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The Middle-of-the-Night Anxiety I Have Been Experiencing During the COVID-19 Pandemic

It always starts with me waking up in the middle of the night. I open my eyes to the darkness as my internal furnace blazes to life. My mouth drops open in a yawn as I look at the digital clock. My head hurts, and I’m so hot!

Is it a fever…?

The BiPAP machine hums and a blast of air rushes into my nose and out my mouth. Sweat begins to pop out on my forehead, in my armpits, under my breasts. I suddenly feel claustrophobic. Tearing off the mask, I shove the blankets down and roll onto my back, wincing at the pain in my shoulder. The abdominal spasticity begins to grow and I’m having trouble getting a full breath, so I haul my body up to sit on the edge of the bed.

Shit! COVID-19?

My mind flies backward 10 years, and I’m back in the ICU, paralyzed, unable to speak, vision-impaired, bed-confined, and attached to an oxygen-fed tracheostomy.

Oh no! I can’t go through that again!

My chest tickles and I bark out a cough that is suspiciously COVID-like to me. I stand up, bracing against a wave of dizziness, and make my way to the bathroom. I cough again. Sweat slides down my temples as I find the thermometer and pop it into my mouth. Spasticity clamps down on my belly and my shallow, strained breaths come faster. I feel bloated and gassy, and that is making me feel nauseous. I lift my nightshirt and flop down on the toilet, dropping my chin on my chest.

Shit, shit, shit! Feverish, cough, difficulty breathing, upset stomach… It’s COVID!

Flashbacks of my 18-month hospital stay slam into me, and I’m momentarily drowning in a sea of pain and abject terror. My mind races through various future scenarios involving tubes, machines, needles, isolation and endless ableism. I worry about having infected my immunocompromised husband and my caregiver’s disabled son. As the anxiety ramps up, my emotional thermometer skyrockets and tears begin to well. My head is swimming. I feel confused, shaky and terribly frightened.

So, there I am in the middle of the night, sweating, panting, wet-farting into the toilet, and belching around the thermometer I have stuffed into my gob for the third time in a row (in case the first two 97.8-degree readings were somehow wrong). Logic and reason have completely abandoned me. If I could think clearly, I would remember that I’m in menopause, and the feverish feeling is simply night sweats. I would realize that the rice and bean burritos I ate for dinner might just be the cause of the GI distress. Because of my ABI, the abdominal spasticity is my “normal” reaction to intense stimuli. If I was calmer, I would recall that the shortness of breath is because of muscles stiffening around my diaphragm. Finally, I would recognize that the occasional phlegmy cough I’m emitting has nothing to do with a virus, and everything to do with the 15 cigarettes I smoke daily.

There are perfectly reasonable explanations for what is happening in that moment, but the fear of what might happen to me if I get COVID-19 crashes through me like a tsunami, washing away all other thought. Even though I live with anxiety disorders — obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — before the pandemic, I had never experienced an actual anxiety or panic attack. The first night it happened, I thought I was going to stop breathing and die. Teary-eyed and vibrating, I rang for my caregiver. She was calm and reassuring, and helped me back to bed, promising to check on me first thing in the morning. I was so upset, however, that I barely slept through the rest of the night, even after the “symptoms” subsided. The next morning, though sleepy, I felt fine, and when my caregiver checked in on me, I felt a bit embarrassed about my overreaction and shameful that I had woken her up.

These middle-of-the-night rude awakenings that spiral into anxiety attacks have happened half a dozen times over the last year. Each time they occur, the tiny voice of reason in the back of my mind that tells me not to panic ends up being overwhelmed by the tenacious, more vicious voices of fear, doubt and worry. And each following morning, I wake up feeling my “normal,” relatively healthy self, relieved and slightly embarrassed by my “silliness.”

It’s happened enough times now that I’m getting better at recognizing what’s happening and preventing it from escalating. I have somehow decided that if my temperature reads “normal,” then I’m fine, since fever is a pretty clear indicator of illness. I’m aware that this is not always the case, but for whatever reason, seeing a “normal” reading on the thermometer has an instant calming effect. Whatever works, right? I can’t help but to wonder, however, how many others have been experiencing these kinds of things. How many others are experiencing a worsening of their mental illness? How many others have developed a new symptom, or a new mental illness as a result of the pandemic? Are they feeling embarrassed or “silly” too? To those people, I just want to say: I hear you. I understand. You are not alone.

Getty Images illustration via studiogstock

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