I Hate Talking About the ‘Pandemic Wall’

Every week, it would appear there is a new pandemic wall, and we are all hitting it

This person is simply skating in front of their pandemic wall. Photo: 青 晨/Unsplash

I knew this would happen at some point in the pandemic, but this is the week I finally feel like I’m fully losing my mind. I am going to go ahead and assume you are an ungenerous reader and get my stupid little self-aware disclaimers out of the way now. I am a young, relatively healthy person in my late twenties. I live in a big city, I don’t have a family to support, I have the privilege of working from home, and I don’t have to interface with the general public a whole lot. I have the financial stability so many people lost over the past year, and I know how easy I’ve had things relative to lots of other groups of people, especially now that our federal and state governments are failing us in the face of extreme winter weather. I know for lots of people, being homebound is not novel; it’s just part of their lives.

That said, this past year has still sucked. At least when it was nicer out I could take myself for a long walk or go sit in the park. But now that it has decided to be a normal winter with lots of snow, I rarely leave my apartment except to do chores. The crushing feeling of isolation combined with dreary weather in mid-February is finally making me feel kind of bad.

That’s an understatement, actually. I feel very bad. Every morning, I wake up and spend five to 10 minutes wondering if the reason I feel bad is mental illness or a symptom of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Eventually, I determine it is simply my depression.

I get out of bed, and I do the same exact routine, or else I will lose it. I water my plants, drink my water, refill my humidifier, refill my little Muji diffuser, make tea, and check my emails. One morning a couple of weeks ago, I came home from my boyfriend’s apartment, and in my haste, I forgot to refill my humidifier and had a horrible day until I identified the step I had missed in my morning routine. I do my work. I sit in on my meetings. If I can, I step out and buy some food and put it in our community fridge and run my errands. I come home. I work some more. Then I stop working. I turn off the bad screen and put on the good screen. I watch my stupid little shows and make something for dinner. When I’ve finally had enough of consciousness, I go to sleep. The entire cycle repeats unless it is the weekend, when I do everything above except the work part.

I am lucky that my life can be so boring, so anticlimactically miserable, instead of being horrible and full of new awful developments. I know this. I try to write something meaningful about body neutrality, about Prop 22’s global creep, about what is revealed when we find out that the people making the podcast about the food magazine with the toxic workplace culture helped foster a toxic workplace culture in their own podcasting company. Nothing comes out. It is like wringing out a dry sponge except the sponge is my brain. I open a new Google Doc and write down like six sentences and then get disgusted with what I’ve written and close the whole thing.

I see online that everyone is talking about hitting a “pandemic wall.” Every week, it would appear there is a new pandemic wall, and we are all hitting it. This is a Google news search for “pandemic wall.” There are endless stories, and they are all the same, providing mental health tips from “experts” about persevering past the “pandemic wall” and “going back to normal,” whatever they think that means.

Here’s one headline from this week: “Mental Health Experts Say When The ‘Pandemic Wall’ Hits, Look Toward Brighter Days Ahead.” Okay, thanks! Very helpful.

I have long disliked the pandemic wall discourse, but I think I’ve finally identified my issue with it. Beyond the fact that the pandemic wall seems to always be shifting — there’s a new one every week, and every week it feels worse and harder to bear than it did the week before — it’s what it represents that I loathe.

The pandemic wall, as my friend put it this week when we were discussing it, is governmental failure masquerading as personal fatigue. By talking about the pandemic wall, we’re entertaining a fiction where it’s on individuals, and not a broader system, to fight a global public health crisis that is impossible to fight on an individual level. The pandemic wall makes the onus fall on you instead of sharing the burden with the institutions that we reasonably expect to help support us in times of abject crisis. It feels very “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” which I fundamentally disagree with as the solution to most problems but especially a global pandemic.

By talking about the pandemic wall, we’re entertaining a fiction where it’s on individuals, and not a broader system, to fight a global public health crisis.

The pandemic wall discourse makes the pandemic a “you” problem when it’s a problem in which every level of government has failed us. The pandemic wall learned a lot from Andrew Cuomo’s Covid-19 leadership book, and when you point out that perhaps his government failed to protect the elderly early on in the pandemic and even withheld nursing home deaths, the pandemic wall thinks you need to learn to look on the bright side and not be so dour.

We take turns tweeting things like “Is it just me, or do your neurons also all feel like they’re simultaneously on fire?” and “I can’t be the only one who is having a mental breakdown twice a day!” These tweets get a billion likes. Nobody is alone in feeling like shit; there’s just no systemic means of lifting us out of this pit we’re all in, and it’s not polite to talk about feeling terrible publicly, so you have to play dumb and act like you’re not quite sure if you feel the worst you’ve ever felt, if it’s just you, as if everyone else is not also losing it.

I’m not suggesting we stop talking about how bad everything feels. I think this contrast of how horrible everything feels with how we’re expected to continue behaving normally, working fuller and seemingly longer hours, and adding more responsibility to our plates in every area of our lives should be something we’re all discussing. I just think maybe we should do it more honestly, without leaning on this language that makes the failures of our institutions seem like a personal problem we’re expected to get over and deal with ourselves. And now if you’ll excuse me, it’s my scheduled time of day when I take my pillows from my bed and move them to my couch, which is as much of a treat as I am allowed to have these days.

i’m a freelance writer and editor. you can also read me in places like the new york times and vanity fair.

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