Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon shared their love story in 'The Big Sick.' Now they're opening up about being immunocompromised during the pandemic

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The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

If you've seen The Big Sick, the 2017 Oscar-nominated film inspired by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon's real-life romance and health crisis, you'll understand why the immunocompromised Gordon wore a mask on flights long before the COVID-19 pandemic — and why she now bristles when strangers tell her things like "you don't have to wear that anymore."

"I either say I'm very sick, in a very serious tone, or I say, 'mind your business — it's truly not your business. If I'm wearing a mask or not,'" Gordon tells Yahoo Life. "I don't need to ever go back to not wearing a mask, but I get a little attitude sometimes."

As documented in The Big Sick, for which the spouses and writing partners won the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay in addition to Oscar nominations, Gordon was put into a medically induced coma not long after she started dating Nanjiani. She was subsequently diagnosed with adult-onset Still's disease, a rare systemic autoinflammatory disease; more than a decade later, doctors determined that she also has the immune system disorder CVID (or, common variable immunodeficiency). What that means for Gordon is that her body can't make antibodies on its own, and while she undergoes treatments to offset that, she remains at the "lower end of what healthy people have, antibody-wise."

And so, while many declare that the pandemic is over and mask mandates lift, she and Nanjiani are reminding the public that immunocompromised folks remain vulnerable to COVID-19. The couple have teamed up with AstraZeneca's "Up The Antibodies" campaign — which includes a PSA from Jeff Bridges about his near-fatal bout with COVID-19 while undergoing treatment for lymphoma in 2020 — to give voice to the high-risk and raise awareness about protective options like monoclonal antibody therapy.

Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani are sharing how they weathered the isolation of the pandemic. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani are sharing how they weathered the isolation of the pandemic. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

In a roundtable he hosted last week for "Up The Antibodies," Nanjiani choked up as he recounted having miss out on events like his father's 70th birthday party during the pandemic out of consideration for his wife's health. Though she's now received a total of five vaccinations and boosters — filling up her vaccination card — Gordon says figuring out what outings are safe to attend as the world opens up is an "ongoing conversation."

Nanjiani cites his recent appearance at the Emmys this month, which the couple felt OK about attending because COVID-19 testing was required, though they skipped one industry after-party that didn't have any such protocols in place.

"We have not been to anything like that in a very long time," the Eternals actor, who "bartended" in a bit with Emmys host Kenan Thompson during the broadcast. "So that was by far the biggest sort of dip in the pool we've taken. That was very scary."

Thanks to their latest boosters, the comedian — next up in Hulu's Welcome to Chippendales series, which he and Gordon are executive producing — notes that "this is the safest" they've have felt in a long time. But they remain mindful of the local case counts and will keep their masks on if they go to a movie theater on occasion.

"We do want to live our lives, and it's a risk analysis, right?" he says. "We're always sort of evolving our strategy based on the peaks and valleys."

For Gordon, keeping a mask on hand at all times gives her some sense of control, even if those around her are taking any precautions. "I can keep myself safe," she repeats to herself as a sort of balm.

In the early days of the pandemic, keeping herself safe meant staying at home, and only venturing out for doctor's appointments. The couple also launched a podcast, Staying In With Emily & Kumail, to discuss lockdown life and work through their emotions about being isolated. As someone with chronic illness who was used to hunkering down at home, and a person grateful to even have the privilege to stay in and have meals and the like delivered, Gordon at first felt "weirdly so Zen" about it all. That was not the case for Nanjiani, who says he still feels traumatized from his then-girlfriend's hospitalization and feels responsibility as her caregiver to keep her safe. In October 2020, he tweeted that he felt "hopeless and helpless" about the COVID-19 situation.

"It was very, very stressful," the former Silicon Valley star tells Yahoo Life. "In the early days of the pandemic, I did not handle it well. I definitely had nightmares. I was terrified. I had nightmares where I was, like, being attacked by cockroaches."

While Nanjiani remains vigilant — he readily admits being a mask enforcer on sets, and had to quarantine away from his wife when a close contact tested positive on the Welcome to Chippendales set — the experience of isolation ultimately led to him reflecting more on his mental health.

"It was very difficult, but it actually helped me sort of understand the things that make me feel good and the things that make me feel bad and being more intentional about them," he notes. "I'd just sort of been going forward, not really taking stock of myself. And so when suddenly we were forced to stay home and everything went away except me and Emily, I understood more — what is it that makes me feel calm? What is it that makes me feel not calm? — and just being more aware of myself and my reaction to things. So in a weird way, being forced home for a year allowed me to understand myself and my reaction to things a lot more."

In the process, he's learned that being on social media no longer serves him. Last year Nanjiani spoke out about how the out-sized reactions to his shirtless Marvels makeover had made him "very uncomfortable" discussing his body.

"I realized social media ... for me is mentally very unhealthy," he tells Yahoo Life. "I don't know about other people, but my brain is not made to look at thousands of responses to me. Even if they're all positive, it's really overwhelming. So I would say something and then you have pages and pages and pages of responses and there'll be like a hundred good ones and one negative one. The only one I would remember was the one negative one, but even all the positive ones would make me feel jangly and out of control and really outside of myself. And so I realized that social media for me by and large has been a negative.

"I know it's been positive for many people and it's positive for my career," he adds. "So now my strategy when it comes to social media is: it goes one way. I send stuff out. I don't read anything. And I only use it as a promotional tool. If I have a show coming out or a movie coming out I'm proud of, I'll say that. If I see something that I really, really enjoy, that I feel that people would also love, that could use more eyes on it, sometimes I'll tweet about that. But yeah, I'm never going back to being active on social media because it really is overwhelming in all the wrong ways."

Gordon, who was a couples and family therapist before finding success in Hollywood as a writer and producer, has wrestled with her own mental health challenges over the course of the pandemic. Her initial calmness eventually petered out as society at large went back to business as usual. Why do you think it's over? she remembers thinking. Because you're tired of it? The virus doesn't care that you're tired of it. It's still there.

"I did get a little angry, and I guess underneath that was, like, FOMO — like, 'that must be nice for you,'" the Little America producer says. "'I'm so happy that you feel safe going back out again' — whether or not it, it was safe for them. Who knows, because I wasn't going out to know that. So yeah, I went from being Zen to being frustrated."

Gordon leaned on her therapist background for coping mechanisms that helped her manage her feelings. That included recognizing how "terrifying" it can be for people to realize how little control they have, both in a pandemic and in life overall. And so, when others were panicking or engaging in behavior she didn't otherwise agree with, Gordon focused on finding her empathy for them — sometimes to the annoyance of her husband, who says she tends to "over-empathize."

"I was trying my best to be empathetic with the rest of the world on how scary this must have been," she says. "And that helped me cope because I could understand where they were coming from. Did I agree with what people were doing sometimes? No, but that helped for sure — and meditating and sometimes playing very aggressive video games. You do what you can."

Nanjiani also takes 10 minutes to meditate each day, and says that he tries to be better at "communicating my emotional state" to his wife. Talking to Gordon when he's upset about something "helps a lot," he says.

Gordon admits that she pulls her "former therapist" card in her relationships — "it's really obnoxious," she cracks — but is learning to ease up on that caretaker role and let her loved ones take care of her, too. And while the pandemic is still obviously very much a major concern, there have been silver linings from both a physical and mental health perspective. Gordon now feels more comfortable wearing the masks that keep her healthy, and as someone who would often get sick while working round the clock in writers' rooms, being able to work remotely when she can has been a positive development.

As partners in work and life, keeping their boundaries from getting blurry is a priority. Gordon instituted "office hours," and she and Nanjiani have to ask each other for permission to discuss work outside of those hours.

"We check in with each other a lot," Gordon says. "We've made it more of a point to schedule nights that are just ours. I also think pre-pandemic, we were constantly going to events ... Every night was like, 'Oh, we need to go to this, or we're supposed to go to this person's thing.' A charmed life, to be sure, but also it didn't feel intentional. It just felt, like, default.

"I think we're both a little bit more intentional these days about what we need to do to take care of ourselves emotionally," she adds. "We both are more in touch with our mental health needs, I think."

—Video produced by Kat Vasquez.

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