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Pamela Brown: It felt like I never had a bigger enemy to fight

Hina and I both lost one of our parents this year under different circumstances, but we also shared the compounding pain Covid has created. Hina described her feeling of helplessness as he lay in his ICU bed alone, telling her over FaceTime how scared he felt. Since she was prohibited from being by his bedside in person, she had to give her consent over the phone for her father to be intubated. She described the family members going in one at a time to say a final goodbye. And she talked about not being able to plan a proper funeral — after all, it was a funeral where she suspects he caught the virus in the first place.

All of that suffering so closely paralleled my own pandemic experience, although my mother’s story begins long before the pandemic.

One of my most distinct memories of her growing up was how she would lie in the bed backwards with her swollen feet propped up after a long day to help with her blood flow. It was very hard for me to reconcile the fact my mom who was a dynamo in every sense of the word lived for decades with a blood condition that slowed her down so much, especially these last several years.

In March, the doctors made clear the time had come for a critical procedure we hoped might extend mom’s life. Around the same time, after just giving birth to my second child, we found out Mom’s caregiver chose to go into quarantine indefinitely because her husband was still going into work. Next thing I knew, my older brother Lincoln, my newborn and I were loaded up in the car on our way to Kentucky to help Mom while my husband and young son stayed behind in Virginia. Little did I know then that I wouldn’t be back home for three months.

It was an odd and terrifying experience as my brother and I tried to navigate taking care of our mother while also making sure we didn’t give her Covid-19. The doctor warned us she was one of his most vulnerable patients and every caution should be taken to make sure she didn’t contract it. When we finally arrived, she saw her granddaughter for the first time from afar — but never got to hold her.

I wanted to stay overnight to help her feel safe but we were too scared about the risk. Limiting the amount of time we spent with her felt emotionally agonizing — my heart wanted me to be with her every second I could, but my mind knew I needed to follow the doctor’s orders and focus on the necessities. It upset her not have her children around more — one day she said through tears, “You guys are who I live for and I feel like I can’t even be with you.”

Weeks later, we dropped her off at the hospital for her procedure. She made it no secret how much she wanted me and my brother by her side, but her courage to go in alone was admirable. As Lincoln wheeled her into the hospital to hand her off to the medical professionals, I reminded her how tenacious she was and how much we loved her.

Hours later, our worst nightmare came true: Her blood pressure plummeted from an internal bleed doctors couldn’t locate. The doctors told us over the phone they had done all they could.

My brother and I stayed overnight in the car right outside the hospital, wide awake until the sun came up, waiting for news while my friend stayed overnight with my baby at home.

It felt like a form of torture not being by our beloved mom’s side and having no idea what was going on. Just staring at the phone endlessly waiting for news. The entire time I kept thinking: Covid-19 may be invisible but I’ve never felt like I’ve ever had a bigger enemy to fight. She is my only mother in life, and how dare this virus keep me from her during this critical time?

Pamela Brown, left, and her mother, Phyllis George, in an undated photo.

Finally, around 5 a.m., the doctor texted to say they found the bleeding and Mom was stable. It was a moment of jubilation and tears. Once again, my mom defied the odds as she always had in life, and even though we couldn’t celebrate with her, it felt good to know she wasn’t so far away from us.

But the celebrations were short-lived. A day later she fell into a coma from all the shock to her body, was transferred to another hospital and would remain there until her last breath. That month was full of emotional FaceTime conversations over the doctor’s phones, telling her to keep fighting; early morning wakeup calls from nurses telling us her oxygen dropped; and excruciating expanses of time in between, waiting for a call from the doctor or calling the hospital for updates. I am now, as I was during those weeks, awed by the heroism of the doctors and nurses I saw in the hospital.

We were fortunate to be allowed to see mom at the end and say our final goodbye, our masks soaked in tears while we sang, “You Are My Sunshine” — her favorite song and one she used to sing to my son. There would be no grieving through comforting hugs of loved ones after our loss. All our grief stayed six feet away.

My story and Hina’s story are not uncommon now, so many months into this pandemic, but they highlight the profound impact it can have on families — at a time when doctors’ warnings and climbing death toll numbers streaming across our screens can have a numbing effect.

You don’t have to battle Covid-19 yourself or lose a loved one from it to feel its invasion. The mosaic of pain includes the loss of livelihood, the loss of human connection, the loss of food security, the loss of relationships, the loss of novelty, the loss of freedom and more.

For me, losing my mom amid the challenges of the pandemic made me feel unmoored, like I had lost my anchor in life and I was adrift in the ocean. It didn’t take long for severe postpartum anxiety to set in, from the confluence of emotional rollercoasters, fluctuating hormones and sleep deprivation. I had experienced anxiety to some extent before, but now it was as though suddenly a faucet of obsessional worries was turned on in my brain.

In the past, I had channeled my obsessive proclivities for good in my work as a journalist, by digging into a story until I got to the bottom of it or pressing interview subjects until they answered my questions. But now, those instincts morphed into irrational fears and intrusive thoughts that I would lose control somehow, like run a stoplight and ram another car or suddenly just jump off the balcony.

It felt like something horrible was right around the corner and one fearful thought would beget another, like “What if I lost control and my children are taken away from me?” Or “What if something happens to me and my children won’t have a mom?” Or “What if I just walked off camera and was fired from my job?” Instead of brushing them aside, I worried about them as though those fears could come true any minute.

It became all-consuming and paralyzing on the inside and on the outside you would never know. I had so much to be grateful for, but counting my blessings couldn’t override what I non-affectionally called “the beast.” It felt existential and, at times, manifested physically with a pit in my stomach and a lump in my throat.

I’ve always been a big believer that there is no shame in asking for help — If there’s a problem, figure out the solution. I reconnected with a therapist I talked to in my 20s and also did some interview research and found a doctor who specializes in the type of anxiety I was experiencing. I shot him an email and he got right back to me.

I immediately felt a huge amount of relief just verbalizing what I was going through and knowing I wasn’t alone in this scary experience. I didn’t feel ashamed or weak, I felt empowered, proactive and strong. After all, how am I supposed to care for my children if I don’t take care of myself first? This is my one life to live and I wasn’t going to let anxiety steal it from me.

Yet, as psychologist Andrea Bonior told me during an interview recently, research shows people feel less comfortable reaching out for professional help right now even though mental health issues are on the rise during the pandemic. Bonior says there’s an increased stigma around seeking professional help because people believe since everyone is going through tough stuff, they don’t have a right to get help.

But by taking that simple step myself, I was able to discover ways to control my postpartum anxiety instead of letting it control me (though it is an ongoing journey). What has helped me most is realizing my anxiety was a symptom of what I was going through, not a reflection of me, and you can treat it just as you would treat a cold symptom.

I realize how fortunate I am to have health insurance to cover professional help but I found many other avenues that have served me well. I read a book called “Triumph over Fear” by the late Jerilyn Ross and visited sites dedicated to anxiety including the Anxiety and Depression Association of America where anyone can connect with others with anxiety and find a therapist. I started meditating, picked up running and opened up to close friends about what was going on. You’d be amazed by how much “confessing” what you’re going through relieves the burden.

I got to speak with Hina and hear her story because she, too, decided to open up about her struggle, first on Twitter, then on air. Her words connected with many people, potentially helping others in the process.

My mom said the night before her surgery that all she wanted to do was gain her strength back so she could help people. My hope is that by sharing this story I can help her accomplish that and remind people we are all in this together. Even though this may feel like a difficult and lonely time, you are not alone, and it’s more than okay to ask for help.




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