When The Pandemic Transforms “Emotionally Toxic” Into “Physically Toxic”

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

“My Mom wants to come over for a visit, but she doesn’t believe in wearing facemasks.”

“My roommate keeps sneaking out to go to parties because she’s lonely.”

“My boyfriend says there’s no reason to stop going out bowling with his friends.”

One hallmark of an emotionally toxic relationship is that toxic folks push boundaries. Your comfort will never be as important as their comfort. If they want something from you, they’ll wheedle you, they’ll guilt you, they’ll nag you until you cave.

Until now, generally the worst that could happen to you thanks to those sorts of pressuring behaviors was emotional exhaustion. Sure, your parents could keep forcing you to be go have a nice visit with your homophobic grandpa – which sucked, but the biggest consequence was pretty much some tight jaw muscles from keeping your mouth shut. And your partner could keep sitting on the couch, Xbox controller in hand, ignoring all the household chores until you finally did the work.

It was bullshit, of course – but depending on your tolerance for bullshit, their selfishness added up to a wasted afternoon here and there.

But now?

Giving into their narcissism could get your ass killed.

And not, may I remind you, a nice neat little headshot kind of killed. COVID’s a messy death, and not particularly pleasant even if you survive it, with three weeks of your life being spent as a wheezing wreck and even then possibly having lifelong scars to bear – fun things like “reduced lung capacity” and “potential neurologic issues.”

And in this sadly polarized day of politics, where “wearing a mask” and “being considerate about potentially passing on a deadly disease” have somehow been framed as “liberal whininess,” you may have a lot of asshole relatives, roommates, and lovers who literally don’t believe in the coronavirus – or, more precisely, don’t believe that it’s a threat to you.

There will be gaslighting. There will be whining. There will be complaints that you’re such a pain in the ass, I only went out dancing, why do you care?

Do. Not. Give. In.

Because what’s happening now is that “emotionally toxic” has a large crossover with “physically toxic,” and you don’t want to go to your grave with the words “They Were Nice Until They Died” carved on your headstone. (Especially if you’re immunocompromised or have preexisting conditions.)

Look. I’m not saying these people are evil. Looking honestly at the consequences of the pandemic can be a short-cut to anxiety attacks – it’s a lot to take in, not just for yourself, but the rolling uncertainty of “Will I ever be able to go to a concert again? Will I have a job six months from now? How can I be safe?” And a lot of people are, quite frankly, not dealing with this well, retreating into denial and downplaying.

This shit is hard. They don’t have to be narcissists. They could, you know, just be coping in shitty ways.

But now more than ever is the time to enforce your boundaries. Value yourself. Don’t let them wear you down, because you are correct. Having people talk you into life-threatening situations is not a good thing, because it encourages them to endanger other lives and encourages you to put yourself at risk.

And yes, they will whine. They will smack-talk you. They will get angry. Those are all blunt emotional tools to get their way, and in this case what they’re asking is unreasonable, so shut it down.

You may not be able to stop them from being dumbasses at other people. But you can stop them from being dumbasses at your doorstep.

And remember: stay in touch with reality. Talk to friends who get it. Hang out with people who, when you say, “I can’t see you right now” go “Got it. Thanks for taking care of yourself.”

With luck, you might even come out of this pandemic with your health intact, but a better social group who genuinely supports you. So stay strong. Be well. And don’t give in.


  1. Van
    May 11, 2020

    A friend of mine is recovering from a mild-to-moderate case of C19. I keep throwing her blog at people so they can get, in a real person’s words, what it’s like.
    This includes the toxic ones who are being so damned stubborn/political/thoughtless/etc.

  2. lydiaschoch
    May 11, 2020

    I don’t know that I’ve ever commented on your posts before, but I’m coming out of lurkdom to say “bravo!”

    I’m dealing with a few relatives who behave exactly the same way. And, yes, you absolutely have to keep firm boundaries and refuse to budge so much as a centimetre. This is a life and death matter like you said.

  3. Author Alys Marchand
    May 13, 2020

    Something that’s upset me greatly is how no one ever, ever, EVER suggested these drastic measures to save the lives of kids with cancer and other medically fragile children who are at severe risk of death from even a simple cold, yet we’re supposed to do all this now because “if it saves one life, it’s worth it.” I full expect people to literally never stop wearing masks because if you do so after the virus is in the past then “it if saves one life, it’s worth it” is a lie. Also people also die from the flu. So you’d better push people to keep wearing them for that as well.

    ftr, I was a medically fragile child given no chance to see 18 and my immune system is so bad that I’m on permanent disability for it. It’s pretty rare for an autoimmune disorder to be THAT bad. Despite the risks to me, I can think outside of myself, and so I expect these measures to be in permanent effect. If they’re eased, then we can say you don’t give a crap about my life, or the life of a friend’s child who has leukemia.

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