It’s the End and Nothing Feels Fine
I can’t remember what day it is. Is it Thursday or Friday? I think it’s Friday, almost three weeks ago. I still can’t be sure. The days are increasingly indecipherable as we shelter-in-place. An hour lasts a day or speeds by in a second. Everything blurs into monotonous similarity.
Even though I can never seem to remember what day it is any more, my kids, six and 11, are able to. Maybe it’s because their brains are less cluttered than mine. Maybe it’s because they don’t understand the weight of the situation we’re in. Maybe it’s their need to mark time in a perpetual Spring Break. Maybe it’s because I’m relentlessly following the news about coronavirus, no, now it’s Covid-19. I have been for weeks and weeks. Thoughts of this virus overcrowd my brain. It’s all I think about, even when I’m trying not to think about it. How could I not think about it?
The early trickles of information and coverage grew into a stream and then a river and then raging waters battering a flimsy dam. We keep trying to shore up its weakening foundation by washing our hands and not touching our faces and staying at home. I wonder how much our efforts patch up the holes. I’m pretty sure we’re facing a flood. It reminds me of the biblical one that I learned about in Sunday school decades ago. Tired of human wickedness, God decides to destroy the earth, all of creation, with a flood. Only Noah, his family, and animals two by two, all stuffed into the ark, make it out alive. After a while, the flood waters recede and a rainbow appears, a promise that something like this will never happen again.
For now, my mind is not on the rainbow, but veers toward the apocalyptic. I can’t seem to help it. It’s a path that my brain wants to follow, a familiar path with worn grooves. The grooves created by researching and writing about apocalypses and all the folks who want them to occur. For almost a decade, I’ve been an apocalypse chaser, tagging along behind a future disaster looming on the horizon. I watch and document all the apocalypses that folks predict and have predicted. I scrutinize all those fictional ends on TV and in books, movies, and video games. A Google alert (keyword “apocalypse”) pings my phone every day and draws my attention to potential end-time scenarios. I can’t help but chase, even if I only want to look away. Drawn in by potential catastrophe, time and again.
It’s not hard to chase. It’s not hard to be drawn in. So many Americans, past and present, find doomsday appealing. But, I don’t. Americans desire apocalypses, not just one end, but many possible outcomes. They plan for them. They wait eagerly for them to happen. I’ve always wanted to know why they find the end of the world appealing. Why, why, why. I chase these bad endings because I want to understand apocalypses and the people who crave them.
I’ve watched movies about pandemics. There’s either a cure that, after a sufficient body count, seems almost easy to find, or we turn into the shambling monsters bent on consuming human flesh. I’ve studied historical movements who predicted the end, to only be disappointed. I’ve interviewed preppers and read their books about what I need to put in my “bug out bag” and how I need to beef up on my survival skills. (Survival skills, I lack them if they involve knowing how to render pig fat into gasoline.) I’ve read novels that portray the end as either bleak and unforgiving or which imagine a better world after the destruction of this one. I’ve taught classes on how Americans, in particular, like to imagine the end of the world over and over and over again.
Chasing the apocalypse is like an itch that I can’t help but scratch. The more I try to ignore the itch, the more consumed by it I become. I scratch and scratch and scratch until my skin is torn and my nails are caked in blood.
I don’t chase them because I think I’ll live through them. And yet, here we are in a moment that feels like a slow-motion bad ending. The apocalyptic feels like it is here. Maybe, because it is. Maybe it isn’t. It feels like we are on a precipice with flood waters rising. There’s no rainbow in sight.
And yet, I didn’t notice the precipice right away. I didn’t pay enough attention to Covid-19 as early as I should have. I didn’t notice the immediate concern about what was happening in China. 2020 came at me fast, so I paid attention to those immediate, more personal crises that seemed to pile up day by day. I started to follow along when the travel restrictions to China began and read about this novel coronavirus’s deadly potential. Information washed over us about how contagious the virus was, and there were rumblings about a pandemic.
I didn’t know we all were confronting a flood. A disaster that might erase humankind off the planet. Except now there doesn’t seem to be an ark to save any of us. I’m beginning to wonder if this is a flood that we might not survive.
It’s Wednesday before Friday, almost three weeks ago. (I’m now mostly sure it was a Friday. Wasn’t it?)
Over lunch, one of my sisters tells me about how our dad, who watches Fox News, is worried because the coronavirus reached Italy. I explain that I’m also worried because Covid-19 had officially become a global pandemic.
“Are you watching Fox News too?” she asks, giving me the side-eye. She knows I wouldn’t be watching Fox, so she can’t resist teasing me. She never passes up an opportunity to bust my chops.
“No, I’m not. I read it on CNN. It’s real,” I say.
Covid-19 is a pandemic now, and my concern grows. China. South Korea. Italy. And the news out of Italy quickly becomes dire, a catastrophe that we could read about in every gruesome, heartrending detail.
Fun fact, my brain offers up, a pandemic is often the beginning of the end in apocalypse tales.
Shut up, I think.
But, my brain refuses to shut up. I click through charts and graphs of percentages of active Covid-19 cases and mortality rates. 2 to 2.5% pops up again and again. It’s only 2.5%, some bro tweets or says or writes in a think piece, like that’s not a lot, okay? 2.5% doesn’t sound bad, I guess, unless you think about all the individuals who make up that deceptive number. The 2.5% are all people, who loved and were loved, and now, they are now gone. No, let’s not use a euphemism. They are dead. There’s a pandemic; we’re in the midst of a global pandemic. There are survivors. But, there are casualties. There are always casualties. I wonder how many there will be.
Can I call this pandemic an apocalypse? I don’t know.
An apocalypse, to me, is an end-of-the-world scenario. Some sort of disaster takes out our world—an asteroid, global warming, zombies, God’s anger, or even a virus—and nothing is ever the same. The world as we know it now is forever lost, recreated through a catastrophe that most of us won’t survive. Apocalypse didn’t originally mean the end or doomsday. It came from the Greek word apocalypsis, meaning either “revelation” or “unveiling.” A revelation is that sudden, surprising fact that makes you realize something important. Apocalypses reveal and destroy. Destroy and reveal.
And all I know is that I’m beginning to feel itchy.
It’s days before Friday, almost three weeks ago. (I think. I can’t be sure.)
And I’m scrolling endlessly through Twitter, gleaning any new information I can from tweet to tweet to tweet. I’m reading explainers. I’m watching so many damn videos of how to properly wash your hands that it’s absurd. How many videos do I really need to get the point?
Many, it seems. I’m making sure that my kids know how to wash their hands properly. We wash for 20 seconds singing our ABCs or the lyrics from one of our favorite songs. My 11-year-old sings, “Why men great until they gotta be great,” while making sure to get every spot on her hands and fingers.
“Don’t forget your thumbs.”
“Make sure to really scrub.”
“Did you wash your hands? Please wash your hands. For the full 20 seconds”
“Don’t touch your faces!” I exclaim any time a small finger approaches a small face. I’m trying not to touch my face either. You never realize how much your fidgeting involves touching your face until you can’t any more.
I’m following the news coverage. I scroll and refresh. I can feel my anxiety buzzing under the surface of the skin like bees that are plotting their escape. Sometimes, I can only faintly hear the buzz, but other times, it’s less a buzz than a roar. My body vibrates in time to the beat of their wings.
The buzz follows me throughout the day into the night. I manage to fall asleep but the buzz wakes me up. I’m worried about my family. What will happen to my dad, who has Stage IV cancer, and my father-in-law, in treatment for bladder cancer, if they get exposed to Covid-19? Or my partner’s remaining grandparents, both in their 90s? Or my partner? Or my children? I’m making a list of all the people who I love and how likely they are to die. It’s the worst top 10 list ever, and I can’t get it out of my head.
I’m worried. I’m worried about our world. I’m worried about the consequences of a pandemic. I’m worried about people who have no homes. I’m worried about the folks who will lose jobs and struggle to pay rent or put food on the table. I’m worried about the aides, nurses, doctors, and other healthcare workers on the front lines of a pandemic. I’m worried about the people stuck in homes with their abusers. I’m worried about the elderly folks at nursing homes who aren’t able to see loved ones right now. I’m worried about all the grocery store clerks, sanitation workers, teachers, and everyone in the food service industries who are working through the crisis. I’m worried. I stay worried.
I can feel the bees crawling under my skin, and I wonder if it would just be better to let them out. The buzzing isn’t so loud yet. I better keep them in.
I cling to hand washing and hand sanitizer like they are salvation, mine, yours, ours. I want to bathe in hand sanitizer every time I leave my house or car and when I return. I’m washing my hands over and over again because I’m supposed to, right? Yes. Or maybe, relentless hand washing is a habit that I fall into when anxiety overtakes me—when I need to do something to make the buzzing stop. My cuticles are ragged. My hands are cracked and dry. I bought a hand cream to relieve my worn hands, and I don’t know where I put it.
Still, I want to bathe in hand sanitizer, but I can’t because it’s almost impossible to find any, anymore or anywhere. Weeks before it was officially a pandemic, other folks bought up all the reserves from pharmacies and grocery stores and big box stores and hoarded it, so I’m rationing ours, watching it dwindle pump by pump by pump.
Buzz, buzz, buzz.
The bees are getting agitated.
It’s a Friday, almost three weeks ago. (Yes, it was a Friday.)
It’s now clear that folks need to stay home and probably should have been staying home already. Hand sanitizer and hand washing and not touching our faces only get us so far. They aren’t salvation after all, only steps on a path to a less destructive crisis.
My children’s schools now get two weeks of Spring Break instead of one, just to be safe. I learn this by scrolling through Facebook as my children play in the sprinklers that I bought them. It’s been a beautiful, warm and sunny Florida day. It’s the golden hour, and the light shimmers through the fine spray of the neon-colored sprinkler. Each child is soaked. The six-year-old swipes his wet bangs out of his face over and over. He needs a haircut soon, I think, but I doubt that will happen. The 11-year-old shrieks happily as she jumps through the spray. Her wet hair falls out of her already sloppy ponytail. She grins every time she glances my way. They both run and jump through the water. It’s hard not to smile as I stand witness to their joy. It’s hard to keep though. My smiles quickly turn to a grimace these days.
After all, school is finally cancelled because of Covid-19. And the bees are back at full force. My anxiety never really left; it never really does. I knew that school was going to be cancelled. I knew it was going to happen, but it makes everything feel a bit more real. A bit more serious. I already knew things were serious. But, now, I know. I’m paying attention to the news. I’m devoted to the news, worshipping at the altar of The New York Times and the Twitter feeds of so many other news organizations. I’m watching as the number of Covid-19 cases jump and jump and jump. There’s even one case in our small, rural town. The virus is everywhere. It doesn’t take much looking to find it.
It is the damn apocalypse, isn’t it? I only wanted to chase the apocalypse. I never wanted to find it.
It’s 2 am, on Friday, almost three weeks ago. (Now, I know it’s Friday. I’m certain of it.)
And I’m imagining who will die or what will happen with the divorce one of my sisters is going through or how I will lose my job if I can’t focus enough to write. My heartbeat speeds up. My hands shake as my breathing becomes more and more rapid. I’ve learned to take deep breaths and to focus on something else, anything else, and hold it in my mind. I’ve learned that I won’t return to sleep, so I keep my Kindle on my bedside table with a romance novel already open. I read; I try not to worry. I rarely succeed.
This very same Friday, much later than 2 am, I call my primary care doctor to adjust my daily anxiety medication, 10 milligrams twice a day to 15 milligrams twice a day. When the nurse asks me why I wanted to up the dosage, I reply, “The current pandemic.” She and I nervously laugh. She tells me that they’ll get the prescription in by Monday. What I don’t tell her is that I’ve already taken more of my acute—break in case of emergency—anxiety medicine in 2020 than I had in the five months before when it had first been prescribed.
I’m having to stave off the panic that chases me when I wake up each morning. I’m having to make sure that I don’t have the panic attack that’s stalking me. I’m having to make sure that the bees don’t burst through my skin, and they are trying to, day and night. I’m pretty sure that I won’t recover if they do erupt.
I stave off a panic attack, but I keep giving myself hives. I’ll find myself worrying about Covid-19 and the state of our world and, then, I’m scratching at my neck because the literal itching won’t stop. My neck becomes more red and irritated each time I scrape my fingernails down my neck. My face begins to itch and itch and itch. I scratch gently, as I try not to claw my own face off. Clawing isn’t allowed if touching is already banned. The buzzing leads to hives, and hives lead to itching, and itching leads to a need to scratch that I shouldn’t give into. But, I do.
I’m still deeply worried about what will happen next, and I continue to be. Have I caught up to an apocalypse that I didn’t know I was chasing? Maybe. I can see the catastrophe that is coming because I’m a pro at catastrophizing. It’s one of my remarkably shitty superpowers. I imagine what terrible thing will come next in excruciating detail. I can see it, and I try to plan for how to avert it. My plans are often lacking. Still I worry. Still I plan.
Buzz, buzz, buzz.
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
It’s Friday, almost three weeks ago.
I’m sitting on our front porch, when my partner joins me to watch our kids play in the front yard. It’s Friday when I turn to him and say, “This feels fucking apocalyptic.”
And everything does feel apocalyptic. I hate it. I don’t use the word “apocalypse” or “apocalyptic” lightly. I don’t use the end of the world as a punchline. I take apocalypses seriously because I still study and write about them. I still chase them. I’m a scholar of bad endings. And the pandemic that we face feels like it could be a very bad ending. It has been a bad ending for over 12,000 people in Italy, over 3,300 in China, over 3,000 in Iran, and over 4,000 in the U.S. The number of Covid-19 cases keeps rising. A different number appears every day. More people are infected. Lives end. The world keeps on turning. There’s an implicit threat that the world will go on but our survival is not guaranteed.
Our survival is never guaranteed.
And yet, and yet, despite the fact that the end means so many of us will die, there’s something alluring about imagining a future apocalypse. A chosen few ascend to heaven while others get left behind. Nature gets the last laugh as humans go extinct and flora and fauna inherit the earth. Nuclear weapons take us out. If we survive, we get to fight zombies and that’s cool, man. (Is it?)
Of course, the apocalypse is appealing to some if the faithful get their rewards and the not-so-faithful get punished or only the strong survive and the rest of us were too weak to do what had to be done. These shared stories about the end are morality tales about how our current world is corrupt—beyond redemption really—and the only way to move forward is by letting it burn.
This is fine, the little dog says, while surrounded by the red and orange flames. The world is burning, and everything’s fine.
It’s the letting it burn part that also keeps me up at night. Like I need one more thing to keep me from sleeping. It’s the idea that maybe there’s a better world in the ruins than the one we have now. It’s the idea that the only way forward, the only way to progress, is to raze it to the ground. Is there something better on the other side? I can’t know. But, I can worry about it.
And I do worry and worry and worry. How can I, one speck in the universe, stave off a pandemic? I can’t, can I? I can stay at home and wash my hands and practice social distance. I can try. I can do my part. What if my part is never enough? And yet, night after night, I lay awake and wonder. Day after day, I sip my coffee with my shaky hands, wrangle my children, worry about what lays before us, and scratch my face and neck. The hives keep coming back, a reminder that there’s always an itch that I can’t manage not to scratch.
What will be left, I wonder, after our current pandemic, our current maybe-apocalypse? Can I even call it an apocalypse? I want to. But, I don’t. I don’t know if I should. But, I do know that the world does feel fucking apocalyptic right now.
It does. And I hate that feeling. Still.
I watch as the virus spreads. Some people are dying. Some people are sheltering-in-place to “flatten the curve,” which means that Covid-19 cases will be spread out to not overwhelm hospitals. Italy is already overwhelmed as doctors have to make decisions about who is going to survive and who won’t.
In passing, my partner mentions the origins of the word, triage, as we use it now. Early on, triage just meant to sort, but later, it became the term for assessing the wounded on the battlefield. Some will live, some will surely die, and some might live, if we try to save them. But, doctors will have to make a choice about who they can actually save and who they can’t. Some are too far gone to expend the effort, if there’s a chance of saving someone else.
And yet, while I look up the origins of triage and wash my hands any time I think of germs, some people are unbothered by the virus as they flock to Florida beaches on Spring Break or go to bars on St. Patrick’s Day or invade your space instead of staying the recommended six feet away. They’re making choices about our collective survival, too, when they only think of themselves. They’re damning us and themselves. I’m not sure they even care. I surely do.
What’ll be left? I think again, What will be left?
We’re in the midst of a pandemic, and we don’t know how it will end. The apocalypse I chased was maybe chasing me all along. Our roles reversed, and I didn’t realize it until now.
I’m afraid of total annihilation. But, I’m not a prophet; I’m just a middle-class white lady with an anxiety disorder who writes about all the ways people want the world to end. The future is murky because it is most often murky. We can predict what could happen. We have charts and graphs. But, we can’t know. We can hope that other people will wash their hands and stay at home. We can hope that the curve will be flattened. We can hope that people will take Covid-19 seriously and continue to take it seriously as time passes by.
We can hope, we can hope, we can hope.
And I do try to hope. Truly, I do. Except when it’s 2 am, and I’m awake because of yet another nightmare. But, a particular nightmare makes it hard for me to breathe. I dreamed that I was holding my six-year-old in my arms as he gasped for air that refused to fill his lungs. The virus reached him. The pandemic was personal. Until he took his last breath and after, I held him. I couldn’t bring myself to let him go. He was gone. It was an end, his end. There was nothing I could do. When I woke up, I resisted the urge to rush to his room and to listen to him breathing. I don’t want to wake him, even as I had to know that he’s alive. The next morning, I held him in a tight hug a little longer than I should have. I listen to him breathe, and I grieve for those already lost and those who lost someone. Endings are all around us, some too close to comfort and others too distant to fully grasp. We’re surrounded.
The bees are at a fever pitch, and I need them to calm the hell down.
These days, I find myself questioning why I began studying bad endings in the first place. I hate apocalypses. I really do, but I chase them. I hunt them down in a continuing search for an elusive why. Why do folks want the world to end? Why do they prepare? Why do they look on in glee at fictional renderings of our ruined world? Why do they seek a catastrophe when all I’ve tried to do my whole life is to do my part to avoid them? They plan for an end. I don’t sleep for days trying to plan for an intervention. My anxious brain spins up every imaginable apocalypse. They catastrophize, and I do too.
Perhaps, they just think the apocalypse will be fun, no more social order to hold them back. Perhaps, they want to imagine the worst possible scenario and prepare for it. Perhaps, if they are ready to survive the end of the world, maybe they feel like they are ready to survive anything. Perhaps, they’ve accepted that doomsday is reality, a future lying in wait for us all. Perhaps, they want the world to burn. Perhaps, they hate our current world so much that its destruction brings them joy. Their glee is a reflection of their hate. A new world, one they want, could exist in the ruins, and they’ll sacrifice most of us to get there.
But I do think our aims are different. I don’t want the apocalypse to happen. I want to figure out what I can do to avert it, what we can do. My worry has never just been personal; it’s global. My fears, not limited but limitless. I decided to study something that I fear the most. I hate bad endings. And yet, I face them to figure out our other options. To imagine something different than an apocalypse. I don’t scratch the itch to bloody myself. I scratch the itch until I can find some way to make it go away.
And now, I feel like I’m facing a real apocalypse, not an imagined one. The end feels anything but fine. I wonder about all those people who wished for an apocalypse. Do they still want one now? Living through what might be an end is not even close to the same as imagining one.
Buzz, buzz, buzz.
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
It’s Friday. I told you that already, right? It’s Friday, it’s Friday, it’s Friday.
And the sun is starting to recede into the clouds. The sprinkler is still on. My kids are slowing down. They aren’t running and jumping through the water anymore. They are lazily strolling through and throwing a blue beach ball back and forth.
“Mom, look! Look, there’s a rainbow!”
I glance over, and there is, indeed, a rainbow. The sun hits the fine droplets of water from the sprinkler, and a rainbow shimmers for a moment before it disappears. A rainbow, I remember from a Sunday school lesson years ago, is a promise. A promise that the world won’t be flooded again, yes, but it’s not a promise that the world won’t be destroyed. Maybe it’s a promise now as we face the pandemic that feels like a flood. Maybe it’s a sign. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s something else altogether. Maybe it’s a reminder that feeling apocalyptic doesn’t mean it’s an actual apocalypse. I can’t know if it’s the apocalypse or not, but I can hope that it isn’t.
And yet, I still worry.
The bees have settled down a little; their buzzing isn’t as loud. And the hives have gone away. For now.
I do hope. I do. Well, I’m trying to.
“Look, Mom,” my kids shout, “There’s another rainbow.”
“Yes, there is.” And I can’t help but smile a little, and hope.
Kelly J. Baker writes about the apocalypse, zombies, mental illness, trauma, and higher education. She's the author of The Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces, Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labor in Higher Education, and Final Girl: And Other Essays on Grief, Trauma, and Mental Illness, forthcoming Fall 2020. She's also the editor of Women in Higher Education, The National Teaching and Learning Forum, and Disability Acts. You can find her hanging around on Twitter @kelly_j_baker, tweeting about coffee, parenting, writing, and other shenanigans.