The Pandemic Groundhog Year

Ed Zitron 4 min read

I think just about everybody has written about the Pandemic Wall by now, but specifically focused on the “running on adrenaline” aspect - the stress of not being able to go outside, the stress of not being able to see friends or family, the constant worry about getting a virus that ranges from annoying to painful to painful and deadly. The particular article I linked (that feels like it was pitched by Talkspace, but whatever, it’s still good) makes one really salient point about our stress systems constantly being on high alert - instead of waiting for the other shoe to drop, the shoe seems to be perpetually dropping, eternally bouncing so that it can drop again, with no clear point at which said dropping will stop.

Usually with any big stressor there’s a thing you can do - even if it’s totally impossible to reach - that you can target and sort of use to relax yourself. If it’s a big debt, well, you can start trying to pay it off. If it’s that you got heavier, you can lose weight. But with the pandemic there’s the vague idea that you can get vaccinated at some point, or that your loved-ones will, but nobody seems to be able to gauge when exactly everything will be returned to any level of normality. We can say that those closest to us will get it, but when will our friends, or our business acquaintances? When will we be able to meander around places again, versus getting in and out like we’re on a secret mission to go to the store?

None of these are actually answerable at the moment with a large amount of specificity. A study says it may take seven years at the current vaccine rate, but there is likely going to be a level of normality by the end of the year, assuming that the new mutations of COVID don’t go completely nuts.

And I think that there’s a layer of pandemic burnout that people aren’t discussing - the repetition of time and space. In our regular lives before COVID, we would discuss “being in a rut,” feeling like we were doing the same thing constantly, and then choose to do something or plan something that would release us from the mental and physical prison of the repetitive time or space. In my case I’d book a trip to New York and set up a flurry of meetings to break up things, or organize a vacation for my wife and I, or even just get away for an evening to a restaurant. Hell, even visiting the wife’s family or having a friend over for dinner would break the rut.

The reason that these small deviations from the norm are important isn’t just to break up the monotony of life, but to assign time to events and places and spaces. Even negative events - having to go and have a not-great meeting with someone in person - allow you to say “okay, so February was this far away from today.” The change in weather helps, but so do the events that happen as a result of changing weather - people’s outfits, things we see and do outside, even the food we eat while we’re out and about - these are the ways that we’re able to justify that time has passed.

And what this comes back to is our ability to say that this, too, shall pass. When things are boring, or awful, or mediocre, we’re able to say to ourselves that it will pass as we feel the passage of time - we are conditioned to know that if we wait long enough, things will change, and we won’t be a prisoner to whatever situation we’re in.

Except…that stopped.

I can’t even say “every day since X” to justify how I feel right now, because I cannot, honestly, judge the passage of time anymore. Sure, I know the day has ended and begun, but I have walked downstairs from bed, got a cup of coffee and sat in this computer chair every day for what could be 3 or 330 or 333 days of my life. It’s not simply that I cannot look forward to things - I feel like I cannot plan, I cannot progress, I cannot continue. I cannot tell you what January was like, nor can I tell you what February is like, beyond things happening at work that happen on the computer.

I feel like this is what’s weighing on people - it’s like Groundhog Day, except your progress only sort-of saves. You constantly relive the same events again and again, and you’re mostly going to relive them again tomorrow. The compound stress of being locked with your spouse or your kid or your partner, or conversely not seeing anyone at all gnaws at you because you feel no industry to change or alter the course of your life. We’ve been stripped of our ability to give time meaning by changing the scenery and events that happen around us, and the ability to say that said events will change in the future. It’s a form of hopelessness - while we can sort of say we might have a kind of way to have a different future sometime soon, we are waiting for others to tell us when that might be, and even when that event (a vaccine) happens, we have to wait between doses, and even then we’re waiting for others to get vaccinated too.

It’s exhausting. It’s beyond burnout. You can deal with burnout through changes, even small ones, but eventually those changes have to come from outside of the house. And I don’t think that’s a great place to be right now.

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