I have a confession: I miss quarantine. The horrors of the pandemic are nothing to be treated mildly or dismissed, and those horrors are ongoing even though society has mostly reopened. But when my state shut down in spring 2020 in an attempt to mitigate transmission, the pause in life as I had known it till then came at just the right time for me, personally.
The 2008 financial crash hit my family hard. My mother lost her job, and I lost funding for college just days before my first term was due to begin. I’d been scrambling like a hamster on a wheel to balance work for survival, a strategy to get an education and build a lasting career. I’d tried several career paths: paralegal, pharmacy technician, yoga instructor, etc., while working in retail to pay the bills. A grant at one of these jobs allowed me to put myself through an online university and earn a Bachelor’s degree in English. Shortly after graduating, I took a job at an iconic but flagging department store chain.
Months of working unpaid overtime began to catch up with me mentally, emotionally, and physically. Not only did I feel profoundly depressed, I felt fatigued and breathless and had slight chest pains. I headed towards what the Japanese call karoshi: “death by overwork”. Stress, poor nutrition due to lack of time to eat a proper meal, and the physical strain of overworking have contributed to the deaths of several young Japanese in the business sector, in numbers and cases high profile enough for karoshi to be seen as a societal problem.
I’m sure I was far from the only American karoshi Case, but I was hardly in a frame of mind to find a support group and start looking for like-minded souls. I had to save myself. So, I quit my job via text message, signed up for state health insurance, and saw a doctor who caught my pre-hypertension and pre-diabetes. I began exercising more. Already a lifelong Yogi, I added High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) exercises and step aerobics to my fitness regime. After a winter of recovery, I started losing weight, feeling better, and searching for a new job in the spring.
Reports of a mysterious new virus rapidly causing casualties in Wuhan City, China, filled the nightly and morning news. I remembered the H1N1, Ebola, and SARS epidemics, and like many assumed this “COVID-19” would follow a similar course: something that would, unfortunately, afflict a few thousand people but primarily play out for the rest of us through the headlines, and then be solved by global health initiatives.
And then things changed
I and everyone else who thought this way lived to regret it. The virus put all our lives on pause, plunged many into chaos and tragedy that had no precedent, nor even to fear. My state’s lockdown began when I was scheduled to start a new job in sales at a furniture store.
“I need you here, NOW!” my erstwhile new boss shouted at the top of his lungs on the other end of my cell phone.
So loudly that my family, seated around me in the car, could all hear and looked alarmed. They listened to my stories of being treated this way in the workplace for years but took them with a grain of salt, writing me off as sensitive; emotional. They believed I exaggerated the cruelty I encountered by assuming I just took business practices too personally. I looked around at them, too. Selling furniture was no reason to risk my life and theirs, by going out with the mystery virus spreading insidiously.
So, I hung up the phone and my quarantine began.
For the first time since I was 18 years old, the hamster wheel was not spinning, and I wasn’t running a race to acquire money, education, and a sense of security for the future. The future wasn’t secure at all. It was in constant mortal jeopardy from the virus…and like some deathly calm warrior monk from a sect of praying and fighting ascetics out of a wuxia, we all had to accept it. We also had to accept ourselves: who we are without a five-year plan, a schedule to follow, friends to meet, favorite places to visit, or even a dream to fulfill besides “live another day”.
Household chores became my priority, repetitive tasks that became mindful. In between jobs, I read Jane Austen novels, exercised, spent time in nature and with family. These pursuits buoyed my spirits and soothed my worries, which made the news of the pandemic easier to digest—its challenges easier to meet.
During the lockdowns, I found a pace of life that balanced pressures and duties with reflection and fun, alongside the unexpected that the world brings to our door with a determination to make home an orderly and comfortable sanctuary. As society has reopened, we now have a hybrid life in which the faster pace we knew before COVID-19 collides with the demands and limitations of the pandemic. Sometimes, I don’t quite know what skills this new life needs, if I have them, what they are, and when and where to apply them.
My own private quarantine
After beginning a new job, moving to a new town and a new city, and some personal upheavals, it’s no wonder that my longtime battle with anxiety entered a new skirmish. Symptoms like cloudy thoughts and shaky hands emerged and played havoc with my new post-quarantine life. To recover, I had to make some drastic changes to my pace of life. I had to begin my own private “quarantine”.
Quarantine forced us to take life easier on ourselves and gave us the skills to choose to do so when we needed to. Although life is moving faster, I try to take time for the mindfulness and reflection, fun and relaxation that defined quarantine and became vital tools to cope. Even as we seek to define our new normal, time to reflect, pause, and simply enjoy the moment will serve us well as we strive for life during and after the pandemic.
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