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The Lost Year: Chronic pain, an unusual love story, and reassurance via pickle

“There are certain ways — and maybe it’s not cool to say this — in which quarantine has been helpful.”

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

This is The Lost Year, a series of stories about our lived experiences in 2020, as told to Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff.

Before Covid-19 hit, Honey rarely left the house. Much of their work as an artist and photographer could happen within their home, and they were used to spending a lot of time alone. Chronic physical and mental conditions made staying at home a strong preference.

But that hasn’t been true in the midst of the pandemic. In the past nine months, Honey has taken a job with the post office as a delivery driver and gotten married (to someone they met during the pandemic). I’m fascinated by the ways so many of our worlds have shrunk over this period, but Honey’s has actually expanded, to encompass both a spouse and a new job that takes them out on the road a few days a week.

I’m also fascinated by Honey’s story of managing a chronic pain condition in the midst of a pandemic, especially when so many of their symptoms present similarly to Covid-19 symptoms. Their solution for making sure they’re “just” suffering from chronic pain and not the virus is clever. Throughout our chat, I was blown away by Honey’s observations on a world in isolation, a world that resembles the one they’ve lived in for most of their life.

Here’s Honey’s story, as told to me.

Before the pandemic, I did a lot of film photography. I was creating all the time. Now, I shifted gears and got into other formats. I’ve been doing a lot of collage work. I’ve been doing sewing and embroidery and stuff. Some people have hired me to do paid photo shoots, and I always tell them I’m going to wear a mask and shoot with my close lens, so I can be far away from them. But I do them. Money’s money.

Honestly, changing art forms has been really good for me. I don’t think I would have done it [if not for the pandemic]. I wouldn’t have been able to discover all the things that I can do.

My quarantine experience probably hasn’t been like other people’s. Before the pandemic, I didn’t go to parties or anything, and I just left [the house] for things like grocery shopping. I have some mental health conditions, like autism, ADHD, and PTSD, but I also have physical health struggles, like endometriosis and arthritis. Those are definitely a challenge.

If anything, there are certain ways — and maybe it’s not cool to say this — in which quarantine has been helpful. When I used to tell people, “Oh, I can’t hang out,” it was much harder to get them to understand why. And now it’s like, “Oh, there’s a pandemic. I can’t come.” And a lot of jobs beforehand were not at all accommodating, or they didn’t have a lot of infrastructure for that. And now if I say that I’m sick and I can’t come in, they’ll say, “Oh, my gosh, stay home!”

I even got a job as a delivery driver with the post office. So it’s interesting — I’m definitely leaving my house more [than I did before the pandemic], but I’m leaving my house to be alone in a car by myself, which is the ideal situation.

I live in South Carolina, and in the upstate area [where I live], we shut down for maybe two weeks max. It was so quiet and weird. And a lot of people were home when I would deliver, which I wouldn’t like. But what was really weird was that very shortly after that, everything was back to normal. Everybody was out, like the pandemic didn’t exist. No one was wearing masks. The times when I’m in the building, loading my packages in my truck, I have my mask on. Some of my coworkers do, but most of them absolutely do not wear their masks. And it’s so stressful to me. I want to say something. I’m scared to say something.

I think many white people will always see inconvenience as oppression. And it’s not even that much of an inconvenience! They just hate that they have to do what everybody else is doing. They have this obsession with hyper-individualization that carries through not only to wearing a mask like everybody else; hyper-individualization in America also means that you’re responsible for your own health. It’s your fault if you get sick. It’s not my fault for not wearing a mask. You got sick, and that’s on you.

I grew up in a very isolated setting, and that prepared me for a lot [of this experience]. My parents had seven kids, and we pretty much didn’t interact with anyone outside our family. It was complete lockdown. I couldn’t watch TV or read unapproved books. So most of the relationships I formed in my life, I’ve formed over the internet.

I feel like this pandemic has been less challenging for people who grew up in specifically traumatizing households and people who have certain mental illnesses. For us, it’s often normal to conduct all our relationships over the internet. And some neurotypical people and people who love going out to meet people are having a lot of trouble adjusting.

I’m living with my wife now, and I’ve been semi on my own since I was 17, but I never had my own space. And now I have my own space. I get to control the experiences I have. I’m just starting with movies and TV and books. There’s no end to the entertainment and the new things I can discover. I just watched an anime called Fruits Basket. It’s really gay, and it’s awesome.

I met my wife at the start of the pandemic, on Tinder. I met them at the perfect time. I was learning a lot of important things on how to be independent, and they, as a person, are extremely independent. We’re around each other, because we enjoy each other’s company, but whenever we need our own space, we just take our own space. There’s a mutual understanding and a flow to it. It helped to almost approach the marriage like a business arrangement and not put pressure and stress on it and see where things went. It progressed very naturally, and it’s easy to be in a relationship with them.

Neither of us really believes in marriage, but they are ex-military, and they have health benefits and a retirement fund. I really needed surgery at the time, and it worked out, because we like each other. We met, and we saw each other every day since the first time we met up, and then we got married.

It’s been good. It’s been pretty easy. We’ve made sure to take precautions. If we mutually agree that we don’t want to be together in a romantic or sexual way, we have everything planned out for that. We’re not stupid.

The pandemic has exacerbated certain struggles we have. But because we have different things to manage, there is a balance. I’m able to be there for them, and they’re able to be there for me. The issues that affect me the most right now are my physical issues, and they are affected by their mental issues. So they’re able to help me with physical things, and I can help them with mental things.

Everything that I deal with — chronic pain, nausea, having trouble moving — mimics the symptoms of Covid-19. And every couple of weeks, I’ll have a freakout and be like, “Oh, my god, what if I have it.” But the one symptom I don’t get with my chronic illnesses is a loss of taste or smell. So if I’m experiencing symptoms, I can easily spiral. “What if the hospital is full? What if the bill is so expensive we can’t pay it?” Just freaking out. So now whenever I start freaking out, I just go eat a pickle or something to calm myself down and reassure myself. But it took me a lot of months to get there!

One of the biggest struggles has been that both of us are learning we don’t have to hide things from each other. It’s difficult, because we both grew up in environments where we had to hide things, just from us being queer and growing up in very homophobic families. At the beginning, it almost helped with the honesty [between us] being thrust immediately into a situation where we can take our own space if we want, but because of the pandemic, we are like, “Okay, you’re the only person that I’m going to see now.”

Knowing we have [a plan] but also being stuck in a house together helps with two things. First, [we have that plan], so I don’t have to be afraid to bring things up to my partner. And second, we are kind of stuck here, so to speak, so me keeping things to myself is stupid and childish. It’s just better to talk it out.

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