Staying Still

One night in 2012, I came home from work with rashes all over my body. It started as red splotches on my arms, which I had not found unusual at first because I had grown up having some sort of skin ailment or another. My tita, who was a dermatologist, would prescribe a cream or ointment and it would be gone after a few days. But that time, I grew alarmed when my mom raised my shirt from behind and told me it had spread to my back too. That had never happened before.

I went right to the ER and I was told I had viral exanthem – a rash that was caused by a viral infection. One of the first things I did was to compose a text to my creative director, apologizing because I could not go to work for the next few days. I had been instructed by the doctor to self-quarantine at home.

By then, it had been too late, however. That entire week, despite having cough, colds, and a recurring fever, I had forced myself to the office to do my job. If I didn’t, then who would? We were a lean team of creatives doing many things and if one of us slacked off, then the whole unit would suffer. Clients would get angry, bosses would be disappointed. The worst part? I’d hate myself for not delivering. All because of a stupid cold.

But it wasn’t just a cold. It was something viral. And in my stubbornness, I had inadvertently passed whatever I had to the rest of the office. I hadn’t been careful either. A particular instance that made me mentally kick myself was one involving tomato soup. Not feeling well, I wandered down to the healthy food kiosk at the ground floor of our office building and ordered hot creamy soup in a takeout bowl. I took it to the office pantry, had a spoonful, and suddenly lost my appetite. At this point, two of my co-workers entered.

“Uy, tomato soup!”

“Gusto niyo? Parang nawalan ako ng gana eh.”

“Talaga? Yay!!” (And in my memory, they are always a bit too cheerful as they eat the soup with my contaminated spoon.)

I remember this clearly because a few days later, I found out through our Facebook groups that those same co-workers had reported rashes appearing on their arms. A few others followed soon after. I monitored the groups anxiously from my attic room as reports of one employee after another succumbed to the virus. My co-workers, who had been my friends through good pitches and OT nights, made light of the situation to assuage my anxiety at having started an office pandemic. They joked that I had gone viral!

For a day or two, the office was closed because it had to be sanitized and the team was instructed to work from home. I think there was a feeling of relief mixed in with the general worry over health, because it was a respite from the extreme stress and pressure we put ourselves through every day. But even throughout my mandated quarantine, I squirmed uncomfortably in my bed because I hated leaving all that work untouched. I also hated staying still, found it unbearable to be stuck in bed when I could be with my workmates and friends, doing what needs to be done. What I thought as I stared at the sloped ceiling of my attic was, “I should be out there.”

I look back at all of this as I am sitting in the same room with the sloped ceiling contemplating on the quarantine forced upon people across the globe. A real pandemic is spreading and taking a portion of the population with it, and I cannot do anything but stay inside, stay still, and somehow quell the tremors of anxiety from within.

It’s the case for millions of other people. The novel coronavirus has put the world at a standstill, pausing work indefinitely and creating confusion for humans across all walks of life. It’s funny using that phrase now. At the moment, we are humans experiencing the same stillness, yearning for the same movement that defined our normal lives just a few months ago.

The other night, I had the worst panic attack. I woke up in a cold sweat, my heart thumping against my chest, my limbs numb, and my vision blurry. I felt unreal. It took me a while to recognize my surroundings, to remember that I had decided to stay with my mom and sister in their room that night to see if it would help with my nerves. Unable to go back to sleep, I gathered my blanket and pillows and tiptoed out of the darkness of the room. I walked one floor up to the attic and plopped on my bed. I lay on my back until 3am, listening to the flutter in my chest, praying for calmness. Eventually I drifted off.

Needless to say, I woke up late the next day.

These days, when I wake up close to noon, I feel like the worst, like I’m being irresponsible or inconsiderate. But I get to work, to whatever I feel compelled to do. It’s an attempt to be productive, to defy the commands of the virus. It sometimes seems silly; I can’t help but feel irrelevant when seniors and medical professionals are succumbing to an unseen enemy. It feels even more insignificant when you consider the frailty of humankind and our mortality – the hospital beds filling up, the death toll steadily climbing. In the first few days of the Luzon lockdown, I was having asthma – a nerve-wracking condition to have when the corona virus is known to attack the upper respiratory system – and all I could think about was “Oh my God, what if I have it? What if I passed it on?”

But while my asthma subsided with meds, the inner turmoil would not go away. I did as much as I could from the comforts of my home – prepped my team, called our weavers, conducted online meetings with various partners, reached out to relief efforts, donated, revisited old hobbies, tried to learn new skills. The list just keeps growing.

My fiancé, who is an introvert, has always found my general unrest amusing and sometimes tiring. He is patient and kind, but I know he’s reached his limit when his messages just tell me to “Stop it.”

Of course that rarely works. I never just “stop it.” I pause sometimes, but I never come to a full stop unless I’m so sick or injured that I need complete bedrest.

I realized this all the more lately as day after day went by in lockdown. The other day, I felt so consumed by this inner turmoil, it prompted a short journal entry that contained one question, “Who am I without my work?”

Who indeed? After my bout with viral exanthem back in 2012, I made some important decisions about my life. I learned a lot in that creative job and I enjoyed what I did, but my time in quarantine allowed me to think about what I really wanted to pursue. Soon after, I resigned and embarked on a series of travels that I documented in this blog, trishintransit. I loved writing and I loved photographing. More than that, I loved taking my time and soaking myself in experiences – just plunging into them, not knowing what I’d get out of the place or the people, except maybe a good story.

The idealist in me loves the idea, but the sensible side of me will always overtake and scream something pragmatic like “But you have to plan, you have to make money!”

Now, though, all planning manuals are out the window. We’re at a full stop. We’re cornered. We can only do so much:

donate to front-liners

provide for our neighbors

offer words of encouragement

cook, nap, watch tv, read a book

follow the news

be there for our loved ones

pray.

Late last week, my younger siblings kept bugging me to play board games with them but I was still caught in a panic, creating spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations for the company. Annoyed because my brother made some snide remark, I retorted and said, “Let’s see you try to worry about your cash flow and your employees’ salaries!” (I know, #harsh).

I knew I was being mean. I felt guilty right away when I saw the surprise on his face. I continued working but later, resigned to the fact that there was only so much I could do, I closed my laptop, replaced it with board game boxes, and called my siblings.

We played one round of 7 Wonders (my 13-year-old sister won). And then one round of Splendor (my brother won). Halfway through the first game, my brother talked about a friend that he was having trouble with. As the eldest in the table, I felt I had the most experience in friendships and therefore had some sound advice to offer. But my little sister sounded like a therapist when she consoled my brother, who was obviously troubled as his concerns carried over into the second game.

“So should I talk to him?” he asked after he had placed the card that got him the winning point. He didn’t even rejoice.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Well if it makes you feel bad, then maybe you shouldn’t first,” my little sister said.

“Yeah, it will just make me feel bad.”

We gathered the cards and coins, and placed them in their respective slots in the box.

“Are we done?” I asked.

My brother nodded and said that that was enough for now. I thought about whether I should challenge them to another game so I could win. But my little sister jumped from her seat and headed for the TV.

“I’m going to play Animal Crossing!” she said. And we went our own separate ways.

Everyday life now is that struggle between work and rest. Work that feels superfluous and rest that feels unwarranted. Even with the “social” attached to my enterprise, I am finding it hard to see the point – not with a full-on pandemic staring me us in the face. I know what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and who I’m doing it for, but is it what’s needed now?

And as if there was really someone up there controlling our story, prodding us in the right direction, even if the way seems hopeless, I came upon this part in the book I was reading last night. It’s called “Playing the Enemy” by John Carlin and it’s about Nelson Mandela and what he gained after a 27-year imprisonment.

“If Mandela learned one thing in prison it was to take the long view. And that meant not being sidetracked by present horrors and keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the distant goal.”

Nelson Mandela went on to be the president of South Africa, achieving peace by ending apartheid and uniting the people under a multi-racial government. Throughout his imprisonment, he kept his resolve and sanity by learning, understanding, and practicing empathy.

I’m no Mandela, and I’m certainly not gunning to be president of the Philippines. But there is much to be learned about his time in confinement. It is said that the first words of a warder to him and his ANC comrades were: “This is the Island. This is where you will die.”

The present horrors tell us of at least three months in lockdown, of a world in fear, of the possible collapse of the healthcare system, of people dying in solitude. This is why we grieve. This is why we are paralyzed with fear at certain times of the day and night.

But the thing that keeps me waking up, working at my desk, and taking a bit of rest is hope. I’ve seen up close how resilient human beings are and how we are able to rise to the occasion when we are called to. Super typhoons, calamity, poverty – the stories of tragedy, loss, despair. Compared to that, staying in can feel like the least harmful, but that’s oversimplifying this whole situation and grossly misunderstanding the basic nature of humans. Self-quarantine in itself is a difficult task because we yearn for companionship, camaraderie, and community. Without the ecosystem, people are also unable to work, which they need to feed themselves and their families.

Yet staying in is what’s required of us. It’s what we’re called to do at the moment. The heroes must fight at the front-line and we will do all we can to support from a distance. We’ll check on our neighbors and extend our care to the underprivileged in any way we know how. But for now, we also have the opportunity to look within and take care of the neglected parts of ourselves. Maybe it’s the time to ask, “Who are we without work, without the rigors of our daily routine? What do we really need?”

And hopefully, when all is safe and the virus is contained, we’ll walk out from the stillness, a little more certain of our purpose and ready to take on the noise that ensues.


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