Right after I returned from twenty-seven months of Peace Corps service, the next three years were absolute mental hell.
I had actually returned by boat, leaving from Barcelona and landing in Fort Lauderdale, and maybe it’s because of the sea legs I couldn’t shake for nearly a month, but I began to believe in the months that followed that some part of me had been lost at sea, or left behind in Morocco.
Once I moved home, hours of filling out school or job applications were often followed by rejections, or much worse, an absence of response and no clear answer. I had been someone who found pride in my ability to “love the unknown,” but in reality, the unknown shook me to my core.
There were, if I’m being honest, days–maybe even weeks–when I didn’t leave the house at all. Sunk into depression, I would go to sleep around 3:00am or 4:00am, wake in the late afternoon, look for jobs, maybe eat horrible food, if anything, and then retreat to the bathroom where I’d sometimes fall asleep in the bathtub for a lengthy period of time.
Day after day, that’s how it was: job search, write an application, get a rejection, or hear nothing at all, give up, wash and repeat.
And one of the hardest things about that time was how incredibly isolating I thought it was–the loneliness and lack of any meaningful human connection, largely because I’d pushed myself away but also because it’s not exactly easy for people to want to be around someone who’s so obviously in the gutter and unable to hide that reality.
It’s weird how, in some ways, that feels so familiar now. This isn’t the first time in my life I’ve been “self-quarantined” to my home or encountered a kind of terrible isolation or, in this case, living in fear of whether this cough is more than just a cough.
But this time is also different.
There’s routine: I set my alarm and get up, I’ve made a point to do anything from a short workout to yoga to walking. I take time to cook–and so far, relatively healthy meals. I’ve taken to reaching out to the people I love, doing regular check-ins, and I’ve even done mental health check-ins on my colleagues whose passion and commitment to our work has given all of us a strong sense of purpose.
It’s strange, now, to look back on that other time, a time of such deep depression for me, and think of it as a time of preparation for what’s to come, for the struggles of today.
I guess, of course, I’d pause there and just acknowledge the absurdity of my situation: I’m a white dude working in a job that’s probably not going away, at least not in the next six months. I have the privilege of working from home, the savings to get by even if I do lose my job, at least for a few months, and the luxury of a beautiful little family to keep me at least somewhat sane.
A virus can take all of that. But, I don’t want it to seem like I’m just saying, “Hey everybody, everything’s gonna be okay if you just draw on that one time you were really sad and struggling and remember how you got through it!”
This moment is painfully different for so many vulnerable people. We should take the time, those of us who are in a position of privilege, to really consider what we can give up and sacrifice to help and show our gratitude for those for whom this crisis will hit home early on. Compassion and solidarity have never been more important than they are right now. Will we heed that call?
It’s a good time, also, to recognize that whatever helps, helps. Whether it’s drawing on the past or being okay with being down, whatever we might try to get through this moment, so long as it doesn’t harm anyone, is worthwhile right now.
Earlier, I made a point to go for a walk in a light sprinkle two blocks away–in a cemetery.
The township I live in is actually made up of more dead people than living since we have so many cemeteries and the one nearest our home sprawls several blocks and sits on a cliff that overlooks miles of meadows leading directly to midtown Manhattan.
It was an eerily, peaceful, haunting. I passed one tombstone that said “d.1918”–and I wondered.
I wondered what had been of these good residents’ lives a century ago–the love and loss they’d endured, their own bouts with depression, battling illnesses and literal wars, making sacrifices for their own and for the vulnerable among them, and the years they may have spent, for whatever reason, at home–or out on the town.
I wondered all of this as I looked on a city that now sleeps, the one that supposedly never does, whether it was supposed to or not.
Juxtaposed between the green and gray field of tombstones and the wannabe bustling city ahead as it buckles down to face this crisis, I felt momentarily “lost at sea” again, or maybe lost in the Hudson, the quiet overwhelming.
It occurred to me, though, that it doesn’t mean we aren’t living, just because we’re lost and facing the unknown. It’s our moments adrift that can define us, for better or worse, and I’ve had my fair share of both. But what I’ve found most important is who else was on the boat when it mattered, willing to get lost with us.
As a soft wind touched my face, I almost felt as if the cemetery came alive, the ghosts of some past or another peering out from beyond the grave not to haunt or scare but to provide a kind of blessed assurance that they’re lost with us, too, and in a way that we’re somehow found by those also committed to the search.
That’s what I hope this time is more than anything that’s about to come our way: a time when we find again ourselves, find again each other, and find again what’s sacred to this short, silly life we’re just muscling through one day to the next.
And if we find even a sliver of that or discover ourselves found, well, I guess that’s a start.