Post-Pandemic Stress Syndrome
Who doesn't remember those early, crazy days before the world changed forever? Many of us can easily recall a singular, specific memory that buzzes around our brain, good, bad or ugly, of the last time we felt safe, truly safe.
I remember my last night of normalcy well. It was a Thursday, early March 2020, almost three years ago to date. My husband and I met friends for a Joe’s Stone Crab themed dinner at a dimly lit private club in NYC. It was that lovely time of the year on the East Coast when collective serotonin levels dip below zero, and Winter’s icy grip on the city refuses to relent, like a lingering stye blurring the sightline to Spring.
In other words, it’s the time of year to make lots of lofty, fun plans, most of which you feel like cancelling.
On this night, for whatever reason, we did not. As we cautiously and reluctantly took our seats and enthusiastically ordered our wine, I remember hearing the buzz of benign chatter – familiar, but tinged with anxiety and a touch of hubris, almost smugness.
“Hand Sanitizer is sold out at Walgreens! It’s so crazy!”
“The Smiths cancelled their Spring Break plans! Non-refundable! I would NEVER.”
“I hear they might cancel school for TWO weeks – can you imagine?!”
By our second drink, I remember laughter and bravado and the ripping open of crab claws with our bare hands, plunking them into shared bowls of creamy horseradish. We laughed at the few people who had cancelled with excuses about a kid’s cold, or pink eye, or the like. But the rest of us were not phased. Cancelling wasn’t yet a loaded word. It was still an everyday reality of life. And we controlled the narrative.
And then, before we could blink, the narrative controlled us. Suddenly, we were slaves to our TVs, self-taught connoisseurs of surgical masks and bulk-buying guava-scented sanitizer from shady websites. Suddenly, a Thursday night out with friends, whether you made it or bailed, was nothing to be glib about. We were stopped short, shut-down and lump-sum, summarily cancelled.
We all know what happened next.
“The new normal!”
“3-ply masks? You need a N-95!”
“Zoom drinks later?!”
“I made sourdough!”
For three years, every day unearthed a mixed bag of emotions. For three years, we waded through tragedy, awesomeness, hope, hopelessness, science, conspiracy, clarity, and confusion. For three years, there were dark days of disconnect, and bright days filled with gratitude like none before. Some people pivoted, and some drew deep into their roots. Nothing was clear, except this one thing: There was no right or wrong way to live during the pandemic.
But, like all of life on earth before us, we adapted.
Did you change from your day sweatpants to your night sweatpants? Gold star!
Did you shout out your window like a banshee released into the wild? Well, ok!
Leave a note and batch of freshly baked cookies outside your door for the UPS driver? Don’t mind if I do.
Did you celebrate “milestones” by driving-by peoples’ homes and exchanging small talk through half-cracked car windows? Ummm, hell yeah, and that was sorta awesome!
Did you Family TikTok yourself into classy-bougie-ratchet oblivion? Like the best of them!
Rinse, repeat. The beat dragged on and on and on. The construct of time became meaningless; the passage of it became excruciating.
And yet, in doing nothing, we learned everything. Moments mattered. We learned to exist in suspended limbo, and dare I say, at times, even, to thrive, in the eternal space between point A and point A.
Flash forward: we are three years older, but we’re not. While we have technically come full circle in the “endemic” pantheon of words, we are no doubt very different people in greater ways than just the number of candles on our birthday cakes.
To me, it feels like it’s going to take some time for our pre-pandemic selves and our post-pandemic selves to reconnect and to find a middle ground. And, in the meantime, we should expect people and things to be a little off, to skew a little weird. Like, really, wonky.
Case in point: The other day I was at the orthodontist with my daughter – a routine afterschool Monday at an office that, pre-pandemic, was run with a friendly but also militaristic efficiency. The staff this time around was mostly new, which was okay; as I said, it’s been a long few years and people pivoted.
But then, something unusual happened. As I was zoning out on my phone, my daughter splayed out on the chair next to me, the technician suddenly started belting out Britney Spears as he cleaned my daughter’s teeth. And that wasn’t even the weird thing. Here's what was: No one - not a mom, not a child, not another technician - flinched. As in there was no positive or negative emotion from anyone in this uber civilized, professional place of work. Was no one really listening? Was everyone too lost in their own thoughts? Were people just so used to game-facing in a world where anything can happen? I’ll never know, but I think PPSD is to blame.
Just because things are back to normal, does not mean I, or any of us, are back to normal at all.
Because I suspect we learned something during the pandemic that’s being muffled by all the sudden forward motion of life. I suspect that we’ve convinced ourselves that living at a slower pace no longer means that we value living in the moment, but instead, that we are wasting precious time.
Personally, I know that re-taking control of my narrative hasn’t been easy. There have been false starts, including maybe a dozen times I’ve sat down to write this piece and ended up at lunch at The Mark. There have been times that I’ve ached for the simplicity of life in lockdown, especially when I’m scheduling, planning and crazy-making myself and my family into "GO!" mode, i.e. into making every moment count. There are days that, despite the guilty, gnawing sense that I shouldn’t pause, I choose NOT to charge ahead, or to seize the day.
Make no bones about it: The Pandemic was awful; thank God it’s over. But I hope to stay wiser, not wistful, about the lessons learned during a time in my life when it was okay to simply exist.
And so, when all is said and done, my Last Supper pre-Pandemic wasn’t particularly memorable, except for the simple fact that I remember it vividly. And if we’ve learned anything over the past few years, let it be that, often, the moments that become the most lasting memories are not always the most monumental.