A post has gone viral on Facebook recently to note the six-month mark of the pandemic. At six months, Aisha Ahmad, the author of the post (which I can link to thanks to one of my Patreon supporters who found it for me), says it’s okay if we’ve hit an emotional wall. In fact, it’s normal on long difficult things.
I read that, made a mental note, and continued with my life. But something had been nagging at me all September.
Granted, September was a hard month for some personal reasons and other reasons to do with the virus and the economic realities and the upcoming economic problems and the damn election, of course. Then there were the wildfires that nearly destroyed the town I’d lived in for 23 years (and did a crapload of damage).
Emotionally, September was hard, but my life is relatively good day to day. We live in a great place, have a multitude of caring friends, have not gotten sick (so far), and are doing all right financially. The world situation has me quite concerned, as does the economic sustainability for many, many things, and the future of the virus.
Six months in, we have over 200,000 dead here in the U.S.—people who were walking the earth in January—which means we have at least a million people (200,000 times at least 5 people who love them) dealing with a great loss. The numbers are staggering and the loss is staggering.
What’s very clear is that COVID-19 will change life on Planet Earth forever. Just like the 1918 flu pandemic did, just like the Black Death did, just like World War II did, just like the Great Depression did.
This is more than a Black Swan event, as I discussed in March. This is a once-in-a-generation world-changing event. People who live through world-changing events have scars that last a lifetime. My mother, who lived through the Depression, had towels so threadbare when she died that I wondered how she could use them. She had a large net worth, and my dad’s full salary every month (seven years after he died), so she could have bought new towels. And more soap. And not frozen every single leftover.
But the Depression made a big impact on her.
I think of the children now who are going through this pandemic, and I wonder what they will take from it. A fear of casual touch? Better hygiene than Americans ever practiced before? Great innovation on the art of cleanliness? More excitement about medicine and the biological sciences?
Every day, I’m trying to figure out the patterns, from COVID’s weird behavior to economic challenges. I’ve stopped asking when we will return to normal. I was saying almost from the beginning that I didn’t think “return to normal” was possible. I expected a new normal.
But that expectation wasn’t in my bones. Part of me was waiting for this to all end. For someone to declare it’s done now and all of us come happily out of our homes, unmasked, fling our arms around each other, and say, well, let’s not do that again.
That attitude was grinding me to a halt. Add it to the difficulties in September, and that hitting-the-wall feeling the writer of the Facebook post described, and I was feeling more than a little unsettled.
I finally took a day off—completely off—trying to figure out what exactly was going on with me emotionally. Grief? Yeah, of course, but I’d been aware of and dealing with that. Unreasonable expectations? Yeah, of course, but I’d been aware of and dealing with that. An indescribable itch to finish this already? Yeah, of course, but I’d been aware of and dealing with that too.
After the day off, after some rest, and after some just-for-fun novel reading, my subconscious told me what it needed.
It needed a way to accept the new normal. Only I didn’t know what the new normal is. Yet I needed a way of coping with it.
And the first stage of coping with anything is defining it.
So what, exactly, is the new normal?
With so many uncertainties and so much that is still impossible to know, I have been pushing against a definition of the new normal for months. I kept waiting for something to settle, something to give me a definitive answer.
As if life is ever definitive.
And then, just as I despaired of ever figuring it out, a model came to me, and strangely, it’s one I can handle well.
The world is going through a major catastrophe. When humans go through those, those catastrophes change someone’s individual world forever.
Losing a loved one—major life-changing catastrophe. Losing a limb in an accident—major life-changing catastrophe. Getting cancer or some other serious chronic illness—major life-changing catastrophe.
And on, and on, and on.
The thing is, with those catastrophes, there is no expectation of life returning to normal.
Yes, we mourn what we’ve lost. And often, the person suffering will go through a period of denial. In fact, that’s part of the grieving process.
But underneath it all is this sense that life will never be the same. It’s impossible to recreate what was. All we can do is move forward.
Some people are very good at coping with change. Others never recover from any catastrophic (or even minor) event. Many people need a friend or a therapist to help. And some people just move forward without thinking about the change at all.
There is, though, in any individual life-changing event, a learning curve. We learn how to live with this new reality.
When I got chronically ill, something I write about in Writing With Chronic Illness, I had to teach myself how to do everything again, with an eye to the reality of my life. The reality was that I only had energy for a few hours per day, and I had to figure out how to use that energy best. I also had to figure out if I could expand that energy, and what I could do to prevent depleting it.
The learning curve took a long time—and yes, I often fought against it. Finally, when I moved to Las Vegas, I gained a lot more time in my day because the environment in Oregon was making me ill (on top of my illness). Here, I had to learn how to live my life as a much healthier person, and get rid of some of the habits that were great up north, but had no place in Las Vegas. Here, those habits held me back.
Each time, I learned how to accept the reality of where I was at and what I could do. I learned to stop comparing myself to other people long ago (thank heavens), and then, as I got chronically ill, I learned to stop comparing myself to myself.
(When I was 25, for example, I could work two jobs, get six hours of sleep, and still find time to write, all without watching what I ate or paying a lot of attention to health. I could ride my bike on a snow-covered street in below-zero conditions to get to work, and while it was unpleasant, it was not hard. Even if I had never gotten ill, those things would have become more and more difficult as I got older.)
That attitude—the attitude of this is my reality now—was helpful in the early days of the pandemic, because it got me through the hardest part of lockdown. (Las Vegas is a weird town when going at full strength; it’s really weird when empty.)
But I hadn’t translated that attitude to the future. I didn’t know how.
I do now.
We—the world. The literal world—have gone through a major catastrophic, life-changing event. We—the world. The literal world—will never be the same. There is no “returning” to normal, because normal isn’t possible. We’ve lost too many people, too many of us have gotten sick, and now, it has become clear that a vaccine will make things better, but not magically return us to pre-COVID conditions. The virus is part of our lives now, for better or for worse. We will contain it, eventually, but we have no chance of eradicating it.
You’d think that would bother me. It doesn’t, because I know the history of the 1918 flu, which still exists in milder form. We get a flu shot every year, and sometimes it contains a vaccine against that mild form of the 1918 flu, which is still circling the globe.
Eventually, COVID-19 will be a virus that circles the globe, but doesn’t sicken everyone at once, and is dealable, not something that will completely strange economies and destroy millions of lives.
We—the world. The literal world—were, in fact, injured in a catastrophic life-changing event, and nothing will be the same again.
Once I realized that, I realized I know how to deal with it. I look at it like any other life-changing event. Progress is measured from the depth of the crisis to now, not from the world before to now.
What that means is this: once we were completely locked down. Hospitals were overrun, medical staff had no clue what the virus did on a day-to-day level, let alone how to mitigate it. There were no anti-virals and there wasn’t even a glimmer of a vaccine.
Now, we have treatments, an idea of what works and what doesn’t, with more in development all the time. There are vaccine trials going on right now that look promising, with more on the horizon. There are strategies in place to deliver the vaccine (when approved) to millions of people.
If people comply with mask rules and hand washing and social distancing, the economy will recover faster. But the masks will probably always be with us. Hand-washing was something that needed to improve. (I read somewhere that pre-virus only 40% of Americans washed their hands after using the bathroom. Um…ick.)
Social distancing…can go the way of the fucking dodo bird, as far as I care…but…I don’t mind the loss of the handshake or the casual hug or even a quick buss on the cheek. Those bothered chronically ill me for years, because I didn’t dare get a virus on top of everything else I was dealing with. It was considered rude to hold my hands in front of me and say, “Virtual hug,” and that didn’t always prevent someone from grabbing me and hugging me from behind. Grumph.
A lot of the pre-pandemic economy was hanging by a thread, needing a big change. I’ve been blogging about that in the publishing industry, and plan to do more on that. The changes will probably be for the better. Rather than clinging to a system that was out of date in the 1990s, we’ll create a new system. That’s a good thing.
But there will be a long and deep and visible scar in the history of humanity because of this event. That scar can’t be covered over or ignored. The wound is too deep and too great. We’ve lost too many needlessly (especially needlessly here in the States due to terrible political leadership) and families won’t recover from that easily.
We have to acknowledge the damage and then figure out how to proceed. Sometimes you accept the scar. Sometimes you use it as a reminder of the change.
In cases like this, you must build forward from the hurt place, gaining strength bit by bit.
So, I’ve stopped talking about “returning” to normal. I rarely say the “new normal” either, except in certain Facebook posts.
I think it’ll be a while before we hit any kind of normal. Right now, we’re rebuilding. Right now, we creating a world out of the ashes…while parts of that world are (literally) still burning.
The reason I’m writing this, though, is to share the realization. Once I figured out that I had to build from the now, from the injury, I started to see how we’re gaining strength.
It’s easy to focus on the loss.
It’s hard to focus on the gains. Because if you mark the gains from the way we lived in 2019, we’re crawling “back to normal” and might never hit it.
But if you look at the gains from the terrified locked down overrun hospital days of April, then you can see just how much progress we’ve made. We’ve made miraculous progress in the medical field, with all of the various treatments, a slow understanding of the progression of the disease, learning how it’s transmitted, and yes, with the development of vaccines that (if we’re lucky) will be at least 50% effective.
We have a long way to go on the disease front, and even farther to go economically.
But as I wrote in previous weeks, I can see glimmers of the future now, and it’s not as scary as it was.
But it wasn’t enough to see glimmers of the future. I needed a plan for attacking it. That plan requires the patience of chronically ill me, not twenty-year old me. That plan requires an almost daily acknowledgement of how much progress we’re making on a wide variety of fronts.
The plan is, in essence, an attitude. An acceptance that nothing will ever be the same and I have to stop expecting that.
Figuring all of that out helped me a lot. It calmed a part of my brain that was constantly noodling what-if scenarios, a part that was usually reserved to fiction.
I was able to reclaim that part, and I can concentrate on my writing now. I’m actually aware of what I’m doing on that front, unlike what had been going on in the summer.
This is not to say that I’ve become sanguine or I’m happy with where we are. I’m still rage-donating on an almost daily basis, and I’m working very hard in other aspects of my life to make sure that things change on the political front. I’m doing what I can to help in this strange new reality we find ourselves in.
But I’ve stopped wasting time trying to reclaim what was lost. I’ve apparently settled into the acceptance part of the grief wheel, I guess, and I’m rather relieved about it. Accepting where we are now—where I am now—frees up a lot of my brain.
Being able to define COVID-19 as a physical injury to the world, an injury that we have to recover from, an injury that will leave scars, made it easier for me to face forward again, and to think about what’s coming. As you can tell from the various blogs I’ve been writing, I’ve been struggling to get unstuck from the moment of injury—which, I know, is a normal response to a major catastrophic event.
I’m still braced—as I’m sure you are—for another catastrophic event to hit us hard in 2020. That’s what happens when you’ve had something major destroy the world around you. I don’t know if that feeling will ever go away. Right now, I don’t want it to, because it feels protective.
We’ll see if it actually is over time.
This past weekend, we ran a virtual run—me, Dean and a friend. We had our shirts and our bibs and we ran the neighborhood, posting pictures on the website, and on social media. Nothing about the run was normal. Even packet pickup was masked, socially distant and outside.
But it felt good to get the packet, good to put on the special shirt and a bib and to get up early for a run. It also felt good to get take-out from a favorite nearby restaurant (not ready to eat inside yet) that we hadn’t eaten at in over six months.
Yep, this was all different, but still enough the same to be enjoyable.
I suspect that’s the next year. Slowly bits and pieces will return—different, but enough the same to be enjoyable. Other things will be better in their new patterns, and some will go by the wayside.
I’m beginning to realize that’s okay. I’m not going to claw my way back to 2019. I’m marching forward with this last part of 2020, praying that 2021 will be kinder to all of us worldwide.
Just this little realization helped my attitude. It was a tiny little gift that I was, apparently, ready for.
I hope it helps you a tiny bit as well.
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“Business Musings: Framing The Pandemic,” copyright © 2020 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2020 by Kristine K. Rusch.