The tightness in my chest wasn’t a sharp pain—it felt more like a brick laying perpendicular across my sternum. The pressure didn’t make it difficult to breathe, but I found it hard to focus on anything besides the weight. The longer it lasted, the more my alarm grew.

I tried distracting myself with trashy TV. Netflix had just added two seasons of the MTV “reality” dating show “Are You The One?” and I smashed through it in a few short days. I tried sitting up more, breathing more intentionally, stretching, and drinking hot tea before bed.

But I couldn’t shake the knowledge that the off-again, on-again chest pain aligned perfectly with the usual 7 to 10 day period when COVID-19 symptoms show up after exposure. That’s how long it had been since Thanksgiving, when we visited my mother-in-law in Greensboro who later tested positive. More troubling, my wife was experiencing the exact same tightness I felt. Did we have the virus?

For some people, there’s a shame or stigma around (potential) exposure. I share this in the hopes that my transparency could help someone else in a similar situation. My experience isn’t special and it isn’t the norm; it’s just one of the millions of stories to emerge this year. 

Since the pandemic started, my wife and I have been on the most cautious end of the spectrum. There are, no doubt, plenty of you reading this who will see parts of my story and identify risks you aren’t taking. That seems to be the nature of this pandemic, where a failed cohesive federal response has left all of us making millions of individual judgment calls. But I’ll say that when compared to friends and family—none of whom believe COVID is a liberal hoax—my wife and I are being exceedingly careful, to more than a few raised eyebrows.

We’ve taken a few calculated risks, yes. But like so many of you, our year is measured by all the things we canceled or turned down, from postponing our wedding to declining invitations for small backyard gatherings. We still wipe down our groceries even though experts say it’s probably overkill. We only buy groceries at off-hours, usually late at night on a weekday. Even though I’m a food writer, we haven’t eaten at a single restaurant, inside or out. We haven’t included anyone else in our “pod.”

All of which is to say that when it came time for Thanksgiving, we felt a short drive to Guilford County to see my mother-in-law and her boyfriend—two retired educators who only leave home for essential trips like doctor’s visits—represented a calculated yet relatively safe risk.

As the holiday approached and coronavirus cases continued spiraling uncontrollably, we modified our outdoor meal plans. We’d bring our own plates, silverware, chairs, folding trays, and seasoning. We’d order takeout from Golden Corral and split the order in two to avoid sharing food or bringing items out from their kitchen. We’d wear masks when we weren’t eating, wipe everything down with sanitizing wipes, and drive to a nearby gas station to use the bathroom rather than entering their house. And we did.

A week after Thanksgiving, we learned that a cousin who’d given my mother-in-law’s boyfriend a ride to a doctor’s appointment two days before the holiday had since tested positive for COVID. His wife had, too. After calling their doctor and lining up a same-day rapid test, my mother-in-law tested positive. Her boyfriend didn’t. (We all assume his result was a false negative, as some of our doctors have since suggested.)

Over the next day our chest pains arrived, exactly when we’d expect symptoms to materialize.

We immediately booked free COVID tests at the CVS drive-thru on Roxboro Road. Saturday afternoon—two days later—was the earliest we could be seen. For those who haven’t been, the process is pretty seamless and unintrusive. We self-swabbed with what looked like glorified Q-tips, able to swirl them in each nostril and hold for 15 seconds without shoving them too far towards our brains. Results would be ready in a few days, we were told.

But in the interim, we struggled not to panic. Respiratory issues are among the more serious COVID symptoms, and by late Sunday night, we also both became hyperaware of our heartbeats. I woke up repeatedly feeling like mine was beating out of my chest—not necessarily faster than normal, but in a way that made me sit up and take a series of long, deep inhales and exhales. I couldn’t sleep. In the morning, my wife told me she’d suddenly started experiencing the same issue.

That morning (Monday) we booked appointments at Duke Urgent Care South, the Fayetteville Road facility that’s acting as a designated COVID respiratory care clinic. We’re newly married and still on different health insurance plans—hers covered the visit, but I learned on arrival that mine isn’t accepted within the Duke system, and I’d have to pay out of pocket. (The receptionist explained that costs had been slashed for such visits, and I ultimately paid $74.50 for it.)

By the end, we’d both had our blood-oxygen levels checked, our temperatures taken, our breathing observed via stethoscope, our blood pressure taken, and EKG readings of our hearts. We were seen separately, by different doctors, both of whom explained that they didn’t put much stock in the less invasive COVID self-tests we’d done in the CVS drive-thru. They tested us again, inserting a much longer skewer-like stick deep enough into our noses to cause discomfort. Still waiting on our original COVID test results, we now had a second set of PCR tests to worry about.

But in the meantime, all our other readings were normal. The stress and anxiety of worrying about COVID-positive family members, as well as ourselves—arguably compounded by all the other economic, political, and social stress of this year—had led to troubling symptoms that most likely weren’t COVID itself.

The doctors’ reassurances made it easier to relax, and we both left glowing about how attentive, considerate, empathetic, and patient they were. The tightness in our chests eased but didn’t evaporate.

Ultimately we both tested negative for COVID. Twice. Our CVS results took about two days to process, as did our Duke results. Only then did I start to feel normal again, though a couple of days later, I can still sometimes sense that weight in my upper abdomen. So can my wife.

After all, we’re still worried about my mother-in-law, whose symptoms are mild but consistent, and about her boyfriend, who appears to be asymptomatic despite some underlying risk factors. We’re worried about the cousins who tested positive. About the possible long-term effects. About other family members who have COVID. About potential exposure before the vaccines arrive.

I share my experience not because it’s extreme—precisely the opposite. This is what happened to a healthy 33-year-old with health insurance, a job that lets him work from home, who doesn’t have any underlying conditions or significant anxiety, and whose privileges make it easier to navigate the healthcare system than most. But just like you can’t necessarily predict how your body will react to COVID, I learned you also can’t predict how your body will react to the fear and stress of potential exposure.

It would be easy to look at this experience and think, “Look, I took all these precautions around Thanksgiving, which kept me safe even though someone I shared the meal with had COVID.”

But that’s not the feeling I’m left with. Instead, I spent the last week filled with dread, terrified that I’d passed along the virus to the couple of people I’d seen at a distance since Thanksgiving including a former INDY Week colleague and a couple with a newborn baby. (I called these folks immediately after learning I might’ve been exposed.)  The physical manifestation of my stress and anxiety luckily isn’t something I’d experienced before and I’m not keen to repeat it.

While I’m grateful that our efforts are likely the reason we narrowly avoided COVID, I don’t feel emboldened. Instead, I want to further retreat into my apartment. To see nobody at all. To cling more tightly to my health and be more grateful that my loved ones are okay.

I’m not here to preach an abstinence-only approach to social interactions. The reality is, I’ll continue to occasionally see friends and family. But those visits are going to come with added precautions.

We’ve canceled our plans for quarantining, testing, and indoor visits for Christmas. That’s not an easy call for my wife, who, like her mother, is practically a Christmas elf. There are just too many “what ifs.” What if my mother-in-law’s boyfriend doesn’t actually have COVID, and we give it to him? What if the virus is still hanging in the air of their townhome in a few weeks from now? And what if the anxiety about potentially exposing ourselves and others brings back our chest pains worse than before?

For us, it isn’t worth it. We’ll pick out and drop off a tree for them and we’ll find a way to exchange gifts at a distance. But 3,000 people died of COVID in the United States yesterday, a higher single-day death toll than 9/11 or D-Day. Our family seems to be walking away from the last couple of weeks affected but relatively unscathed. We want to keep it that way.

This Thanksgiving made us immensely grateful for our health, and for our loved ones. We already felt that way after a hellish year, where COVID-19 has landed several family members across various states in the hospital (all of whom, fortunately, emerged on the other side). But this has been a wake-up call. As we Zoom with my family for Hanukkah and plan for Christmas unlike any other with my wife’s family, we’re not mourning the normalcy this pandemic has taken from us—we’re rejoicing in just how lucky we really are.

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