The Pandemic Identity Crisis

Stock illustration

I don’t know who I am anymore. Or did I never know?

All during the pandemic, I used to get annoyed at the impatient folks who insisted on carrying on their lives without precautions and “getting back to normal” long before the end was in sight for the Covid pandemic. (It may not be fully in sight yet, but many of us are breathing a little more freely this summer, depending on our location.)

I would say, rather haughtily, “We will never get back to normal, whatever that is. This has changed us, and we can’t run away from that or pretend it hasn’t.”

I still believe that, but maybe I wasn’t ready for my own changes.

I spoke with Robert D. Campbell, who has been practicing psychotherapy in New York for over ten years. “Experience changes people. There is a desire to go back to normal, recover — and return to where you were before. But the best we can do is to integrate the change, accept it, and move forward. On a personal level, you can’t undo what happened.”

By any measure, I fared well during the pandemic. Both my teaching and editing jobs went online and, although the change was chaotic at times, I never missed a paycheck and, in fact, had more work than usual. This allowed me to save and pay off debts and, eventually, buy the family cottage I had dreamed about for years. I never thought it would really happen, though, and yet . . . suddenly, here I am. Out of the big city and seeing birds and geese and chipmunks every morning.

After a difficult winter (it’s a fixer-upper and it wasn’t fixed up much by the time the cold weather rolled in), spring brought much-needed renovations and, for me, a sense of wonder: Wow, I actually own this place and it’s shaping up to be pretty good.

In addition to being a first-time homeowner in my fifties, I also own my first car. I’m adjusting to that responsibility as well.

While all of this has been good, and even fun, I’ve lost some of my old desires and ambitions. I’m going to antique shops and weed-whacking the yard instead of writing or planning my next show. I’m playing Scrabble with my folks instead of getting out to meet new people. I was once a voracious reader; now I’m doing more streaming of shows and movies.

I’ve always had a bit of the absent-minded professor in me, even as a teenager, but now I have at least one daily incidence of walking into a room and forgetting what I was looking for or why I entered the room. I’m able to deflect this with humor, but I find it alarming, truth be told.

I am often known for my generosity, but my charitable deductions were down in 2020. I found myself explaining to my accountant (even though he hadn’t asked or commented) that I had been tipping musicians (true) early in the pandemic but they were not reported as tax deductions. With my good fortune, have I turned to hoarding instead of giving? In such a time of chaos and loss, is it a way for me to try and control and hold onto what I have?

Faith communities have always been important to me. So, I’ve visited a couple of churches and met some nice people. But for the moment, it still feels like old wine in old wineskins. Not ready for it.

I have been recording new music, which will come out sometime soon. From my production team's early mixes and feedback, I may be doing my best work in music. And yet . . . .

I sit with low-grade depression. And then mentally berate myself for not being grateful for all that has happened for me while millions of others have suffered.

I am grateful.

I just don’t know who I am anymore.

Do I want to perform again? Why do I want to quit teaching? Where is my political activism? Why am I not ready to wade into the dating pool again? Why haven’t I started that play idea I’ve been sitting on for three years? Will I ever lose this pandemic belly?

I don’t know what I should be doing. Or want to be doing.

“It’s a disorientation and that may be why your brain is foggy,” Campbell told me. “And we’re still in the midst of it. The brain stores trauma in a scattered way, but narrative therapy suggests that we like beginnings, middles, and endings. We need our experiences to make sense for us.”

He went on to say, “We all want to have a quick fix and move on, but we need to sit in it; learn to experience it, not solve it.” Campbell gave me a quote from Esther Perel, an influential and renowned therapist: “It’s a paradox to be managed, not a problem to solve.”

If I have these uneasy feelings, I can’t imagine what so many are going through who have lost loved ones or lost jobs. I feel unmoored, and I’m one of the lucky ones.

If I try to talk to my companion about it, it becomes a contest that he always wins. “At least you have a job and you have family nearby. I am an immigrant and my family is thousands of miles away. I have none of those things!” Sheesh.

Campbell also pointed out that everybody’s experience around the pandemic has been different and that, in fact, many people did better during this time, for various reasons. He suggested that there may be survivor’s guilt. “If you are at all conscious of what’s going on in the world, it can be hard to enjoy your success.”

I choose to honor my feelings, whatever they may be, and honor my gratitude. I need to have a space for both. And I must trust that as I point my flashlight into the darkness in front of me, the dimly lit path will show me the way.

Visit Robert D. Campbell at www.robertdcampbell.com

I am an author, freelance writer, and singer/songwriter. I split my time between Brooklyn, NY and my native Massachusetts. I teach at City College of New York.