By Jen Ehrlich
In the unprecedented situation we in the Stanford community now face with COVID-19, I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes. It’s from the seminal 2000s TV show “The West Wing,” and told by the “wise old friend” character, Leo McGarry. McGarry recounts:
This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up, “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
What does this long, sweet but seemingly random quote from a show that has been off the air for a decade mean to me? It’s simple; though we are in uniquely challenging circumstances, I have, in a way, been here before. And I know a way out.
When I was 11 I began experiencing inexplicable fatigue, stomach pains and dizziness. If anyone in my grade of 45 kids had the slightest cough or bug, the bug got me as well. Years passed, my condition steadily worsened and endless doctors were stumped. Tests came back with bad and/or conflicting results but no one came up with anything that fixed me and, by the time I reached ninth grade, I couldn’t get out of bed without fainting. If anyone in my vicinity had a contagious illness, I would catch it — and be sicker than they were and take much longer to recover. I eventually had to drop out of school and switch to online school to be able to leave my house only to go to doctors’ appointments or exercise by taking an exhausting stroll up our driveway. If someone in my dad’s office was sick, even if my dad was fine, I soon had that illness. It got to the point where he was banished to our guest room whenever a bug was going around at work, and we couldn’t interact at all. For four years, my world continued to shrink, first to our house, then to my room, then to my bed. I didn’t have a smartphone. Netflix wasn’t streaming; one waited days for returned DVDs to be received, and more days for new ones to come. Facebook required a school email address that I didn’t have. None of my friends understood what was happening to me and slowly fell away. And so my world became very, very small, both physically and mentally.
What does this have to do with Leo McGarry’s story and what we are all facing now? I’m not here to bum you out or to guilt you into thinking your current situation could be worse. Rather, my point is that I’ve been in the hole before, and I have some ideas. As hard as my “quarantine years” were, I survived them. Not only that, but they shaped me in many important ways. When I couldn’t leave my house, when I couldn’t leave my bed, I explored other places and times through travel memoirs, canonical classics and whatever books my grandmother sent me or my older sister left when she went off to Stanford. I read all of Steinbeck, connecting deeply with his characters’ bewilderment at the cruelty of the world and the “frightening thing [that] is the human.” James Fenimore Cooper spoke to me strongly given that we were living in the New Hampshire woods with moose and even bears. Barbara Kingsolver showed me beauty and healing can be found in even the most hopeless situations. And there were countless others.
I watched more TV shows than I can count and instead of turning my brain to mush — contrary to my dad’s constant warnings — they gave me an escape and a way to experience the high school days I was never to have. Sometimes I had enough energy to bake, but since I couldn’t eat solid food, I sent bi-weekly care packages to my sister at law school. When I was so lonely I wanted to scream, I wrote bad poetry and read the complete works of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. My mom became my best friend and tension with my dad came and went but, in the end, we were a true “squad.” We’d been through hell together and came out forever linked by it.
With today’s “new normal,” I feel a bit like our squad is back together again, and some of my old coping mechanisms need to be taken out, dusted and put back to work. This is not to say today’s situation is directly comparable to my past, and certainly many people are suffering in ways I never have. The pain is real. The danger is real. I survived my past; there are many people who will not survive this present. As someone who takes medication to shut off my white blood cell production, I am acutely aware that this is a whole new world.
But, if my past has taught me anything, humans are incredibly adaptable. As Steinbeck wrote in one of my favorite “quarantine books,” “Winter of Our Discontent,” “[a] man can get used to anything.” As long as we have proper food, shelter, emotional and physical support and safety, we can survive most things.
I’ve done online school before — it’s not great. I’ve spent months without seeing someone who wasn’t a parent or doctor — that gets old. I have, however, found beauty and peace in the routines of solitude, and I have found hope even in hopeless situations. When we didn’t know what was wrong with me, whether I would ever get better or would continue to sink, I fought despair with beauty, fear with fun, darkness with hope. And so, if I could say anything to my friends, peers and professors, it would be this: “I’ve been here before and I know the way out” — or, perhaps more accurately, “there is a way out.”
Jen Ehrlich ’20
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