By Anne T. Donahue
Nearly a year out from Ontario’s first lockdown, and it’s safe to assume that we’ve all changed. Most of us are grappling with new-and-improved form of traumas, we’re drained emotionally, mentally, financially (and a combination of all three), and we don’t recognize the people we used to be.
And in some ways, the last point is fine. Change is inevitable anyway, and it was always a matter of time before we grew or shifted or made some parallel-seeming decision that was actually quite revelatory. We’re always in flux, and I hate and love it in equal parts.
Especially since my own sense of change or growth or whatever it is has left me further removed from my old self than I ever thought I would be. I’ve stopped watching TV as much (it makes me sad to watch people live in a world that’s so separate from my own – even though I’d rather drift into an ice flow than watch a character wear a mask to the grocery store). I read more (hooray for me!) but my attention span’s begun to wane (if by 100 pages I come to dread reading something, I am terminating our relationship). I check social media less, I’m more forthcoming with my friends about how I feel and what I’m thinking instead of pretending I’m perfect or okay or even remotely thriving. Which is the next part: my urge to hustle and to work in the way I used to has completely dissipated. I still like to write (and I love that I can do it as a literal career), but my happiness is no longer intertwined with how much I do it. I work to pay off debt and to eat and to afford new jeans and sneakers. Back in 2019, I made myself sick by using work as a means with which to measure my worth, and I can’t go back to doing that again. None of us are the sum of what we’ve achieved professionally. We’re people with hearts and minds and experience and pain and hang-ups and the ability to make people laugh. This was something I didn’t believe about myself for a very long time. And now that I do, I’m wondering what happens when we’re pushed to “return to normal.”
Which, obviously, is a laughable and ridiculous concept. “Normal” isn’t real. In fact, to inflict the concept of “normal” onto complete strangers in hopes that they’ll use that push to further stimulate the economy is insulting. Just as much as it is to use “normalcy” as a benchmark for how to live. As of this moment, I’m a few months into living full-time with my parents after giving my apartment up because the pandemic’s necessitated a lot of hard choices. I’m happy to be with my family and cat, and I love that I’m here so that I can keep an eye on my mom and dad and not have to face wave after wave of uncertainty alone. Is that normal? To return home to hang with the gang? To give up the notion that I’m a bad adult because I like to be with my family? To learn to recognize my boundaries and to respect them instead of using productivity as a way to prove how together I am? Who cares. I don’t think I really do anymore. I want to feel happy and healthy and better, and I don’t think “normal” really factors in. Especially because it never existed. All any of us have been doing is surviving – now, we’re doing it more overtly while calling out the system that’s kept us feeling so terrible.
The thing is, so much of myself has been wrapped up in the way my life is supposed to move. I use stages and Big Moments to confirm to myself that I’m not a failure or a living poorly or doing a bad job being a person. Even this essay – framing it as if what comes next signals the start of a new chapter as opposed to some continuing saga – is a testament to how much I’ve come to care about what people think, whether I’m doing okay in the big scheme of life stages. Which may be what the next stage needs to be: acceptance that there really isn’t one. That we just keep going and learning and trying to live in a way that doesn’t make us physically or mentally ill. Maybe the next stage is the abandonment of stages altogether since judging ourselves in comparison to people whose full lives we can’t see (and even those we can) has only hurt us. Maybe the next stage is whatever we want it to be, depending on where we’d like to move and who we’d like to grow into and how we can help the most.
After all, I prefer sprawling sagas to tidy chapters. Not only because I’ve never been able to do anything tidily, but because the more room we give ourselves to breathe, the less we’ll put up with shoving ourselves into boxes because that’s what we thought is expected of us.
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