Allyson Bright describes what her work and life has been like since the social distance measures went into effect in March 2020. Allyson, who works as a life coach supporting women through art-making, talks about the shift from in-person to virtual classes and retreat spaces. Allyson lives with Multiple sclerosis, and describes her perspective of the COVID-19 pandemic through an immunocompromised lens.
Narrator Name: Allyson Bright
Interviewer Name: Danny Atwater
Date of interview: April 24, 2020
[00:00:52] - Talk about your recent Covid-19 Safer at Home story
[00:02:16] - Do you have separate space to exist?
[00:05:15] - What were the perspectives of your virtual retreat participants?
[00:08:45] - How do you view your business going forward?
[00:11:13] - How does living with MS relate to Covid-19?
[00:15:14] - How have things been for family, friends, loved ones?
[00:16:38] - What good things do you see happening right now?
[START OF RECORDING]
Interviewer: My name is Danny Atwater, and I am a library assistant for Madison Public Library. This interview is being recorded as part of the Madison Living History Project: Stories from a Distance series. Today’s date is Friday, April 24, 2020, and this interview is being conducted via the video-conferencing software Zoom. I am joined by a very special friend today. Please tell us your full name and what your connection to Madison is.
Narrator: Hi, my name is Allyson Bright, and I moved to Madison almost seven years ago after my husband died, unfortunately. I was thirty-two years old at the time and just needed a new place to build my life. Madison kind of called to me, as it does to many people, and now I think I’ll stay here forever (laughs) because I just love it so much here.
Interviewer: So, Allyson, what have the last few weeks looked like for you? Especially in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Safer at Home order.
Narrator: Sure! Well, it’s been interesting because I’m self-employed and I have always worked from home—so that part, I thought, wouldn’t be that different, but what I was unprepared for was the fact that I’m not home by myself, because I live with my partner and a roommate and they are both home. So it’s louder than I’m used to, and harder to focus, and just a little bit more chaotic.
So that part hasn’t been that different, otherwise, in terms of getting my work done, but it’s been really interesting just in the range of emotions that have come up. And I personally deal with multiple sclerosis, so I am immunocompromised and therefore really can’t safely leave the house at all. So even to go to the store or other things, I have to rely on other people to do that. So, yeah. I’ve just been very stuck inside (laughs), and I’m a very social person, so that’s been really hard at times to just deal with, kind of, missing people in my life and missing the chance to go to a restaurant or a coffee shop. Or, gosh, the library and other places that I love to be in the city just day to day.
Interviewer: You mentioned that there are three of you at home now; do you all have separate spaces that you can exist in?
Narrator: We do, so that's been really helpful. I find that I’m working in my office way more than I used to (laughs) because working in the living room is not very effective anymore. So that part has worked out okay, and we’re pretty respectful of each other’s space. And thankfully we get along really well! That’s not necessarily the case for everyone I know right now. Like, there are some people who are dealing with strange situations in their homes. My partner and I are strong, and we love our roommate, so that part, interpersonally, has been nice, or easy for the most part. But just having to kind of focus in and get work done, and then, certainly, shifting certain aspects of my work because I can’t do certain things.
So, my job is I’m a life coach and I teach classes that use art as a healing method for trauma recovery in women. So in some ways I was kind of ready for this giant trauma because I’m really used to hard things; as I mentioned, I’m a widow, and that I have MS so, you know, hard stuff is not new for me. But, for example, I had a retreat planned that was going to be in Milwaukee, actually in just a few weeks, and so I had to cancel that and go to a virtual version, and I did that the first weekend in April, and it was really powerful! I got to connect with even more people than normal, and we had women joining from all over the world, which was really neat, and we used the Zoom software to create art, and just kind of talk about what people were feeling.
So that part has been a unique adaption, but it also turned into kind of a blessing, because I felt like I was able to help and serve people that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I also made that event free of charge to anyone who had been laid off or to any frontline healthcare workers, and that felt really good to me, and it was really neat to see those people be able to participate. We actually had one woman join who had been in self-isolation because she has the virus. She had not been able to leave her home, or even her room in her home, for almost two weeks. She actually had to leave the event early because she had to go back to the hospital. She is home again, and will be joining us for our next online retreat in a couple weeks. But it was very interesting just to see the extent—because she was on the screen and in her bed—of how intense it is, because, when we don’t know someone who has personally had it, the virus can feel kind of far away or not real to everyone.
Interviewer: That’s very generous that you were able to offer that free of charge to certain individuals, and it sounds like it was a very powerful experience, I would imagine, for many of the participants. Two thoughts came to mind: one was that you had participants from around the globe, and so I’m curious if there was any, sort of, global perspective that was offered? And then you just mentioned the person who was actually in her room suffering from the virus, and how did that affect the mood of the gathering, or, you know, was it discussed; did she get asked a lot of questions, or things like that?
Narrator: Yeah, so for your first thing, it definitely had that global feel, and I think because this is kind of the first time that, at least certainly in my lifetime, that the whole world is going through the same thing. Even other big events that we’ve watched happen have happened in a certain place, and the other part of the world might send aid, or try to help, but this is one of the first times we’re really all in it. So that really just made everyone feel closer; and we’re not that different in ways that we sometimes think that we are. And as far as the woman who had the virus, yeah, people asked her a lot of questions (laughs), but for the most part, they just wanted her to feel better, and they were glad she was there. It was really nice to be able to gift her some social interaction after that isolation; she can’t even really see her family; they have to leave her meals outside the door, and she opens it up and brings them in, and so it’s really, even within her home, totally isolated. The mood was impacted by that, for sure, but it was really just a very interesting event because it was both very somber at times and also very silly and joyful at times, which is kind of what I’m feeling about life right now. But, you know, there were some women who were really struggling, and who had been crying for a lot of the event and just really needed some help, and then, there was also a moment where one woman went and got these silly cat ear headband-things to put on, and I put on some Disney Minnie Mouse ears, because I thought that was funny, and then within five minutes, all 50 people on the screen had on Minnie Mouse ears, or weird hats, or one woman made a crown out of daisies from her yard really fast, so that was a really fun, silly moment, to see the world kind of connect around that. But some of the nurses that attended were able to talk about what they were experiencing, and those things, so I think that it really helped people feel—not so alone: both in that they could have a joyful moment, but also in that what they were experiencing, and the fear or anxiety that they were feeling could be shared and expressed, because not everyone has an outlet to do that, especially if someone is in their home by themselves in this isolation, or they’re just with a partner or family member that doesn’t want to hear those kinds of things, or just doesn’t provide that kind of outlet for sharing. So it was really powerful to be able to do that.
Interviewer: What do you think your business looks like, going forward?
Narrator: Oh man! That’s an interesting question. I think I’ll do a lot more of these virtual gatherings, because, again, I decided to do one right away again the first weekend in May, so that’ll only be a month apart, and I don’t know that I’ll want to stop. I could see myself doing this every month for the foreseeable future, or even long-term. It was really fun; it was really accessible; and it was a lot easier on me than the in-person events. As I mentioned, I have MS, so my energy is very limited, and I tend to need a ton of rest, and those things, to maintain my joyful, silly persona (laughs). Because I tend to be really outgoing, and bubbly, and I like to have a lot of fun, but I require a lot of rest and downtime to make that happen, and so the online version of the retreat was a lot easier for me in that way, and it was also more affordable for my participants. Then the other thing is it gave me an opportunity to give in a different way. I mentioned doing the free attendance for certain people, and that felt really good; I’d like to be able to continue looking at ways to scholarship people who are dealing with different things. Maybe when this is done, I can look at other people who have MS, or those kinds of things, and pick—there’s a different cause every month, that some people who are impacted by that could attend for free, because, yes I need to make money and be a business owner, and live in the world just like anybody else, but it’s felt really good to be able to give in a bigger way than I ever have before, and to really recognize what people are going through and struggling with. I mean, when someone messaged me that they’re a nurse—especially, I had a couple of ER and trauma nurses, including one here in Madison, joined—and I was kind of like, You guys can have whatever you want! (laughs) You know, they’re going online, and looking at my course offerings, and I’m like, Whatever you want, it’s free; I don’t even care. And it feels really nice to be able to give in a big way, but also still have lots of people show up who could afford to pay. I think not everyone is in crisis, and so it just was a really nice model, and I think that, going forward, it might be really neat to keep going with that.
Interviewer: You mentioned living with MS; how does that relate to COVID-19?
Allyson Bright So it basically just makes all the risks more risky (laughs), I guess I would say. I do fall in that category of immunocompromised people that are at higher risk, both to catch the virus and then have more complications if I were to catch it. So there’s a couple things that I’ve noticed: one is, in some people we’re seeing a lot of cavalier attitudes about the virus, and people who are like, Well, don’t worry; it’s only old people, or people who are already sick that will get it and die. And I’m kind of like, Hey, but I’m one of those people, and so are my parents! I grew up with two parents and one sister in my house, and we joked that, by that logic, only my sister gets to live. And so it’s hard, hearing that discounted. And there are a lot of people in those categories. It makes that risk higher, and then it also creates other risks, because—so MS is an autoimmune disease; I actually also have celiac disease, which is another autoimmune disease; I actually have like five or six things, but two that specifically make COVID more risky. The big thing is that the treatment I take for my MS works because it suppresses my immune system. So I don’t really have a strong immune system to even fight off a cold. I’m already supposed to use hand sanitizer everywhere, and be really careful about those kind of things, because I’m just at higher risk to catch anything. So when this came up, in some ways, my lifestyle habits didn’t have to change that much, but it’s just being extra aware of that. And then if I were to catch COVID, and recover, there’s a really good chance it could trigger MS symptoms, because they’d likely have to remove the medication to allow my immune system to fight the virus, which would allow my MS to flare, which could then create a whole spiral of problems, ranging anything from having to use a wheelchair full-time, or any of those things. I try not to live in that fear-based place, because I think that that’s one thing that’s really hard right now, is everybody’s terrified, and I think it’s important to be informed, and know what my risks are. I’m not going to go to the grocery store when I can send someone else—but I also can’t live every moment of my life terrified, so I just do what I can. And I’m really lucky that I’ve had a lot of people to rely on, because it would be a lot scarier if I lived alone, especially because—and actually, this is an important thing—a lot of the services that I relied on are at capacity. I’ve been using grocery delivery services for over a year because going to the grocery store has always been hard for me. I relied on those and they were always very consistent, and easy to use, and now the whole world is trying to get grocery delivery, and so I have not been able to because the systems are at capacity. So I’ve really tried to encourage people: if you are not immunocompromised, if you are not disabled, to go out to the store on your own and use some of those—go out in the world, because a lot of those services are heavily used in, quote, regular times, by individuals with disabilities, and those sort of things, and they have not been able to use their own services, and for people who live alone, that’s become a real problem.
Interviewer: How have things been for family, friends, loved ones?
Narrator: It’s hard; you know, we are on video calls a lot to connect—in some ways, more than we were before. I talk with my parents on video calls now, and I never did that before, even though they’re in Michigan. So that part has been nice, but it’s very hard, not being able to see people and hug people. I love hugs, and I just hate that I can’t express that. I have a lot of people in my life who are really extra-terrified, and don’t know how to handle it, so there’s a lot of anxiety in the air, and I’ve watched friends get laid off, I’ve watched people who are in danger of losing their businesses; there’s a lot of really scary economical things happening to people I love, in terms of their jobs and finances and those sort of things. It’s been really challenging, and I think the longer this goes on, the harder it gets in terms of that isolation piece. Especially for my friends who live alone. That’s a really hard thing. I’ve been very lucky to have—even having our roommate here with us, having three people in the house instead of two has been kind of delightful.
Interviewer: What good things do you see happening right now?
Narrator: As much as some people are being cavalier, I also see a lot of people stepping up and being generous and helping in different ways than ever before. A silly story is that my sister’s dog was lost, for about a day, a couple of weeks ago, and so she posted on Facebook, but because everyone was at home and in quarantine and feeling pretty helpless about life in general, the whole neighborhood went out and looked for this dog! And people she didn’t even know would be out. They’d be like, “Oh, are you the ones looking for Daisy? We’re looking for her!” People were posting online the streets they’d checked, and GPS maps of where they had been looking for this dog, and it really felt like there were, like, sixty people out (laughs) looking for my sister’s dog, and I just think there was this attitude of, like, the world’s on fire, and we can’t do anything, but my goodness, we can get this dog home! (Laughs) They did finally find her, and that was great, but it’s just neat to see people helping in that way. And I see people helping out businesses. I have a friend that owns a restaurant, and they decided to donate—you know, obviously they had to go to carry-out service only, and they were down to three employees from twenty-something, and they have an extra tip jar, and any tips that come into that restaurant right now are being given to their unemployed staff. So people have been tipping really generously, and they’ve been able to give quite a lot back to their staff. Now, it’s not what they would have been making, but I like seeing that the ownership of a restaurant is committed to doing that, and people just really don’t want their friends and neighbors hurting, and I think that is in some ways a global thing, and I think in some ways it’s a uniquely Madison thing. I really see things happening here that I don’t hear from other people. Someone started a virtual Madison tip jar, where anyone who—restaurant workers who worked in the city of Madison could type in their name and the restaurant they worked at and their Paypal or Venmo address, and people are just sending them cash tips. I don’t know of any other cities that are doing that, so I do think there’s some Madison love there, and it’s been neat to be a part of. And I think for myself, it’s really just helped me hone in on what’s important. You know, the first couple of weeks, I was grieving a lot, and really sad, and now I feel like I’m in my groove, and I’m really just kind of looking inward, and thinking about, What do I want from my life, and what feels most important, and what do I want to get rid of when this is all done, right? Because the distractions have all kind of waned, and so we’re left with the core bits of our lives now, and it’s about what feels good, and what doesn’t feel good. Like, what are the things we don’t miss doing? And do we have to still do that? So just asking those kind of questions, I think is really helpful.
Interviewer: Allyson, thank you for your time today, and for sharing your story.
[END OF RECORDING]