‘I Can Just Be’: 20-Somethings Reflect on A Pandemic Year

Everything has changed and not enough has.

A dusky winter sky of blue and pink, with winter trees at the bottom of the picture, bare of leaves.

As I saw posts commemorating the “pandemic year,” I felt myself growing unsettled when it came to reflection. The COVID-19 crisis didn’t begin when it hit the United States, which means a lot of the anniversary acknowledgement seems to leave out the horrors that occurred earlier in other places. It feels premature to reflect; we’re still very much in it. I wasn’t sure how to square any reflection I might have with larger stakes, the ongoing tragedy. I wish I had a single-sentence summary of what the last year meant, but all I can come up with is: Everything has changed and not enough has.

The reflection impulse is understandable: Some research points out important parts of the reflective process, including making sense of experience, deeper honesty, clarity, and understanding. Friends posted Instagram story series, a single slide for every month of the past year, looking backward on breads they baked, people they mourned, and how significantly their lives had been altered via a means that would vanish in 24 hours. I sat, unable to find a clear-cut conclusion that wasn’t just crying, and pondered.

In the past year, I counted my blessings that my job had been remote most of the time I had it, while unpacking how I managed to come away with that luck — and what to do with it, given that luck and privilege shouldn’t be the prerequisites to survival we know that they are. I felt a sensation that could only be described as my chest dropping to the floor and shattering when my mom went to the emergency room with what she thought was a heart attack and what turned out to be COVID; this was at the time when there still weren’t enough tests to go around, and people were told to go home until they literally couldn’t breathe. My own physical and mental health tanked to places so dim I couldn’t see a light anymore, and I shoved them down until they shot back up at me.

And COVID-19 wasn’t the only defining aspect of the last year. Sustained racial justice protests in response to centuries of systemic racism, police brutality, and white supremacy. Devastating impact of climate change that ravaged parts of the world, including West Coast wildfires and mass flooding in Eastern Kentucky. An election. And still, somewhere, off in the hallowed halls of our government, politicians are debating whether people they called “heroes” deserve a living wage; encouraging people to stay home without paying them to do so.

And there were tiny definers, moments of joy or clarity, times of frustration or grief, personal turning points that punctuate any year. I do not remember where I was when things started shutting down, or what I was doing when people I loved began getting sick. What I remember most are the people I spoke to while it all happened, in addition to my family and friends: college students moving out of dorm rooms with no familial home to return to, individuals who spoke candidly about their own mental health, young organizers fighting to make things better and for us to move beyond “return to normal” as some baseline that never worked to begin with, people attempting to hold their families and communities together. Listening to their stories — of love, of loss, of home, of anger, of politics that are personal, of stress, of change — is what defined the year for me. So, when time came for reflection, it only seemed right that I get out of the way and listen.

Here is some of what I heard.

On Finding A Way Forward

Britney, 21, moved to New York shortly after graduating college in summer 2019: “I was sick of being stuck inside because I couldn’t drive,” she says. “I needed to have access to public transit since I’m visually disabled, and NYC is the best in the country.” After a months-long job search, she was hired in a full-time admin support role at a NYC hospital, right as the pandemic surged. She wasn’t ready to walk past morgue trucks in the morning, see the street fill up with fridges on wheels, and watch a coworker, who she’d only seen three or four times before he became a patient, pass her office, this time on a stretcher headed to the morgue down the hall.

“The amount of consistent, constant trauma for a year is incomprehensible. You don’t get used to being scared, you don’t get used to feeling sad,” she says. She couldn’t sleep; “the sound of the phone ringing followed me past the punch cards, into the subways, and took up residence full time in my brain.” When she dreamed, she dreamed of the “same needs we couldn’t meet, the same desperate and tired voices on the other line. Yelling over the overhead speaker that kept calling stroke code after stroke code. Code blue after code blue.”

Over the summer, Britney says, she “couldn’t watch another Black person die when enough of them were dying all around me.” When Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO, Britney was young — but it happened in her old town; she knew those unspoken tensions, unspoken segregation in her community, that Michael Brown wasn’t the first, nor the last, Black man to die the way he did. It was her Stop-and-Shop she saw burning, her old neighborhood filled with riot gear and tear gas. “And nothing changed.” So, this year, it felt both ends of the spectrum were struck at once: “Systemic racism and history that has placed Black people in the most vulnerable jobs, housing, and healthcare,” Britney explains, alongside direct death at the hands of a police officer. She couldn’t “watch it knowing that I’m in the same position as my mother when Rodney King’s beating happened, same position as my grandmother when Emmett Till was killed.” She shut herself away, unable to handle the cruelty and suffering compounding all at once, and tried to survive the summer. “And I’m one of the lucky ones who did.”

She wishes she could go back to March last year, to see who she was before this changed her. “500,000 cannot come back. The people we were before cannot come back. So, I’m slowly, slowly trying to find my way forward,” she says.

A blue sky at sunrise, out a window.

On What the Government Has Done (Or Hasn’t)

“I already knew this, but the US fucking sucks,” says Romeo, a 21-year-old who, right before the pandemic, applied to a local community college on his break from work that day. A month later, he was laid off because the pandemic was impacting business, and by the end of the summer, he had to move back in with his parents. “Honestly, I feel pretty hopeless right now because we can clearly see how little the government cares about us. They’re not willing to raise minimum wage or help homeless people get housing in a pandemic,” says Romeo.

If he had been able to rely on some amount of government assistance after losing his job, he wouldn’t have made the decision to give up his freedom in regard to his apartment, seeing his partner, and school, since he had to transfer colleges. “It’s not nearly as bad as other people have had it, but I miss being alone and I feel unwanted in my parent’s home,” Romeo says.

He doesn’t foresee much changing in the near future, because so much of life that changed due the pandemic won’t go back to “normal”: Romeo had three living grandparents who died within 5 days of each other, including two from COVID. “I’ll have to start from scratch, job-wise. Mostly, I don’t know how I’ll get over the resurgence of my social anxiety,” he adds. “I have diagnosed depression, ADHD, and anxiety disorder. These hit me harder than they have in years after I moved in with my parents, and I have been in a very dire-situation state of mind for a while now.”

A hazy winter sky at dusk, with blue and pink clouds.

It’s Not Really A Silver Lining

While the allure of squashing a year defined by significant trauma and upheaval into digestible bits of wisdom may not hold up — sure, lessons got learned, but at what cost? — the urge to look closer persists. “I’ve learned to be okay with where I am at,” says Riley, 20. “There’s no race, and I think we’ve seen that things can change in an instant. It’s not as important to plan a million things in the future, but more important to celebrate what is around you and making you feel fulfilled on the day to day.”

Jessica is a 22-year-old first-generation student who says that taking a break is not easier when you depend on a paycheck, and can’t afford to take a semester off school. “I have also had to deal with the ramifications of domestic violence in my family causing stress and financial hardship as well. I take it day by day but I’m blessed to be able to get an education, have two jobs, and help provide for my family,” says Jessica. Instead of living such separate lives, Jessica explains, we need to be interconnected: “To share jobs, opportunities, food, our knowledge, and our experiences. Our success should also uplift others and that includes the voices of those around you.”

“I think it’s important to reflect on what happened this year is to acknowledge the toll this has taken and will take on us,” Britney adds. Just as when lockdown began, and all was new and terrifying, she explains, we’ll have a similar uncharted experience on the other side. “Trying to make it through the day now is better than trying to make it through the hour last March,” she says. “Maybe next year, as long as I just keep trying, I won’t need to motivate myself to make it through any amount of time, I can just be.”

Author of An Ordinary Age, out 5/4/2021. Freelance writer. Kentuckian.

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