Treading Dark Water in a Pandemic

night scuba diving

Once - and only once - did I scuba dive at night. The memory of night diving has been haunting me during this pandemic and I have only just figured out why.

I was a relatively experienced diver the night a group of us set bright lanterns along the shore and waded into the Caribbean water. My laughter echoed across the beach on this tiny island where we ‘d traveled for a field study. I was thrilled by the adventure. We swam out in pairs, carefully gauging how far we were from shore, making sure to stay close to each other. But the minute we went under, everything changed. The black water swallowed my light. Though my partner was there, somewhere, he too, seemed to have been swallowed. I spun in a circle, my heavy tanks dragging behind me. I tried to feel for something – but my panic made me draw back. Could something hurt me? I didn’t feel pain, but was it imminent? Was I safe or was my life in danger? Suddenly my imagination turned every sensation of warm water on my skin into a flash of slick eel body, the whipping tail of a barracuda, or the glancing movement of a shark fin. My heart pounded. I felt like bait, floating in the dark water.

Of course, I was fine. So what had happened? Was I just afraid of the dark? I think there is something else at work.

It’s October 2019, say, right around Halloween. Imagine you wake up feeling headachy, extra tired, and just “off.” Maybe you have a low fever. What is your reaction? If you have a healthy immune system, I’m going to guess that you would be mostly irritated because colds and passing “bugs” are annoying.

Skip ahead a few months and look where we are: fatigue, headache, and a low fever – arguably the most common set of immune symptoms – are suddenly the symptoms of a highly contagious disease you could die from. In the past, your internal diagnostic path told you that these symptoms were “normal” and “seasonal”. Your past experiences and the experiences of those around you told you that although you might not feel like yourself, you’d be fine in a few days.

Now those common symptoms have the capacity to send anyone into fight or flight. Now those symptoms might be causing all of us to feel like we’re under water in a dark ocean, spinning in a slow circle, trying to figure out how to orient ourselves.

By the time we’re adults, we’ve all established a kind of internal diagnostic for the sensations in our bodies. Some of them are automatic. Acute pain, for example, usually has an immediately obvious source (a knife to the finger, a pinky toe slamming into the door frame, etc.). But when it doesn’t have an obvious cause, which is often the case with nerve pain or with sudden abdominal pain, we immediately also sense fear, which leads us to action.

Chronic pain and illness are a different story. Those of us with chronic health issues have elaborate heuristics for navigating internal sensations in order to figure out when to take action. Any one of the millions of migraine sufferers learn to become acutely aware of the tiny initial sensations that cue the onset of a migraine. I’ve had to learn that when I feel chills and muscles cramps – symptoms that might seem to have nothing to do with a “headache” – I’m in for an episode that will impact the course of my day.

At the outset, Covid-19 isn’t acute pain or chronic illness. It isn’t a common cold or a flu or bronchitis or any of the “bugs” kids bring home from school. All of our tools for navigation are scrambled and we’re being reoriented to understand that these symptoms could be nothing – or a terrible everything. And when we don’t know, we feel fear. And we – every single one of us – hate to feel fear.

When I came up out of the water on that night dive, I was desperate to get to the shore. I spun around looking for the lanterns. I knew they were there, but where was “there”? I couldn’t see them right away. I knew in that moment that it made no sense to swim when I wasn’t sure which direction to go and so I hovered there, treading water with tanks on my back, kicking my feet in the black ocean, waiting until I knew what to do. That’s what I feel right now: that we’re treading water. We’re waiting to figure out what to do. We’re waiting to decide which direction to swim.