The unsettling result of a negative coronavirus test


As a psychologist, I have long been aware of some of the emotional impacts that illnesses like COVID-19 can have on individuals and families. I never imagined that I would experience some of these impacts directly. Furthermore, I never could have guessed what it would feel like to be told I tested negative for COVID-19 when I was feverish and fighting for air at the height of the pandemic.

I started feeling sick several weeks ago. It began as innocuous chest congestion of the “am I really feeling this or is it only my anxiety?” variety. My husband, two teenagers, and I had flown home from a curtailed Hawaiian vacation nine days earlier. Since then, we had been cleaning our delivered groceries with alcohol wipes, washing our hands far more often than usual, and taking social distancing seriously. Maybe what I had was just a cold. On the third morning, I woke up with nausea, headache, chills, shortness of breath, and the disturbing realization that I could have the coronavirus.

The psychological effects of this pandemic are vast. For the healthy, there is a great fear of getting sick. It makes sense. With all of the extreme cases being reported in the news, we are conditioned to believe that having the coronavirus could lead to hospitalization, intubation, and even death. However, it is important to note that this will not happen to the vast majority of the population who contract the disease. Up to 80 percent of people with coronavirus have either no symptoms or mild to moderate symptoms that can be managed at home. If the newspaper printed those stories, it would be three feet thick and utterly boring.

My husband, a primary care doctor at a Boston teaching hospital,  had been seeing patients virtually since we’d returned home. But he knew he could be called into the hospital at any time to help with COVID patients, so when I became sick, he encouraged me to get tested. If I was positive, he would need to let his department know.

At the ER, I qualified for a COVID test, for which I feel lucky. Many people with similar symptoms have been told they did not meet criteria. After my exam, and from across the room clad in head-to-toe plastic, the doctor told me to assume I have COVID and to self-isolate until further notice.

Back at home, I took over the bedroom. I have been alone here for fifteen days. My symptoms have run the gamut from pink eye to drenching fever-induced night sweats to difficulty catching my breath after simple tasks like folding laundry or speaking on the phone. Symptoms come and go in waves. Some days I feel pretty well, only to be knocked down by symptoms later in the evening.

Despite many friends’ hopes and prayers that I tested negative, I actually hoped for a positive test result. I craved clarity and validation about what was happening to my body. A positive test result would allow me to lay down the anxiety I had about catching the coronavirus. It would make my isolation from my husband and children worthwhile. And finally, it would provide me with immunity.  A positive result was all I needed in order to make sense of and be patient with my situation – to have some certainty in this newly uncertain world.

After four days of waiting, my results came in: negative.

I felt deflated. If I don’t have coronavirus, then what on earth is causing me, an otherwise healthy person, to feel so sick for so long? I also had a disconcerting thought, perhaps exacerbated by the confusion that often accompanies COVID:  is this all in my head? Could it be that this is just a cacophony of symptoms made manifest by an overly anxious mind? I felt confusion, anger, and injustice all at once. My negative results gave me none of the mental relief I had sought from a positive test result, and all of the burden of managing the worst illness I have ever had in total isolation.

The past three months have introduced to all of the world’s people the most large-scale, uncertain, and frightening situation the modern world has ever known. In times of confusion, humans crave certainty.  When we are afraid, we crave the validation that what we are experiencing is real. And when we are sick, we rely on modern medicine to tell us why.

The day after receiving my negative test result, I read an article in The New York Times: “If You Have Coronavirus Symptoms, Assume You Have the Illness, Even if You Test Negative.” Doctors soon surmised that a full one-third of people who test negative for the coronavirus actually do have it. My doctor called the next day, letting me know she believed I was one of those people:  She told me that based on my symptoms, “it’s safe to say it’s a false negative.”

This provided me with relief. I smiled to myself for the first time in a week. After days of unsettling symptoms as well as questions I had about what was really happening to me and fears of the unknown, my doctor’s assessment validated my experience. And it has allowed me to get back to what I need to focus on: healing.

I recently came across the phrase, “when you can’t go outside, go inside.” As a therapist grounded in the practices of meditation and mindfulness, I took this to heart. Searching myself for the answers I craved elsewhere, I was reminded of the importance, now more than ever, of reducing our anxiety by staying in the present moment and of trusting our own experiences as valid and worthy, despite the labels we receive.

Jenny Berz is a psychologist.

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