Damon Young: How does it feel to lose a friend to covid conspiracy theories

He doesn’t feel helpless. I felt like when mom was weeks old and all I could do for her was sit down and watch reruns of “30 Rock” with her. And I feel like every time I remember why I try to forget about the aneurysm in my chest. This feeling is not that.

It is rather a failure. As if I had done something wrong. Like putting down my house keys and watching them wash up in a storm drain. It’s like – man, I can’t believe I’m about to say this – I’m Atreyu in “The Neverending Story”, watching Artax sink in the swamp of sadness, when nothing of what he said or did could not help him. How did I allow this to happen? Why didn’t I manage to reach them?

I’ve read tweets and Facebook status posts and stories from and about people who have lost contact with friends and family members who have tumbled down the “rabbit holes” of the covid-19 conspiracy. (Also, I don’t really think “rabbit hole” is the right word here, because at least you see them coming, and they’re built for a good reason. They’re more like chasms.) The precipice is usually l empty empathy these people seem to possess, where they prioritize their own politics over the health of others. Sometimes it’s skepticism about modern science. Sometimes it is libertarianism adjacent to white nationalism. Sometimes it’s just a crazy understanding of citizenship. Like someone just bought them a set of Fisher-Price: My First Freedoms toys for Christmas.

But how do you kill the most empathetic person you know? The person who would let you out of an exam session to walk you to the club on a fucking Wednesday, because they know you just broke up and want to come back and you have too much anxiety, too much fear, too much can’t-go-because-what-if-she-is-here-to-go-solo? What if it was the same person who called on your birthday to tell you how proud they are of you because that’s what they always do? Even though your previous conversation wasn’t quite a conversation, you instead told them they sounded like a QAnon parrot and they responded with a bunch of stuff about “The Gates Foundation” and “obscure interests of the medicine”. And then you wonder, for the first time, if this is the last time you will speak? What if you almost killed them on their birthday 10 years ago? You drank too much and they got in the car with you after you told them you were “straight”. You got where you wanted to go, of course. But you fainted — the memory of the ride slipped from your body and still hasn’t returned. You were doing too much back then. Drinking too much and sometimes driving after drinking too much. They forgave you for what you did. And this grace prevented you from starting again. They saved your life after you nearly ended theirs.

But how do you kill the most empathetic person you know?

What if they let you down once? Like this time in the spring, you tried to convince them to get vaccinated. And they responded with something about how they don’t trust the government. And then you said they were stupid. And then they said, “You, a black American, you’re asking me, a black American, to trust the government, and I’m the one who’s stupid?” And then you had nothing to say. There are things you could have said, of course. Like maybe”Forget the government, but what about the dozens of our peeps who are either MDs or PhDs in science? The people we know and love who know more about this topic than we do. Are they lying to us too?“But my friend was right.

This brings me back to my failure. Which is maybe, probably (definitely) self-centered. Because who am I to convince them to put something in their bodies? What makes me think I have this power? I am their friend, however. And despite my own doubts about how the medical industry treats weon how America treats wemy desire to end it by doing the collective good is greater than my skepticism and discomfort with it.

And I know – well, I believe – there is a way to reach them. A path that I have not yet considered. I tried logic. I tried guilt. I tried shame. Maybe I’m just the wrong messenger. Maybe there is someone who can access the frequency they are on and push the buttons they need. I hope. ‘Cause failure ain’t the only thing I feel, man. Not even close. I’m sad too, because I miss my friend.

Damon Young is the author of What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Darker: A Memoir In Essays. He is a writer in Pittsburgh.

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