What can I say about this year that hasn’t already been said better by someone else?
A novel coronavirus has spread across the world like a less-virulent (and less-deadly) Captain Tripps, wreaking havoc on the already tattered social fabric of this country. The President of the United States thinks it either doesn’t exist, will go away on its own, and can be cured by hydroxychloroquine, depending on the day you ask him about it. Under his mismanagement a good 35% of the country think that basic public health practices are some political oppression that must be stopped, and we’re the only country in the world still struggling to bring the rising infection rate under control. Honestly, this reboot of The Stand is simultaneously less believable and more depressing.
Like the rest of us, I thought I would use my time sheltering in place productively. Without the distraction of a commute or a social life, I could finally catch up on all the reading and writing I’ve been wanting to do for years. Now almost six months later I’ve written maybe 2,000 words total and half-read three books or so before diving back into my latest pastime, helplessly doom-scrolling through Twitter so I can keep up with how bad things are and despair that there’s nothing I can do about any of it.
The pandemic isn’t the only thing we’ve been dealing with this year, though that’s been bad enough. There’s also a severe economic recession that the government is using as an excuse to accelerate the increasing wealth gap between the uber-rich and well, the rest of us; there’s the still continuing protests all around the country after yet another string of murders by police officers have claimed the lives of even more Black Americans; there’s the dawning recognition that so many facets of American life, from health care to education to the social safety net to the legal system, are incredibly broken with no will from the people in charge to fix it; there’s the still-looming threat of climate change dangling over the planet like a sword of Damocles.
Oh, and there’s Russia doing incredibly shady shit. White supremacists showing their whole asses in public. Murder hornets. Salmonella in our onions. Kanye running for President. Joe Biden running for President. Ellen’s mean now; always has been. The Australian wildfires. The destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Brexit. The list goes on.
Today I celebrate the 40th anniversary of my birth and I have no idea how to feel about that.
I’m a middle-aged jackalope watching the seemingly solid institutions of democracy crumble around me. I’ve never been more shocked and dismayed at the naked, guiltless selfishness and proud ignorance of my fellow Earthlings. I’ve taken multiple hits to my mental health this year and while I’m surviving, I can’t say I like the person I’ve become.
Living through this year with an anxiety disorder is not fun. Half of the energy I have is devoted to keeping myself upright and coherent; the other half goes to, you know, work and eating and stuff. More evenings than not I’m exhausted by four o’clock in the afternoon and I want something — anything — that will make me feel like I’m not trapped inside a slow-motion apocalypse. I can’t think of being creative; I can barely handle my day job. Making it through a normal day feels like an achievement in and of itself — probably because it is. And while I recognize the need to be gentle with myself, a huge part of me is incredibly disappointed that these times haven’t forged me into something harder and sharper.
It’s very easy for me to become overwhelmed and exhausted. I’m scattered in my relationships with friends, frequently disappearing without notice in the middle of conversations. I fight a constant urge to withdraw into a fugue state, to run out the clock on my days until it’s time to go to sleep. I am tired and scared and sad all the time.
I hate that I can’t be there for my friends, all good people who are also suffering through this shitbox year like I am. I hate that I can’t do something that helps others make sense of what’s happening, or feel less alone, or more hopeful, or even sufficiently distracted. There are so many folks out there rising to these times with passion and clarity, fighting for the future they believe in. Me? I just want the shouting to stop for like, two minutes. Just long enough for me to take a beat and wrap my head around what’s happening.
Earlier this year, Armando Iannucci debuted his follow-up to Veep on HBO, a bizarrely-prescient sci-fi satire called Avenue 5. There’s a scene in a late episode where the panicked passengers on the titular spaceship become convinced they’re actually on a reality show. Against the emphatic pleas of the ship’s crew, a few of them decide to leave the “set” through the airlock. After their departure, more people “leave the show” in similar horrific fashion. Even after seeing what happened, the mob is so convinced of their own beliefs they refuse to accept the evidence right in front of them. Repeatedly. By the end of the season, we leave the Avenue 5 with several crewmembers pressed against a window, screaming helplessly into the void of space. It’s an image I was dismayed to relate to so strongly.
We’re all trapped in this malfunctioning spaceship that even the best of us barely knows how to function, and the people with power think their power trumps expertise or, you know, basic reality. Everyone’s shouting to be heard, and no one’s listening. Anything I could say would just get swept up in this existential scream of the cultural moment.
But scream I must. I’ve got a good bit of air in my lungs, and I have to use it for something. As a birthday present to myself, I’m giving myself permission to do the things that bring me comfort and happiness. I’ll try to be more present with people, or at least tell them when I have to recharge. But I’m not my best self right now, and I ask you all to be patient with me. I have no idea how to fly this spaceship, but I can at least make some small corner of it somewhat more calming and hopeful.