In the wake of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, The Argus will feature personal essays on how life has change in strange, scary, or surprising ways. If you have a hot take, a serious reflection, a funny anecdote, or anything in between, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
It has been almost 72 hours since I’ve been back on English soil, but I wish that it wasn’t under such dire circumstances—and two months earlier than I had planned. I feel bad for even saying that, when in all honesty it’s a small blow to face, compared to others. It’s not like I don’t have another place to stay besides college where I am safe, fed, and wanted. It’s not like I have no other choice but to venture out of my house into what has become a global no man’s land. It’s not like my health hangs precariously in the balance. Yet as guilt begins to cloud my sadness, frustration, and pain, I realize that we have all, in some way or another, had something ripped away from us. Yes, some of these things are more painful and frankly more life-threatening than others. I can’t dispute the reports showing a frightening increase in domestic violence since social isolation came into effect. I can’t forget about the thousands of children who will go hungry today because of school closures. I can’t ignore the rising death tolls in the country I call home and the country I have spent the last year building a new home in. But what I can do is acknowledge what I fear many are choosing to ignore: reality. Most of us have never experienced anything like this and hopefully, never will again. It might be new, but it’s happening nonetheless. It’s happening to the rich, the poor, the black, the white, the famous and the ordinary. Like I said, whether we want to accept it or not, though there is privilege, there is no favoritism where COVID-19 is concerned, there are no exemptions and there is no one whose life has gone unaffected.
This morning, after hitting my snooze button for the fifth time, I woke up to a series of notifications—as has been the case since I returned from the U.S. Jetlag is a real pain. My phone is flooded like this most mornings, mainly because of the 5 hour time difference. I’m still coming round to the idea that this is how we’ll communicate for the indefinite future. Through a screen, through typed words, through memes and emojis. I know what they mean now when they say that you don’t always realize the importance of something or someone until they’re taken away from you. Truth be told, I never expected to make friends—not the friends I have anyway. I feared that the novelty of being the first generation low-income British student would eventually wear off and what was left wouldn’t cut it. I’ll gladly admit that I was wrong.
Instead, I have forged friendships that go much deeper than the short months that they have existed. Once someone has not only seen you at your lowest point but helped build yourself out and up from that place there really is no going back. During my second month living in the United States, I was admitted to the ER. The only thing that made it slightly less unnerving was having one of my now best friends hold my hand as men in gowns entered in staggered phases to question me, swab me and hook me up to IV drips. I’ve also experienced some of my happiest moments in the presence of people who, six months ago, were strangers. Now, they know what happened after my dad left, they know why I relaxed my hair, they know how to help me when my anxiety makes an appearance, they know what I’m most afraid of, and they know what I aspire to do, and who I want to be. No one and nothing can prepare you for what it means to move to the other side of the world. But the people that you choose to surround yourself with can do a pretty good job of calming you down and making you see that in time, everything will be okay. I think this is why the time ahead of me, without seeing these people everyday, is going to be even harder.
It feels like a summer’s day. My lounge doors are open, my dog is soaking up the sun while he can and I can see my mother’s flowers beginning to bloom. You wouldn’t think that we were in the middle of a global pandemic. It’s the third day of a U.K. wide lockdown as announced by the Prime Minister Boris Johnson. As of Monday, leaving the house must be done for a select few reasons: food, medicine, exercise and essential work. My mum went shopping yesterday and for the first time since the Coronavirus took over our hourly news streams, and people finally seem to have gotten the message. She said that the roads were eerily silent, a ghost land. It’s quiet where I live- in a North-Western Birmingham suburb- but I too have noticed the lack of cars speeding across motorways, school children playing in the courtyard and well, everyday life. This isn’t everyday life anymore. We won’t get back to that for weeks, for months, possibly. For the first time in some people’s life, the very essence of normal no longer exists—and we are yearning for it. My generation is missing human interaction that doesn’t rely on our wifi connection or phone service. We’re missing the freedom of being able to see our friends and not from two meters away. We’re missing the independence of adult-living away from home. We’re even missing our education. I’ve had two online classes so far and as much as I admire the dedication of my professors to continue sharing their passions with us, both they and I know that an education like this just can’t compare. For once, technology has come out on the bottom.
115 people have died from the virus in the last 24 hrs in the U.K. The United States has the highest number of cases in the world—81,000. The NHS is reaching breaking point as critical care capacity within hospitals is set to run out by the weekend. I’ve had the news on for no more than 30 seconds. In that time, my eyes haven’t left the screen, I’ve stopped typing on my laptop and my heart has started to race. I go through these motions most days. I listen to a new playlist now, one whose lyrics are death tolls and melodies are fear itself. Whether I like it or not, it’s deafening.
My anxiety reared its head last year when I passed out in my college dorm room. That was a first for me. It showed me just how real anxiety is as much as people like to tell you to just stop worrying or to just calm down. Since news of this virus broke, I have managed to suppress what I know I should be feeling. I don’t quite know how, and sometimes I have teetered on the edge of a cliff—one from which if I take one more step forward, I’ll fall deep into my own thoughts that tell me how I can’t get through this, how I’m not earning an income, how my freshman year is over and how this all really has no end in sight. Luckily, after almost three years of what many therapists have called “training my brain,” I am able to take two steps back until I make it back to what is real, what is rational, and what is present. But I worry that eventually I’ll come too close to the edge. I’ll never not worry; anxiety will do that to you. I think like most people, it isn’t the fear of contracting the virus—I’ve probably already had it anyway. I’m scared of what’s happening because of it. I’m scared of someone I love being taken by it, like my elderly father or my mother who is working as a nurse. I’m scared about how long this crisis will last and if I’ll be able to return to the U.S. and continue living out the dream I worked so hard to reach. I’m scared about being stuck at home for too long, with my own thoughts and less space or people to share them with. I’m not just scared. I’m absolutely terrified. And that’s why I changed the channel.
I hope that she read my note this morning at 5 a.m. It read “Love you lots, stay safe”. I’ve never felt the need to say that to my mum. Until now, her job wasn’t something that I thought could potentially harm her, or me for that matter. I pictured her dealing with mostly stuck up princesses, complaining about the pain their nose job, boob job or botox was causing them. I listened to her stories of war veterans that reminded her of her late father. I did my best to empathize with her when patients would beckon her at the push of a buzzer. I often wanted to take away the tiredness her legs would feel after trekking across the ward for 14 hours. But now I mean what I said on the note. This week, her private hospital is taking on COVID-19 patients from the NHS. “We have to do our part.” she told me, while trying to hide her worry from me. I could see in her face that she was just as concerned about this as I’d been—only she wasn’t going to tell me. She’ll be half way through her shift today. Half way through caring for those who have fallen victim to a virus that has pressed pause on the world as we know it. I don’t allow myself to think about what would happen if she became one of those patients, what would she do if she couldn’t work or what would we do to survive. Everything has become a “what if” at the moment so where is the good in adding another to the list?
I’m not keeping track of the time. I eat breakfast at 11 a.m., change out of my pyjamas at 3 p.m. and go to bed in the early hours of the next morning. It’s crazy what being a prisoner to your own home will do to your body, and your mind. A few days ago, I thought that I’d lost an hour of my life somehow. According to the clock on my oven, it had vanished without a trace and I wasn’t getting it back. That day, the clocks went forward. The logical explanation I know, but in my defense that is something that has been in short supply lately. Where was the logic in waiting until hospitals are overflowing so that new ones need to be built within days to stop more from dying? Where was the logic in telling people that things would return to normal by Easter? Where was the logic in families taking day trips to the seaside in spite of very clear government guidelines? I think that’s the one that I struggle to wrap my head around. Sure, no one likes being cooped up as if we’re all animals in a zoo with no visitors. This isn’t fun for any of us. It’s not cute, it’s not a joke and it’s not going away—not when people insist on pretending like this isn’t where we are at. We need to acknowledge it in order to beat it—as grim as it may be. We need to remember what our parents and elders told us, that actions do have consequences and right now those consequences can mean the difference between staying in this world –a bleak one right now– or being six feet under. Right now, time has become a series of scattered days that merge into one when all you see are the four walls of your living room. But I’m holding firmly onto the time when I could head to the pub on a Saturday before a night out with my closest friends, or the time when I was able to fly across the world for a scholarship that I felt like I had been working my whole life for, or the time when I could hug someone else without fear of what could happen to either of us. This time right now matters though, not because it’s pleasant but because how we choose to spend it will determine if we ever get back to the time before. A better time, for me, for you, for him, for her—for all of us. The best times.
Tiah Shepherd can be reached at email@example.com.