On my 5th day of taking antidepressants I find out I have COVID.
Or at least, I suspect I do. It is February 4th, 2021: I have moved out of Brooklyn and into my childhood home in a small town outside of Philadelphia, and my brother, who had just spent the weekend visiting, has called to tell us he tested positive for COVID. That morning I had remarked that I must be catching a cold. My nose has been running and my body aches. I am sure I have COVID too.
My mother starts calling her sisters (she has six) while I stare incredulously at the pot of lentils and rice I just put on the stove. The thought occurs to me that the rice will burn and the lentils will overcook and then what will we eat for dinner. But I quickly forget as I Google where I can get a COVID test after 7pm on a Thursday.
I drive to the mall where I used to loiter as a teenager and follow the hastily erected signs to a tented testing site in the parking lot outside of Target. I stick a cotton swab up my nose and remember a friend saying his COVID test felt like someone rooting around in his brain. I wonder what that feels like, to touch your brain, and I take the swab as far back as my reflexes will allow.
Back at home I settle into my bedroom— the room I grew up in and where I will quarantine for the next 14 days. I am grateful my parents covered the walls I had once painted bright red with a coat of pale blue in the years since I graduated. My mother leaves a plate of food outside my door. She hadn’t let the rice burn or the lentils overcook. I eat at the desk my father built me, and I wait.
Three weeks earlier I had undergone a different type of quarantine—a self-imposed 86 hours spent in my bed alternating between old episodes of 30 Rock and mindlessly scrolling through Instagram. It was a quarantine based not in the fear of infecting others, but in the fear that if I stepped outside I might disintegrate into tears. In other words, I was depressed.
By the fourth season of 30 Rock my aunt—a therapist and clearly alerted by my mother that help was needed—called to suggest I speak with a psychiatrist. I’ve been on medication before, but I never remembered to take it. I wouldn’t realize I’d forgotten until I found myself crying over a bowl of soup—so I stopped entirely.
She prodded me gently, “I think medication might help.” After I hung up the phone, I stared at my ceiling, my breathing shallow like a child after a temper tantrum, and began to make calls.
When I heard my voice leaving messages for the various psychiatrists I was surprised—it was not my voice at all.
I am prescribed Sertraline, more commonly known as Zoloft. I stick a lime green Post-it note on my desk that says, “Did you take your meds today?” And at first, COVID and depression feel remarkably similar—intense fatigue, loss of appetite, brain fog. While I wait for my test results, I question if what I’m feeling is even COVID at all. I text my psychiatrist, “Should we up my medication?”
Both of my parents are symptomless and I feel simultaneously relieved and anxious that I will be the one to infect them. My dad is turning 70 at the end of March. It will be his second birthday in quarantine, and we had plans to make him a chocolate Guinness cake.
I become militant about my quarantine, venturing beyond the walls of my room only to use the bathroom or fill up my water bottle. My mom starts obsessively leaving oranges outside my bedroom door, “For the Vitamin C!” I don’t have the heart to tell her I’m not hungry, so I start piling them up on the corner of my desk.
On my 8th day of taking antidepressants, and the 3rd day of my COVID induced isolation, I am texting a friend who is in the process of breaking up with her boyfriend: she wants children and he does not. I open my email and see my suspicions are confirmed: DETECTED. I consider telling my friend, but I decide to wait until morning. It is nice to focus on problems that are not my own.
In many ways, seeing confirmation that I do, in fact, have COVID is a relief. I can now point to a tangible and globally recognized reason that I feel this bad. There is nothing I need to explain or put into words. When my friends call, nobody is worried they will say the wrong thing. I have COVID. It sucks, but it is simple.
My parents leave our home to stay at my Aunt’s empty house on the Jersey shore. I cancel all of my work commitments, order my groceries online, watch hours and hours of TV, and sleep. It feels like a vacation.
I don’t mean to be cavalier about COVID and the symptoms that come with it—checking my pulse twice a day and feeling my chest tighten whenever I take a deep breath are not experiences I hope to return to. But being depressed is exhausting. And for the better part of a year, I had been putting in an enormous amount of effort every day to pretend otherwise. I needed someone to call a time-out. COVID did it for me.
Ten days later I wake up on Valentine’s Day to an empty house and the snow falling outside. I carefully walk across our icy yard and pick up the Sunday paper. I make coffee and sit at our kitchen table, slowly flipping through each section. Later on I take a bath and feel my body melt into the warm water, pushing my fingers through the suds surrounding me. I take a picture of my naked body right before I get out. Not to send to anyone, but to remind me of what is mine—of what I can always return to, if even for just a little while.
In a few days my 14 day quarantine will end and my parents will come home. My mother will cry when she sees me, my father will build a fire, and my dog will lick my toes. I will return to work, and my friends will stop asking how I’m feeling. I will take my meds every day and wonder how long I will need them. And soon, it will be spring.
Grace Kennedy is a writer, educator, and performer currently based in the Philadelphia area. She has previously been published in Bon Appetit and has a forthcoming essay in Oh Reader magazine. For more, follow her online @gkennedy18.