I'm The Vulnerable One Staying Home During The Pandemic Holiday Season

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Marko Geber/Getty

“What are your plans for Christmas?” a friend asks me during a texting convo. “Same thing I did for Thanksgiving,” I reply. “Hang out at home with my family.” When you’re among the vulnerable population in the midst of a global pandemic like I am, your world has been turned upside down and inside out in every possible way—including your traditional holiday festivities.

While seemingly everyone else is making their lists, checking them twice, and planning to travel or host for the holidays, we are remaining in lockdown. There’s probably a better term for it, but when you’ve been working and helping kids learn from home since March, it feels like lockdown. Despite my slight—no, major—obsession with all-things-Christmas, this autoimmune warrior and her family will be staying in.

Yes, we’ve made plans for the month that are COVID-safe and still fun. I’m not letting this virus completely ruin my holiday. However, it’s impossible not to feel blue over the fact that for the first time in thirty-eight years, I will not be spending Christmas with my parents and siblings. I won’t be cuddling my three adorable nephews, decorating sugar cookies alongside my younger brother and sister, or placing carefully wrapped packages into my parents’ hands.

The reality is, the pandemic will rage on, December 25th and every other day of the month. I’ve been warned by my specialists to be “very careful.” Their medically sound advice has only intensified over the past month, as families gathered around Thanksgiving tables to share pieces of pie and germs. Meanwhile, we stayed home and made a “fancy” (for us) dinner, serving it on our wedding china. The few hours of extended family togetherness isn’t worth the risk of getting sick, which for me can be even more complicated.

I have a long medical history. It started with contracting a stomach virus over Thanksgiving break during my last year of college. For a year and a half after, I dealt with increasingly concerning symptoms: weight loss, fatigue, weakness, depression, constant thirst and hunger, and blurry eyesight. One day I couldn’t stay awake, even though it was only ten in the morning, and my husband, who couldn’t reach me by phone, rushed home from work and took me to the emergency room. Despite visiting the doctor over fifteen times since the virus onset, I was never properly diagnosed. When the ER doctor told me I had type 1 diabetes, I was shocked.

In the days that followed, I was told by my ICU doctors and nurses that I was “very lucky” to be alive. People with my blood sugar levels were on death’s door. They were perplexed how my body managed to survive without proper insulin for so long. I learned to calculate carbohydrates, test my blood sugar, and inject insulin.

Type 1 diabetes is a tricky beast. Many pieces have to work together at all times in order for me to stay healthy. Though modern day technology has been my saving grace, it only takes one clogged up insulin pump set, one insulin miscalculation, or a minor virus, to send me to straight to the emergency room. Yep, this includes COVID-19.

I wish type 1 diabetes were my only battle, but I’m also a breast cancer survivor, battling cancer when I was thirty-five years old. Three years later, I was diagnosed with lupus, a second autoimmune disease. If you look at me, I appear young and healthy, an active mom of four kids. Yet every single day, my body works hard to stay healthy and alive. Diseases like mine are often called invisible illnesses, because they aren’t evident upon a first glance. My diseases are also considered chronic, as in, ongoing.

No essential oils, vitamins, hot yoga, cupping, or medication can make these diseases go away, nor can medications, therapies, or surgeries. Autoimmune diseases are complicated and relentless, and therefore, require constant management and monitoring. The goal is to stay as steady as possible, keeping the diseases in check with medical interventions, lifestyle choices, and natural assistance.

When COVID-19 hit, the diabetic community was rocked. We worried there would be insulin shortages. Then my lupus community was also freaking out, because the president decided to take anti-malarial drugs, one of which is necessary for lupus patients to stay healthy, even though this coronavirus prevention method was unproven. Pharmacies and medical offices began facing demands from the general public for the pharmaceutical medication that many lupus patients depended on.

Even if a person like myself doesn’t have COVID-19, we live in constant fear of the virus, not knowing if our body will be able to handle its effects. We also worry about hospital accessibility. Will the hospital we head to, should we get sick, have room for us and be equipped to handle our complex medical needs?

I’ve heard so many people say this is “just” a virus, and I’m quick to speak up. It was “just” a virus that turned on my type 1 diabetes—a disease with no cure, a disease that requires 24/7/365 attention. Yes, someone can have a mild case of COVID-19. Others may have a more severe, or deadly case, and some might experience the long-term side effects reported in some patients. The possibilities are endless and terrifying.

It’s hard for me to see the jolly family and friends gatherings on social media and not have a pity party. Why me? Why do I have to be the sick one, the one who bows out of the fun? Where is my merry and bright? I feel isolated, forgotten, and dehumanized. I also feel grateful to have a safe home to shelter-in-place, a supportive husband, and willing children.

Right now, for me, there’s no end in sight. I don’t know when it will be safe to be out and about again. The virus doesn’t just concern me as far as my physical health, but my mental and emotional health. The past almost-nine months have taken a serious toll on me as someone who was already vulnerable to the effects of typical winter illnesses. The COVID cases numbers in my county are raging, the hospitals are filling up, and it will only get increasingly worse as people celebrate the holidays with their nearest and dearest.

I’m working hard to create a very merry Christmas with my family. I’m still planning menus, rocking to our favorite Christmas playlists, wrapping (and shipping) gifts, and baking cookies with my kids. I ordered new pjs for myself to make absolutely sure I’m as cozy as possible on December 25. But nothing can make up for the fact that I am the sick one, and if I got the virus at a holiday event, could be even sicker.

This article was originally published on