This is the midweek edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing. I am not yet ready for The New Normal. I’m so not ready for it that I had to crop
Am I the only one who still just can't commit to things in the future? My partner wants to buy season tickets for our local symphony that start in September, and I just can't envision myself sitting in a concert hall surrounded by other people in six months. Intellectually, I know that we will likely be vaccinated by then, but it's just been so long in this "new normal" that I get panicky even thinking about a transition to the next "new normal."
I fundamentally don't believe that I'm going to be able to get vaccinated. I realize this is totally irrational: at some point, they'll have enough vaccine for everyone, and even my fucked-up state can't manage to mess up distribution forever. But deep down, I don't believe that I'm ever going to be able to leave my house. I honestly don't know what's wrong with me. I think that the thought of reintegrating into the world is a little overwhelming, and I'm dealing by pretending that it's never going to happen. I'm also feeling a little envious of people who have been vaccinated, or who live in states that aren't run by incompetent and malevolent people and therefore can expect to get vaccinated at a fair and reasonable time, and maybe it's partly that I'm feeling sorry for myself and wallowing a bit. But yeah, I'm not planning for the new normal because I haven't internalized the fact that at some point it's going to happen.
I'm dealing with specific grief and trauma, relating to a specific, traumatic death, and I actually think that maybe pandemic isolation has been a little helpful for processing that. I appreciate that nobody has expected me to go on like everything was normal, and I think it helped me to have some space to process. But I have been really bad at predicting how I was going to react to things, and maybe I'll fall apart once I have to interact with people and whatnot.
My toddler's 1st Birthday party in February 2020 was the last big gathering we had before everything shut down. She just turned 2 and I've been in this suspended state of excitement for all the things I want to experience with her- museums, trips to the library, swim classes again, going to the zoo, and on and on. I cannot wait for those things to happen but I'm also preparing for the wave of grief to hit me over the time we lost. I was a nanny for a long time and did all those outings with other people's children. I can't tell you how thrilled I was to start doing those things with my own kid and then suddenly it all stopped. I'm so goddamn angry whenever I remember the things she's *not* experiencing at this exact age with us or her grandparents or her cousins so I try not to think about it. But it'll hit me eventually and oof, not ready for that unpleasant tide of emotions.
Before going to college, I had the hope that such a major life disruption would allow me to "reset myself", somehow escaping the socially terrified person I was and becoming someone else. That's probably why I went so far from home.
Of course, going to college did not change me overnight. I was still the same person.
I had the same naive hope upon graduating and going out into the real world. I guess I didn't learn. But it was worse that time, because it eventually dawned on me that I was not going to be handed any more "life resets" to pin that kind of hope on. Adulthood was just one interminable future.
But then the pandemic happened, and it has opened up room for the same naive hope that somehow life is going to be different. Except this time I don't believe it.
My pandemic related grief has decided to express itself in my rage at the state of my post-Texas-storm mildly flooded apartment. The actual week of the storm was fine for me. I had heat and internet so I was just bored and concerned for other people. But I had a big leak once the water came back and now I’m living in a construction site with zero ETA on when they’ll be able to finish the work and a full year of pent up anger and frustration has now, laser-like, decided to focus itself on my lack of drywall. I can’t focus. I can barely work. I want to scream, all the time. Every day I ask my apartment management when I can expect walls and every day they say “well we are closer than ever to determining that!” and I grow ever closer to losing my marbles the way I did back in April before I started doing weekly virtual visits with my psychiatrist.
I’ve been vaccinated. I can go into my office a few days a week for a few hours at a time if I like. I have options. But this thing with my apartment has me feeling more trapped than ever.
I had a meeting this weekend that laid out in very clear numbers what the metrics are for a return to the office, and in so many ways, I am just not ready. I am vaccinated, my commute is relatively short, and I in no way want to go back to that life. I want nothing to do with a crowded subway or waiting for elevators that never come, or touching the handrails as I precariously descend to the depths of the Bowery station. But I cannot wait to hug my friends. I just might lick them.
Wow, you said it! As much as I’ve ached to be with my friends and faraway family, I’ve had this strong dread of things “opening up.” Just found out my sister has no plans to be vaccinated, I don’t trust anyone not wearing a mask (or two) and feel creeping rage when I see under-the-nose mask wearers. Sadness, loneliness, anger, grief, and dread of expectations beginning to mount up again. And I’m an extrovert!!
I'm kind of terrified honestly. Over the last year I've really leaned into my introvert, homebody, loner tendencies and I know its unhealthy, but I felt so content. My anxiety over work faded completely when it was just me or maybe me and a couple of other people who didn't interact in the office (I have essential in person duties once or twice a week). Now that we have more people working in person, my anxiety has come roaring back. I find myself actively avoiding people - not so much out of fear of the virus but out of fear of having to talk to them and it being awkward (it is always awkward). I've even come to not hate wearing masks (foggy glasses aside) because its nice to know that no one can see my face. Throw on a hat and sunglasses and its almost like my fantasy of being able to become invisible.
We cancelled our 120 person wedding that was for April 2020 and had a small, lovely mountaintop event in July of 2020. I am so glad we did it on most levels. We have no plans for a bigger celebration and my rage at not being able to have a bridal party and friends there, as well as my grandmother who later died, is just...it's incandescent. I don't know that I'll be able to go to any weddings for a while and thank god we're the last of our friend group to get married. I know, I'm selfish.
I also had started to really enjoy going to our little Episcopalian church in the year before the pandemic--the weekly ritual of it was wonderful even if me and Jesus will never be besties. I think that first Sunday back in such a sanctuary might break me. A place of sanctuary...what even is that? What about singing together (even when I just mouth the words)? I feel so tempted to just shut out everything that was in the before times.
I’m currently furious. My dad had gotten his first shot and was scheduled to get his second this week. But my lovely step mother isn’t old enough in our state to get hers. My brother brought his new girlfriend home to dad for dinner on Sunday and then on Tuesday learned he has covid.
My brother has sworn up and down that he’s immune/probably already had it/whatever nonsense because he’s a cop and has been around people constantly: Flying to Florida to golf, going to whatever restaurant/bar is open/apparently meeting and starting to date this woman/etc. But meanwhile I’ve been living like a hermit for a year and just when it looks like the end is in sight...
I worry that all this anger at the stupidity and callousness of people around me is never going to go away. I got fed up at one friend group a few weeks ago and feel nothing but relief that I don’t have to listen to them now, especially since the last message I saw was about me “canceling” them. I know some people are desperate to get back to normal but there’s so much I just cannot get past.
I had a very secluded & extended maternity leave period in 2008-10, with a debilitating post-partum mood disorder, which kinda felt like all of this? I can say when I got back out into the world, I found things had changed around me in ways that I found confusing and irritating. Like the clothes women very slightly younger than me wore, or rage at my extremely easy commute.
Also - there were things that had happened in my marriage in that time period that I was never able to forgive or assimilate, though they were things that passed without much notice at the time. Btw my illness and my ex's expectations, there was no room to change anything, so I just kept. going. I imagine that's what the pandemic has been like for a lot of women, stuck btw a rock (pandemic) and various hard places (relationship expectations, parental division of labor, paid work or the lack thereof, ALL THE GODDAMNED HOUSEWORK).
That marriage never healed, though I spent a lot of time over the next 6-7 years working very hard to pretend otherwise.
My first baby was born in June 2020; I have a tremendous amount of anxiety about integrating into the world...whenever it is that I'm finally vaccinated, I'll have had no practice bringing her to public places besides her pediatrician's office and the park? I cannot conceive of what parenthood is absent the restrictions of the pandemic... I feel like I have no idea who I am as a parent in relationship to the external world beyond our apartment. I also can't handle anymore disappointment about losing out on life experiences and shared milestones, so I've not spent any time thinking about what I'm looking forward to doing with her.
Once again, I feel like you’ve managed to capture exactly the zeitgeist - I started feeling like this just last week or so, and it was intensified by Biden’s announcement about vaccines being available for everyone by May. Of course, I’m so happy about that, so happy that maybe we’ll see an end to this fear and grief and death up ahead - yet I also felt a sense of blind panic at the announcement, at the idea that life could be going back to ‘normal’ in just a few months.
I haven’t worn make up in a year, have barely worn any outfits that haven’t included yoga pants, haven’t ridden a bus or been to a party or gone to the dentist or participated in an in-person meeting. I haven’t set foot in my office since March... Almost every aspect of my life has changed. I don’t know how to not be in a constant state of enormous stress and fear and anxiety anymore, or how to go back to where I was before.
Going back, no matter how good and how much better things will be, will be work too - just like we had to all work to adjust to the pandemic. It’s like that concept of reverse culture shock - the strange feeling of dislocation you face when you return to your original country or culture after living abroad.
We have all been living in a lonely, strange country for so long. And no matter how much we might want to go back, it won’t come easy.
There are a lot of more thoughtful and introspective takes on emerging from our COVID cocoons (COVcoons?), and I am dreading the oncoming selective amnesia about things that we all experienced...but I am so excited to eavesdrop on strangers' conversations in coffee shops and restaurants.
Oh my gosh. The bureaucracy behind bereavement is ridiculous. My grandmother died in 2019 and my then-manager was shocked that I needed 4 days off. He seriously couldn't understand why I couldn't just leave early the afternoon of the viewings and take off the day of the funeral. Annoyingly, the company felt the same way - they only counted immediately family and family that lived in the same household as worthy of 3 days paid off - extended family was only given one day. Plus this policy disregards deaths of close friends and people who are like family.
Fortunately, when they realized how close I was to my grandmother, they gave me the one paid day and allowed me to take three unpaid days off. My manager felt bad, too - he realized he was biased as someone who lived 1,000 miles away from his grandparents that he rarely saw and not taking into account that others have grandparents who they are close with.
I asked the company to change their policy after me (she was my last grandparent so I had nothing to gain) but unfortunately the response was "we'll look into it" and they never did.
Sitting on a plane in the middle seat with my elbows touching strangers *shudders*
We’re all going to be changed and we don’t yet know how