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On Worrying in Cambodia and New York

JANMARIS PEREZ, HOST: For the next installment in our commentary series, reporter Sarah Gelbard wonders why we worry.          

SARAH GELBARD: A few years ago, I went to Cambodia to research how having a disability affects access to clean water. For two months I interviewed disabled women in remote villages. We sat outside on straw mats, next to houses on tall wooden poles with thatched roofs. One of the women lived with her sisters—they supported each other, gathered water from a nearby well. I met another woman who let me ride around on the back of her motorcycle, speeding through open fields, and then another who was blinded by a landmine explosion. She was ostracized. Those who were blind told me the hardest things. They were afraid of being attacked. They didn’t have enough food or water.

I was based in Pnomh Penh, and when I returned to the city, lying in bed—my eyes started to sting. I felt nauseated. My phone rang—a call from the boy I was seeing back home. I told him I had just returned from interviewing blind women and now my eyes stung. And then he told me he had met someone else. I stared at the ceiling, eyes stinging and stomach turning as he stumbled through an apology.

The next morning, I went to work, but by midday I couldn’t stop throwing up. Coworkers found me on the floor next to the toilet. At the hospital, the doctor suggested bacteria or parasites and ordered IV rehydration. He told me I needed to see an eye doctor. “You have colitis, right?”

I told him I did but I’m fine—every day I take medication and I don’t think about it.

He said, “You could have uveitis.” I vaguely remembered a warning—some patients with colitis develop an eye condition that can cause loss of vision. But, it was rare. Now, I panicked.

I asked the doctor if I should be worried.            

He just said “Yes,” and walked away.

My boss told me not to worry. “It’s just pink eye!”

It wasn’t my first brush with this kind of uncertainty. Thanks to an injury at birth I didn’t learn to walk until I was four and then I learned again at 13 after a series of leg surgeries. I’ll always have some difficulty walking. You might think after these experiences I learned not to dwell on things I can’t control. But I worry all the time. While I was waiting for my appointment with the eye doctor I kept thinking about the blind women. An image stuck in my head of being bitten by scorpions and not being able to see them.

I went to the eye doctor. He did some scans—it was just pink eye. 

I had spent weeks, worrying a boy I cared for would dump me. And he did. I spent days worrying I might lose my vision. And I didn’t. I knew worrying would never alter outcomes. I worried anyways.

Isn’t that what we’re all doing, now? Worrying about getting sick, people we love getting sick? Running out of savings, loneliness, missing moments that matter to us?

I’m in quarantine in New York. I’ve been cleaning to distract from that worry. I found leftover antibiotics from Cambodia, and then I remembered something from that time. When I was most panicked, I called my sister. She said, “Your eyes are probably okay. If they aren’t, you’ll figure it out.” Hearing this helped, not because she thought I would be okay, but because of her respect for me. She thought I could handle anything. It made me feel powerful.

I just heard from a friend in Cambodia. They want me to visit. Maybe when we’re on the other side of this pandemic, I will.

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