Finally, Everyone Gets the Anxiety of Illness

Finally, Everyone Gets the Anxiety of Illness

As an educational psychologist at a K-8 school with a mission for gifted education and also in private practice, I work with a lot of parents who have spent years fighting for their kids’ health. I’ve had a few parents whose kids are undergoing cancer treatment, who talk about their anxiety in going to the grocery store. Or parents of children with autoimmune conditions who talk about the real danger to their kids of going to the doctor’s office for routine care, or to the dentist for a cleaning. They talk about the looks they get from other parents when they ask their children to use hand sanitizer at a birthday party. Parents in the illness community have been forced to cultivate an attitude of increased vigilance, constantly on the lookout for exposures that could be dangerous or even fatal for their kids.

Now with COVID-19, we all get to experience a hint of what they’re been going through. We are ALL at risk of exposure to a dangerous disease, and while many of us who are healthy are unlikely to die from coronavirus, we understand the fear and anxiety of transmission.

And I’ve had parents in the illness community talk about how good that feels — some with guilt and some unabashed in their relief to finally feel respected and understood. Many of these parents have spent years being told they are overprotective or over concerned or just plain crazy. Now, in a way, these same parents get the chance to be leaders and mentors in communities that newly understand the need to stay safe.

I’ve also heard from these parents that in some ways they feel LESS anxious about their children’s health during COVID-19. Of course, parents fear their children could be exposed to the disease, which for many of these kids could result in much more severe sickness than for kids with strong baseline health. But for may of these kids ANY exposure could be dangerous. And now social distancing not only reduces the chance of catching COVID-19, but also reduces the risk of picking up any dangerous virus or bacteria.

One of the parents who talked to me about her fear of picking up an exposure in the grocery store that she could give to her immunocompromised son told me that now with everyone in masks, using hand sanitizer, and staying 6 feet apart, she feels like she can shop without fear. For her and for many parents like her, this is a dramatic change.

Of course, these mixed feelings about COVID-19 are tricky for people inside and outside the illness community. Is it immoral to feel relief that others have been forced to join your anxiety? Is it right or wrong to feel good that others’ risk actually reduces the risk for your own child? Or is it simply validating to have a society that overlooked your child’s needs and your own actions finally experience what you’ve been going through all along?

There are no easy answers. And I would love to hear what you think about society joining the illness experience. Now that we’re all at risk together, how has this changed the way you feel about parenting or working with kids who have been at risk all along?