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Life What social distancing has taught me

Apr. 2, 2020
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A year ago, I was studying in Germany when I had to return to the United States only a month into my spring semester for medical reasons. Last week, in upstate New York, I stuffed the contents of my dorm room into trash bags and packed my things into the trunk of my mom’s car. The feeling wasn’t déjà vu, exactly, but an unexpected preparedness. I was disappointed to be leaving school, yet weirdly calm through the same process of packing up and saying goodbyes that had torn me to pieces last year. I think what I’m trying to say is that I have a long history of being sort of a mess emotionally, so I really didn’t expect to have my shit together. On the car ride home and in the days following, I was waiting for an impending mental breakdown that surprisingly...never happened.

I’m hesitant to accept that I’m actually in a state of good mental health through all of this. There are things I’ve completely lost it over in the past that pale in comparison to the pandemic, so I feel like I should be reacting differently or even just reacting more. The logical part of me knows that’s not how mental health works, though. It’s not as simple as worldwide crisis = mental breakdown. I also know I shouldn’t write off my sense of stability as static. I still have worries and fears. The pandemic is a stressful situation and the circumstances it presents us with constantly change. As my favorite Instagram meme creator @sighswoon says, “I’m constantly shapeshifting, adapting, and evolving.” This period of self-isolation may last for weeks or months, and though my physical environment isn’t going to change, the way I think about it and myself will.

One thing the entire world has in common is that we’re all thinking really deeply right now. Within our daily routines, we’re programmed to do the same things each day and we form patterns of thinking that operate in cycles too. This makes our lives easier because there’s less to question and fewer decisions to make, but ultimately we’re missing out on opportunities to learn, grow, and change. It’s only when something truly out of the ordinary happens that we break away from our default modes to think differently. 

This sounds like a really great thing, in theory, but it’s likely your thoughts are revolving around coronavirus. There are endless sides of the pandemic to think about, and due to social distancing, an endless amount of free time to think. My advice is to keep negative thought tendencies in check. If you feel yourself succumbing to pandemic dread or are struggling to control anxious or depressive thoughts, call a friend and talk about literally anything else.

As I’m writing, I’m reminded of a few thoughts I’ve had within the past few weeks that I believe are worth sharing: 

The first is that the profiteers hoarding masks and gloves and toilet paper are legitimately evil. I’m not talking about the misinformed panic buyers that want to ensure they’ll have some Charmin to spare. The real criminals are the resellers price-gouging necessary supplies. They’ve managed to single-handedly make the jobs of health-care professionals more impossible than they already are. When this is over, they’ll be remembered as the scum that tried to make a quick buck while people were sick and dying. I don’t know what else to say on this because it just makes me feel so gross.

The second is that I’m incredibly privileged. I’m healthy. I have food and electricity and running water. I have circumstances that allow me to self-isolate to protect my health and the health of others and the means (a safe home) to do that. I have technological and institutional resources that allow me to continue my education throughout isolation. And there are so many more privileges I have that others don’t during this time. I’m able to write this, to take something like self-isolation as a learning experience, because my privilege enables me to. 

The last I’ll relay to you of all the things floating around my brain is that even as my normal conditions of living are compromised, connectivity makes all the difference in the quality of my day-to-day life. I don’t mean connecting with other people necessarily, though that’s good too, but with literally anything. I’ve discovered music, writing, and art that makes me feel seen and understood in new ways. I’ve been using @yumisakugawa’s Instagram posts to open up to myself. Her questions and affirmations are specific, yet inclusive of all life paths and backgrounds. Throughout the day, I talk to my friends on the phone quite a lot and about these things. Everyone else's lives are also centered on the pandemic and any other topic of conversation is a breath of fresh air.

Although pretty much everything I’m thinking and writing was brought about by self-isolation, I don’t want it to take life-changing circumstances for me to open up more and be a better person. Pre-COVID-19, I was really discontent with my life for reasons I can’t even put a name to now. Honestly, what I recognized as problems could be overcome or weren’t that big of a deal in the first place. What version of myself would I be if the world were business as usual? (Though is it ever?) It took this for me to come to terms with myself and where I was in life, but ultimately I’m grateful and (definitely surprised) to be growing emotionally and mentally from self-isolation.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby for The Washington Post