When friends ask how we’re doing, I answer like everyone else who has both a job and their health: I say I’m lucky and so grateful. Then I joke about how at the start of the stay-at-home orders, my kids and I divided up our 1,100-sq.-ft. apartment into quadrants like Berlin after the war.
They are back home for all the reasons everyone’s college-age children are home. And let’s just say young adults are not the only ones who regress in this situation. I now have the emotional maturity of a 15-year-old, and the gray roots and stretchy pants of a woman who is a lot older than she thought she was at the start of this thing.
We have argued about who “borrowed,” broke, threw away, ate, didn’t wash, didn’t empty or didn’t refill almost everything. We do not agree on the definition of loud or music or clean. Nor are we aligned on what constitutes news, socialism, democracy or old. There are days when we dance and cook like the adorable quarantined people on Instagram–and other days when we snarl, make our own little parochial meals and litigate the chores.
My fear is that after all this forced togetherness, neither of my offspring will want to visit me when I’m in assisted living. And, given the trajectory of the economy, I’m just as afraid we may all be in this apartment together until then. Meanwhile, my compatriots with little kids can’t even think that far ahead. They’re just trying to get through the morning with everyone alive and fed. In their voices, I can hear the strain of holding on to gratitude and the weight of conflicting and unending responsibilities.
This unexpected squashing together of lives is like a functional MRI of our relationships with one another, and with ourselves. Wherever we go, there we are … day after day. There’s no distraction from the ragged bits of life we’ve neglected in the rush of our usual routines, whether it’s the cracks in the foundation of the house or the fraying of a marriage. All of it is compounded by the madness of homeschooling while working twice as hard to keep the job you’re lucky to have, or sole quarantining, or the co-parenting dance. Maybe we’re not as strong or as good as we hoped we’d be when things got tough.
Of course, complaining about any of this feels ridiculous, shameful. So we start every confession about how we feel like we’re falling apart with, “Relatively speaking …” Or we go through a list of all the people who have it worse–and there are so many. I think of my friends who have been laid off, or the people in the food-bank lines, or the meatpacking workers risking their lives to supply the bacon in my sandwich. Every choice is a moral dilemma.
And then there’s a hospital not far from where I’m sitting, which still has a big refrigerated trailer connected to the building. I suspect they’re leaving it there as a backup morgue for the expected fall resurgence of the virus. For now, we’re here in limbo measuring time by the brutal ticktock of the news as the numbers of those who’ve died or lost their jobs keep rising. When will it end? How will it end? … Will it end? And there’s an undercurrent of collective mourning–if not for someone or something specific, then for the idea that we as a nation can prevent this kind of catastrophic loss.
It’s not a shock to learn that about a third of American adults have symptoms of clinical anxiety or depression, according to Census Bureau data looking at the effects of the pandemic. Helplessness, the feeling of being stuck and anxiety about the future are textbook harbingers of mental distress. And there are no rules about who gets to acknowledge that distress. We have to find enough compassion for ourselves that we can admit it if we’re not really O.K. and recognize that, even if we have our basic needs met, this can still be awful. It’s not indulgent to mention it; it’s smart to ask for help. This is as important as avoiding the virus because we’ll need mind and body and soul to help each other through this marathon.
Sure, the lucky ones can still lead with a disclaimer–and yes, it is important to keep things in perspective. But to know gratitude is to be truly cognizant of what the stakes are, of what you could lose, of who you could lose. And that’s never been more clear.
Speaking of that, my two humans are out there in the rubble of the living room with 4,301 dirty cups and whatever it was the dog tore up because someone left it out. If I can go clean up with more gratitude and less snark than usual, I’m going to count today as a win.
This appears in the June 15, 2020 issue of TIME.
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