The answer was usually nothing.
Over the long summer, my brain gradually ground to a halt. At first I thought it would pass. It did not. A fog settled, grew thicker. I felt slow, and then slower, and then incapacitated. I couldn’t bear the thought of any more doing. I couldn’t do. When I tried to work, my attention flitted away like the soft avoidance of two magnets. I was engaged in a process of perpetual forgetting: I would try to work, and then find myself not working, and wonder, dazed, what had happened in between. In all these months since Covid arrived, while I was trying to be defiant and industrious, I was slowly winding down.
Every night, when I reached for the serum that’s supposed to fight the action of the years on my face, it seemed only seconds away from the last time I did it, and the time before that. It was startling: There went another 24 hours, all in a rush. It was as if these moments were pleated together with a single stitch, the fabric of existence gathering so tightly that my whole life could be drawn together and would pass that way, quite suddenly.
At the same time, I watched so many people around me suffer while I got off lightly. I did not, like several of my friends, lose a parent or a partner. I did not, like a family dear to me, see my teenage daughter admitted to a hospital halfway across the country at the start of lockdown, and have to wait three months to see her again. I did not lose my income or watch my business putter into nonexistence.
In the absence of these things, I felt I had to wear a brave face and make the most of it. I tried to tamp down my fears that the world was carrying on without me, while I stayed at home and succumbed to the fog. I felt a responsibility to be the one who coped. But that’s not how this works. You cannot parlay your suffering against the endurance of others. You don’t get to choose when the undertow drags you, or how.
It just comes, and comes again, and the only option is to let it take you.
The suspended anxiety of this year is not entirely unfamiliar to me. I have fallen through the cracks of life before. I’ve come to think of these times of life as wintering, a season outside the usual ebb and flow, when the comforting bustle of everyday society falls out of reach. Most of us have been to this place. We arrive there in the wake of illness, depression or bereavement; that darkness may yawn open during major life events like divorce or job loss. However we come to it, wintering is usually involuntarily, lonely and bitterly painful.