What Isolation Has Taught Me About What I Thought Was “Normal”
With COVID-19 on the rise, we’ve all had to adjust to a new way of life. For me personally, I’ve been surprised to find that this was not all bad. I started to realize that within this pandemic, I’ve found more time for myself, and I’ve found time for things that I didn’t really have time for before. I decided to explore the psychology of this realization and to explore the fundamental nature of how we get things done.
First off I’d like to say THANK YOU to all of the first responders and essential workers. The doctors, nurses, hospital staff, teachers, mental health workers, truck drivers, sanitation workers, delivery people, mail carriers, and grocery workers. Thank you so much for being there when we need it most in these unprecedented times.
A little bit about me. Before the pandemic hit my hometown of New York City in March, I was a typical graduate school student, studying for my social work Master’s degree, with a full-time workload of classes and a field placement internship. While attempting to get a part-time job on top of that, I found that many companies were reluctant to hire me, because my grad school commitments left me unable to commit to full-time employment. They’d all express some variation of the same sentiment. “Oh, we really like you, but we’re not really looking for part-time help.”
Meanwhile, I was spreading myself thin with everything I had on my plate as it was, between going to the internship in the mornings and afternoons, then heading to class in the evenings. Sometimes I’d be staying up late to finish a paper or other project. I noticed that with everything I was focused on, I hardly had the time or the energy to do anything for myself, even the things I loved. No time or energy to write creatively, no time or energy for photography or drawing. I really enjoy these things and I always have. But most days, I found myself completely exhausted, physically and mentally. My wonderful boyfriend would have dinner waiting for me on those late nights, and we would simply eat and go to bed. Maybe we’d squeeze in some time for a movie, or an episode or two of a TV show.
Then, all of a sudden, the world changed. It started with my classes moving online through long-distance learning, with my professors setting up virtual classes through Zoom. My internship that I was really enjoying, centered around an afterschool program stationed within a school complex, was effectively shut down the following week.
My mother, who was in what should’ve been her final few months as a teacher before her planned retirement, then discovered that a colleague of hers had tested positive for COVID-19 a few days later. Even before they discovered that her colleague was ill, my mother had already been showing symptoms, as did my father soon after.
I’d read about how researchers have been noting that men have tended to have much more severe symptoms than women across most demographics worldwide, for whatever reason. I can safely say that, anecdotally, that definitely rang true for my parents.
My mother had a fever for about a week straight, with fatigue and thankfully not much else that some Tylenol couldn’t handle. But my father had battled fevers for nearly two weeks, his temperature rarely dipping below 100, and he was barely able to do anything but sleep and try to keep down Tylenol. I’m relieved and grateful that they’ve since recovered, but it was really scary every time I’d call to check in on them, hoping to hear good news and praying to avoid the worst-case scenario. When they spoke to their doctors through video appointments, they were told to just stay home and not even risk going to the hospital if they weren’t experiencing breathing difficulties. At the time I’m writing this, it’s been nearly a month since they were first experiencing symptoms, and yet neither of my parents were ever able to get tested for COVID-19 or have their antibodies checked after the fact to see if they did indeed have it. It was really scary for all of us.
I’ve had the same worrying thoughts that anyone else would in these uncertain times, about how to get enough food for myself and my boyfriend, how to pay our bills, how my parents would get by, etc. These are things that did haunt me at night when they were really struggling at the peak of their illness, and what really hurt the most was knowing that I could not afford to go see them in person, because I’m high-risk due to a preexisting lung condition and my type 2 diabetes. Thankfully, things have calmed down a lot since my parents have recovered. They’re getting on with their lives, and they’ve even learned how to FaceTime us.
Once I was able to catch my breath, I noticed something interesting. I found that isolation has afforded me a lot more of something that I was sorely missing in the months before all this: Time.
Time is a funny thing. Many people often say we don’t have enough of it, that there aren’t enough hours in the day. I found myself discovering that I finally had time for myself and time to spend together with my boyfriend. Suddenly, we had more time than ever to do all the projects that we wanted to do and share things with one another that we’d been meaning to get around to. I got to introduce him to classics films like the works of Akira Kurosawa that have inspired so many Westerns and other modern classics that we know and love. We’ve been watching everything from cinema classics like Some Like it Hot and White Christmas to guilty pleasures like Tiger King on Netflix and The Room by Tommy Wiseau.
We’ve been able to get into good habits like regular workout schedules. Things that we weren’t able to do before? Suddenly, isolated indoors with no errands to run, we had all the time in the world for them. All the books I’ve been wanting to put on my reading list came into focus. While I still have my graduate classes on Zoom each week, I no longer had the grind of the commute to and from campus to bog me down. I have more time now to focus on the things that make me happy. I was able to start writing again, and my boyfriend has been able to write again too.
Living in New York City, we’ve always been able to get almost any cuisine we can think of delivered right to our door, and it led to some bad diet habits over the years. Suddenly, with everything changing in a major way, my boyfriend and I were forced to confront our diets and make changes for the better. That means eating healthier, cooking ourselves every day, putting whole food fuel into our bodies instead of ingredients we can’t pronounce. I figured if we’re going to live in a pseudo-apocalyptic world, well, we might as well assume that zombies are the next plague, so let’s get into better shape just in case we need to run. Whatever gets you motivated, right?
However, what isolation has taught me most, and has continued to teach me more than anything, is that the things that I thought were “normal” and just an expected part of life and work in the 21st century aren’t as normal as I thought they were. Maybe we can all learn from this and let it inspire something better in the post-pandemic world.
For example, the 8 am to 5 pm grind of going to work, clocking in, clocking out? We’re taught from a young age that this is normal, that it’s the only way to get things done. Maybe it’s just because I’m not a morning person, but does it really seem normal and efficient to get up at the crack of dawn to go into an office and sit down in front of a computer at an isolated work station? Some people may find that they feel more productive working from the comfortable confines of their homes.
I discovered this for myself over the past few weeks. I never thought I was the type of person that could work at home and feel productive until this all happened and I had no choice but to do it. It’s been showing me that maybe all these fears about blurring work and home life together aren’t so scary after all. At least in small doses for some people, maybe larger doses for others, depending on what works best for them.
Sheltering indoors is also showing me a glimpse into what the “new normal” could be for the workforce in many industries.
Without the need to set an alarm, go through my whole morning routine, get to my internship, (and fully wake up at some point along the way) now I’m able to get up at what feels like a more reasonable hour to me and be productive right away. To work on papers, to research things I need to prepare for my assignments, to send and reply to all the necessary emails. I also established that routine of working out and eating right. Here I am, doing the things I’ve always put off for a rainy day, getting that home workout in, trying new recipes, exploring my creative side without worrying about being late or rushing to the next thing on my schedule.
Even though I’m in the comfort and familiarity of my own home, I haven’t found myself getting as distracted as I thought I would. I feel so much more in control of what I’m doing now and when I’m doing it. This is so different than what I always imagined working from home would be like. It’s really opened my eyes to possibilities I never considered before. I’d always heard these stories of people who worked from home and found it boring or hard to concentrate, or they felt like their work was affecting their home life too much in a negative way. Maybe it’s just that it’s so new to me right now, but I’m happy to say that so far all the fears and concerns I’d always had about working from home and struggling to find the motivation to be productive have been totally unfounded.
Even sharing my cozy studio with my boyfriend, it’s been pretty easy to have me-time when I want it, and together time when we’re in the mood for that too. Since he’s working from home too, headphones have gone a long way towards dividing up our small physical space and making it personal when we need it to be, and shared space again when we want it to be. While we don’t really have the freedom to physically go anywhere, we’ve still been able to have really rich and fulfilling experiences.
With all this time to catch my breath, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future, and what the future could look like in some different industries. Education is something that is near and dear to my heart, as well as my boyfriend’s. We both have friends and family who are teachers, and he got a Master’s in Education before transitioning to a different field. We do think that young students in pre-K and elementary school will likely always need to physically attend school, in an ideal world. Social development is too important, and it would be near impossible to replicate from behind a screen. But for older students like high schoolers and maybe middle schoolers, maybe some remote learning wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Maybe not an entire curriculum, but some classes here and there.
Higher education would change for the better with increased remote learning. I do think there’s enormous value in a physical campus, but online learning has already been around for decades at the university level, and plenty of people have gotten good experiences out of it. Maybe going forward, there can be a little bit of both, even at the places that have full campuses to explore. With online learning and video classes, it might be less taxing for those who can’t always physically be there every session. For the students that do not have computer access of their own, perhaps the schools can provide them with affordable laptops or tablets included in the cost of their tuition or at a student discount of some sort. Access to a computer and an internet connection capable of video streaming is an essential thing that seems closer to a utility like water and heat than ever before.
Many office jobs can, should, and absolutely will change, I think it’s safe to say. There are so many jobs that require workers to sit in front of a computer, and in the 21st century, there’s no reason that a lot of that work can’t be done from home at least once or twice a week or so. For better or for worse, almost everything in our world today is digital or being digitized rapidly. I know many people might say we are on our way towards becoming an episode of Black Mirror or something like the world of Blade Runner, or Altered Carbon, or AI, or Ex Machina, or Westworld, or Wall-E, etc., you name it. There are plenty of cautionary tales of what technology can do, but humans are still the ones who are shaping that technology more often than that. After all, that algorithm still has to be written by a human in most cases, even if automation is on the rise. However, if we can work with technology and use it for more altruistic purposes, I’m optimistic about our chances of balancing technology, humanity, and nature to form a beautiful ecosystem that can work well for everyone. We don’t have to become like the dystopian futures in those movies and TV shows if we can put some real care and humanity into it. There will always be careers and workplaces that won’t be changed all that much, where social skills and on-site collaboration are still a crucial part of making things work. But the ones that are ripe for improvement and a total paradigm shift of how to be productive in a modern world? They don’t have to be the way they always used to be. It may not be the only way.
I find it really profound to see the way the planet has slowly been changing for the better in the time since we’ve all been mostly sheltered in place indoors. It seems that our collective carbon footprint has been lessened somewhat. Fewer people are driving around, noise and air pollution have decreased, and we’ve seen wild animals returning to areas that were once their natural habitat before the concrete and asphalt was laid on top of it. Our planet is healing itself without us harming it because we are forced to stay home. This says something about the globe, this says something about us as a species. It doesn’t have to be our way or the highway. It doesn’t have to be us vs them at all. It can be all of us, stronger together, as collective inhabitants of this amazing, beautiful world that we live in.
In isolation, I’ve learned how to find time for myself. I’ve learned how to be more productive than ever. I’ve learned to embrace the extra time we have each day and allow our creativity to take over. This is the way we survive now, and this is what we have to do because we don’t have another choice. As a high-risk person, I don’t have another choice. But every day I’m here inside, I think about how this is going to be a permanent, major shift in everything we thought was normal because normal clearly wasn’t working for a lot of people even before this. All those jobs they said that there was just no way for a person with disabilities to do? Turns out, there was a way if the company wanted to find it. All those jobs that couldn’t be done remotely? Maybe more of them can be done that way after all. And maybe some of them will be more efficient that way, too. Hopefully, it will be sooner rather than later for the world to safely go back to normal, and when it does, it will be hard to go back to the same “normal” that we once knew.
Maybe that’s ok. In fact, maybe it’s better that way.
Maybe the next normal can be something better than the normal we had before. Let’s build it.