Editor’s Note: We are publishing personal essays from CNN’s global staff as they live and cover the story of Covid-19. Chris Cillizza is a CNN Politics reporter and Editor-at-Large in Washington, DC.
When our country – and the world – started to shut down in mid-March as a way to slow the spread of coronavirus, I anticipated a big rush of anxiety.
After all, I’ve been struggling with anxiety issues – specifically around health – for the better part of the last 20 years. What started as childhood hypochondria grew into something darker and more debilitating in the days after I graduated from college.
What I’d realized over time was that my mental alarm clock was broken. When I got a cold, my alarm went off , ringing madly: “BUT WHAT IF IT’S SOMETHING WORSE?”
Over the years, I have convinced myself that I had meningitis, various forms of cancer, Ebola, appendicitis, chicken pox, vertigo, and, roughly, a thousand other illnesses – from life-threatening to minor.
I had none of them.
So, when coronavirus hit, I expected to be constantly taking my temperature, monitoring if my throat was starting to hurt and doing all the things I usually do when I think I have – GASP! – a cold.
And, for the first week or so, I did! But then, something different happened.
My health anxiety faded. Because we were fully self-quarantining – I haven’t spent more than 2 minutes within 6 feet of anyone but my immediate family since mid-March – I started to worry less and less that I, my wife or my two kids might contract the virus. We weren’t around ANYONE. The only germs we had were our germs. And after 2 weeks, it was clear none of those germs were the coronavirus.
For the first time in a very long time, I didn’t worry a whole lot about my health or that of my wife or kids. Anxiety solved!
As the quarantine went from March to April and now into May, a different sort of anxiety started to creep in. At first, unable to put a name to it, I found myself less patient, more irritable, less able to let things roll off my back.
(Side note: I’ve long thought of my anxiety as like a liquid. It finds spaces and fills them.)
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that what I was feeling was the anxiety of uncertainty. Staying at home in March and April was what I am good at: Following rules.
May? Uncertainty everywhere! States are reopening – all on different schedules. Some people I knew were starting to venture out in public. Others were still mostly house-bound. Herd immunity? Wait for the vaccine?
The rules had changed. Or, more accurately, there weren’t any real rules anymore. More like guidelines. That lots of people interpreted very differently.
Should the kids go to camp? Play baseball? Have playdates? LOTS of people seem sure of the answer. And oftentimes those answers? The EXACT opposites of each other.
This, from Dr. Mark Lilla in The New York Times, was eye opening for me (especially the bold):
“People facing immediate danger want to hear an authoritative voice they can draw assurance from; they want to be told what will occur, how they should prepare, and that all will be well. We are not well designed, it seems, to live in uncertainty. Rousseau exaggerated only slightly when he said that when things are truly important, we prefer to be wrong than to believe nothing at all.”
It made me realize that my old anxiety and my new anxiety were connected. Connected by uncertainty.
I worry about sniffles, sore throats and stomachaches because you can never know that it’s some sort of everyday malady and not something worse. Just because it’s never been anything horrible doesn’t guarantee the next time it won’t be.
In this pandemic, it’s the uncertainty that gets to me most of all. Not knowing what the right thing to do is with the kids’ camps. Not knowing when it’s OK to have another family over whose been quarantining too. Not knowing if I should make a plan to go somewhere in July or August.
Uncertainty everywhere. No blueprint on how to navigate it. No timeline on when these decisions might get easier.
I’ve started to try to tell myself that it’s OK to feel anxious about all this uncertainty. Natural even. But man it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.