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Message In a Disinfected Bottle: My Quarantine Quest For Happiness
April 8, 2020
“People are all we’ve got.”
I heard this line while watching the second season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s TV series Fleabag with my family, and it stuck with me. It came at a bit of an ironic time.
We were a few weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, or as I enjoyed calling it at the time, “Corona-Break”, and had not seen other people in what felt like forever. School had been called off for the foreseeable future, though times were so uncertain the foreseeable future barely stretched a week. I had been stuck at home for two weeks doing online work, watching YouTube, and feeling uninspired. Each day, I sat at our dining room table watching recorded lectures, working out online problems, and essentially fooling myself into thinking I was doing something productive. Around noon, my dad, who worked in the adjacent office as a web developer, wandered in looking for food, and we ate together, trying our darnedest to talk about anything but news of the pandemic. He went back to work, and I snuck a piece of chocolate before continuing with my own. Like clockwork, every day. A maddening life.
Except it wasn’t very maddening at all. I was truly content. I finally had the time to do everything I had put off during school. I woke up early to eat breakfast with my mom, who was still working. I made a smoothie bowl and cracked open the newspaper like a real adult. I exercised daily. I spent more time with my family, taking walks every day and watching movies every night. I had the work-life balance I had heard so much chatter about. In the back of my mind, though, was a troubling thought: Teenagers should not be capable of happiness when they are forbidden from seeing their friends or even leaving the house. I was sure something was wrong with me.
There was some precedent for this feeling. Before high school, I didn’t have many good friends besides my parents. I’m an only child, excluding my dog, and my parents and I have always been close. My parents’ life outside of work consisted almost entirely of our family, so I never thought of a “social life” as a necessity growing up. Consequently, when middle school turned brutal and unbearable, I chose to opt out of the drama, and my family became my refuge. For a while, I was happy.
I discovered, though, that my family could not fulfill all my needs, and I found myself wrestling with more loneliness than I could swallow. When I entered high school, I was lucky enough to be taken in by a summer camp buddy and her friends, lovely people who showed a shy nerdy girl kindness and became very important to me. Through many ups and downs, some fear-facing, and a lot of resolve, I changed. I became inquisitive, friendly, even boisterous. My friends still call me the old soul of the group, but that is something I can live with.
I developed a trait that I have become somewhat proud of: adaptability. It takes me a little while, but I can reorganize my mind, ignore some instincts and amplify others, in order to find happiness in my surroundings. The most obvious examples of this skill are my summer camp adventures, when I feel deeply unhappy during the first day but find myself desperately sad to be leaving at the end. I slowly but surely recognize the qualities of ideal campers, such as deference to authority or a gregarious attitude, and respond accordingly: I might need to quell my rebelliousness or step out of my comfort zone to find friends. This flexibility became essential later on.
My acclimation to high school was a bit dicier. It could be the lack of creative intellectual stimulation (thanks, Common Core) or my tendency to compare myself to others or the constant fear of missing out on quintessential teenage experiences. While I could be happy during the months I was in school, that joy was not steady or dependable, and it fluctuated constantly. High school kept getting better, though. I was the happiest in my junior year that I had been since I turned thirteen. I was learning how to play the game of life; how to follow, bend, and sometimes break the rules to get where I wanted to be; how to fight for my friends and for myself; and ultimately, maybe, how to be happy.
Of course, this gradual climb came to a screeching halt when school was canceled, the world shut down, and I found myself barricaded indoors with my dog and my dad allegedly in the next room. I tried to keep in touch by Skyping my friends, and I broke quarantine twice in the first week to have a social-distanced lunch with one, but the virus was unsubdued and just kept spreading.
As the pandemic escalated, the urgency of the quarantine began to sink in, and I took self-isolation more seriously. My family had stopped going out to eat, and we only left the house to go to the grocery store, go for a walk, or pick up takeout. Preoccupied with my schoolwork, I stuck to my regimen and tricked my brain into being happy with our collective predicament. I fell into my old habits of having no friends with unsettling ease.
It’s in the quiet moments, though, that it caught up with me; when the work ran out, or the conversation ran dry, and I could no longer outrun my nagging feelings. I realized that there was nothing left in my house that I am interested in doing. I started missing silly things I had never thought about, like sitting in a busy restaurant or waiting for a bus or kicking my friend’s feet under the table.
I am luckier than many of my peers in that my parents had not chosen to enforce a strict quarantine. My mom and I went on walks together, and we often visited a small coffee shop near our house, sitting outside sipping mediocre lattes and sharing a cookie. In those moments, I was shocked by how deceptively normal my neighborhood feels. Since the quarantine had begun, winter became spring: trees turned green, flowers bloomed, sunscreen became a necessity. I felt like I was on vacation, and it was easy to forget that we were living through an international emergency of unfathomable proportions.
After the first two weeks of isolation, my cabin fever soared to new heights. I began thinking constantly about my friends and what they were up to. I missed the laughs we shared in class. I missed the late-night sleepover chats. I missed shopping and brunching and arguing with them. Sure, I could call them, could even see their faces, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the hand-stacking games I used to play with one friend while we had a chat, or the way I would lean against another friend and play with her hair while we listened to our theatre director. There is an electricity to real-life human interaction, a spontaneity, that cannot be replaced.
It was especially clear to me one day when I Skyped two friends from school. When I left the call, as much as I loved seeing their faces and hearing their voices, I was feeling even more melancholic than before. No matter how hard we tried to pretend everything was normal, our congenial conversations were cold and unfeeling compared to the after-school afternoons we used to spend at our favorite café. The lifelessness of a computer screen could not compare.
It has now been nearly a month of quarantine, and this crisis shows no signs of stopping. I am reminded of that Fleabag quote: “People are all we’ve got.” No matter how often people twist me around and upside down and drive me out of my skull, my life means nothing without those who populate my world. I do not live in a vacuum, though the abandoned streets may lead me to believe it. Any happiness I might find by myself, while comforting to me, will only make a difference in that people may enjoy my company more when we emerge. I have had a lot of time to think it over, and I’ve discovered that the meaning of life is those who are alive right now. It is supporting small businesses, donating to the homeless, protesting injustice. It is making my friends laugh, comforting them when their hearts break, urging them to follow their dreams.
Without people, what have we got? I have recently found the answer to that question. The lifeblood has been sucked from my neighborhood to the point that it no longer resembled the place I grew up. The town is the people. As much as I miss the way it used to be, I hope that the members of my community stay home and stay healthy so that when the smoke from this disaster clears, my world will go back to normal. It will be full of the people that annoy me, and provoke me, and tease me, and laugh at my jokes, and edit my writing, and ask me for advice, and encourage me, and hold my hand. And maybe, just maybe, I will never take them for granted again.