Longtime Yelm resident Gordon Grobelny has a simple, yet daunting method for avoiding COVID-19: “Stay happy, stay fearless, and your immune system will take care of you.”
The kilt-wearing chiropractor and kinesiologist — born in Thunder Bay Ontario, Canada, in 1963 — has not had the virus, nor does he know anyone who has.
And as you might have guessed, he hasn’t let the threat of the disease alter his lifestyle.
“I do the same things now that I did before, except that I wear a mask,” he said recently from the home of his friend AnneMarie Murdock, a Yelm marriage and family therapist who had gathered together a small group to discuss COVID-19 and how it has altered their lives. “I’m fearless. I’ve done so many things in my life, and I’m just not afraid.”
Grobelny’s upbeat, confident attitude toward COVID-19 may well be an outlier at a time when the disease is barely holding steady in Washington and rising in many other American states. Ten months into the pandemic, in fact — the first known case in the United States was reported on Jan. 20 — the American public is still living in an altered universe where up is down, black is white, and very little reminds them of how life used to be.
Murdock, who has worked as a therapist for five years and sees from 20 to 24 clients a week in an office next to her Yelm home, implied that when the pandemic first landed in the United States it seemed to be both evil and mystical.
“There was this sense that nobody knew what was happening, and that there was this unseen force,” she said recently. “You couldn’t taste it or smell it or see it, and the only way you knew it existed was when you got sick or someone you knew was sick.”
And as the virus progressed, the apprehension of impending doom hit many people like sucker punches, exacerbating whatever challenges they may have already had.
“I’ve noticed the stress of my clients is up now,” said Murdock, 56. “Everything that they were dealing with before the pandemic now exists in an environment where the collective stress is much higher.”
As it relates to COVID-19 and stress, one of Murdock’s friends — Roy resident Holli Howatson 63 — is a Rubik’s Cube of emotions. The virus scares her, but her life’s challenges seem to have prepared her for combating much of the anxiety the virus typically engenders. Nobody she knows has had the disease.
“I’ve had ridiculous, severe trauma in my life, and this (COVID-19) is just something we’re going through,” she said recently. “I’m so used to fear as an experience, this just doesn’t freak me out or upset me like it might other people.”
But she still worries.
“I am afraid that someone will give me COVID, and I don’t want to get sick — and I don’t want to get someone else sick,” said Howatson, who works as the treasurer at the Olympia Yacht Club.
And she finds all of the hubbub over wearing face masks absurd and unacceptable.
“I am particularly uncomfortable around people who don’t wear masks or don’t wear them properly,” she said. “It’s an ounce of prevention. Why aren’t we using it?”
President Donald Trump entered the conversation at this point, the focal points on his COVID-19 diagnosis, subsequent hospitalization and release, and penchant for eschewing masks.
Regarding his virus diagnosis, Howatson said: “I think it’s poetic justice. I don’t wish death on anyone, and I find my sense of humor about it totally inappropriate.”
Howatson’s sense of humor was severely put to the test, though, in January when she believes she and her husband Jim Howatson contracted the virus, though it was never diagnosed. Jim took the brunt of the sickness — and that worried Holli the most.
“I almost had to take him to the hospital,” she recalled. “I asked his three daughters to pray for him.”
Jim survived, but so has the virus — and that has adversely affected Holli’s normal lifestyle.
“I don’t see my extended family now, or my kids, or my friends — and that’s a big thing,” she said.
And though she and Jim survived that harsh sickness and continue to cope with COVID-19-related restrictions on their daily lives, Holli said the virus has not otherwise adversely affected their marriage.
But that has not been the case for other couples, Murdock revealed.
Stuck in the house together with COVID-19 lurking in the background has challenged couples to maintain decorum when all else is in disarray.
“Some couples I’ve seen would say that there was no place to escape, and that they were stepping on each other,” Murdock explained. “There was no longer a sense of self, because it got minimized and the sense of being a couple increased. It was hard for people to be in each other’s faces all the time.”
And that equation became infinitely more complex when school-aged children were involved — as virtual learning added yet another stressor to already strained families.
The complaints would go something like this, Murdock postulated: “I now have to work at home, do the home chores, and I have a full-time job teaching my kids — and I’m not a teacher!”
Families had to figure out how to cope on the fly when the virus forced schools to abruptly close, Murdock added.
“I am seeing more and more parents who tell me that they run a business or a farm and can’t sit there all day making sure their kids are at the computer,” she said.
Thurston County resident Debe Andersen’s not in that particular boat. The 61-year-old has five boys, but they’re all grown and on their own. Andersen has not had COVID-19 but has a friend who contracted the disease and recovered after a long bout.
Andersen, a North Thurston School District middle school resource math teacher who also taught in the Yelm school district from 2012 to 2018, views virtual school learning from the other side of the computer so to speak.
Her experience with remote teaching has, in a word, been dreadful. The experience for her and other teachers has been especially deflating because the prevailing wisdom in early March was that school would remain closed only for about three weeks.
“In the spring, we were all learning this thing that we had never done, and it was extremely difficult for teachers, students, families — just everybody,” Andersen recalled.
And though she longed to resume traditional teaching, she nevertheless feared the potential hazards in-person instruction might engender. She especially didn’t want to bring home the virus to her 74-year-old husband Terry Andersen, who at the time had a heart condition and eventually died of a heart attack on Sept. 15 that was not related to the virus.
Terry’s death, her online teaching, and the threat of COVID-19 have teamed up to pummel her sense of order.
“I’ve been very overwhelmed because of my teaching career,” she said. “I’ve never worked this hard before, and I feel like a first-year math teacher with all the stress and anxiety.”
But ironically, Andersen has developed a love-hate relationship with the computer technology she’s strived to assimilate in her classroom.
“I don’t enjoy having to use the technology for the classroom rather than in-person teaching, but I also love it because it’s keeping me in contact with people who have been my solid support system,” she said.
Like Andersen, longtime Roy resident Kathy Blodgett, 68, another of Murdock’s friends, has not had COVID-19. She, however, knew two people through family associations who died from the virus and another who was hospitalized. The tragedies heightened her desire to avoid what sometimes seemed like an inevitable calamity.
“It felt like it was getting closer and closer to me,” she said. “It just wasn’t something out there that was happening to other people.”
The situation reinforced her and her husband Jim’s decision to form their own “bubble” around immediate family members — a decision made more critical because Jim suffers from severe asthma. The bubble includes their son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren who live across the road from them. Kathy and Jim also have two other daughters who live out of town.
“We interact all the time, but only with each other,” explained Blodgett, who retired in 2014 after 20 years as a program manager for the Washington State Department of Early Learning, Early Support for Infants and Toddlers Program. “And right from the very beginning we listened to experts and scientists about how to stay safe.”
For many people in Blodgett’s age group — which includes all of Murdock’s recent guests — relying on scientific fact overshadows all other considerations.
“Clients who are 55 years and older are all much more conservative and worried about what could happen,” Murdock explained. “They adhere much more to established and proven guidelines.”
For Blodgett that means a severely truncated daily schedule that now includes purchasing groceries online, visiting grocery stores only during early morning senior hours when her items can be placed in the back of her car, and getting mail just once a week on Sunday mornings.
“I used to go out every day for lunch or to get the mail, but not now,” she said.
Now, her immediate thoughts go something like this: “How will my actions potentially affect those around me? Am I putting them in jeopardy by doing this, or this, or this ...?”
These types of decisions are especially crucial when people are in close relationships — and living under one roof, Blodgett stressed.
“When you’re in a partnership, you’re having to make decisions based on each other’s risk-aversion level,” she said, adding that it could be as simple as deciding whether to eat at a restaurant. One partner may be all for it, the other hesitant because of potential COVID-19 contamination.
“It’s a big change in managing life,” Blodgett said. “Such basic things we were used to are not the same.”
And the whole mess makes her mad.
“I’m more angry about everything that’s going on, and we have had to navigate that,” Blodgett said. “We’re having to manage intense emotions around all the hard things happening around the world.”
And that’s when coping mechanisms come into play, Murdock suggested.
“Relieving stress, identifying emotions and finding activities that help keep people safe, less worried and existing in the present moment can be very helpful,” she said.
For Blodgett that has translated into such outlets as meditation, gardening, coloring, video chatting with friends, taking walks, limiting TV news, and grabbing take-out food for lunches with friends at home or in parks.
“I’ve had to take more steps to manage my emotions and to feel a sense of well being,” she said. “I’m trying to look for wisdom and healers who are giving us good advice on our self care.”
For Holli Howatson, that sense of well being may lie simply in the confidence she exudes. She’s pretty darn sure she’ll defeat COVID-19 if it comes for her.
“I’m not afraid of dying from it,” she concluded. “I think I’d survive because I’m healthy, and I plan to live to be 110. We’re going to come out of this better than ever, but I just don’t know when.”