This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.
Susan Sontag was right when she wrote “illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking” (Sontag, “Illness as Metaphor”). After nearly two full years since the pandemic first hit the United States (not counting the many months it devastated Asia and European countries), I finally got it.
And here’s the thing: I thought I never would. I had been knowingly exposed to Covid-19 without getting it numerous times — my parents, my boyfriend, peers in my classes — without ever developing symptoms or testing positive. It got to a point where I assumed I was immune in some way. Though without a doubt, always knocking on wood.
Before I got Covid-19, I had hit a sweet spot in my writing. Every day I spent at least 30 minutes writing for my own personal project. Sometimes only a handful of paragraphs emerged but still, it was something. For once the impulse was there; I wasn’t pulling my own teeth to commune with my word document (or, let’s be honest, my google drive). I had made peace with the fact that whatever I wrote didn’t have to be immediately good, it just had to be written. Pages were increasing, and my list of things to write was shrinking. That proud feeling from whittling away at something you’ve been thinking about for months was peaking its head out from the shadows.
And then I got sick and was, for all intents and purposes, bedridden.
For someone who was vaccinated and boosted, I wasn’t expecting the effects of Covid-19 to take such a deep hold on me. All three doses hadn’t wiped me out, like they’d done with people I knew, and I’m known to bounce back quickly from illness. This was not like that. Every breath I took was accompanied by a cough, my bed soaked with sweat each night. No amount of Vitamin C — either in chewable gummy, pill, drink, or powder form — seemed to be doing much. Even the cough suppressant pills my mother had been prescribed when she had Covid last year did nothing to relieve the hacking in my lungs.
So I spent three days in bed watching television and going through tissue boxes like it was my business. All I could do was barely absorb the content. I never even felt guilty for not writing because I could barely register anything beyond “How do unvaccinated people do this?” It wasn’t until day four or five that I began to feel guilty.
There’s no metaphor here about how we’re never thankful for our health, or our productivity until it’s gone. I simply was consistent in my writing practice, got sick, and lost it again. And what I learned, I already knew. In fact, it was the impetus for this column: we can’t feel bad about not writing when we need to not write. Not writing is part of caring for ourselves, giving ourselves healing space and wiggle room. Guilt should never be part of this process.
It’s upsetting to me that rather than celebrating my body making it through the same virus that collapsed our global economy and killed over a million people in the United States alone, my first thought upon finally feeling myself again was, “I can’t believe I haven’t written in five days.” I don’t know, that doesn’t feel right.
Recently a mentor of mine got really sick. She was in the hospital for multiple days fighting off a mystery disease. She had to cancel various things she’d committed to and excitedly awaiting. What did she hear the whole time? Rest. Take care of yourself. Give yourself a break from screens. Remember that health always comes first; that it has a mind of its own and doesn’t care for your schedule.
We can’t write or work or create if we’re ill. And there shouldn’t be guilt associated with that. Instead, we should be proud to have built a regiment before and understand that we can build one again. My work isn’t lost because my body had to take time off. Getting Covid-19 was a surprisingly scary experience for me. Everyone around me had begun to refer to it as the new “flu,” which brought up images of staying in bed while eating soup and reading. What I hadn’t expected was to not even have the capability to read. I did at first — finally finishing a book I’d been making my way through for months — but pretty soon the only thing I could manage was letting Hulu load another episode of “Parks and Rec” while I breathed through my mouth and nodded off.
What we love should never come at the expense of our health. And the job of getting well once we’re sick should never be viewed as taking time away from something more important. Because what could be more important? Getting back to how I was writing before hasn’t been easy, but I’ll find the groove again with care and patience with myself and my body.