Break on Through to the Other Side
What we can't defeat, we must integrate
“Tried to run
Tried to hide
Break on through to the other side” —The Doors
“The demon that you can swallow gives you its power.” — Joseph Campbell
I woke up with a mildly scratchy throat on the Monday before Christmas. A little achy, a faint malaise. I took a home rapid COVID test, and it was negative. But I had a hunch it was wrong. The ache in my collarbone was becoming substantial. I trundled off to the Minneapolis convention center for a PCR test, and by the time the results came back the next day, they simply confirmed what I already knew: I had a breakthrough COVID infection.
There was a time when that big word on my phone — Positive — would have filled me with dismay. But when it finally arrived, I felt something else, something that went beyond resignation, beyond acceptance, something verging on glee — the adrenalin burst of a long-awaited fight for which I’d been mentally and physically preparing for two years. Finally, the specter of the unknown was becoming real. And I felt up to it, ready to do battle.
They say that when you have recurring dreams of the same monster chasing you over and over, the only way to make it stop is to turn around and face it. I’d never been particularly worried about COVID for myself — even before vaccines were rolled out, my demographic was far from high-risk — but I did worry about transmitting it. That was a monster I wanted to stay ahead of.
There was that lovely, brief period in late spring and early summer, when we still thought vaccines made you bulletproof. But then the breakthroughs started. And it was clear that our illusion of control was just that — an illusion. We thought we had vanquished nature with technology. But it wasn’t so. We had simply evened the playing field a bit.
This pandemic has demolished our narratives of control as fast as we can make them, like an industrial grade shredder. We thought vaccines would make you unbreachable, unimpeachable. Turns out they’re more like Mr. Miyagi, teaching our immune systems how to battle this particular bug. We thought he’d do it for us, like a helicopter parent clearing all obstacles from a beloved child’s path, but no. His whole deal is to prepare the hero. And then the hero has to fight.
Study after study emerged, showing that natural immunity is superior to that derived from vaccines, and that hybrid immunity (a combination of vaccination and infection) is the strongest of all. I started to look forward to my own breakthrough infection the same way I had to receiving my first dose of Pfizer — as a chance to gain broad and lasting protection against future sickness. A chance to venture into Smaug the Dragon’s cave and emerge with the coveted ring of hybrid immunity, which would shield not just me, but also the more vulnerable people around me.
This was a battle my well-trained, vaccinated immune system needed to confront on its own. The monster who’d been chasing me was a shadow I needed to integrate, a demon I needed to swallow in order to absorb its power. I prepared myself with sleep and exercise, a diet bursting with plants, supplements to keep my vitamin D levels high, and regular cold plunges in icy lakes. Wax on, wax off. And on Christmas week, the monster arrived.
In my case, it turned out to be a kitten. I dispatched the virus painlessly, with a few days of muscle aches, a brief, mild fever, and a sporadic cough. My husband Quinton was hit a little harder, suffering 48 hours of flu-level fever and fatigue. And then that was it. We’d broken through and emerged on the other side, the prize of sturdy and broad hybrid immunity in hand.
We’ll almost certainly get infected again eventually. That’s inevitable with an endemic respiratory virus. But COVID is now a foe we no longer need to fear. Our T- and B cells have its number.
It feels like the global west is having one big collective breakthrough as we teeter on the verge of a new year. Omicron is everywhere. We’re feverish, inflamed, and hoarse. God knows we’re fatigued. But we could let this fever be purifying, I think. If we let it burn away the worry and blame, the rage and fear of the past two years. Sweat it out. And wake up refreshed, clear-eyed for the first time in a long time.
Gone: our illusions of simple technocratic domination over nature. Replaced with a sense of balance and resilience; an integration of wisdom, technology, and nature; gratitude for the lessons and preparation we’ve received; a resolve to take care of each other by letting those of us who are up to it build a wall of community hybrid immunity around the vulnerable. A sense of service and strength. A sense of having weathered something harrowing together, and come out stronger.
I know, I know, the odds are slim. But the New Year is a time for aspiration, right? This is my wish. Let it ring.