• Amber Drea

From COVID to Contentment: How I Found Happiness in Quarantine

LEFT: Stanley and I just before he went into the operating room for his transplant. RIGHT: Stanley today.

Today marks the fourth anniversary of Stanley’s liver transplant and exactly one year since we moved to the Chicago suburbs from New York City. The past 12 months have been quite a roller coaster ride to say the least. The first half consisted of setting up Stanley’s team of therapists and doctors, along with enrolling him in school, while adjusting to a complete lifestyle change and starting my social circle over from scratch. I began working at a yoga studio so I could meet people, found a great therapist and even got back into freelance writing. Then just as everything was falling into place, COVID-19 brought our whole world to a halt.

The first couple of weeks were rough. I was overwhelmed with the prospect of caring for all of Stanley’s needs every day without any help. I was lost without the ability to look forward to the sources of joy that got me through each week: drinks with friends, dinner at a nice restaurant, a live show or a quick trip to NYC. Suddenly I was forced to deal with the things I was trying to escape: my son’s seemingly endless health issues, my faltering marriage and my deepening depression.

Thankfully Stanley’s clinic was willing to work with us to ensure that he continued receiving essential services. His ABA and physical therapists agreed to do in-home sessions, and insurance authorized teletherapy for speech, occupational and feeding. The weather grew warmer so we could take walks almost daily and still maintain social distance. Rather than regretting leaving Brooklyn, I was relieved that we’d relocated to a less-densely populated area with more green space. I also appreciated that while Stanley’s developmental delays and autism were challenging in their own right, his condition meant that he didn’t need as much interaction with other children and therefore he wasn’t constantly asking me when he would get to go back to school or play with his friends. He simply accepted the new normal and I in turn learned to embrace it as well.

Another benefit of suburban living is you can get a spacious two-bedroom apartment for the same price as a tiny one-bedroom in the city. If the pandemic had happened when we were still in Brooklyn, Jeb and I would have been on top of each other with absolutely zero privacy and nowhere to be alone. Our new place offered a little more breathing room and provided the opportunity to take a break from each other when necessary. Initially I missed going out on my own or with friends, but social media and video chat apps made it possible to keep in touch with people no matter where they were and staying home brought me back to my teenage years in the 1990s when all I had was music, books and TV to occupy myself.

Fortunately it turns out I ended up with the perfect pandemic partner. If anything is going to make you sure you married the right person, it’s a virus-fueled global lockdown. In fact, Jeb and I had started couples counseling before the quarantine, and those three sessions helped us get back on the same page about what we wanted. Then we were stuck in the same house for four months and our truce was put to the test. But instead of exacerbating our problems, the pandemic allowed us to slow down and simply enjoy each other’s company again. The stress of our hectic schedules and competing agendas disappeared, freeing us up to be available for spontaneous conversation and playful banter. This renewed relaxation reminded me of the early years of our relationship when we would spend a whole weekend together, just talking, cooking, eating, drinking, watching movies and playing games.

Jeb and I are now approaching our 16th anniversary, including 11 years of marriage, and the last five have really taught us what it means to remain by each other’s side “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.” After my first pregnancy miscarried, we brought Stanley into the world, only to find out he had a fatal liver disease and needed surgery at 9 weeks old. During that hospital stay, he was diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes and had to undergo two additional surgeries. Then he was listed for a liver transplant because the initial procedure didn’t work and he spent five weeks in the hospital due to complications.

Once Stanley was discharged he needed full-time in-home care and I eventually quit my job to become a stay-at-home mom. Without the additional income, we had to move to a cheaper, smaller apartment in a more remote neighborhood of Brooklyn, where we struggled for two years as Stanley’s developmental delays continued despite receiving hours of state-funded physical, occupational, speech and feeding therapy every week.

At 2 1/2 years old, Stanley was diagnosed with autism, and ABA therapy was added to his roster of services. Shortly thereafter, genetic testing revealed that Stanley had a gene mutation which caused his cataracts and could lead to additional eye problems in the future. Finally we made the difficult decision to leave New York City after over a decade and relocate to Jeb’s hometown of Wheaton, Illinois, where we would have more familial support and financial stability. Neither of us wanted to go, but we knew it was the best option for Stanley’s well-being.

A year later, I’m truly grateful for where I am at this very moment. I feel lucky to have an amazing husband who’s smart, dependable, loving and fun to be around. I adore my beautiful son and delight in the magic he brings into my life every single day. Sometimes you have to lose everything (or almost everything) to truly understand what you need to be happy. And all I need is already here.

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