Hi, I’m DeAnna L. Fabiano, A firm believer that the unexamined life is not worth living, I value self-discovery and enlightenment above all else. In a previous chapter, I was a curious lil’ bookworm who grew into an aspiring professor. I wanted to walk down every neighborhood and experience every culture. Road-tripping through the summers, I fell in love with Manhattan, got stuck on the Bart in Berkeley, stood in awe of the Rockies, and pointed out the hugeness of the Montana sky. But summer vacations always ended.
One day, I closed my academic journals, folded my corduroy skirts, and journeyed west—led entirely by my heart. It wasn’t the most-well planned trip. I survived lost relationships, job-hopped, lived on credit, and briefly lost my health.
Only to gain it back alongside a new, invaluable perspective and to return home. I currently live in Kenosha with my cat, Reggie, who I walk on a leash.
Contagion, Fear, and Feels in the Time of Corona
My germophobia can be traced back to a very specific time in both health and news history: when Magic Johnson announced that he was retiring from the NBA after testing positive for HIV.
It was November 7, 1991. I was 6 years-old and kneeling a foot away from the TV, with bulging eyes and a “boy’s” haircut that I insisted on having. By some miracle from the gods of precocious children worldwide, I had already seen the 1989 film, The Ryan White Story, that chronicles a 13 year-old Indiana boys’ contraction of HIV from a contaminated blood transfusion. I never before had been so captivated by anything on TV.
The 32 year-old Magic Johnson announced his retirement and diagnosis while my brother danced in front of me, obscuring my view of the TV. So offended by this brief interruption, I instinctively punched him right in the balls. This was also the first time that I’d be filled with violent rage by any threat, minor or major, to my access of information.
And so began the handwashing. Every day after school, I’d run to the downstairs bathroom where no one could hear or see me and obsessively wash my hands, sometimes 30 times. Later coverage of Greg Louganis hitting his head on the diving board at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and watching the movie Outbreak would further fill my sponge-brain with images of AIDS monkeys and the fear of touch. I was convinced that a boy in my 1st grade class who resembled Ryan White and who always had a runny nose was HIV positive. So when the teacher made a new seating chart and I had to sit behind the suspected contagion and grade his papers and workbooks, my little frizzy head nearly exploded. A straight-A student who was terrified of disappointing any adult, I always immediately did my homework when I returned home from school. One night, my mom noticed that I hadn’t graded another student’s workbook that was hidden in the bottom of my book bag. She brought my classmate’s workbook into my room and laid it down on top of my bedsheets where I was neatly tucked in. All the blood rushed to my semi-functioning head. I successfully played it cool because I was still twenty years away from accepting the fact that I was a full-blown basket case.
Twenty years later, I was volunteering at a homeless shelter that had a bed-bug outbreak and living with someone who had Type I Diabetes. Terrified that I would bring home an illness that his compromised immune system couldn’t handle, I religiously followed an anti-contagion routine:
- Cover car seats with garbage bags. Change daily.
- Leave winter jacket in car as to not infect.
- De-robe in the garage immediately upon arriving home.
- Shower immediately, washing body, hair, and coochie with antibacterial soap.
And then came my own HPV diagnosis, at a time when I had no idea what it was besides how a nurse explained it as an “STD that can cause cervical cancer and/or genital warts.” Rest assured, I monitored it daily with a hand mirror for any signs of “and/or” symptoms.
Nine years later, I’m teaching at a large public high school and the world goes missing as a new virus becomes a pandemic. One of my favorite students “fake coughs” on me and I momentarily forget that I am an adult in a public setting and that I am not supposed to scream at children. This is my own personal worst nightmare: a viral contagion that shuts down earth. I wholly support social distancing. Each time a friend on social media shares a post at a bar, I message a fellow social distancer in horror of the non-distancer’s lack of information, regard, trust, or fear.
Some things have changed since 1991. I’ve stopped scrubbing my hands and genitals with antibacterial soap. I’ve accepted that I cannot control everything and trying to do so is exhausting. I no longer consider myself a germaphobe, and such neuroses don’t seem to align with my “dirtiness” that dominates my personality. I’d bathe in mud; I go weeks without washing my hair; a “whore’s bath” is my preferred cleansing mechanism; I abhor antibacterial anything; I’ll stay at a $25 dollar airbnb; and I’ve eaten food out of the trash; because donuts should not go to waste.
But I’ve also gotten sick and recovered. A lot of my worst case scenarios came true and I am fine and the world still turns. I had a strange feeling of strength and calm when this whole thing started. One good thing about being a bonafide, lifelong bundle of nerves is that you learn how to deal and can help others. I feel like I have been mentally preparing for moments like this since 1991.
More curiously, the epicenter of my germophobia has shifted. In 1991, I was afraid of contracting and suffering from a virus myself. I was afraid of getting sick and dying young like Ryan White. In 2020, I am terrified of passing it along- of being a walking contagion. I’d love to get on my worn-in high horse and believe that this is because I care about others more than myself, and, in a way, I do, but I’m not sure that my concern for others’ health which now overshadows my own doesn’t lack its own superiority, self-interest, and fear.
My fear of being a walking contagion may be an avoidance of feeling guilt or responsibility for getting someone else sick. It’s mostly a fear of not having control. I can manage getting sick myself, suffering, and the worst case scenarios. But can I handle that happening to someone I love? I can’t control when someone else is in pain; I can’t take it away. And I think that for most of us, we’d rather feel that pain than have someone we love go through it and not be able to do anything about it.
Being isolated like this has been a great reminder of the power of acceptance- acceptance of my lacking control and of my own and others’ humanness. I miss other humans- even the assholes at the bar. I know that there has been and will be serious changes to world populations and economies, but this slowing down and utter pausing of life has gotten most of us to value our lives and loved ones a bit more. This happens a lot- we have an imminent threat and hold our loved ones a little tighter.
But then we forget.
Our minds will remember schools closing, Italians singing, toilet paper vanishing, and two old democrats elbow-bumping. But our bodies will recover from the tense feeling that we are getting when somebody coughs or reaches out for a handshake or a hug; that feeling that the air is poisoned; and that feeling that each person walking by is a threat even at 6-10 feet distance.
There is the idea that our bodies keep the score- that trauma lives in our bodies and in doing so, can be released by new, positive physical experiences or reacticated by similarly traumatic events. Italy was ravaged by this disease and there’s various hypotheses: an older population, densely populated, and resources that never saw this coming.
I’m half Italian; my dad immigrated here in 1958 and is very Italian. I don’t look very Italian, but I do some pretty stereotypical Italian things like shout, talk with my hands, eat a lot, talk too much, rage a little too often, hold a grudge, and kiss people on both cheeks when I’m drunk. Italians are a people known for their passion, touching, and feeling – for both the ups and downs of loving and living a bit too much, and with that great passion comes a fear of losing.
One of my favorite teachers told me that with faith, there is no fear or anxiety- that when you truly feel that you aren’t in control, your anxiety begins to dissipate. As someone who is basically anxiety embodied, I want to believe this. And anytime I want to believe something, I first try to poke holes in it- with my head. I haven’t been able to do that yet. And I think that “feel” is the operative word in this sentiment. Of course we know that we aren’t in control of everything; of course, our rational minds know better. But enacting and feeling it is a whole different thing that begins in our bodies and with our actions.
There is great emotional and sometimes physical risk in touching, reaching out, giving love, being open, and feeling, especially now. While I do not think that the immediate “now” is a time where the reward of touch and close contact is worth the risk, there seems to be no better time in history, a time where we believe feels are a bad contagion, where the reward of coming together and breaking isolation of all kinds (social, economic, racial, age) and of truly letting ourselves feel is greater than the risk of not changing.
Being human comes with the risk of being a contagion. I’ve seen the curve of my own anxiety, and when fear peaks, we must choose stagnancy or adaptation. Middle school posters with Garfield and Obie on them hold life’s secrets the same as Bob Dylan lyrics; it is better to have loved and lost than to not have loved at all and the times they are a-changing.
Structures, barriers, and old ways of doing things will collapse. And while we literally are the most physically distant we have ever been as a country, economic, social, and communal connectivity is teeming beyond the curve.