My friends and I plopped ourselves down onto an empty booth in the corner of the cafe. After yet another long, dreadful day at college, the chirpy ambience of the cafe, filled with the sweet aroma of coffee and pastries, was the perfect consolation. Over the past few months, this had become our hangout spot, our safe haven, where we would spend endless hours talking, laughing, and at the rarest and most crucial of times, studying. With the semester coming to an end, we were more concerned about how to make the most of our second year rather than the upcoming finals. Doing internships, taking on leadership roles, going on long trips, and indulging in all sorts of new experiences were already on our to-do list.
I tuned out from the usual discussion and let my eyes linger across the cafe, only to settle on the TV displaying prime time news. The news anchor was talking vividly about a new virus that had taken root in China and how drastic measures were being taken to contain it. The news wasn’t that surprising nor concerning, as every year there was always an illness or the other that would be prevalent in some part of the world. The situation was indeed terrible and my heart went out to those who were affected by it. Yet I couldn’t help but feel reassured about the fact that I needn’t worry about it as it was thousands of miles away. Anyhow, as medically advanced as we were, it wouldn’t take long to find a cure and for this virus to be history. I turned back to join the group conversation, only to find my friends looking back and forth at me and the TV screen. I chuckled at their questioning looks and took the opportunity to bring in a new topic for discussion.
‘Did you guys hear? Apparently, there’s a new disease spreading in China. It’s called COVID-19.”
21 days. The Government of India had announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown to control the spread of the coronavirus outbreak. A disease that started out affecting only a single country had now become a pandemic, raising fear and chaos among people all over the world. Only having read about the times of plague and influenza in history books, never in the wildest of my dreams would I have imagined enduring similar perilous conditions in our lifetime. The entire situation seemed to be so surreal and more like an episode taken straight out from ‘The Simpsons’. If only that were the case. Sigh.
Every now and then, my parents would exclaim how fortunate it was that I had chosen to come back home for my study break. After being away for over a year, they loved nothing more than to be quarantined with their daughter for three weeks. In fact, it was practically how we had lived before I left for college. Being an only child, I grew up with quite a lot of restrictions and was quite accustomed to being cooped up within the four walls of my house. Though, after a year of enjoying the bliss of freedom at college, having to go back to that same suffocating lifestyle was not something that I was looking forward to. I would keep muttering ‘21 days’ like a mantra to maintain my sanity. I just had to get through 21 days and this nightmare would be long gone and everything would be back to normal. The internet was already buzzing with different trends and activities to make best use of the time that we had on our hands. Maybe I could just take their suggestions and spend these three weeks sipping Dalgona coffee or just hibernate?
How naive I had been to think that this ordeal would end so quickly. It had been almost 2 months since lockdown and the condition had only worsened. Due to the special circumstances, our second-semester exams were cancelled by the college administration. Normally, such an announcement would have been music to my ears, but at this point of time, it was just another testimony that things were getting out of hand. ‘Stuck-at-home summer vacation’ had been a total bust too as I had quickly run out of things to keep myself entertained. I couldn’t watch tv in fear of hearing ‘unprecedented times’ on loop and the trends on social media had become pathetically intolerable. In addition, second year classes had begun...online. Great efforts were taken by the college to replicate the feeling that all was as per usual, but it was of no use. Google Meet was my new classroom, circle icons were my classmates and ‘Sir, bad network’ was the new excuse given for missing classes. Listening to lectures in bed seemed to be a luxury at first, but it just wasn’t the same as slouching at the college desk and groggily attending classes at 8:30 am. The professors’ enthusiastic efforts to impart knowledge were now greeted with utter silence from the class’s end with the option of the mute button. All in all, there was this intense longing to be a part of the hustle and bustle that was college life, that couldn’t be shaken, no matter how hard I tried.
This was supposed to be the best year of my college life! It was the year that struck the perfect balance between the cluelessness of first year and solemnity of third year. This was the year for which I had made so many plans to reform myself and seize those endless opportunities that I had dismissed earlier. It was aggravating to see all those aspirations go in vain as once again I was restricted in terms of body and mind by the confinements of my home. It was like the universe had conspired against me to bring me back to ground zero. Was this destined to be my fate? Is there not even a glimmer of light at the end of this tunnel?!
Wake up. Classes. Eat. Assignments. Sleep. Repeat. Having to watch as a spectator as my life unraveled before my eyes, was taking a toll on me. I felt numb and almost oblivious to the happenings around me. My monotonous daily routine made my concept of time to blur and blend in together. I was consumed by a hollowed feeling, one which knew no happiness nor sadness. It was like I had reached my saturation point and was done with anything and everything. If I didn’t know any better, I would think that I had gone mad.
I spent most of my time huddled away in my room. I had grown quite fond of my own company that interacting with others seemed to be a tiresome task. Maybe I had taken ‘social distancing’, a little too literal? Just five months at home and my social anxiety had hit its peak. Every time my phone buzzed with an incoming call or message, I would pace back and forth my room, trying to come up with a suitable excuse as to why I couldn’t talk to them. I knew that I would be losing a lot of friends this way, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell them the truth. We were in the middle of a pandemic ; the economy was crashing and people were dying and the thought of talking about my trivial problems to another only filled me with guilt. And so I learned to revel in my own misery. I learned to let out silent screams when things overwhelmed me and muffle my cries into a pillow when my heart weighed down at night. I learned that a simple smile was enough to paint a picture of my well-being to others. The only moments of true relief were when I allowed myself to escape into my imaginations. The world that I created for myself. The world that knew no virus, no disease and no harm.
Breathe in. Breathe out. In. Out. I had taken to meditation on a regular basis, to cope up with my anxiety issues. It was something that I always wanted to do, yet I could never find the time for it before. Over these past few weeks, I realized that the key to resolving the conflicts within myself was learning to let them go. For so long, I had kept avoiding my problems, locking them away and pretending that they weren’t a burden. I still remember four weeks back when I finally broke down and actually voiced the things that had been bothering me. Of course, I had done so in the bathroom, looking at the reflection of myself in the mirror, but I felt so euphoric afterwards. That moment was a small beacon of hope, hope that I could get through this, all by myself. Even if it was for the time being, I’ve finally started feeling that I’ll be okay...that everything will be okay.
The most beautiful feeling is when you’re at peace with yourself. The past few months were challenging, but now they seemed to be a major eye-opener too. I always longed for a fast-paced life, one filled with endless freedom and possibilities. Yet, this lockdown period made me realize that I was most comfortable living in the small personal spaces that I create. During these months, I was able to be truly who I am, without any apprehensions about fitting in or judgements from others. I realized that I used to be so absorbed in everything else around me that I had been neglecting to take care of myself. It was this same reason why I found it so intolerable and difficult when I had to spend time alone. These months forced me to face all those demons that I had kept buried away and resolve those conflicts within myself that had been haunting me. After a long time, I was handed the opportunity to prioritize myself.
I used to think that I had never been able to do anything productive with the endless time that I had on my hands. However, I realized that spending time doing things I actually loved and being happy was much more important. I also understood that true bonds will always stand the test of time. It turns out that I never lost friends, I only learned who the real ones were. These were months of self-discovery and self-growth, months that I decided to cherish henceforth. I was given the break that I never knew I needed and for that I would always be grateful. The universe was indeed conspiring; conspiring to make things happen for me, even if I couldn’t make sense of it initially. For the first time in a long time, I could finally breathe; I could finally smile for real. Alexa, play ‘Feeling Good’.
Written by Archana Vipin Nair