Taking in a spectacular sunset from a remote beach on the coast of Southern Oregon, I closed my eyes, tuning in to the rhythmic lapping of waves against the shoreline.
For the first time in months, I felt relaxed. Observing the order of nature reassures me all is not lost to the actions and attitudes of us humans.
But the contentment I felt was convoluted by another emotion, one that made me question my presence at the beach altogether.
It had been gnawing at me all week.
This sunset was a dream trip finale after ten days traveling the West Coast with Cassie the Dog in my VW van. But moments of pristine peace were disturbed by the underlying feeling I was doing something wrong.
This sense of shame has held me back, made me hesitant to write or talk about the trip. I’m worried I’ll seem reckless, inconsiderate, or much worse…hypocritical.
Pre-pandemic, I’d have jumped at the chance to share photos of picnics, Redwood hikes, and goofy misadventures of road life. (like accidentally stealing decor from my hotel room￼, or getting chased from a river swimming hole by a 5-inch snake.)
But beneath the glare of 2020, through the lens of COVID 19, my enthusiasm for chronicling adventures and posting them to the public domain has been muted.
Driving south, I cowered under freeway billboards which admonished (seemingly directly at me) “Stay Home, Save Lives.”
I didn’t heed the warning.
Now that I’m home and have seen news of virus cases skyrocketing all over the country, I’m even more conflicted.
I’m afraid of being judged. Afraid friends won’t understand why I canceled plans with them but took this trip.
I’m afraid I’ve contributed to the problem instead of helping.
As a nurse, I feel an ethical obligation to role model the highest level of caution: either go to work and save lives or stay home and save lives. Nothing in between.
Yet, I’m human. I need self-care. I need family. I need work-life balance.
Honestly, I needed a break.
Let me insert a disclaimer here, a feeble attempt to assuage my guilt.
For what it’s worth, I was not in any patient rooms that were COVID positive for over a week prior to travel. I was tested for the antibody, which came back negative. (Though the accuracy of these tests is poor and the implications unclear.)
I was essentially self-contained in my vehicle the majority of the time. I only ate at restaurants outdoors, I didn’t join groups or gatherings, I was masked for the entirety and sanitized my hands regularly.
This trip was not mandatory nor was it an emergency, but it wasn’t pure hedonism either. I visited San Diego to have my van camper top refurbished (how I damaged the original in a parking garage in Whistler is a somewhat shame-inducing story itself!) The trip was initially planned for April – and of course – was canceled.
I definitely appreciate how trivial this is compared to major life events so many have canceled – weddings, surgeries, anniversary vacations to Iceland (my heart broke for this friend!), first birthdays for a first child.
And, I’ve had my share of disheartening cancellations: the annual soul-replenishing retreat at Salt Spring Island (should be there today!), Disneyland with my kid (our first trip together in 4 years), Hawaii with my best girlfriends…
Sacrifices have been made by all.
As the pandemic waxes and wanes, we’re forced to make decisions regarding what activities we deem safe and reasonable to engage in. The conflict, guilt, and doubt this conjures up aren’t unique to me.
Friend and colleagues have shared similar concerns. “I’m not ignoring the virus, but I miss my friends so much.” “I don’t want to make things worse, but I just can’t sit home alone any longer.” “No matter what I decide to do, it feels wrong.”
After carefully following the mandates of isolation for months, many of us are desperate for some normalcy and have begun taking calculated risks. Our mental health depends on it.
Since the pandemic’s (publicly known) onset in the US, my mission as an ICU nurse has been clear: prevent, treat, and eradicate this plague and the suffering it generates. I’m meant to ensure you, your child, your spouse, and your parents will not succumb to the virus. It’s no wonder my bias towards “stay home” and “wear a mask” has been steadfast, as I’m overwhelmed by the bleakest realities of COVID 19, and frequently witness prolonged and painful deaths of the patients who succumb to it.
Separated from that environment, even briefly, to engage in hugs with family (which I literally have not felt in months) eat food prepared and served by another human (not via drive-thru), and run freely on the beach next to my furry best friend, I became acutely aware of how important it is for us to live.
The farther I traveled from stifling hospital air and seemingly endless office hours via claustrophobia-inducing ZOOM, the more apparent this became.
Distance from the frontlines also helped me better appreciate the “outside” world’s perspective. (Non-healthcare professionals, and/or those who haven’t experienced the tragedy of Coronavirus in their personal circle.)
I can identify, to a degree, with those calling for businesses to open immediately and even those throwing caution to the wind to gather in groups, mask free.
We need to socialize, adventure, and fuel our economy. We need to rise above the fearful and negative energy that’s been vibrating through the earth for the greater part of six months.
But this doesn’t mean we can ignore it altogether.
Returning to work after vacation was emotional whiplash. From beachside Utopia to caregiving of patients fighting against Coronavirus for their lives, including a young woman on life support who contracted the virus after attending a small, intimate wedding. Sadly, it was her own. Every guest in attendance became ill.
Tragedies like these – ones that are a part of my everyday life since March, are keeping our communities from moving forward with social events for good reason.
But I know we can’t hide in our homes forever.
So how do we strike a balance of security, sanity, and solvency?
After navigating 2,500 miles of travel during these uncertain times, I don’t have any perfect answers.
But I do have suggestions based on what’s working for me.
Stay tuned for my next article, where I draw parallels between practicing safe sex and practicing safe socialization, using everything I learned in high school health class.
Coronavirus, after all, is basically just another type of preventable STI –
Socially Transmitted Infection.
Stay safe and healthy my friends.
Cheers and Gratitude,
“The views expressed on this blog are not medical advice, the opinions are my own and do not reflect the views of my workplace.”