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first person

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

“Hello darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again.”

Sometimes anxiety washes over me when I’m listening to music or watching TV. Sometimes in the middle of the night. Those ones are particularly bad.

Most recently, it happened in a coffee shop drive-through. The world began to close in on me. My chest felt tighter. I couldn’t back my car out, I couldn’t go forward. I tried to distract myself by changing radio stations, checking Twitter, sanitizing my hands. I fumbled in my pocket for a Clonazepam and leaned back in the seat, trying to slow my breathing. The guy behind me honked at me for leaving too much of a gap between cars. At the order screen, I added a chocolate dip doughnut to my latte order, a treat to myself for making it that far without dying. Anxiety can be fattening.

As I drove away I came down slowly, resisting the urge to give the guy behind me the finger for honking. Nothing gets a guy’s testosterone pumping faster than being honked at.

I’ve had more anxiety attacks than usual during these pandemic times. Acute anxiety is a condition I have been dealing with for much of my adult life. I’ve been treated for it and keep it mostly in check. But it lurks, and lately, it’s been at a higher baseline. I equate it to an app on my phone that’s running in the background, slowly draining the battery.

I measure my anxiety levels on a Spinal Tap scale that goes to 11. If No. 11 is a full-blown, “get outta here” anxiety attack, and No. 2 is my prepandemic baseline, then the fear of COVID-19 and the steady drumbeat of mostly negative news has me ticking along at 5 or 6 as my new normal. It’s not a big leap to go to 11.

The increase has me feeling fatalistic. Those who’ve experienced panic attacks, which mimic heart conditions, know that often you’re convinced you’re going to die. With every twinge, cramp or spasm, panic ensues. I die a thousand deaths a day. As I advance through my 60s, I worry even more that I might write off “just another anxiety attack” when I’m actually experiencing a heart attack.

So convinced am I that the end is near, I spent an afternoon recently working on a funeral playlist. I thought a heaven theme would be nice for the attendees. Stairway to Heaven? Led Zeppelin might be a tad inappropriate. My Blue Heaven? A little too jazzy. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door? You can always count on Bob Dylan to be depressingly funereal.

The strange thing is, I’m not particularly afraid of COVID-19. Well, actually, I am, but it’s not like I’m obsessive about it. I wash my hands and have a good supply of masks and sanitizer in case we have shortages during the second wave. Using the in-store shopping service and picking up my groceries in the parking lot has brought my hunter-gatherer skills to a new level. I avoid unnecessary contact. But I’m also kind of serene about catching it. I replay a scene in my head of my wife driving me to the hospital because I’ve caught the virus and need care. We give each other an elbow bump in the parking lot, and I say, “Well, I guess this is it, kiddo. It’s been a slice,” and I go into Emergency and never come out.

Not only have my anxiety levels increased during this time but it has led to increased depression, the first cousin of anxiety. I’ve dealt with various bouts over my life and for the most part, I have been able to stave off anything serious. I’m not suicidal. Yet, realistically, who pictures themselves being dropped off at Emergency for the last time with their final playlist in hand, and can say there’s not some depression at work there?

It’s not like these feelings are new. I was diagnosed with anxiety more than 45 years ago, and by using various life hacks have stayed functional. I furtively scan a room for exits when I enter. I sit by doors. Aisle seats are a must at any venue. But there are no venues now to get anxious over, yet I endure a higher anxiety baseline and more attacks.

I haven’t been out much since last March. For much of last summer, I was able to get up at my usual 6 a.m., and sit on the front porch or the back deck and have my breakfast and coffee. But these are not winter options and so, my world is even smaller. Now, it’s coffee in the living room and a depressing update from CNN to go with my Shredded Wheat.

I would be happy to get back to where I was before COVID-19. But until I’ve been vaccinated, they can open restaurants, I’m just not going. They can open cinemas, but I’m not going. Once I get the vaccine I hope to get back into my comfort zone: Just slightly depressed and slightly anxious would be a welcome return to normal. I anxiously look forward to that.

Brad Furlott lives in Toronto.

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