Don’t Hate Me, But COVID-19 Didn’t Ruin My Year

As a citizen of the world, I do my part. But I’m done panicking.

Jeremy Helligar
Dec 3, 2020 · 6 min read
Photo: pixabay

Last week during Thanksgiving dinner, I broke some news to my best friend that left her staring at me in shock. Over our decades of friendships, I’ve told her some pretty disquieting things, but I’d never seen her look at me quite like that. Her expression was a mix of surprise, fear, confusion, disappointment, and maybe even just a twinge of envy for my seemingly sudden capacity to look on the brightest side.

What did I say to deserve such an unprecedented gaze? I offered the breaking news that, for me, 2020 has been a pretty good year, maybe even the best one of my life.

I got married in October of 2019 to a man I’ve been in love with since 2010, so 2020 began as perfectly for me as any year I’ve been around to welcome. And when COVID-19 hit and interrupted our newlywed bliss, I’d never felt more not alone.

The year that almost was has worked on a practical level, too: I proved I can survive financially in pricey New York in the midst of a major economic recession, and I did it exclusively through freelance writing gigs without having to actually go to work. Even when everyone else still had to show up at the office, I, thank God, did not.

It’s been a year of creativity, personal growth, and, for the first full year since 2006, solid relationships with all of my immediate family. COVID-19 tried to bring me down, and it almost did, but I survived. Now that the world outside seems to be in pandemic panic mode again, I’m surprisingly cool-headed about the threat of it all.

God knows I’ve logged my time in the panic room. We moved from New York City to Kingston, New York, a couple of weeks ago, but we spent the rest of the year living in what, for weeks, was the epicenter of the global pandemic. I remember hearing ambulances roaring across Houston Street 24/7, frequently waking me up at night and, during the day, interrupting the Zoom interviews I spent two months doing for a video series I produced for Thought Catalog.

I remember the ghost-town streets, the empty store shelves, walking around Manhattan wearing a bandana face mask because real ones were sold out everywhere. I was worried I might catch something and that passersby might mistake it for something gang-related. (My Black privilege strikes again!)

I remember arriving at Trader Joe’s every Monday morning at 8, an hour before opening time, in order to be at the front of a line that, by 9, would wind way down the block and around the corner. My goal: to be one of the first customers to enter a store with hardly anything left on the shelves.

I remember having to cancel our belated wedding ceremony and reception. Friends and family were flying in to New York City from all over the world, including Australia, where my husband is from, to attend. The one thing that saved us from total despair over having to pull that plug was that we’d already been pronounced married at City Hall last October 25.

I remember my husband and I being sick for weeks and not really being sure what was wrong with us until one night during dinner when we both suddenly lost our sense of taste and smell. This was before testing was available for anyone who wasn’t a) elderly or b) a celebrity. The rest of us were pretty much left fumbling — and coughing — in the dark.

Even before our moment of truth while dining on chicken and veggies we couldn’t taste, I was constantly worried that one or both of us would lose our breath and be denied treatment at all of the city’s overcrowded hospitals — and not just because we don’t have health insurance. I was haunted by the sort of vivid and sustained fear I hadn’t felt since the height of the AIDS crisis, another pandemic that left a minority group to which I belong considerably more vulnerable and susceptible than everyone else.

What I don’t recall is the level of concern a lot of people outside of New York City seem to be showing now and seem to expect from me, in turn. I don’t recall being overwhelmed by phone calls, emails, or texts from concerned parties praying for my safety in New York City when nearly a thousand people were dying there every day due to COVID complications. Now that the pandemic has invaded the rest of country, everyone is worried and panicked in a way they never seemed to be when ambulance sirens were keeping/waking me up at night.

My husband and I have left that building. Maybe having already had the virus and survived it is giving us a certain possibly irrational sense of immunity and invincibility. I spent so many months living in fear that I couldn’t possibly wallow in it any further without self-destructing. I allow myself to think about other things, and in a post-George Floyd and post-2020 US Presidential Election world, that’s fairly easy for me to do.

I still social distance, shelter in place, and wear a mask when I’m in public spaces. My husband and I spend 99.9 percent of our time alone at home, though, so I’m usually breathing easily, without a mask on. Six months ago, we might not have felt safe having a small Thanksgiving with my best friend, her husband, and their 16-month-old son, but knowledge and experience is power to bend the rules safely. COVID-19 is not the complete mystery it was back in the dark ages when it was decimating New York City more than anywhere else. There are ways to see loved ones without putting anyone at risk.

I worry about my friends and family but not as much as I would if they were the kind of people who hang out in crowds mask-less or buy into COVID-is-a-hoax conspiracy theories. They’re not the sort of privileged Westerners who complain about restrictions intended to protect them. They’re OK giving up some of the things we all take for granted that we can live without.

My very religious mother wouldn’t risk her life to chase salvation in a stuffy church or insist that a Sunday morning spent in one is as vital to her survival as food, water, shelter, and lungs that work. She believes in God, but she wouldn’t feel safe leaving her protection entirely in His hands.

If I thought He were playing an active role in my life, I would owe Him a lot of gratitude for allowing me to see that my glass is half full. I thank my lucky stars instead and honor them by not giving COVID the power to completely determine how I feel about 2020.

My husband and I are now living in upstate New York in a lovely historic apartment where we don’t hear ambulances going by all day and night, one that we rarely have to leave. We’re healthy, in love, and lucky to be alive. It feels like there is a lot more positive than negative to accentuate.

So, no, 2020 has not been the worst. It has presented a number of formidable hurdles, but as a gay, Black man, I’ve been clearing formidable hurdles all my life. They’ve made me appreciate the things I have to be thankful for even more.

I’m vigilant about COVID-19 and fully aware of its destructive potential, but it doesn’t rule my world. Amanda Kloots, whose husband, Broadway actor Nick Cordero, died in July from COVID complications after a protracted 95-day hospitalization, just took a new job co-hosting The Talk. If a young COVID-19 widow can pick herself up, go to work, and not be crippled by fear, I can move forward without being psychologically hobbled by the trouble I’ve seen.

That, to me, is a pretty healthy state of mind in which to close out the year. If it’s not gloomy enough for you, this might be a good place to stop. You might not want to hear about the high hopes I have for 2021. I expect to welcome next year feeling more optimistic about the future than I have in ages — and I’ll owe it all to 2020.

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