I have been trying to practice gratitude. Throughout the day I tick off on my fingers all the benefits of being home and taking college classes remotely. I don’t have to be away from my family or pets for months at a time. I get to have my mom’s cooking. I can attend all my classes while wearing pajama pants. Tick, tick, tick.
I perform this mental ritual whenever I feel my thoughts wandering someplace negative. I try to practice gratitude, but I inevitably end up sucked back into the pessimism that has always defined me.
“Looking on the bright side” has never come naturally to me. At my worst, I am a hypochondriac and a chronic catastrophizer. At my best, I am a realist. I protect myself from the frightening world of unmet hopes and expectations by wrapping myself in a blanket of depressing what-ifs. Doing poorly in all of my classes at the University, dropping out and failing to achieve any of my aspirations? Mmm, cozy.
But when the reality of the pandemic began to set in during March, my solemn prediction was that the virus wouldn’t be under control until the fall. For once, I wish my worst-case scenario had become my reality. Now stores are stocking their shelves with holiday merchandise, and America is on the brink of a third wave. Dr. Anthony Fauci warns that the positivity rate is “going in the wrong direction” in the majority of states. I hate to point out the obvious, but maintaining a cheery disposition is getting a bit difficult.
I marvel at those that are managing to stay apprised of local and national news without getting angry. I read about my county, which ranks in the top 10 in the nation for most COVID-19 cases, being forced to reopen public school campuses in early October to avoid losing funding from the state. I think about my old teachers, paid crumbs and given little thanks, who have to risk their safety to expedite a return to normalcy. I see the president telling the country not to fear the virus while a death toll of over 200,000 continues to climb. I dread what the news apps on my phone have to tell me but read their notifications anyway. Maybe if I were smarter, I’d choose ignorance.
From what I can tell from group chats and Zoom breakout rooms, all of my peers are desperate to talk about anything other than the pandemic. We complain about homework and exams. We bond over our shared stress. But we don’t acknowledge the virus-shaped elephant in the room.
I understand the need for escapism. It’s exhausting to constantly discuss a problem everyone has but that none of us are powerful enough to solve. I’d love to spend every waking moment with my nose in a book or eyes on a TV screen, indulging in a fictional world rather than worrying over the real one. Yet avoiding the subject completely has left me feeling more isolated than ever.
It’s easy to convince myself everyone is coping much better than I am. I imagine that they were all sent a handbook on how to deal with their emotions during a pandemic, but mine somehow got delivered to the wrong address. This handbook is why they don’t feel tempted to hurl obscenities at the leadership that brought us to this point. It’s why they’re not caught in a vicious cycle of feeling sorry for themselves and then feeling guilty for their pity parties. It’s why they appear calm and acclimated while I’m still struggling to adjust seven months later.
I know there is no handbook, and no one is absolutely fine. I remind myself of this as I drink my coffee and eat my cereal in the morning, staring at the masks sitting on the kitchen table, wondering why the light at the end of the tunnel I imagined in March has only gotten smaller and fainter since. I ponder what I can add to my list that day. I decide on “taking power naps in between lectures.” I tick off items on my fingers, trying to find silver linings in a gray and cloudless sky with no apparent horizon.
Abigail Tuschman is a freshman majoring in Writing Seminars from South Florida. Her column documents the ups and downs of her unusual first year of college.