Navigating Turbulent Waters

It’s been interesting & stressful, suddenly navigating a new set of risk assessments with Jed visiting.

(To recap for those who haven’t been following along: I’m married to Kevin, it’s an open marriage, we’ve been poly the whole time (28+ years or so), I’ve been in a poly relationship with Jed for 20+ years. The guys get along well, and we’re used to having Jed visiting us a few times a year and staying for 7-10 days, usually; I also generally met up with him at conventions (we work in the same field) and visited his place in the Bay Area. The kids call him Uncle Jed, and know we’re poly and that he’s part of our family. Due to the pandemic, instead of seeing him every 1-2 months, Jed and I hadn’t seen each other in a year, and it was very sad. He came out here a few weeks ago, quarantined for two weeks in an AirBnb, I went to stay with him in the AirBnb for a one-week writing + Jed retreat, and now he’s come to stay in the guest suite at our house, and will be with us until the end of March, at least (though I’m hoping he’ll change his flight to later). When Kevin and I retire in a decade or so, if we leave Oak Park / Chicago, we’d be most likely to try to move to the Bay Area; one ideal version of the future has us in a neighboring house to Jed’s. Caught up? Okay, onwards.)


Jed and Kevin are both more cautious than me in risk assessment generally, and that’s become clear yet again during the pandemic. At the start of all this last March, Kevin and I (who normally basically don’t fight — we don’t yell at each other, we’ve snapped at each other maybe 2-3 times in almost 30 years) found ourselves getting weirdly snippy with each other about risk. Specifically, I would do things like:

– go to a grocery store when I could’ve had groceries delivered, or

– go to a (large, airy, mostly outdoors) garden store, when I could’ve skipped it entirely, or

– go for a masked, socially distanced exercise walk with my pediatrician friend (who was going into work regularly, of course)

…all of which would stress Kevin out. His response to the pandemic was basically to hole up in our house. Occasionally he would go out for masked exercise walks, with or without the kids, but in a pretty minimal way. I would go out daily, or multiple times / day (usually for masked solitary walks with podcasts for company).

After a few weeks of snippiness / stress, we had a big conversation sorting it out, and came to a compromise, which was essentially I kept doing everything I was doing — and I know, that doesn’t sound like a compromise, bear with me — but I’d do LESS of it, and only when I felt like I REALLY NEEDED TO for my mental or physical health, and maybe most importantly, I’d keep in mind that it stressed him out. If I wanted to go out before Kevin woke up or while he was teaching, so he didn’t have to think about it directly that time, that would actually make it a little easier for him.

So, we puttered along fairly well for most of the pandemic, and I only had a few nights in January when I was literally weeping from stir-crazy frustration, and Kev patted me sympathetically/helplessly, because in the dead of winter in Chicago, there just aren’t so many options for getting out.

That brings us up to last week, when Jed came out, and we had to renegotiate all over again. We’d talked in advance, of course, and had sorted out that while he was stressed by the garden stores and exercise walks, he could cope with it, similar to Kevin.

Then I had to contact him a few days before he was due to fly out and say that we’d decided to let Kavi go back to hybrid school, because our normally sunny and school-loving girl was getting depressed with remote learning, and it was worrying us. That would start on March 15, so halfway through his time here, basically, and every day she went in and came back would potentially put him at some risk. (She is very responsible about appropriate measures, which helps.) Jed decided he was okay with that.

So I kind of thought we were all set, and then he arrived, and quarantined, and I went out to join him, and that was when we walked into another unexpected risk assessment minefield. On the first day, I suggested driving out to a conservatory-type place to walk around outside in the gardens. He thought that was too risky. Not long after, I suggested going for a walk in the neighborhood, or maybe going to the woods, and he thought those were too risky too.

And I was a little shocked, honestly, and sort of hurt, in a way that didn’t make a lot of sense. I felt deprived of a pleasure I’d been looking forward to, which is generally hard in an overall pleasure-deprived year. I also had been looking forward to it in a relationship-y way, that it would be nice to walk around outdoors together, the way we have many times before (in Sri Lanka, in Dublin, in the Bay Area). It’s a good time to talk, away from work and other distractions, in between enjoying nature.

When we discussed it further, Jed admitted that he didn’t actually think walking around masked in our neighborhood (or in the woods) was likely to be much actual risk, but it felt unnecessary to him, and therefore stressful.

I want to look at that word ‘unnecessary’ for a moment. Because of course, he was right, it was unnecessary. I could manage without ever leaving the little AirBnb apartment for a week. But at the same time, the thought of staying inside for a week made me immensely stressed out.

I try not to use the word ‘crazy’ casually, because it’s ableist and hurtful. But I actually think ‘stir-crazy’ is appropriate here, because it really is a mental health issue, and connects to a sort of claustrophobia. (‘Cabin fever’ ditto — it feels like a fever, like my heart is racing.)

I don’t like small, enclosed spaces. If I’m stuck in an elevator for a while, I get panicky. When I sleep at night, I often have to stick a leg out from under the covers, to keep from feeling too confined (and there are often negotiations with our old dog, who likes to sleep RIGHT NEXT to my legs, gah).

So I’ve been incredibly thankful this pandemic that we had a big house and a yard to shelter in, and I’ve had so much sympathy for people trapped in much smaller places. Little boxes make me crazy. (So do metaphorical boxes, like the ones that say you can only date within your own race, or only one person at a time, but that’s sort of tangential to this particular issue.)

What was fascinating, in the several conversations with Jed around this as we sorted it out, was learning that HE DOESN’T FEEL THIS. I mean, he literally doesn’t mind, at all, the idea of not leaving his house for several months when he gets back to California.

This is almost incomprehensible to me. I want to respect his truth and his self-definition, but how can a human being not feel the need to roam freely? On a fundamental level, I just don’t get it.

And similarly, he doesn’t get the sort of panicky emotions I experience when feeling trapped. So mostly, we have to just trust the other person is reporting their experience accurately, and then come to our joint risk-assessment decisions with that intellectual understanding and respect.

I bothered to write all this out because I think a lot of us are dealing with some variant of this, and have been for the past year, and it can be a huge strain.

(It doesn’t help that the public health messaging on this was confusing and contradictory for a long time, or that different states were giving different guidance, or that the science itself was just really unclear for quite a while, or that most of us were just reading random articles, not doing in-depth study – if I read one set of articles and you read another set, we might end up coming to totally different yet apparently reasonable conclusions…)

And EVEN IF you and your partner(s) are on the same page, or get to the same page, there’s still the negotiations with your friends, your relatives, your community, your kids’ school, your job (which may not give you much choice in the matter), etc.

It can be really bewildering, seeing people acting in a way that seems completely oblivious to health concerns that seem obvious to you. People you LIKE, suddenly becoming public health menaces.

Conversely, it can be just as bewildering seeing people react so strongly to what seems a relatively mild health risk to you, while completely discounting mental health issues (or serious financial concerns) that feel overwhelming / nightmarish to you or yours.

I think we just have to keep trying to extend each other grace on these issues. To respect peoples’ lived experiences, listen to their take on things, keep navigating this as best we can.

As we hopefully move towards full vaccination in America for all who want it, and herd immunity if we’re lucky (crossing all my fingers and toes for that), I hope that we can also forgive each other a little bit. One thing Jed and I kept saying to each other was along the lines of “I know this is irrational, but…”

I think that’s important, respecting and making space for the irrational, human, emotions. I’m a big fan of science and data-driven decisions, and so is Jed (and so is Kevin), and for the most part, that’s what we rely on for our base decision-making. (And should, for public health policy!)

But when it comes to the fine details, the tweaking and tuning questions of whether I really need to go to a garden store this month, or whether it’s mentally healthy for Jed / Kevin to stay in a house for six months straight (the idea of which makes my brain go AUGH!) it isn’t really about rationality or science anymore.

It’s about emotion — about panic and fear and stress. And our response needs to be emotion-based too, needs to be about “I love you, and I want you to be happy, and I don’t understand this part of you, but that’s okay, let me try to take care of what you need anyway.”

A little bit of a trial by fire, but I think we’re coming out stronger on the other end. It could’ve gone bad, though.

Love and light to all of you, all of us, as we navigate these turbulent waters. Wishing you peace.


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