Life Becomes Empty: Covid 19 On My Mind
Last month, I was busy celebrating my birthday. There were always things to do, new hobbies to try, events to attend, and a whole world to explore. I went to the aquarium, saw Harriet at the library, attended VIP Comedy Night, learned about pollinators, went to Drag Bingo, enjoyed snowshoeing, skiing, birding, various activist events, a Cat Video Festival, had Mexican food on my birthday, got a new tattoo, and read poems for a poetry night. The world felt more like a smorgasbord. Now, it feels like life is an empty grocery store shelf. It has been shocking to go from a socially engaged person to a homebody. Two weeks ago, I was thinking that I might be able to go on an international trip next month. I thought maybe things would not be so bad. Now, I had to cancel plans to see my brother on Friday. Two weeks ago, staff at my job had a taco pot luck. Last week, we started having staff meetings by zoom. My world has become quiet, small, and uncertain.
Like most people, I really didn’t take COVID-19 seriously. In the past, there had been Zika, H1N1, MERS, SARS, and other viral outbreaks. These all seemed to pass without much impact on my life. It was on my radar as a distant thing. I was substitute teaching when Italy went on lock down and there was the first major stock market crash. Even then, it didn’t seem like something that would impact me other than the fear that it would complicate my trip and that my meager retirement had lost over 10% of its value in a day. Later in the week, I met with staff at my job for a potluck. We ate Mexican food and laughed about the mystery of the missing green Jell-o. Did a resident abscond with a giant container of Jell-o? Trump’s travel ban for Europeans coming to the U.S. seemed mysterious and even excessive at that point of time. I still worried about my trip. Within the next few days, there were more travel bans, closed schools, the cancellation of my trip, the sudden cancellation of meetings and community events, and mounting deaths in Italy.
I was slow to comprehend what flattening the curve really meant in practice. I attended my final in-person activist meeting on March 16th. It was bittersweet, since I knew it was the last activist meeting I would attend for a long time. I went out for Mexican food that day because I knew that the following day at 5pm, all the restaurants in Wisconsin would be closed. Had I really understood the importance of social distancing, I would not have gone out. But, there was not that many official cases in Wisconsin. It felt like one last opportunity as the sun set on something I enjoyed. Within the course of a few days, almost everything that structured my life collapsed. There were no more activist meetings. There would be no more trivia nights, reading at coffee shops, eating out alone, going to movies, spending time with friends, no more community classes or lectures, no birding field trips or presentation, no side gigs as a substitute teacher or the Easter bunny, no more travel plans, no more plans at all. I felt completely lost. I felt as though a cruel wind had passed through and destroyed the scaffolding that held my mental well being together. This existential crisis was coupled with my obsessive surveillance of the news for the latest terrible thing.
What is left when everything is gone? I was left with work. This is better than many people, who suddenly lost their jobs. My job at a domestic violence shelter is more secure since it is an essential service. This is something to be thankful for, but also gave me a sense of impending crisis. Work over the next few months will become harder. The population at the shelter is often sick. With more people restricted to their homes and more services limited by closures, we will almost certainly be busier. My shifts have been busier with hotline calls, more cleaning chores, and more intakes. Residents will have a harder time connecting to services, finding housing, and finding employment. Staff themselves may become sick. There are challenges ahead. Normally, I could face these challenges with the hope of travel, escape, hobbies, or other distractions. Many of the distractions and promises of escape are gone.
All of this has been rather depressing and paralyzing. I thought that I was a more resilient person and have been disappointed by my response. On March 17th, I had a panic attack, which is something I haven’t had for quite a long time. I sat on the floor, trying to breathe. I felt anxiety again on the 19th. It was that feeling I would have before running in a track meet or performing in a play. A fluttery feeling that my heart is too fast and my stomach is too empty. It is hard to explain to other people. My feelings are, after all, very selfish and privileged. While people die, lose their jobs, become seriously ill, or face innumerable traumas as healthcare workers, I am thinking about when I will travel again or the emptiness of not having many of my hobbies, doing activism, or going to restaurants. And other people seem to be coping much better. They are watching more Netflix, trying new recipes, organizing online yoga classes, and creating online communities for mutual aid. I haven’t felt as able to transition.
Eventually, I will rise to the occasion. The abrupt end to a version of my self was bewildering. I couldn’t look at my goal book until yesterday. The goals are a relic of another reality. I won’t be going to RSOP’s spring frog walk or nature photography class. I won’t be on the Audubon warbler walks this spring. I won’t be substitute teaching or taking hot yoga classes before the Groupon expires. I won’t be going to union meetings or really, any other meetings. I might not be camping at new state parks this summer. The list of 140 New Year’s will remain incomplete. I need to find new things and exist in new ways.
Today, I felt a little better. I had another activist Zoom meeting. It was again bittersweet. But, I am thinking more about the future. Later, I spoke with a coworker who was stressed about her financial situation. It snapped me out of the selfish mourning of the way things were and the things I hoped for. I have to start rebuilding myself with new scaffolding, so that I can be strong enough to weather this. I have to be strong and dynamic, vibrant and capable. I need to find the fuel to fight, support others, and do the things that need to be done. I will attend educational meetings via Zoom. There is a talk on Alexandra Kollontai in April that I don’t want to miss. I can write and read more. I can look for ways to re-engage in activism. I can start some seeds next month. I can join virtual yoga classes and write new to-do lists. This doesn’t change the fear for the future. The worry over death or that we are headed for conditions unseen in the U.S. since the Great Depression. The social distancing seems to remove some of the sense that I have agency in changing society for the better. Things just seem to happen. There is endless happening and the powerlessness of being atomized into households. Still, I think I can pass through demoralization and loss and discover the emotional means for mobilization. I can do, and fight, and support, and find new ways to be busy. I won’t be quarantined with my demons.