On hand sanitizer and healing

Kelsie McWilliams
6 min readMay 29, 2021


Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Content warning: mental health issues, covid-19

In March of 2020, I drew a long breath of fresh, spring air, thick with the scent of flowers from European mountain ash trees, and I never let it out.

I looked outside my window at a life that seemed a thousand miles away. People: My neighbors. Walking in shorts or shoveling snow or unloading groceries. People who could get me sick. I ordered masks in a few different patterns from a local business that usually makes customizable bow ties and pocket squares, which sat unused and dusty in lieu of yoga pants and slippers.

I checked the news all day long. My Twitter feed refreshed every 5 minutes. I scanned the Johns Hopkins dashboard every hour for updated case numbers.

“It’s on that cruise ship,” I said to my partner as I scrolled through an article. “They have nowhere to land.”

“Who’s taking a cruise right now?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” I reply.

For weeks, I woke up and my jaw was sore.

On the second to last Sunday in March, I wept over the death of a friend.

Stay 6 feet away at all times.

In April, I went outside. I wore a mask. I walked my dogs and hated wearing a mask. I did it anyways — but only when the sun kissed the clouds and there were more people than I could count on one hand.

Coronavirus lives on surfaces for up to 3 days.

I ordered groceries. I ordered food. I ordered random shit from Amazon because there was nothing else to do. I wanted to save the restaurants. I enthusiastically tipped the delivery drivers who brought it all to my house. I couldn’t save the restaurants.

Woman contracts covid from Instacart worker.

I wiped down the bananas, the 20lb-bag of rice, the styrofoam containers of fried rice and taquitos and chicken korma. I wiped down my packages of Clorox wipes with Clorox wipes. I sprayed the doorbell with Lysol.

I checked the news. I always checked the news. Sometimes, I remembered to relax my jaw.

In May, I went to the grocery store. I was tired of bruised produce and delivery fees, and I wanted to do it myself. I wanted to see what it was like.

Surgical masks caked with stubborn snow tossed on the ground of the parking lot. An ocean of plexiglass. One sticker separated from another by six feet, telling me where to stand, thanking me for my compliance, and reminding me that we are “stronger together.”

The face shields, the masks, the hand sanitizer, the wipes, and the pallets of toilet paper, stacked high like a fortress between everyone and the virus. If I bought more toilet paper, I would be safe from covid. Even if I didn’t need it, I should buy it. It might not be there later. These times are so unprecedented, and we can worry — about the trees, the hoarding, the economy — later. I’ll use it eventually.

I felt these things and thought these things and wondered if hoarding was the only thing I could control right now. I grabbed a package of toilet paper, and then, I put it back. But I grabbed those Clorox wipes so goddamn fast, and I watched my cart like someone was waiting to steal them from me.

In June, I got laid off, and I laid in bed. I cried on the phone with my mom. I said “fuck social distance” and I cried in the arms of my friends. My friend gave me a sadness present and we drank wine from water bottles as we walked the trails near my house. I panicked about what would change and what I could afford. I forgot to wear my mouthguard one night, and I ground my teeth so hard that I chipped a tooth.

I went to the doctor to get 90-day refills of my prescriptions in case I had no health insurance the next month. I saw my therapist, a chiropractor, an acupuncturist, a physical therapist, and an orthopedic specialist in pursuit of temporary relief from chronic pain.

In June, I also got rehired. I was grateful because no one else I knew got rehired. I didn’t say anything because it felt wrong to have good news.

Then, I ran away to Breckenridge for a few days. I wondered if I was making the right choice, if traveling 80 miles away was 80 miles too far in a pandemic. But there, my soul was replenished by the alpine air and frigid lakes and visions of columbines, and I remembered why I kept on living.

In July, I worked, and I learned the ins and outs of my new job. I went to my doctor to tell her I got a new job and that I was probably depressed because I was tired every waking moment and I wanted to die. I got my bloodwork done and learned I had a b12 deficiency. They taught me how to give myself injections: once a day for a week, once a week for a month, once a month for a year.

In August, I found a psychiatrist. I had never seen one before. I brought a list of medications I had tried: Lexapro, more Lexapro, trazodone, more trazodone, and even more trazodone. Wellbutrin, Zoloft, more Wellbutrin, more Zoloft, Trintellix, more Trintellix, Buspar, Seroquel. I was tired of trying things. She told me about newer options, like transcranial magnetic stimulation and ketamine injections, which I politely accepted brochures on.

I took her up on the transcranial magnetic stimulation. Every weekday for 7 weeks, I went and sat in a chair, where they strapped a helmet to my head and zapped my brain every 30 seconds. The right side of my body would twitch uncontrollably, and I would start to slur mid-sentence. I felt like a science experiment.

Then, I gradually started singing again, by myself at my house, in the car, in the parking lot. I stopped to admire the golden hues of aspen leaves and I smiled behind my face mask at the grocery store. My therapist and I had nothing to talk about. We said goodbye through the screen, and I felt hopeful for the first time in a long time.

2020 was supposed to be the year of traveling, of turning 30, of chasing dreams. Instead, it became a year of small traumas, repetitive traumas, collective traumas. Yet I found healing.

When there was nothing to do, I looked at timelines for some of my long-dead relatives on Ancestry.com: Harry probably read newspaper accounts about the Paris Peace Conference. Joseph may have eagerly read the daily news hoping to hear more about Dr. Barnum Brown’s fantastic fossil discoveries in 1900.

What a life each person must have lived. What strange times to be alive in. What unique events to bear witness to.

As I think about my own branch on the family tree, I realize someone might eventually think the same thing about my own life: Witnessed the 9/11 terror attacks unfold on television. Tried to find work during the 2008 economic crisis. Survived the covid-19 pandemic.

I survived. But I did more than that.

I ground my teeth so hard that my mouth couldn’t open all the way. I lost my job. I cried on the couch in my living room and outside under the ash tree and in my bed and in the shower and on the bathroom floor. I turned 30. I drank margaritas at 2 in the afternoon. I held my breath as I walked by other people, who were too close for comfort. I accidentally touched my face in the grocery store and spent the next five days convinced I would get covid. I felt my heart break when the death count kept getting higher and higher and higher. I did telehealth therapy in my basement. I voted by mail. I accidentally drowned my succulents. I drove through downtown Denver at night, just to remember that it existed. I drank too much wine during FaceTime happy hours with my best friends. I found my first gray hair. I forgot to put on my mask before I walked into Target, and everyone panicked. I drank a bottle of champagne when I learned there would be a woman in the White House. I felt grateful to be alive.

And I got vaccinated.



Kelsie McWilliams

she/her. A writer and editor who loves dogs. Exvangelical. I read and write about trauma of all varieties because there is hope and healing in this world.