By Mike Grimes
Interruptions can be unwarranted, like the story that I listened to from the familiar-faced cafeteria worker one December afternoon. She spoke to me about her lost cousin, saying “I didn’t think it was real…” Then she looked at me with sincerity and said, “but, that Coronavirus is real.”
We both let out a quaint chuckle; I did so because deep down inside I too had that belief at one point in time. I guess some things never really become real unless they interrupt the trajectory of your life.
I listened to another interruption of life while on a Zoom call as I spoke with Isabelle. Isabelle tells me, “For me, that’s kind of a perfect storm, I’m pretty much a person who’s very related to having plans, operating on plans and expectations.” She refers to some of the uncertainties faced during this pandemic and how it has impacted her life. She explained how competing information from scientists, public health professionals, and differing opinions regarding plans from state and federal governments all made processing the pandemic, at its onset, really challenging. These are external factors affecting the experience of COVID-19 and they affect each person differently. In my conversation with Isabelle I have Identified three exact modes in which external factors affected the person; these include how external factors shape and redefine one’s relationships with those closest, how external factors can minimize one’s confidence in one’s sources for information, and how external factors shape the collective’s relationship to stress.
Figuring out how you are going to work around the hurdle of newly enforced guidelines and expectations surrounding the virus is challenging in itself because nagging adjustments have to be made. However, when you have to consider the adjustments of your children, husband, and pets, things get tricky. Amongst the bouts of luck that Isabelle says she has experienced during this pandemic one of her greatest challenges was figuring out what was going to happen with her kids and school. Amidst the ever-changing plans of the Charleston school board, which created a chaos of its own for parents, having to manage this feat created a sense of anxiety for Isabelle because her reliance on dependable information helps her to start the process of planning ahead, something she enjoys.
With her children changing from in-person class to a virtual academy, Isabelle had to adopt a new role which she labels as a “part-time job.” Isabelle had to help her kids learn how to do things online, to manage their time, to help them manage their schedules and calendars, which is something students learn best while at school. Isabelle says, “they have had to learn a lot of things that college students learn their freshman year.” This speaks volumes as to the level of change people have had to undergo.
This change also permeated traditions, especially family traditions. Traditions such as the 4th of July, Halloween, and Thanksgiving this year have carried with them a haunting feeling as COVID-19 looms and lingers around. Not being able to celebrate those holidays like years past has been different. Isabelle says, “sometimes we don’t even realize how much of those traditions we have until you can’t do them.” Isabelle and her family haven’t had the luxury of celebrating these traditions as they have in the past. Instead, they’ve had to resort to making the most out of their children’s birthday parties with extreme decorations in a designated birthday party room of the house to give them that taste of old magic. Isabelle provides a window into how this virus has shaped and changed her relationships to those closest.
However Isabelle is resilient and makes the most out of each situation, and this trait is exhibited in her ability to double down with curiosity on research concerning COVID-19, so much so that she was willing to call a publication and ask them to fact check their statistics and explain it to her: “Why are those numbers different?” Additionally, Isabelle says “my family is quite medical in background…so wanting to understand that at a deeper level has been important to me.” Isabelle’s thirst for knowledge fueled by her curiosity about current public health situations is something that runs in her family, as she comes from a family of public health professionals. However, not all information is reliable. When I asked Isabelle how informed she felt about the virus she said, “this is the first time *sigh* I felt like I can’t really one hundred percent trust information coming out of South Carolina DHEC” as well as the CDC. Through her research she has come across instances where informants have come to the front and revealed that task forces have had scientists edit public statements; she has also witnessed Johns Hopkins (JHP) COVID statistics numbers on South Carolina vary from their source of information (SC DHEC themselves). It’s instances like this which have made finding reliable sources of information a challenge and has thus diminished Isabella’s confidence in some organizations as sources of information. As a result Isabelle has had to rely more on investigative reporting for sources of information. She has chosen to prioritize studies involving interviews with doctors, and when she’s listening to the radio she prefers to choose NPR for a balanced perspective. Yet, once again external factors have changed Isabelle’s relationships to what holds value for her. The hustle and bustle of journalism during COVID-19 has led to some kinks and inaccuracies in data, and this has shaped how Isabelle goes about seeking relevant information.
Journalism can be a stressful job because you’re always looking for the next best story. A glimpse into Susanah Cahalan’s job and responsibilities as a Journalist in her book, Brain on Fire, gives a sense of the culture that surrounds journalism. But keeping up with the way the world works during this pandemic has also been stressful. During my conversation with Isabelle she touched on the aspect of workplace stress. Isabelle mentioned how she observed, as time progressed, more people in the workplace resorting to ponytails, or wearing less professional clothes; she says, “it was a pretty interesting phenomenon professionally, I feel like a lot of us just stopped, like, wearing professional clothes and we didn’t wear makeup or a lot more ponytails happened.” She also took note of the meetings she had with students where students were on Zoom camped out in bed. Isabelle attributes this phenomena to the collective attitude surrounding stress that we have all faced; saying, “ I really think that it was a response to that stress; the collective country had this reaction.” But, how does one manage this stress?
Doing more, or putting in extra time to be productive, was a behavioral response that Isabelle says happened to her. In our talk Isabelle relayed to me how she did a lot of extra work, more so than usual. These include, but not limited to, attending webinars and completing LinkedIn learning activities. This was done because Isabelle wanted her boss to know that she was working and that she was still valuable despite work conditions. Isabelle says, “I have been trying to make myself indispensable for a long time and that’s exhausting.” Because Isabelle’s job is one of the first to go when cuts have to be made, her knowledge of this possibility prompted a behavioral response to take on more responsibilities which has come with the territory and stress of working during the pandemic. As you can see, stress followed COVID-19 right onto American soil and has left its mark for the time being. This stress has unknowingly cultivated new workplace habits and has changed our behaviors as we strive to make amends with this friendly foe named stress. These external factors have shaped our relationships with stress in various ways; Isabelle observed how stress shaped how others presented themselves at work, and how this new stress changed her concerns and piled up her responsibilities.
This investigation of the external factors of COVID and how they affect the person is important for sociological reasons. It provides a glimpse into how we as humans adapt to incoming threats to our health and wellbeing, while also providing a historical account of how individuals such as Isabelle have maneuvered during this time of crisis. Being a mother, with multiple children and pets, as well as a married woman, Isabelle provides other individuals who fit into these categories a glimpse into how one operates during this time successfully. This information can also be used as a historical landmark or a reference point. Considering the political climate of the time and how the world seemingly halted for a split second, a narrative about how one person grappled with this pandemic will potentially serve as a work of inspiration for future generations. However, as it relates to the theme of illness narratives the justification for a spot as an illness narrative may get complicated, but it’s not improbable. Because Isabelle did not contract the virus this may not qualify as a prototypical illness narrative; illness narratives usually share one thing in common, which is that the storyteller speaks from the point of view of someone who has faced some sort of illness first hand. However, through abstraction, it can be considered to be an adequate illness narrative, because the Illness, COVID-19, is the topic of discussion. In this way, Isabelle stands as a source of information from the perspective of one who can observe the effects of the illness on her life and the world around her.
Yet, what type of illness narrative could this story be applied to then? To use Arthur Frank, a medical sociologist, and author, and his theoretical frameworks of illness narratives in, The Wounded Storyteller, I believe the quest narrative best fits the circumstances of this story. Frank says, “Quest stories meet suffering head-on, they accept illness and seek to use it, illness is the occasion of the journey that becomes a quest” (142). Isabelle met COVID-19 head on. She took all the necessary precautions, educated herself and others; she helped adjust her children’s lifestyle to meet the demands of a new school environment; she met the contrasting opinions of governments and the competing information from media sources head-on by asking questions and seeking dependable sources of information; Isabelle has met her work responsibilities head-on and took on even more responsibilities to become an indispensable part of a team. Lastly, Isabelle has used this pandemic as a test of her resiliency in the face of adversity. She and her family have remained safe and healthy as a result. You may not consider Isabelle’s story to be a prototypical illness narrative; however, it’s a narrative amongst illness nonetheless. Isabelle’s story explores the social effects of an illness that has ravaged the world at large, and shows how the person can stand up, protect themselves, and continue to keep moving forward.
- Frank, Arthur W. Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics, Second Edition. Univ Of Chicago Press, 2013.
- Isabelle (pseud), Personal Zoom Interview, December 4th, 2020, 2:00pm.
- Cahalan, Susannah. Brain on Fire. Center Point, 2013.
 Cahalan, Susannah. Brain on Fire. Center Point, 2013.
 Frank, Arthur W. Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics, Second Edition. Univ Of Chicago Press, 2013.
 Frank, Arthur W. Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics, Second Edition. Univ Of Chicago Press, 2013.