I kept staring at the single pink line on the test and squinting. Did I see another line?
Please, let there be another line!
I’d been waiting for a second line forever, for the indication that I finally had a positive test.
Oh, no, wait. Hold on a minute, I had to remind myself. Although the test looked exactly the same with its blue and pink lines — one for negative and two for positive — and I was still waiting with apprehension for a second line to show up, this was not a pregnancy test.
Who experiences trauma from the pandemic is also informed by how much it evokes our previous mental health struggles.
It was an at-home rapid test for Covid-19. I definitely did NOT want to see a second line show up.
As I waited the requisite 15 minutes, trying not to look at the test strips, trying to be calm and casual, trying to maintain an equanimity that has eluded me for most of pandemic parenting, I couldn’t stop my heart from beating furiously.
Testing for Covid has brought up the past trauma of my four years of infertility. Back then, it seemed like I was always using test strips: To see if I was ovulating. To see if I was pregnant. To see if the pregnancy line was getting stronger — a pale line could indicate a miscarriage. And then, after a miscarriage, to see if the line was gone so I could start another round of in vitro fertilization.
It’s been more than seven years since I was taking those tests (our daughter is 6), but at-home Covid testing is bringing up so much anxiety for me. And I’m not the only one.
Everyone is anxious right now as the omicron variant rages, averaging more than 1.3 million cases a day in the United States. But it’s also the testing, the waiting — sometimes days for a PCR result — that’s doing a number on us.
The pandemic has made all the symptoms of trauma and anxiety worse, according to Katarzyna Dlugosz, a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. “People with general anxiety started experiencing panic attacks and insomnia, those who were using substances in a recreational manner started abusing them, those who had trauma and PTSD started re-experiencing their trauma and PTSD symptoms more frequently and intensely.”
Who experiences trauma from the pandemic is also informed by how much it evokes our previous mental health struggles. “Have they been traumatized in the past? Does the pandemic fit their personal pattern of previous trauma?” she asks. If so, “these people are especially susceptible to experience trauma due to the pandemic.”
Four years of infertility did traumatize me — and this constant testing was definitely triggering. Fertility, though, isn’t the only reason these tests are so panic-inducing for many, including me.
“In order to send my son to after-school, I needed to get a PCR test before returning, and it was a really long wait, and I had this feeling like, ‘Oh, no, here we go again,’ like it’s March 2020,” said Erin Khar, author of “Strung Out: A Memoir of Overcoming Addiction,” referring to the end of winter break.
“I felt that anxiety I had felt early on in the pandemic creep back in,” she explained. “I have anxiety about having to shut down our life for quarantine, anxiety of my youngest not being vaccinated — he’s only 4, what if he’s one of the kids who would have to be hospitalized? — and anxiety of giving it to other people.”
These are also my anxieties. Beyond the tests, almost every phone call, text or email makes my stomach drop. The other day, when I saw a one-word text from my sister flash by, I freaked out, wondering if that word was “positive.” (It said “nothing,” in response to my question of “What’s up?”)
Each school email sends me shivers. “We regret to inform you that X has Covid…” the latest one began, and I saw stars in my eyes before finishing the email and learning my daughter’s class did not have to quarantine. (But she did have to take one of those expensive and hard-to-come-by tests every day to stay in school.)
March 2020 was awful for almost everyone: So many people died, lost loved ones, lost jobs, homes, income. I was one of millions of mothers blindsided and gobsmacked with a 4-year-old clinging to my sweatpants. With every test I take for the hypercontagious omicron, I’m in a panic that it’s all going to begin again.
Dlugosz says she tells her patients to focus on today and “what they can do to feel safer.” She says that these days, many of her clients feel more in control because they’ve integrated precautions such as masks and physical distancing — and, of course, vaccines.
That’s how Khar gets in control of her emotions. “I remember it’s not 2020, and we know so much more and we are vaccinated — almost all the hospitalized are the unvaccinated — and are hopefully not going to get sick,” she says.
It’s true. My 4-year-old is now 6 — and finally vaccinated — back in a school committed to staying open. She has left my unwashed leggings for friends, hobbies and glitter crafts (ugh!).
“Believe it or not, the last two years became a turning point for many people in making better decisions for themselves,” Dlugosz says, noting how many started prioritizing family, health and self-care, and consciously evaluating life choices, goals, relationships and career paths. “In psychology we call it post-traumatic growth.”
Well, my family did not make major life changes. But we did move apartments to get a backyard and got a puppy for our daughter. We spent more time with my extended family and fewer, but closer, friends.
And those things will help cope with the pandemic, whether I see a second line or not.