A picture from one end of my office, where my Christmas cacti are enjoying the sunny windowsill and my guitar is leaning against the wall underneath a dry erase-drawn version of the 8-point story wheel.

Ready or Not

The world is reopening and I’m not ready.

We’ve been in semi-lockdown and quarantine for the last two and a half months. Not a full lockdown/quarantine, because Alberta’s number of active cases remained relatively low. Masks were introduced late and always as ‘optional’. There are no checkpoints in our neighbourhoods. Outdoor gatherings of up to 50 people are fine, as long as we remain physically distant. Tentatively, offices are preparing to bring people back in to work at their desks.

The coronavirus pandemic reached Alberta in mid-March. I’m going to be honest: the resulting quarantine was somewhat like being drop-kicked in the face by déjà vu. I was in my own isolation just this past December. My dad died at the end of October 2019 and, after the standard allotment of bereavement leave for funeral travel, I went right back to work for about a month. It was brutal. I pushed through until the holiday office closure, which I combined with some vacation and medical leave to take a month off. I was extremely fortunate to have it, because I needed it. I was not fit for public consumption. I resigned from the outside world, avoided interactions with most people. I had been flayed by grief and was absolutely raw. For the majority of December, I didn’t wear pants. I slept through every alarm I set. I spent hours listlessly scrolling through social media and wept at every sigh, every glint of light, every sound. Sleep didn’t come easily, except at the end of a can or a bottle.

Sound familiar? March found me confined to my house for a second time. My hyper-awareness of the impersonal and inevitable nature of death, triggered by the death counts reported globally, returned in full force. Once again, I could not top scrolling through social media. My mind churned endless, anxious froth every night, as soon as my head hit the pillow. My pants, briefly liberated from the bin in the closet, returned to the stuffy darkness. With them went my bras. I was useless; my mounting productivity once again derailed.

At the end of my month leave from work, my anxiety started to build. The awful absence I had to confront every time I spoke or thought of Dad was manageable by that time, but I had little show for nearly five weeks of being disconnected from my normal life. I’d been writing a meagre amount. Eventually I stopped needing alcohol to sleep. I was wearing pants again and showering most days.

But I still wasn’t quite myself. I didn’t even really know who “me” was anymore.

I wasn’t back to my pre-losing Dad level of productivity. I went back to work the second week of January, and it took me until well into February to finally feel like I was picking up the normal pace of my life again. I was writing more, and not just about grief. Seeing people. Wearing clothes, cleaning my house, spending time my friends, going places, doing things. Finding my way back to a shaky sense of self. Getting back on that productivity grind.

The pandemic pressed pause on some of that. When the quarantine started, some of my less desirable coping strategies from December reemerged. It took less time to find my way back to myself this time, and I’m still working on balancing grief in my day-to-day. I miss my dad and my life before he died, and I miss pre-pandemic life too, just like everyone else. Overall, though, I saw progress in the time it took me to right myself when shit hit the fan the second time around.

Until the government announced their plans for the province’s phasic reopening. Immediately, I started flailing again. I’d been confined to my home for months, my brain screamed, and what did I have to show for it? No magically cobbled together quarantine manuscript. No additional publishing credits. Not a single new cross-stitch completed, no cleaned out basement, no darned sock pile. Worse, I wasn’t giving myself shit alone. I saw it all across my social media feeds, in text messages, on video chats.

When the world started grinding to a halt, freelancers and full-timers alike getting laid off, there came a rallying cry from creatives: “Use this uninterrupted time to make the things you’ve always said you didn’t have enough time to make!”

Good work if you can get it, but for me, not on the menu. For many, nothing is more stultifying than grief. Without the five-dollar vocab word: nothing paralyses a person more effectively than losing that which gives them a sense of who they are.

What an impossible thing to ask, that you dig into yourself and express some deep part of it, while your whole world is crumbling to dust. Myself? Who is that? Where do they belong, now that their world as they knew it no longer exists? The motivation to make art, to create, comes from having a sense of yourself and a connection to what matters to you. Emotion, truth, community, God or spirit or whatever moves you. Grief—powerful, life-altering grief—obliterates that sense of self. It subsumes the self, integrates with it until all you are is grief and there’s no part of you that isn’t blacked out by the feeling that nothing—not you, and not anything else—is ever going to be alright again.

This panic of having ‘nothing’ to show for the months I spent in quarantine was just the sequel to the fear I had of returning to work. The fear that comes from not being ready, not being quite there yet in the process of recalibrating myself. I had been piecing myself back together for weeks, where was my miraculous butterfly transformation? I was the half-digested caterpillar corpse, being shucked prematurely from its cocoon. I was comparing myself to the person I was before my dad died, and I was afraid I would never measure up to her again. This fear was draining and unreasonable, and I know now that it comes from a lack of compassion and empathy for myself.

I would never expect someone who had been through their personal hell and back to not bear the scars of their experience, but I wanted myself to have moved past it in a matter of months.

I’m trying to move forward with empathy and compassion for others so that I can learn to apply that to myself. I hope if you’re feeling the fear of the world reopening, of having nothing to show for being shut away so long, you recognize that fear for what it is: an unkindness to yourself. You don’t need anything to show. You’re enough as you are. And if it’s hard to believe that, I will believe it for you, until we’re both ready.

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