Dealing with the physical aspects of COVID has received a lot of attention in media. However, the mental, emotional, and spiritual impacts COVID is having, particularly among COVID survivors, need far greater awareness than it is currently receiving. In order to get a better understanding of the impact of COVID on these other aspects of health, Karen Webster, HSHC Executive Director, recently interviewed a community of faith member who shared their COVID journey. To learn more, check out their Q&A session below.
When did you have COVID, and how did you experience it?
“I had COVID in mid-November, and I’ve no idea where I got it. I wore masks everywhere. I started coming down with COVID symptoms right in the midst of celebrating my husband’s mother’s 90th birthday with a very small gathering of close family members, followed the next day by our daughter celebrating her 16th birthday with a very small group of her closest friends in our front yard with everyone wearing masks and socially distancing themselves.
Since we had visited family out-of-town, my husband’s boss had said, ‘I want you to get a COVID test before you come back to work.’ My husband’s result turned up negative and, for a moment, I thought I would be ok, but mine, however, turned up positive. And I just remember thinking to myself, “What? How can this be?” I was shocked and mortified.
My husband immediately called his 90-year-old mother, and he, too, started panicking because it was his side of the family we had just visited – his brother, who’s over 60, sister-in-law, his niece, and nephew. I immediately started having a shame panic attack.
The first person I called was my mom, and she said to me, “Well, did you get tested before you went?” She immediately made me feel even worse than I was already feeling about myself and all my regrets, the guilt. I hung up and cried. What did I just do? I just endangered all of these people. The people I love the most could die now. It’s my fault. I’m sick… That was the worst hour.
Whom did you feel comfortable telling/who was your support network?
“I’m a private person, so normally I would not have told anybody else. However, in this instance, I had to share the news with my husband’s family and the people who attended my daughter’s birthday party, which included telling my four closest friends who had been at the party… crying. In terms of my support network, I told my friends because I had to, but really it was only my husband and daughter. COVID is very isolating. First, you’re told to quarantine, and then, if you’re feeling shameful about it, it is a super isolating disease.”
What messages were you receiving that impacted how and with whom you shared your diagnosis? How did those make you feel about your diagnosis?
“Internally, I thought, ‘How could I have done this to people?… holding on tightly to shame and regret. Externally, my friends said to me, “You know, you didn’t do anything wrong. You were careful.” Through the process of sharing with my four friends, I felt cared for. And then, because they interacted with other people I knew, they would tell me, “Oh, I told so-and-so, and they’re really concerned about you,” and my first reaction inside would be, “You told them!?” I really didn’t want anybody outside of my super tight inner circle to know because I was afraid I was going to be judged. And the thing that surprised me and I did not anticipate is anyone being concerned about me and my health. Rather, I had been thinking, “I’m bad.. Are they going to be mad at me? They’re judging me…Who did I almost kill?”
What could your faith community have done to support you while you were sick? Is there any support you would like from them now?
In terms of my faith community, I emailed my two pastors because I knew they were safe people to tell and that they were there for me. They wrote back, “Oh no, let me know if there’s anything I can do.” And that was it. Looking back, I think what would have been helpful was to have received a phone call from one of, or both of them, to help me discern what I needed because at the time, I did not know what I needed!
I also serve on one of the congregation’s leadership teams, and, at first, I didn’t tell them because it didn’t occur to me. However, at a meeting shortly after my illness, someone started asking about how those in church could “help those people.” This upset me and, without having planned through what I was going to say, I immediately jumped in and shared my experience as a COVID survivor.
COVID is challenging enough physically, and then to add the stigma… you must have caught COVID by not wearing a mask or doing something you shouldn’t have done or going somewhere or not washing your hands or not doing something you should have done… I’ve even caught myself thinking, “Well, of course, that person got it, because they…” From a cultural-global-spiritual perspective, COVID is really highlighting our biases, stereotypes, judgments, and hypocrisies. The committee appreciated that I brought this awareness to them while, at the same time, I experienced being cared for.
Any final thoughts?
“I grew up in the eighties during the AIDS epidemic. My immediate reaction after having gotten the positive test for COVID was a deep, new compassion and empathy for people who had AIDS. In the eighties, we heard about them, and we judged them. Having COVID, I realized that they not only had to deal with being physically sick, but they also had to deal with mental and emotional pain from being stigmatized… guilt, shame, “Who got sick because of me?” It would be interesting to talk to someone who also had coronavirus and AIDS and see if it’s any kind of similarity.”
Reflecting on my experience spiritually, the only thing I can compare having COVID to is all of the grief, despair, and complete brokenness I felt when my dad was diagnosed with cancer and died, a six-week process from diagnosis to death. Through the experience of the brokenness I felt after my dad died, I learned that I was loved not because of how much I do and who I am (type A, high achiever, successful athlete), but I learned that people loved me, and I was lovable even at my worst, my most broken. And my experience with COVID was learning that lesson again, on another level. So, actually, it has been a very cool spiritual period.”