On March 24, 2020, about 2 months after the pandemic really started to make a difference in the United States, I started to experience symptoms of anxiety, or so I thought. I was experiencing shortness of breath and a heavy chest; I could barely walk around the block without causing severe shortness of breath. Although this a common, and potentially deadly sign of COVID-19, I chalked my symptoms up to anxiety; I convinced myself that I was experiencing a panic attack. Constantly. FOR 7 DAYS STRAIGHT. I truly believed I was having a constant panic attack for a week straight, even when I was awoken in the middle of the night with such shortness of breath that I was afraid I couldn’t breathe anymore; I believed it was “just anxiety”.
On April 1, 2020, I received a phone call from the Boulder Public Health Department asking how my 14-day quarantine was going and if I had developed any symptoms. So many thoughts began racing through my mind: Why on earth would they care? Aren’t they busy? Why do they care about people who don’t even have COVID-19? Maybe they are just trying to connect with people? Maybe they are trying to conduct a study on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting people? What makes me so special that they are calling me to find out how I am doing?
Eventually, I said, “the shelter-at-home is going okay, I mean, I’m keeping busy since I’m still working”- GASP. The lady on the other line literally gasped.
She stopped me and asked, “Ma’am, you’re… still… working?”.
I responded and told her yes, “I work at a coffee shop and I have been working even though we have closed most of our stores”.
Her voice went silent and she eventually said, “Ma’am… you’re supposed to be at home… in quarantine… self-isolating, as you were directly exposed to COVID-19 and potentially have it.”
This was the first time I had been told about the exposure. Apparently, at my last doctors visit, I was directly exposed to a receptionist who later tested positive for COVID-19. I was floored. WHY DIDN’T I KNOW?
On April 2, 2020, I was tested for COVID-19 after explaining to my primary doctor that, although I’m sure it’s just anxiety, I have been experiencing shortness of breath and a heavy chest. She asked how long the symptoms were happening and how often I was experiencing them. I explained to her that I have been experiencing these symptoms for about a week and it was constant. I continued to tell her that I cannot walk around the block without being so short of breath that I am literally gasping for air, but again, it is probably just anxiety. I mean, really, would a healthy 21-year-old female catch the coronavirus? And even so, why would it be the coronavirus when I have so much stress; I just moved all my classes online, I am graduating in less than a month, I can no longer see my boyfriend after he graduates from basic training- there’s really no reason to stress about this being the coronavirus. She believed me as well. She was convinced, just as much as me, that it was probably just anxiety and there was nothing to worry about, but, better safe than sorry.
On April 6, 2020, my results came back. I tested positive for COVID-19.
This isn’t new, there is no secret, there is no surprise; women are treated differently. Women have expectations, mainly dictated by men, to not claim they are hurting, struggling, or sick. When women are actually sick, or hurting, or struggling, they are thought to be just emotional; no matter what it is, it can always be explained by their emotional state. Heart attack? Probably just anxiety or a panic attack. Autoimmune disorder? Just depression. Stroke? It’s anxiety. Their physically sickness rarely exists because it can always be explained by their mental sickness; mental health issues. COVID-19 is no exception.
We have seen it throughout history, from the time Ancient Egypt coined the term “hysteria” claiming that women’s “issues” were all because of their mental health. To Plato claiming the uterus is sad and troubled when it does not join with the male in the act of giving birth. To Aristotle claiming women can be released from their “issues” if only they participate in Maenads, the act of wine and orgies. To Hippocrates using the term hysteria to claim epilepsy was just a woman experiencing mental health issues and their uterus was just restless and poisonous due to a lack of sexual activity with a man. To Sigmund Freud believing women with sickness were just experiencing “penis envy”, the act of being so devastated and disheartened that you do not have a penis that you develop a sickness. To now, where women are still experiencing the belief that their actual, true, physical sickness is just a mental health issue and their body is punishing them for being a woman.
In a time of crisis, we are expected to keep calm, keep our cool. But how can we? How are we supposed to not panic during a time like the COVID-19 pandemic? Why are we expected to believe our symptoms of COVID-19 are just mental health issues? And more importantly, why are our symptoms simply brushed off as mental health issues? This type of mentality is dangerous, especially for women, as it mainly pertains to them. We have created women who are scared to express their symptoms because they will be downplayed to mental health. In a world as uncertain as now, this is the last thing we should be allowing women to do.
When I was experiencing signs of COVID-19 I simply brushed off these symptoms as anxiety; I believed the shortness of breath I was experiencing while walking around the block was simply anxiety and stress. This is the world that has been created for me. We have created a world where women are constantly downplaying their symptoms of real issues because of fear to the point that I was afraid to address real symptoms I was experiencing in fear that I would not be believed. Time and time again, I have seen doctors and physicians who have downplayed my serious medical issues to mental health. For example, when my body was physically rejecting my recently placed IUD, I was told that I simply just had “bad cramps” and they will go away in a few days. They did not. I ended up back in the hospital a few days later being told the same thing. It wasn’t until a doctor took me seriously and realized the “bad period cramps” I was experiencing was actually my body rejecting my IUD. And I am not the only one. Women everywhere have stories of similar experiences; my mother for example. When she was actively having a heart attack, she was told that she was experiencing a panic attack because her symptoms only included nausea.
THIS. NEEDS. TO. CHANGE. We cannot allow women, and men, and anyone else in between, to allow women to brush off their symptoms of serious disorders, especially in a time of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of 2020, women know damn well between the difference of physical health and mental health.
A coda: As of April 21, 2020, I am fully recovered and no more symptoms; no heavy chest, no more shortness of breath, no more anxiety. Although I am fully recovered, my resentment and anger towards the healthcare system still stands. I am still angry at the way I have been treated, and in the way I have allowed myself to be treated, but eventually we will know how to change this, how to do better. Right now, I am currently staying away from work but will continue back after graduation. As of now, as many other members of the class of 2020 in my position, I am in search of a “grown-up” job to jumpstart my career. However, that seems far fetched; in times like now, I am so uncertain that a career-related job is even real, if there’s even a possibility of a job when we are beginning this deep health and economic crisis.
Abby Wikholm is a 21-year old senior at the University of Colorado-Boulder graduating this May 2020. She studies psychology and sociology, with a concentration on criminal justice and mental health. She aims to become a lawyer, to be a voice for the poor, disadvantaged, and disenfranchised. Her training and experience have taught her the prevalence of mental illness and how it affects individuals as well as their families and friends. She just joined twitter, so follow her at @WikholmAbby and support the Class of 2020.