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Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“My Wife’s Anxiety around Covid is Making Me Feel Like Prisoner”

We’re a queer family living in a liberal bubble in a conservative state that struggles to take any advice on COVID safety. My daughter, who is two-and-a-half, has some unique health conditions that would make her vulnerable to complications should she ever get COVID. Consequently, when things shut down in 2020, we pulled her out of day care, my wife restructured their career to work at home, and we totally shut our lives down completely. We’ve had literally zero childcare or help from the time our daughter was seven months on.

Two years into this pandemic, by taking every precaution, doing all our shopping online, cutting our own hair, shooting up every vaccine as soon as we could, and enrolling our daughter in the Moderna Vaccine Trials, we’ve successfully kept her and my wife’s grandparents safe from COVID. (They have lots of health complications.)

I’ve been a devoted Dear Wendy follower since The Frisky days and we’ve occasionally messaged on Instagram and email over the years. We share the same beliefs about COVID and take it deadly serious, but my wife (they/them) takes it to the next level and has become agoraphobic. They are so black and white with all things COVID. And it’s getting harder and harder for me as COVID is becoming endemic, and I imagine what it would be like to open up our lives to a more sustainable normal. My wife is very slow to let their guard down even a teeny bit.

Two years into this I feel like a prisoner in my own home. I do work outside the home, so I get out and have some social fixes with my coworkers. But I feel like if I do anything less than what we did at the height of cases, I am somehow being unfaithful to my family. Like, is it okay to participate with in-person meetings now that I’m the only one wearing a mask at my plant?? Am I allowed to have lunch with my closest coworkers??

I’m not itching to go to restaurants or parties or weddings, but I would like to go shopping (masked!) without feeling like I have to hurry in and out, take my child to the library, go back to my community orchestra or an outdoor running group, and see my family without drama.

My parents are not so shut down as we are. My folks and the vast majority of people they interact with are vaccinated/boosted. My parents both have careers, 90+ -year-old parents to care for, and my mentally-ill brother living with them, which all weighs on them. They will occasionally go out for dinner parties, they are active in their church, snd my mom has a group of friends she sees a couple times a year—-stuff that, frankly, they need to do. My wife doesn’t see it that way. To them, anything less than hyper vigilance is nearly a moral failing.

Often these events seem to coincide with when we make plans to see them. My parents, specifically my mom, can’t button up their social lives for 10 days leading up to a visit with us. We’ve canceled or altered all our plans to see them in 2022 so far because of their social calendar. During this lull in cases, it’s probably safe enough, but if I notice anything on social media that suggests my parents are out being social leading up to a visit with us, I spend days fighting with my wife, arguing about what’s safe and not safe, and I’m so tired of fighting to see my family. For the record, we see my wife’s family at least once a month, but her grandparents rarely leave the house and my little niece and nephew just had COVID during Omicron. I never say no to my wife about visiting her family, but it doesn’t go the same way for me.

I hope I don’t come across like someone who wants the world to get over COVID, because I’m not. We don’t know what’s next and we need to be mindful. But for our own social-emotional health, my wife and I need to find some way of actually living in this new world. Idk how to navigate this when I don’t even know what I want. All I know for sure is I want my family (our little family of three) to feel happiness and joy again. I want to experience normal stuff without anxiety clouding every experience. I want to see my parents and extended family again without fighting for days leading up to potential visits. Any advice, Wendy? — Frustrated Mama and Daughter


Ugh, this is so hard, and I really feel for you and for everyone whose personal relationships have been strained under the stress of trying to safely navigate Covid precautions, with varying levels of risk and risk tolerance, and the politicizing of precautions to keep things interesting. You are not alone. This has been a very trying time for so many, and I know that some relationships have been affected beyond repair. I think you and your wife can get past this, but you may need some outside help.

First, does your wife know how you feel? Have you expressed to them how much you miss seeing your family, spending time with friends, and doing some normal things (that can be done relatively safely, even during a pandemic)? That’s step one. They need to know the great toll your isolation is taking on you. If you have concern for your daughter – like her social-emotional development, which is as important as her physical safety and health, you need to share that, too.

Second, you need a clear understanding of your wife’s boundaries so that you can begin strategizing about how to expand them. What would it take for your wife to feel comfortable with your enjoying an outdoor lunch with a friend? This is such a reasonable request, and it’s completely UNreasonable that they have you feeling like it’s against the rules. These are not rules you agreed to. It might be helpful for you to make a list of 5-10 things you want to start doing, individually and as a family, right now – not when the pandemic ends, not when cases in your area are zero, not when your daughter’s vaccination status is confirmed, but right now, and ask your wife to circle the three they would be most ok with. If they aren’t ok with anything, ask what would need to happen for them to feel comfortable. If the answer is unreasonable, tell them you’ve waited over two years, and you’re ready to take some very small risks for the sake of your mental health, which is just as important as your and your family’s physical health.

They may not like this answer, and that’s ok. That’s where I think the guidance of a therapist would be really helpful. Your wife’s anxiety is at a level that isn’t sustainable without risking the quality of your relationship and your family’s well-being. They need to know this. You need to be really clear about this risk, and then ask them to start therapy (either independently or with you, as a couple). As someone who’s also experienced a much higher-than-average level of anxiety around Covid and the pressure to keep my family members safe, I truly empathize with your wife and can speak from personal experience about how helpful therapy has been. My therapist has helped me see the benefit of taking some risks, reminded me that life even before a pandemic included everyday risks, and that I am not a bad mother for allowing myself or my kids to live a little more normally even as some Covid risks for us remain.

Finally, all of this WILL end at some point. The level of infection will drop significantly and the waves of cases will become shorter, smaller, and fewer and further between. At the same time, your daughter will eventually be vaccinated (and may already be, since she’s part of a trial, and you will be made aware of her vaccination status), and treatments will be more readily available, making the threat for more vulnerable people less than it is now. Hopefully that time is coming soon. And then your family will need to re-adjust to a post-pandemic life, which may introduce new challenges to your relationship if there’s any anxiety around re-entering society. Again, a good therapist can really help with these adjustments AND guide you through in the meantime as your family’s risk level, and our country’s transmission rates, remain high enough to continue taking precautions.

There’s a way to balance your family’s needs – the need to protect your daughter and your elderly in-laws as well as the need for you to open your social life a bit after two years of near-isolation. But it’s going to take some flexibility on your wife’s part, and you must let them know how important fostering that flexibility is right now – for the sake of your health and for the sake of your marriage.

***************
Follow along on Facebook, and Instagram.
If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy(AT)dearwendy.com.

34 comments… add one
  • Fyodor March 21, 2022, 3:28 pm

    These things are so hard.

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  • ron March 21, 2022, 6:57 pm

    Your wife must be very afraid for your daughter and her grandparents. Can you protect the grandparents with lots of testing prior to seeing them? You and your wife should talk jointly with your pediatrician about how great a risk Covid is for your daughter, now that she’s vaxxed.

    One thing that stands out in your post: you seem to be putting the blame on your wife, but it’s your job to set boundaries with your own parents. They seem to be completely uncooperative. You may have to tell them that you just can’t see them, unless they do better — or estabish a shorter quarantine, with testing, pre-visit.

    Agoraphobia is serious and very debilitative to a normal life. If your wife really has agoraphobia, then she needs to be treated.

    Now seems the time to quickly do some visiting. Covid is in massive retreat, but the new strain which has emerged in Europe is taking hold here. You may have only a few weeks until things turn nasty yet again on the Covid front.

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  • Lee Gale March 22, 2022, 5:39 am

    I don’t have any advice, I’m just here to commiserate. I haven’t seen my parents in over two years because of this, and they’re my only relatives. I’m ready to see them, but they aren’t. At this point, who knows when (or whether…) I’ll see them again. I’d just moved to a new city and had only been here a year when the whole thing started so my local support system wasn’t solid yet, not enough to weather this. I worked outside the home for most of this time, to try to stave off the isolation, but it was a stressful job and I never really socialized with my colleagues. If it hasn’t been for my partner, I wouldn’t have had any meaningful in-person human contact at all these last two years. On the plus side, the area I live has been very locked down and observing all precautions. On the down side…the area I live has been very locked down. It makes feeling “normal” again very hard. I don’t even enjoy being around people anymore and I would have labeled myself as an extrovert before this.

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  • allathian March 22, 2022, 7:53 am

    I’ve been quite vigilant myself, and honestly the idea of returning to the office even occasionally stresses me out (the last time I went, just before omicron hit, I was as nervous as if I’d been planning to go on an international business trip the night before, and completely exhausted when I got back home). Luckily we’ve been able to start seeing family and friends indoors and without masks again, and I still mask up in public places indoors.

    But what the LW is describing is no way to live. I’m not going to diagnose anyone on the internet, but it sounds like the wife has some serious mental health issues. I hope they can get the help they need, or else I can’t see a future for this marriage. (I’d go so far as to say that getting help could easily be a condition for continuing the marriage.)

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  • J March 22, 2022, 12:37 pm

    Perhaps there could be a middle ground of meeting up outside or in a screened in gazebo with a lot of ventilation. Instead of asking people to isolate a full 10 days prior, how about 5 plus negative rapid tests?

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  • canadagoose March 22, 2022, 4:05 pm

    I feel for your family. I am the paranoid one in mine. My work involved hyper-involvement in the evolution of knowledge around COVID and my concern fluctuated based on what was happening at the time. It is incredibly difficult fearing for a chronically ill child but not being able to control exposures that may be brought into your home. We were good for nearly 2 years, until my spouse insisted on going into the office for a meeting that I asked them to do virtually. I made the point their choice put us all at risk and he went anyway, not cavalierly but out of a sense of duty to a job he was leaving. He brought it home. We all got it, sick with what many say is just a cold. For him it was, for the rest of us, it was a month of illness. Because of one meeting. And for my sick child? We are three months in. They have long covid, too sick to go to school or even walk around the house many days.

    I tell you that not to scare you into being a hermit but the opposite, actually. I did nothing, went nowhere. But that’s not sustainable forever and we got it anyway. We missed so many, many things. And for what? People I know travelled all over and were fine. They had parties, ate out, actually lived. My spouse went to one meeting and our kid is still cripplingly ill. We might as well have gone out. So, now I do.

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    • Kipiani March 22, 2022, 5:47 pm

      I can really empathize with you. My husband works in healthcare and has been required to go into work throughout the pandemic. He brought home Covid at least twice (once in spring 2020 and Omicron more recently). Thankfully no one in our immediate family is high risk but it still sucked. I think it’s important not to attach morality to catching Covid. My husband and I ostensibly did everything right, wearing masks, getting vaxxed and boosted, and we still got it. So now I wouldn’t say I’m resigned to everyone getting Covid, because obviously I know the virus will continue to change and I do believe in communal responsibility for public health, but I no longer go above and beyond CDC and other public health recommendations – I cannot sustain this heightened level of anxiety. It isn’t healthy for me or my family. We will change our MO as the situation evolves.
      LW, I think Wendy’s advice re: a list of things you want to do is great as it will help your wife articulate their concerns.

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      Lucidity March 22, 2022, 8:00 pm

      So sorry that your child has been struggling with sickness for so long, @canadagoose. That’s heartbreaking. I hope they make a full recovery very soon.

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    • Cookie March 23, 2022, 8:56 am

      Yeah same story here, though we did not get very sick. We had it back in 2021 right before the vaccines came out – got it from the grocery store. After getting it in that context, when we were in full lockdown mode (we live in Ontario) and hadn’t seen anyone and my kid wasnt even in daycare yet and before the more contagious Delta and then even more contagious Omicron I realized that a lot of this is theatre to give people comfort that something is being done – that they can prevent this thing from happening. But this virus is going around and around and we will all unfortunately catch it at some point. The time to stamp it out was early and that ship has sailed. I mask up when required by law and if I feel unwell I don’t go out to avoid others catching it and my kid doesn’t go to daycare if he is sick and takes two tests, as required by law, before he can return. But otherwise I just live my life and I don’t wear a mask unless required by law – I don’t care if others do, that’s their choice. The hospitals have space, we have vaccines and boosters and the drugs are out. I know we want to avoid a sudden surge and spread out the time period that people catch it. But other than that not much more we can do at this point…just delaying the inevitable.

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        Dear Wendy March 23, 2022, 10:54 am

        With all due respect, precautions do actually reduce transmission and are more than mere theater. And it’s really not normal for people to get sick with a virus multiple times a year. I get the flu shot every year and *maybe* end up actually getting the flu like once every seven years maybe? It’s not normal to get three vaccine shots in one year and still get infected multiple times in that period by the virus the vaccine is supposed to protect against. This whole “oh well, nothing we can do, this is how it is now” mentality is so strange to me. I mean, I get that it’s been totally normalized but that doesn’t make it less strange.

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      • Cookie March 23, 2022, 11:34 am

        Reply to Wendy: What would be the end game to the precautions then? I am on board for doing precautions if there was a clear end game but it has become clearer to me that there is no end planned – it’s just whenever they feel like it. They don’t know when a “safe” number of transmission is reached. If we are talking about reducing transmission for the sake of just reducing it with no end in sight to when we can lift the restrictions – then what is the point? The virus will not go away – everyone will catch it. I will make sure I do my part to not go out when sick or send my kid out when sick. Some people are less comfortable and will stay home or avoid others. It’s become a control thing for a lot of people, there is a lot of discomfort with letting go of that control and realizing that you cannot control what happens – there are too many variables and too many factors. As to the point of getting sick multiple times per year: for myself personally, despite getting the flu shot every year, I would often get sick a couple of times. Sometimes quite poorly. Over the fall my son brought home every kind of virus from daycare and passed that on. We got RSV, norovirus, flu (not Covid though). It’s what happens. I know there is a lot of disagreement and I sympathize with the people who are still very scared and concerned but I am not willing to stay contained or have my son held back from school when this virus won’t go away despite our actions. It will keep circulating.

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        Dear Wendy March 23, 2022, 12:12 pm

        Yes, it will! Because as a society, we’ve decided that this level of sickness is normal and fine. Personally, I don’t want to be sick multiple times a year – I take very good care of myself, have a strong immune system, and my kids hardly get sick, so multiple illnesses a year has never been a normal thing for us and I resent that I’m supposed to just accept that it will be now but that’s my burden to bear and I will. What little is being asked of you – staying home when sick, testing your kid twice before sending them back to school – will likely be dropped soon anyway, so whatever. The world has moved on and it seems most are fine with the status of our new normal. I don’t happen to be one of those people but I’ve got zero power or influence so it doesn’t matter.

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        Dear Wendy March 23, 2022, 12:17 pm

        Also, you realize that there are a lot of immunocompromised folks in the world, right? I’ve got one right in my own household. It’s not really discomfort with letting go of control that keeps them cautious. It’s concern that their immune system might not be able to fight the infection and that it will alter their health and quality of life in the longterm.

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      • CanadaGoose March 23, 2022, 12:08 pm

        Just to clarify my comments, I am in no way saying public health measures don’t work and everyone is going to get it. My point is twofold:
        – It’s not feasible to completely cut yourself and others who live with you off from the rest of society for years on end.
        – No matter how much you restrict yourself and those who live with you from leaving the house, they can still get it from survival-level activities. Also, many people who gallivant all over don’t get it. Mental health is as important as physical health, so getting out and socializing as safely as possible is likely better for your family than total isolation. Also, the world is moving on and those who refuse to adapt may suffer serious consequences to things like employment.

        All that said, masks DO work, particularly KN95s or N95s, which can keep you safe in a covid-filled room for hours if worn correctly. I can only speak for my region, which as you can tell is not the US, but where I am, public health was shockingly slow to mask, despite our CDC making the benefit quietly clear to decision-makers. One of the reasons Omicron was let rip in my area was because the government could not access anywhere close to enough respirators as Omicron spread, so to avoid panic, they just said you don’t need them (this I know for a fact). Same for ventilation in public buildings. The result was mass infection, with numbers suppressed by cutting off testing so the true scope can’t be known. Hospitalization and death numbers are still reported, but those don’t take a host of life-impacting issues into account, so are a poor marker for the true impact on people’s lives. I kept my child out of hospital thanks to 24/7 access to doctors in the family, but she still can’t function at anything like a normal level. Based on her grade in school, the effects have changed the course of her life for years. I stronglu encourage people to go beyond public health recommendations to protect yourselves as BA2 now spreads across North America after spring break and the removal of mask mandates. But, the thing is so contagious, walling yourself off isn’t a guarantee you’ll be fine. However, it is a guarantee you’ll miss out on so much of what makes life worth living in the first place.

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        Dear Wendy March 23, 2022, 12:22 pm

        You were clear – I understood the points you were making, and I agree. I definitely go beyond the CDC recommendations, but I am still living my life. I think I have found a balance that I’m comfortable with and that works for my family for now (though I do hope transmission levels drop to a level that I would feel comfortable not asking my kids to mask in school. I know what that level looks like for me and last summer was the only time I saw it but my kids weren’t vaccinated yet…).

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        Dear Wendy March 23, 2022, 12:26 pm

        And, I am so so sorry to hear about your kid’s long covid. It’s so upsetting and I can imagine how it must feel as a parent to watch your child suffer and to understand probably better than most what this means for the trajectory of her life. 🙁

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      • ron March 23, 2022, 12:08 pm

        Yes, it will keep circulating, but… our ability to respond to it medically, without death or even hospitalization, continues to advance. If you get Covid today, you have a much better chance of escaping without serious consequences than you did in 2020 or 2021. Another year from now, treatments will be even better.

        Good you have the vaccine and quarantine when ill, but this is not some political control game. In the US. we have basically 1 million dead in two years. That is serious. It’s not a hoax or someone playing mindgames with you. It’s sad that you caught virus at the grocery store, despite being masked, but… that doesn’t mean masking doesn’t help. It just means that masks are less than totally effective. And… we’ve always known that masks are most effective when worn by an infected person.

        Don’t fall victim to conspiracy theories.

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      • Ange March 23, 2022, 7:51 pm

        For me I just look at Australia’s numbers when we had lockdown, we had entire states with zero cases and they stayed that way for MONTHS. In states with no lockdown but restrictions we saw far less numbers than many other countries. Now we have big numbers because we got as vaccinated as possible then we let it rip. Those things do work if people actually abide by them.

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  • Anonymous March 22, 2022, 9:06 pm

    So, I spent 2020 and a lot of 2021 isolated. Skipped holidays. Didn’t go out to eat. Masked when I had to go to the store. But now I’m vaxxed and violated and I just…I dunno, I can’t. I am privileged to not live with someone who can’t be vaccinated and everyone I am around is vaccinated and, well, unless I’m in a place that requires or requests masks (in which case I absolutely comply), I’ve started to live my life more like as I before. Indoor restaurant? Yes. Go into court or the office? Yes. In person meeting? Yes. Will I likely get Covid? Probably? But am I going to never get Covid, even if I continue to get boosted? Yes. I think we have to adapt to the idea that, yes, we will all get Covid. Do vaccines reduce the likelihood of serious injury

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  • Miss MJ March 22, 2022, 9:20 pm

    Sorry…something weird happened.

    Anyway, continuing along…

    Do vaccines reduce the likelihood of serious illness and death? Yes.

    It’s awful that people with children too young to be vaccinated and people who are immunocompromised or unable to get vaxxed have to remain vigilant. Yes!! I hate it. I hope better vaccines alleviate the burden on them.

    But the current (and it can change) reality is that for those of us who are vaxxed and boosted, Covid is an endemic reality we likely won’t escape for awhile. And we all have to make our peace with that new reality. So, I can relax my rules for me. But being around my immune compromised mom – I’m back in 2020.

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  • Kate March 23, 2022, 5:10 am

    I’m curious what your wife was like before the pandemic. It seems like it exacerbated people’s existing mental health issues. So your wife, were they already somewhat of a homebody? Did they have anxiety? Were they controlling?

    This sounds like an irrational reaction out of proportion to the risk, probably driven by a desire to be in control. I mean, yes, there’s real trauma behind it, but it actually doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, because you leave the house anyway for work. They visit their family. It’s impossible to avoid exposure entirely, and like some people pointed out here, they took every precaution and got it anyway. I haven’t had it, and I’ve lived fairly normally since being vaccinated and boosted. I’m actually sick right now with something my husband brought back from a work trip (same in November), but it’s not Covid or the flu, he got all the tests because some of the people on the trip tested positive for Covid.

    Anyway, I like Wendy’s advice to set ground rules and your wife to get mental health support. It’s not healthy for them either to be living like that. And frankly it’s so not okay for you not to be able to visit your family but it’s fine to visit theirs. Nope. You need to take action here.

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    • Kate March 23, 2022, 5:17 am

      I want to reiterate, my husband was *in a small boat with a guy who tested positive,* and at a dinner inside a restaurant with multiple people who did, and he did not get Covid. He is vaxxed and boosted. And he was run down and tired after the trip and did get sick, but it wasn’t Covid.

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      • Kate March 23, 2022, 5:20 am

        His friend who tested positive is a somewhat older guy who is definitely vaxxed, maybe boosted. He drank a lot at the dinner, mingled closely with people, and went out afterward drinking. My husband left the dinner early and went back to the hotel. Just that difference in behavior may have made the difference in exposure/infection.

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  • anonymousse March 23, 2022, 2:09 pm

    Therapy, couples/and definitely she could probably use a steady source to vent her fears to. She sounds incredibly isolated and still full of anxiety. Does she have friends or an outlet? Is she solely focused on your children’s survival? A lot of primary caregivers were thrust into this weird situation that felt very much like life or possible death and I think there are many still coming out of that fear. What media does she consume?

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  • anonymousse March 24, 2022, 9:13 am

    Wendy, thank you so much for linking this article on your stories! I’ve been waiting on bated breath for this brutal academic takedown.

    https://proteanmag.com/2022/03/22/motivated-reasoning-emily-osters-covid-narratives-and-the-attack-on-public-education/

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      Dear Wendy March 24, 2022, 9:44 am

      Oh yes, she’s really THE WORST of the worst. Every single drop of mitigations in schools has been a direct result of her deeply flawed and cherry-picked data. It’s been just awful to watch and experience. But it is nice to see her get a tiny bit of very deserved comeuppance.

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      • anonymousse March 24, 2022, 1:00 pm

        One of the authors of that article is also at Brown, where Oster is! Burn, Emily.

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  • Anonymous April 28, 2022, 2:02 pm

    The coofid cult is still going strong, I see.

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  • Anonymous April 28, 2022, 2:06 pm

    This entire family needs intense psychiatric intervention. And enrolling your kid into a trial of a gene-altering poison is child abuse. You’re a disgrace of a parent and belong in prison.

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    • Ange April 28, 2022, 5:11 pm

      Well that was a well measured, reasonable response. But then again I’ve had 4 vaccines so my genes have been all squirrelly, I have no idea what’s going on

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      • Kate April 28, 2022, 5:35 pm

        I’ve actually transitioned into a man. My pronouns are he/they.

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      • ktfran April 28, 2022, 6:22 pm

        At least you’re still a human, that’s nice. I reverted back to my pre-evolution state, an ape. It’s pretty cool. Thank god for opposable thumbs so I could type this.

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    • anonymousse April 29, 2022, 9:42 am

      I am my own Wi-Fi hotspot thanks to Bill Gates and the boosters!

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  • Vathena April 29, 2022, 10:27 am

    Planes are falling from the sky because of all the magnetized people! Also, I grew an extra arm and now I can scratch all those hard to reach places. Jealous?!

    “Gene altering”…I guess it shouldn’t blow my mind how many people don’t have a grasp of basic cell biology AT ALL, but it really gets me every time. Did the entire American public sleep through 10th grade? I don’t think you really understand how the processes of transcription and translation work at the cellular level, dude. Thanks for today’s self esteem boost, though! Off to go feel like a freakin’ GENIUS compared to you! Have fun on the ventilator!

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