Updated: Aug 23
By Hala Nagi
Picking up the pieces of your life after a global pandemic isn't easy. I somehow managed to lose pretty much every social skill I learned over the course of my entire life, forgot how to do the most basic of tasks, and almost failed several courses. But if there's one thing I've struggled with most after coming back from online learning, it's relearning how to take up all of my old responsibilities, to wake up in the mornings and spend time with people all day. It sounds like such a simple thing but somehow, over the course of the past two years, I seem to have lost all my motivation.
As one of the most introverted people I know, my first thought upon finding out that we'd have to attend classes online was along the lines of "at last, my time has come." I spent the first five whole months of quarantine at home, until my mom started getting a bit concerned. For five months, I did not step foot out of the house, except for two doctor appointments that I was forced to go to and complained about the whole time. I remember thinking that the air outside smelled weird and getting startled every time I heard a car passing by. Spending all my time at home, though, meant that I didn't need to worry about pesky things like waking up at 7 AM or doing actual work. I had a phase during quarantine where I'd wake myself up to eat a bowl of noodles every morning, and if there weren't any noodles at home, I just wouldn't wake up that day until the late afternoon. If I had classes, I'd sleep through them. In fact, I also went through a phase where I had difficulty sleeping, so I'd put on a recorded lecture from one of my classes, and that always knocked me out faster than any sleeping pill. Life was simple: wake up, eat noodles, sleep. Whenever anyone asked me to go out, I would put on a sad face and say, "aww sorry, I can't because of COVID." I was finally living my dream of never having to leave the house or interact with people, ever. That was why it took me a long time to understand what I was losing. All the changes crept up on me, until I was so dissociated that I could barely bring myself to get out of bed in the mornings.
Then, our online semester ended, and we had to come back to university. It was a horrible experience. The very air smelled awful to me, the sun was too hot and bright, and there were too many people that I had to actually see and talk to in person rather than just seeing their names. My skin had not felt the warmth of the sun for months, so I got sunburnt literally every time I stepped out of the building. Unsurprisingly, I avoided going out unless absolutely necessary for the first few weeks, so the only people I saw outside of classes were the taxi drivers who took me to do my PCR tests and made fun of me for being bad with directions. That was the extent of my social interactions with people at the time. Then, a friend invited me out to eat at a cafe, and I was dragged out of the safety of my room at last. I almost didn't go, and I had to remind myself that I was doing it for friendship (and cookies). Spending time with another person like that almost hurt, in a way. It felt so unfamiliar and strange and, somehow, unsafe. Stepping out of the quiet, lonesome bubble I'd spent the last several months in was terrifying. I felt so empty, and I didn't even know why. I couldn’t understand why everything felt so pointless, why every day blurred into the next, completely meaningless. It felt like I'd been drifting aimlessly for a year, and when everything finally snapped back into focus, I almost couldn't handle it. There were a lot of mental breakdowns that first month back on campus.
In the end, it was the same friend that had pushed me to go out with her who helped me stop feeling so afraid and hopeless. I don’t know how she knew how I was feeling, but she began to text me nearly every day and invite me to meet up. The prospect of going out was still horrifying, but by that point, I was desperate enough for any sort of purpose to agree. I even decided to go wild and have dinner at a friend's place (this may not seem particularly wild, but to me, it was a monumental decision that took me hours to make in bed the night before). Slowly, so slowly that I didn’t even realise it at first, I started to feel better. I woke up every morning and stayed up for my classes. Being up at 7 AM was still absolutely terrible, but I could find some joy in walking to class and hearing the birds just waking up. When my friends invited me out, I said yes (sometimes). And the growing sense of emptiness and aimlessness that I’d gotten used to started to disappear.
"The growing sense of emptiness and aimlessness that I’d gotten used to started to disappear."
It was so easy to feel lost and unmotivated at first. Putting in so much effort felt pointless; what was I even moving towards? Stepping out of my comfort zone also felt like stripping myself of all my defences, and I didn’t even want to deal with it because everyone else seemed just fine. Even if everything seemed like such a chore and I was so overwhelmed the whole time that I could barely function, my usual mode of operation is to ignore all my problems until they go away. So, I spent those first weeks incapable of taking up any of my responsibilities and wondering what the point of trying so hard was. It’s a feeling that sneaks up on you when you’re alone, and I had made sure that I was almost completely alone by the time I came back to university. But I’ve since come to realise that it’s much simpler than I thought. Taking a moment to enjoy the sound of birds on my way to class, watching my friends crack up at a joke, and having one-sided conversations with the cats near SBA- it’s healing. There's no ultimate goal that I need to move towards; there doesn't have to be a deep, grand reason that keeps me going forward. Sometimes, it's enough to keep going for a warm bowl of noodles, a friend's smile, and a good book to read at the end of the day.