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Lithium Why I'm lonelier at school than I was in quarantine

Oct. 22, 2020
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When I got that fateful email from my university in March saying that we would be sent home immediately due to COVID-19, I cried. A lot.

I was in a motel on the outskirts of New Orleans for a spring break trip. Despite the rapid onset of near-universal quarantining a week later, it was pretty normal. We walked around the Garden District and the French Quarter during the day; we roamed the jazz bars and clubs of Bourbon Street and Frenchman Street at night. Over the course of the week, news had started to break of universities shutting down, though at this point it was mostly a temporary thing—spring break would be elongated for an extra week or two. COVID felt far off; I didn’t give it a second thought as I wandered through packed streets and tightly packed rooms, where people from all over the world passed through daily.

My friends and I spent the remainder of that night in the motel, not because we were suddenly more conscious of COVID, but because we were too heartbroken to move. No matter how we might have complained about tests or the stress of being away from home, the immediate realization that we weren’t going to have the rest of our semester felt like a devastating blow. We loved our school, our friends, and the freedom of being on our own. To have that taken away so quickly, to be back in environments which for many of us weren’t the most conducive to good mental health, was a truly tragic proposition.

But then I did go home, to my parents’ new place in Montana, far away from my friends and childhood in the Bay Area. This physical distance from everything I knew and everyone but my immediate family terrified me. To make it worse, I’ve always known my mental health to be directly correlated with my social interaction. When I see people I’m happy; when I don’t I’m sad. Being in Montana, doing nothing but school for who knows how many months, seemed like a recipe for emotional disaster.

To my surprise, my time in Montana was actually pretty great. Not only did I get to spend time with my family—something that’s pretty hard to come by these days—I got to spend time with myself. Without the potential to hang out with friends or deal with the woes of modern dating, I was able to cultivate the parts of myself that so often go ignored. I hiked every day, I sewed, I played music, I read. I spent more time alone than I ever had in one period of time, and I really enjoyed it. 

So now I’m back at school in Atlanta, taking my classes online and living with a friend in an apartment off campus, with most of my close friends nearby. We don’t go out, but we see our inner circle pretty regularly, making my social life a sort of makeshift version of what I had last year. I still get the freedom of being away from home—even more so now that I’m living outside the dorms. While I love it here—my friends, my school, Atlanta—I can’t help but notice the irony that while I’ve been here, my mental health has been worse than the whole time I was quarantined in Montana.

Part of it is unforeseen personal stuff. The death of a family member, the death of a cat, heartache. But I don’t think it’s just that—when I was at home, I never felt that I was missing out on anything. Everyone was completely isolated. I had people to miss, but they were in the exact same situation. 

But now, I have people I could be around. And that makes it so much harder. When I feel lonely, I feel inadequate. When I stay in doing homework for the weekend instead of exploring Atlanta or seeing a friend, I feel like I’m wasting time. 

Sometimes it feels like I’m reaching for something that’s gone—a time when we didn’t have to be alone so much, when we were allowed to be carefree. So inevitably, when it doesn’t measure up to what we used to have pre-COVID, I’m left feeling disappointed and a little bit empty. 

For me and many of my friends, and I would go so far as to say young people at large, this fall has become an odd sort of pandemic-era purgatory. Most people I know are still following some level of social-distancing guidelines, but have rolled back their personal level of comfort to allow for small gatherings of inner-circle friends. They don’t think about COVID with the regularity that they did when it was a new concern, but it’s still there, looming in the back of their minds. 

Restrictions have loosened, but we all know deep down that they shouldn’t have. So it’s unclear whether we should be metaphorically holding our breath for a vaccine, or pretending that this way of life is normal. That’s exhausting.

I don’t have a great solution for how to deal with COVID blues. I’m not sure there’s a way to sustainably make ourselves feel better, when it’s so clear that things aren’t okay. But it is okay to feel whatever it is you’re feeling, even if you think you’re coming a bit late to the party. Cut yourself some slack, and have faith that we’ll get through this. Don’t settle for pretending this is normal.

Illustration by Ashley Boling