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What My Old Diaries Taught Me About the 'New Normal' of the COVID-19 Pandemic

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In a bid to try to put some of the more traumatic elements of my recent past to bed, I recently binned some of my old diaries. (Not before shredding them to within an inch of their lives, of course, because God forbid the bin men should encounter a single mortifying word).  I’ve kept a diary almost religiously since I was around 14, and despite there being little of note happening in my life on a daily basis during my early teens and beyond, I enjoyed recording it for my future self’s eyes only.

It’s a slightly stressful activity in many ways — the mere thought that anyone else would read these ramblings makes my skin itch, and the subsequent offence taken, embarrassment, cringe, and shame felt would undoubtedly be powerful enough to run the national grid for an unlimited number of years. This isn’t because there is anything particularly shocking or offensive in these pages; it’s just that a diary is a place where all of your thoughts and feelings, both good and bad, are left on the pages. Most of these thoughts and feelings would easily be misconstrued or misinterpreted should anyone read them. In my mind, people’s opinion of me would change were they to be faced with my innermost musings on everything from the increasing price of Jaffa Cakes to why my hair just would not sit right on February 17, 1999.

Having gone back through these diaries, I’ve been disappointed to find that I dislike teenage me. She’s selfish and often blissfully unaware of the impact of her behavior on others. She can be dismissive and has a painful need to impress people who don’t respect her or treat her with kindness. Adult me wants to shake her and tell her to pay more attention to her body. I wish she would focus less on adorning it with Avon body glitter and take it to a doctor’s office when it doesn’t feel right. She underestimates the effect her body has on the burgeoning men in her life and treats these men with something akin to disdain. She’s a teenager, and teenagers are renowned for being absolutely unbearable. As I read about myself as though I am a stranger, I oscillate between feeling sorry for my past self and wanting to give her a slap.

The strange thing about looking back on your life in monotonous detail is that so much of it has been forgotten — resigned to a chapter of your life never to be reread. So many people in these pages I haven’t seen in over a decade, and yet reading about them again is like jumping into a time machine — vivid and uncomfortable and exhilarating all at once. Keeping a diary has allowed me to vent, express myself without any fear of reprisals, and place my hopes and fears in a safe place where judgment only comes from within. My current diary is a five-year diary, which means each entry allows me to view what I’d written on the same date a year ago, two years ago… all the way beck to five years ago. It’s a unique, often thrilling, and sometimes deeply upsetting way to see how much my life has changed.

One of the most abiding themes of my diaries over the last few years has been grief. I’ve lost many people I deeply loved through separation, illness, and death. All of these losses have affected me in different ways and always will, as grief is an ever-evolving process that holds its own timetable we are never privy to. I’m sure for many of my fellow diary-keepers, grief has also been an ever-looming feature. We are, after all, two years into a global pandemic.

A question I’ve asked myself repeatedly as I trudged through the treacle-like slog of loss has been, “When will I feel ‘normal’ again?”

The answer, of course, is “never.”

Right now because of COVID-19, there isn’t a “normal” to go back to. The “normal” of my previous life, and I imagine that of many of yours, has faded into obscurity like a Z-list celebrity. “Normal” has expired, and now there is only the present reality we have been propelled into simultaneously at a snail’s pace and a speed we can’t quite keep up with.

So how do we digest this loss both individually and collectively? If I were to consult my diaries and all of the past versions of myself, I’m sure I’d get wildly different answers, mainly depending on where I was in my menstrual cycle at the time and how stocked my corner shop was with Jaffa Cakes. But current me — “normal” me — can’t see a way to move through without honestly viewing this situation. There is no going back to how our lives were before this collective grief struck us. There is no way to stem the flow of loss. We may need to just attempt to learn how to surf it without sinking beneath it.

A few ways in which I’ve attempted to embrace my new life have been increasing my creativity and doing things I enjoy because I enjoy them without worrying too much about what anyone else may think. I dance like no one’s watching and don’t care if anyone might be. I am learning to accept, ask for, and offer help without feeling burdensome or unworthy of it. I remain grateful for those who show me love and kindness and spend less time giving energy to those who don’t. I cry on the bus and don’t worry that my tears might soak my mask or that someone might see — sadness is nothing to be ashamed of, and feelings are something we often must first feel in order to heal. I don’t reprimand myself when I make accidental rhymes within a sentence.

When it first dawned on me that some aspects of my life would never be “normal” again, I felt abject terror. The idea that I would have to move through a life I had no knowledge of was overwhelming and intimidating, and in many ways, it still is. But the volume of loss we have all felt during the COVID-19 pandemic has emboldened me to focus on the fact that my life is one of my own making. It’s a literal “choose your own adventure.”  I choose how I move through the world, and despite the obstacles intertwined within it, it’s important that I don’t allow myself to give up hope for the future simply because it may look uncertain or different to how I may have envisioned it.

I hope you can allow yourself to move through your grief and new “normal” during the COVID-19 pandemic with a feeling of contentment and bountiful possibility. I wish for you to allow yourself to show your light in moments of darkness and believe — if you ever doubt it — that your presence in this world matters to more people than you know. Try not to fear the unknown or allow yourself to drown in grief. Allow yourself to lower your guard if you feel under attack rather than going on the defensive. If you feel joy, try not to feel guilty for  it. Write about it if you wish — I promise that “future you” will love to hear it.

Getty image by Pyrosky.

Originally published: February 11, 2022
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