In these uncertain times, it’s hard to know how to navigate even the things that once felt simplest. With this new advice column, we’ll be soliciting the help of qualified experts as we explore the deeply personal, only occasionally ridiculous issues that are flummoxing us during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I used to be fun,” I recently told someone, and I’ve been thinking about the statement ever since. It’s genuinely hard to recall at this point, but there was a time—just nine months ago!—when my idea of a great Saturday night was staying out at one of Bushwick’s queer clubs until early morning, then repairing to Neptune Diner on Classon Avenue with similarly bleary-eyed friends for a plate of fries to soak up the booze as mothers walked their children to the playground outside.
Now we’re well into the COVID-19 pandemic, and while I’m immensely grateful to be able to work remotely and limit my contact with the outside world, I still experience a dizzying sense of loss when I remember the dance-floor euphoria that was a staple of my life this time last year. New York City’s queer nightlife made me feel like I was actively inhabiting my twenties, rather than just floating through them; will it be the same when the pandemic is over? Will I?
I only came out and found a wide group of like-minded friends a few years ago, and on bad days, I can’t help wondering whether the wild, ill-advised, fries-at-6-a.m. part of my life is already in my rearview mirror; by the time the world returns to some semblance of normal, will I be too old or jaded for the kind of late-night adventures I used to prize? Of course, there’s no age limit on going out, and drinking doesn’t have to factor into it at all—some of the most perennially fun people I know are my sober queer elders—but, as with so many COVID-related woes, the simple fact of not knowing is the hardest part.
It might seem silly—and, at worst, actively disrespectful—to mourn a social life when so many people across the country have lost their lives, loved ones, jobs, and health coverage as a result of this pandemic, but it also feels important to honor the large and small ways in which our daily existences have shrunk in the last nine months; after all, as Zadie Smith put it in her pandemic-released essay collection Intimations, “Suffering is not relative; it is absolute.”
To try to get to the bottom of this issue, I spoke to not one but two experts—Dr. Dharushana Muthulingam, an infectious disease physician in St. Louis, Missouri, and Dr. Joan Cook, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University—for a sense of the world’s COVID-19 timeline and advice on how to deal with the overwhelming feeling that the “fun,” unencumbered part of life has passed me by.
First things first: What would a return to so-called “normal” even look like in the U.S.?
Dr. Muthulingam: Well, I think there’s the “ought” of what our life ought to look like, in terms of human culture, material circumstances, and where we are in history and time, and then there‘s what‘s happening now, and the tension between those [things] has been a big part of this year. I think we need to really set the expectation that this virus is going to be with us for years. Things will get better, but it’s going to take time; we saw this with the Spanish flu, where there was one big outbreak, but there continued to be aftershocks and regional outbreaks for years. With COVID-19, it may be that we overall get it under control, but there’s a regional outbreak and, say, Miami has to shut down. We may see that sort of reverberate for at least a couple of years.
I know there’s no totally precise answer, but when do you think we’ll be able to return to house parties, crowded clubs, and all the other trappings of twenty-something life?
Dr. Muthulingam: I can’t say for sure, and can only defer to Dr. Fauci (laughs), but in the best-case scenario, if all the pieces line up with vaccine efficacy, we may be back to the place of having parties and big events as early as next fall. That’s sort of the optimistic projection, but I always try to tell my patients that bodies don’t work on clock time, they work on a type of horticultural time. It’s a biological system that works from the wisdom of millions of years, so you can’t really make it adapt to a schedule.
How do you give yourself room to sit with a loss—which, in my case, is a year or more of my life that doesn’t look the way I might have expected it to—while knowing that things are so much worse for so many people?
Dr. Cook: I’ve worked with a lot of trauma survivors, including combat veterans and former prisoners of war—what you might call “big-T Trauma”—and what I can say is that feeling of my life is over, of missing out on certain things—whether it’s trips or connecting with other people at a party—those are still real losses. It’s my hope that we don’t minimize those. In terms of how people get through it, I think it’s about self-efficacy: It’s about saying to yourself, “This sucks, but I can do it.”
What lines of thinking have proved helpful in dealing with patients who are grieving the loss of their normal lives?
Dr. Cook: In terms of grieving those temporary losses, what I say to a lot of patients I work with is, “Feel the feeling, but choose the behavior.” Don‘t talk yourself out of your feelings; allow yourself to feel them, and then choose the safe behavior, which doesn‘t just mean wearing masks and social distancing. There‘s a lot of unsafe behavior that people are enacting right now because of COVID-19; they’re drinking more, they’re sleeping less, and it’s important to develop safe coping strategies.
What concrete things do you recommend that people do when that sense of “I’m missing out on life” anxiety hits?
Dr. Cook: It might be helpful for some people to write down a specific list of what they‘re missing, so that they can grieve it more fully. Making that kind of list could also help people prioritize what they want to do when the world opens back up, if only to tell themselves, “We are going to get through this time in history.”