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

It doesn’t feel helpless. I felt that when Mom had weeks left and all I could do for her was sit and watch “30 Rock” reruns with her. And I feel that each time I remember why I try to forget about the aneurysm in my chest. This feeling ain’t that.

It’s more like failure. Like I did something wrong. Like dropping my house keys and watching them wash down a storm drain. It feels 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, while nothing he said or did could help him. How did I allow this to happen? Why haven’t I been able to get through to them?

I’ve read tweets and Facebook status messages and news stories from and about people who’ve deaded contact with their friends and family members who’ve tumbled down covid-19 conspiracy “rabbit holes.” (Also, I don’t quite think “rabbit hole” is the right word here, because at least you see those coming, and they’re built for a good reason. These are more like sinkholes.) The precipice is usually the empathy void these people seem to possess, where they’re prioritizing their own politics over other people’s health. Sometimes it’s a skepticism of modern science. Sometimes it’s a white-nationalist-adjacent libertarianism. Sometimes it’s just some goofy-ass understanding of citizenship. Like someone just bought them a Fisher-Price: My First Freedoms toy set for Christmas.

But how do you dead the most empathetic person you know? The person who’d let you drag them out of an exam cram session to roll with you to the club on a damn Wednesday, because they know you just had a breakup and want to get back out there and have too much anxiety, too much fear, too much I-can’t-go-there-’cause-what-if-she’s-there to go solo? What if it’s 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 if your previous conversation wasn’t quite a conversation, more like you telling them they sound like a QAnon parrot and them responding with a bunch of stuff about “The Gates Foundation” and “dark interests in medicine.” And then you wondering, for the first time, if that’s the last time you’ll speak? What if you almost killed them on their birthday 10 years ago? You had too much to drink, and they got in the car with you after you told them you were “straight.” You made it to where you wanted to go, sure. But you blacked out — the memory of the drive escaped your body and still hasn’t returned. You were doing that too much back then. Drinking too much, and driving sometimes after drinking too much. They forgave you for what you did. And that grace stopped you from ever doing it again. They saved your life after you almost ended theirs.

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

And what if they stumped you once? Like that time in the spring you tried to convince them to get a vaccine. And they responded with something about how they don’t trust the government. And then you said they were being silly. And then they said, “You, a Black American, are asking me, a Black American, to trust the government, and I’m the silly one?” And then you had nothing to say. There are things you could’ve said, sure. Like maybe “Forget the government, but what about the dozens of our homies who are either MDs or science-related PhDs? People we know and love who know more about this stuff than we do. They’re lying to us too?” But my friend had a point.

This brings me back to my failure. Which is maybe, probably (definitely) egocentric. Because who am I to convince them to put something in their body? What makes me think I have that power? I’m their friend, though. And despite my own misgivings about how the medical industry treats us, about how America treats us, my desire to end this by doing the collective good is greater than my skepticism of and discomfort with it.

And I know — well, I believe — that there is a way to get through to them. A way I just haven’t considered yet. I’ve tried logic. I’ve tried guilt. I’ve tried shame. Maybe I’m just the wrong messenger. Maybe there’s someone who can access the frequency they’re on, and push the buttons they need. I hope so. Because failure ain’t the only thing I feel, man. Not even close. I’m sad too, ’cause I just miss my friend.

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

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