Awake From Sleep

First Sunday of Advent
A woman in New York City walks toward the Manhattan Bridge during thick fog in 2021 (CNS photo/Shannon Stapleton, Reuters).

This past June my husband and I contracted Covid. After two-and-a-half years, the virus that kept us indoors, negatively affected our jobs, caused division in our families, and took the lives of more than 1 million people in the United States and 6.5 million worldwide had finally gotten us. We had to cancel all our plans, and in addition to feeling sick, we also felt defeated. Although it’s been months since we tested negative, it seems like we never truly healed. A mental fog still dominates our waking hours.

Two months after getting sick, we moved out of our apartment. It held too many reminders of the months of lockdown, too many associations with the depression we felt over those two-plus years of the pandemic. It was a small Los Angeles apartment, one of those 1940s buildings in Los Feliz. There were clues that it had originally been a studio with a murphy bed, and that it had been awkwardly redone with a bedroom off the kitchen, a later addition. A perfectly fine apartment for a couple working in the city—but it had become a prison cell shared by two adults working from home and a small dog. We felt that our physical and mental health both depended on our moving. As we left the empty apartment, I felt nostalgic for the memories we had made, but the mental fog and anxiety were so palpable I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Now, in our new apartment, two blocks down from our old one, we have more space and even a little patio: enough room for two adults, one dog, and our mental illness. You can leave a place behind, but you can’t leave yourself.

Though I do not believe in a God who imposes this suffering upon me, I believe in God’s grace, which may make something good out of my experience.

The brain fog refuses to lift. We’re not alone in this experience. In the Atlantic, Ed Yong writes that 20–30 percent of Covid patients report brain fog three months after their initial infection, as do 65–85 percent of those who stay sick for much longer. This brain fog is a disorder of the “executive function”—the set of mental abilities that includes focusing, holding information in mind, and blocking out distractions. Concentration, multitasking, and planning become arduous. Yong adds that brain fog can afflict people who were never ill enough to need a ventilator or any hospital care, and that it can affect young people in the prime of their mental lives.

I’m not entirely sure if my personal brain fog is due exclusively to having contracted Covid this past summer or whether it’s due to the more general phenomena known as “pandemic brain,” described as depression, stress, and mental fatigue that come from living through a pandemic (and everything else that has occurred in the past three years). What I am certain about is that there are days, sometimes weeks, that I feel like I'm in a dream, disassociating just to get through the day.  It’s no surprise that as I reflected on this first Sunday of Advent’s readings, I was struck by the theme of wakefulness.

In the second reading from the letter to the Romans 13:11, we read, “You know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep.” In the Gospel reading from Matthew, we’re exhorted to “stay awake!” (Matthew 24:42) As is expected from our Advent liturgies, the readings are apocalyptic, warning us of the urgency to “walk in the light of the Lord” as the first reading from the Prophet Isaiah invites us to do (Isaiah 2:5). The readings set the stage for Advent spirituality. We’re invited to enter a state of deep desire for awareness and presence. How difficult these readings are to me as I struggle to remember the previous day and be present in the current one. I don’t believe I have ever prayed for wakefulness and clarity as much as I have these past months. Though I do not believe in a God who imposes this suffering upon me, I believe in God’s grace, which may make something good out of my experience. My prayer for mental clarity, focus, memory, presence, and wakefulness is not only a psychological necessity, but also a spiritual one. This Advent, my mind and body are feeling what my soul is likely always in need of. The knowledge of this is already a gift of salvation, an awakening from sleep.

Claudia Avila Cosnahan is the Mission & Partnerships Director for Commonweal and an instructor and consultant for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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