I’m reading a lot of stories right now about all of the things people lost during the world’s collective “lost year.” Lost lives, lost jobs, lost relationships, lost days and hours staring mindlessly at Netflix wondering when “just staying put for two weeks and it will all be over” would ever actually be over.
Maybe you’re reading this and thinking I am going to counter these stories of loss and make some trite list of all the beauty I found in just sitting outside or connecting with people I hadn’t seen in years on Zoom parties or hiking for hours at the local parks around Long Island I never realized were there until I literally couldn’t go anywhere else. And at week two, three, or even five of our Pandemic year I might have done that. In fact, I did. Guilty. But like most things you thought were temporary at first and learned weren’t, you eventually settled in and, if you were like me, the entire ecosystem of your life was challenged in a way you never knew possible and you were left wondering what the hell you were going to do.
Before the world shut down last March, my busy and fast life was at its peak in terms of busy and fast. I was traveling a ton for work between trade shows and our new office down south. My social calendar during the rare weeks I was home was jam-packed with dinners and drinks with friends, family visits, workouts with my gym community, and weekend trips. The truth is, I was tired all the time, but in the moments when I was not on the move, I was incredibly anxious and unsettled, and instead of sitting still for a hot second to examine why that was, I propelled myself forward into more work, more plans with friends, more trips, more distractions.
Then in seemingly one fell swoop, all the things I used to distract me from myself were taken away.
Like most of my friends during those first weeks of shut-down, I took part in Zoom happy hours, went for walks and runs, tried to buy toilet paper anywhere I could, watched Tiger King. My boyfriend and I were now home together more than we had ever been in the five years we had been dating. Up until that point, we had led pretty separate lives despite the fact that we lived together. While I believe that having a life outside of your relationship is important to the health of a partnership, in hindsight ours was extreme. We very rarely spent time together, just the two of us- there were always other people around. Without friends and plans and work outside of the home providing an escape, evidence of everything that had gone south or didn’t make sense long-term in our relationship quickly started to pile up around me. I felt suffocated, but I wasn’t ready to face being in my late 30’s in yet another failing not-marriage-and-babies relationship during a time when dating or meeting someone else was not even remotely an option, so I filed those feelings in the category “to deal with when this was all over” and tried to find new ways to distract myself, leaning hard on my support system to cope.
Being the product of a troubled adolescence marked by illness, death, and oftentimes abandonment, I have survived and ultimately thrived with the help and support of the strong network of friends and second-family I developed and nurtured in my adult life. Except now we were all “going through it” and virtually taking turns propping each other up. Some days we couldn’t be there for each other because we had nothing left to give and that was hard. But still, I connected however I could as often as I could, and my then-boyfriend resented me for this because he didn’t have people in his life to turn to when things got hairy, at least not the way I did.
His anger and resentment created an even bigger space between us, which we both desperately tried to fill with arbitrary things like expensive gifts and “date nights” that didn’t do much to connect what was already broken until I finally had to call it and end things. I couldn’t pretend anymore.
As terrified as I was at the thought of being alone, once I realized I already was, the choice was easy.
When the holidays rolled around, I was getting the hang of being single and was, by all accounts, adjusting to my new life as the world started to gradually open back up. I even started dipping my toe into the dating pool and was looking forward to seeing my family over Christmas when all of that got up-ended by contracting COVID at a birthday celebration. There are a lot of people who just want to be left alone when they are sick, but I am not that person. Having one of the worst illnesses I’ve had in years while completely isolated in my 800-square foot apartment with family, friends, and co-workers avoiding my literal plague was devastating, especially during the holidays.
This kind of isolation was more extreme than the kind I experienced during the months of the shut-down. Now I could not leave the house for any reason, not that I had the physical, emotional, or mental energy to do so even if I wanted to. I started ordering things to fill my time- books, puzzles, small DIY home projects, drawing paper, colored pencils- because spending every day for weeks sleeping and staring numbly at the television was starting to erode my mental health and I needed stimulation. Didn’t I used to have independent hobbies that didn’t involve eating, drinking, or exercise? It was now more obvious to me than ever that I had lost a lot of myself in my last relationship. I spent so much of my time and energy catering to someone else’s needs that I very often neglected my own. Now faced with nothing but time alone, I decided to use that time to get to know myself again.
Getting started, however, wasn’t as easy as I anticipated. Surrounded by the supplies needed for a number of independent activities and only a few “good” hours of the day when I wasn’t utterly exhausted, I found myself overwhelmed with where to start, so I went small at first. Since writing was one of more significant things I stopped doing when I began dating my Ex, I began writing for 5 minutes every day, about anything. It was like flexing a muscle I hadn’t used in ages and my brain was not firing on all cylinders anyway, but it was a start that soon led to other things:
I dusted off my blog and began writing weekly posts and stories again.
I started to sketch again. I was never what you would call an artist but it always relaxed me and my cartoony drawings were charming enough to illustrate some of my quirky stories.
I actually finished one of the 5 books I began reading earlier that year (don’t ask about the other 4…)
I re-decorated my apartment to make it more my own space, which was what I always intended to do when I bought it and never did.
When my appetite returned, I spent more time cooking for myself, something I had missed a great deal and had felt a bit lost about in the absence of having someone else to cook for.
I think the most surprising thing about shifting my focus to spending my time alone differently was how much it was changing everything else: my mood, my energy, even the way I cared for myself. I spent more time on skin care, my hair, putting on a nice, clean pair of “daytime sweats” after my morning showers. When I had emotional moments, I let myself have them instead of shutting myself down or beating myself up. If I had a negative thought, I didn’t let it spiral- I spoke to myself like I would speak to a best friend.
Learning how to to be there for myself again during a time when my usual support system was not always available has been the single most important thing I have gained from one of the most challenging years of my adult life.
The Pandemic took away a lot of things from a great many people, myself included as I have described. But I had lost myself long before the Pandemic started, and it ultimately took the world coming to a complete standstill for me to see it. In my attempt to hold something together that couldn’t be saved, I stopped being my own friend.
It’s good to have myself back. It’s been a gift, actually.