt about the George Floyd tragedy, as well as with our own worlds spiraling inward to some kind of emptiness and apparent insignificance.
I tried to make the most of my time. I found my favorite yoga teacher that I’d ever trained under, whose previously in-person schedule never coordinated with mine, and began training with her over Zoom. I took an eight-week MBSR meditation course and completed a ten-week online continuing education seminar on Chinese Medicine’s approach to healing the gastrointestinal microbiome. It was fun and educational, gave me purpose, and made me feel productive. I spent thirty days working full-time on the final draft of a memoir I’d been writing for fifteen years, which likely would have required another five if not for the quarantine. I went running around the Central Park reservoir every day and completed a 100-day set of qi gong practice to stay sane. When I finished my course on the microbiome I moved on to another on advanced tongue diagnosis, then another on how to use motor points to treat back pain. I may or may not have a business when we come out of this shit, but I was determined to improve my skills. Phase Two (in NYC) arrived one week after my birthday, poetically just as the weather began to warm. My wife asked me what I wanted for dinner for my birthday, to which I replied simply: “Take-out.”
On June 8th I returned to work, “super-part-time,” and in all the anxiety, excitement, and changes in procedure I forgot my office keys at home and had to cancel my only patient of the day. As it turned out, June 10th marked my return to work. To avoid the subways I got a Citi-Bike membership and for the first time in my life began commuting by bike, just as my late father did in the decade before I was born. I loved it! Every ride was a glorious one of adventure, sight-seeing, most of all, therapy. Through the gradual decline that was Central Park Drive south, I would put my ear pods in and pedal as hard as I could, as fast as I could, chasing catharsis through exercise, freedom through racing as far as possible from the ten weeks we’d just endured. I’d take my shirt off and feel the sun beaming down on my skin, the pace of the city (always) synchronized to the old hip hop permeating my brain, and microbial peptides of perspiration grateful to be expelled from my body. My office suite was a ghost town but even a ghost town felt like a bustling downtown relative to the present context. I’d bike back home along the Hudson River just as the sun began to set and the sidewalks were lined with equally eager New Yorkers, grateful for the warm weather, freedom, and the simple sights of one another. God it was beautiful, God life was good, we were safe and alive.
Socially distanced Saturdays became a thing. We’d get more takeout (which I’ll never take (out) for granted again) and a bottle of wine and meet family in the park. We’d keep our distance, taking risks only to refill each other’s cups, and kept our masks on while not eating, as the reports on CoVid’s behavior and proclivities was still changing daily, and rarely for the better. Before the nonsensical law that we must buy food to buy alcohol (at establishments that had sold drinks alone for decades), we’d enjoy a nightcap on the block. It wasn’t ideal, 30 and 40-somethings drinking from plastic cups adjacent to trash on the sidewalk, but no one was complaining about it. It was a throwback to old New York, and/or an appropriately timed homage to Harlem culture, where such ciphers are wonderfully more common than they are in white neighborhoods. Good night waves were sad and awkward, sans the customary handshakes or hugs, though I think we’d all sign up for three years of such salutations over three more months of the previous prison.
In Phase 3 my wife and I began plans to move out of Manhattan. It wasn’t because of CoVid — we’d had such plans for over a year — but the pandemic definitely changed our search criteria on Zillow. Now the wife wanted not only an elevator and laundry, but outdoor space as well. Packing boxes and apartment hunting were Hell (the only thing about 2020 that was not unique). We lived in shambles amongst towers of boxes that made home feel like a cardboard cabin, obstructing the once welcoming sunlight, and then… we were haunted. For about two weeks songs would suddenly start playing on our phones when they were nowhere near us and non-slippery, mundane household items would fall off of perfectly flat countertops. That was when my wife informed me: “Oh ghosts have followed me around my entire life. They’re probably here now.” I stared out the window and didn’t bat an eyelash: “Call the psychic.” (New Age, millennial version of: Call the plumber.)
Unfortunately, invasive spirits that may or may not have come from the countless recently deceased in our zip code was the least of my intrusion concerns. For the first time in five years living in our apartment we got infested. Mouse or roach sightings were nightly, and our Upper West Side oasis transformed into a haunted war zone lined with glue traps, full of surprises for all species involved. I thoroughly cleaned the floors and inside the cabinets, duct taped creases in the floorboards, but motherfuckers always found a way in. Once night while peeing in the bathroom in the middle of the night a mouse ran out from behind the sink, causing me to urinate everywhere. I disregarded all hygiene and acted fast. With the door shut and the wildlife scampering for an exit I intended to trap him, but (accidentally) decapitated him with a trash can on the tiled floor.
Another night I came home from drinks with friends, closed the door, flicked the light on, and found myself in a western stand-off with a cockroach so big I initially mistook him for a mouse (maybe I was drunk). We’d been leaving our shoes in the hallway and I couldn’t find anything to smash him with. He made a run for it and I panicked. Terrifying thoughts of retiring to sleep with this monster loose in our home, peaking my head up at every creak and sound, wondering if it was him or another mouse, either caught on a glue trap or not. I’d be awake all night, which was the only notion apparently less appealing than stomping out a humongous roach wearing only a sock. The first attempt barely slowed him down. I lifted my foot and was shocked to see the creature continue his escape. I brought my 180 pounds back down on him two more times and he passed on, requiring a dustpan to dispose of, as his stature was beyond that of some manually crumpled up paper towel. I was relieved only momentarily, sober momentarily, fully aware that tomorrow would bring more battle.
From quarantine to freedom, struggling at work, packing, apartment-hunting, ghosts, mice and roaches, my depression returned with a vengeance and body stopped working as well. Along one of my walks in the park I missed a “lawn pothole,” rolled and sprained my right ankle for the first time since I had many times in my more youthful years as a skateboarder. Two weeks later I threw the right side of my back out after throwing a temper tantrum because an urgent care doctor was unable to flush my wax-clogged ear canals induced by the masks tugging on my ears. Obviously, I knew my anger wasn’t about the urgent care. It was everything else. With my injuries I could no longer bike to work, which was increasingly less necessary anyway as the July fourth weekend delivered another swift punch to my small business. One month later I found myself back in almost the same spot in Central Park where I’d rolled my ankle, having a football catch with my brothers. A great social-distancing activity, we’d had several of these over the summer. I’ve had thousands in life and never before dislocated and broken a pinky finger by mis-catching the ball. Of course, in 2020 I did. It’s in a splint. I’ll be OK.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine it is the liver that “governs” our tendons and ligaments and the kidneys that “govern” the bones. The liver is the meridian most susceptible to stress and frustration, while the kidney is that to fear. Both meridians are intimately connected to the heart, our source of joy and excitement. To translate biomedically, a hyper-stimulated sympathetic nervous system and excess secretion of cortisol can prevent the parasympathetic nervous system from sending the fluids and nutrients to our skeletal structures that are required to keep them healthy. What’s more, the body knows not the difference between physical pain and emotional stress. Both exacerbate what we call “liver qi stagnation,” and the vicious cycle ensues. Sometimes the most difficult times in our lives penetrate directly to the heart, which is to say psycho-spiritual symptoms. We suffer stress, anxiety, or depression, have an emotional breakdown, or worse, our “shen” (spirit-mind) gets affected and fundamental personality changes. I’ve seen this in people since the pandemic and it is sad. For those of us more fortunate, because there is no separation of body and mind, a horrific time may simply strike our physical structure. Our body falls apart, albeit temporarily, and struggles to un-do the cycle. Nowadays I leave my house wearing an N-95 mask under a face shield, a brace on my right ankle and splint on my left finger. My ears are doing well but my back continues to ache, occasionally with my head. Would anyone recognize me if they saw me? Do I even recognize myself? I was seeing a (great) acupuncturist over the summer and treatments were helping but she moved to North Carolina. It seems like everyone is leaving. I keep telling myself that I’m lucky. My friends and family are safe and healthy. I’m in love and can still see New York from my window. This is not our ‘new normal,’ but our ‘now normal’.” We can heal and get stronger, be pain-free and more limber, and manifest a version of self even better than the one from before CoVid.