Reflections on The Year of Covid, Part I

“This won’t get out of control, it’s just a couple of cases here and there,” they said in January and February.

How naïve we all were in those long-past days of early 2020.

When I went to Los Angeles for a mini-vacation a year ago this month, all the headlines about this new strain of a SARS-like coronavirus were just beginning to pop up; one such headline came as a push notification on my phone while I was deciding whether to get an impromptu tattoo or visit Universal Studios. I ended up going for the latter, which almost seems surreal to think about in hindsight.

I mean, think about it: a crowded theme park, no semblance of social distancing, masks worn only by those visiting from out of the country, and even then I could probably count the total number of masks I saw that day on both hands. Hell, I even took the LA Metro (which pales in comparison to the CTA, as a side note) to Universal.

When I returned to Chicago, nothing really seemed amiss. I got my belongings from baggage claim at O’Hare, went to catch the first of two trains to go home, and opened Apple Music. Then came another news headline, about another case of coronavirus being detected along the west coast. I don’t remember exactly where, but I can only assume it wasn’t in Los Angeles since I remember not worrying too much about it and going back to whatever it was I was listening to.

That was February 17th. A month later, things would be different to say the least.

Cases were rising at an alarming rate in Illinois in general, let alone in Chicago. Jobs all over the country, mine included, were in a mad dash to implement remote work policies and systems. Panic buying was rampant, which left me thankful that I bought my toilet paper in bulk prior to that. And all that was even before the state’s Stay-At-Home order was issued on March 21st.

At this point, I want to stop for a moment and mention that this will get a lot more personal as I go on. The pandemic, the stress, the lockdowns; all of these have been incredibly hard on me over the last 10 to 11 months, and I don’t want to sugar coat any more than I have to. If you’re reading and don’t want to continue, my feelings won’t be hurt if you close this tab or window. I’m writing this mainly for my own sanity, after all. (Plus I don’t run ads on my website, so it’s not like I’m being paid.)

The company I work for went into full work-from-home mode a few days before the governor announced the Stay-At-Home order, probably because we (and other companies that did the same) saw the writing on the wall. And I must admit, the novelty of working from home was nice for a bit; I could literally roll out of bed, get my work laptop, log in, and take care of stuff alongside my cat, Molly. I was also thankful that we had a number of cloud apps implemented already, making my job as a sysadmin that much easier. This novelty, however, didn’t last too long. Working from my bed or my couch got tiresome fast and my back, which was already not too fond of me to begin with, was not having it.

A couple of weeks later, I ordered a small little desk that fit in the corner of my old bedroom in Lincoln Park and a desk chair. Some semblance of normal, I suppose, plus I was still able to roll out of bed and into the computer chair since it was right next to said bed. I was already beginning to miss working in the office though, as strange as it may be to say. I was missing the hustle and bustle of the morning commute, missing the energy of the city downtown, my coworkers, etc. Like I said, as strange as it may be.

Then the sense of isolation kicked in. Hard.

Prior to everything locking down, our friend group – a very close-knit group, mind you – would get together and hang almost every weekend. Once everything stood still, we started to have regular video chats; first using Instagram, then moving to Google Duo once we realized that we were coming up against a participant limit. No big deal, I’m an IT guy after all, I deal with bumps in the road all the time like that.

One bump in the road I wasn’t prepared to deal with, though, was when there was an impromptu get together at a friend’s house. Names obviously redacted, aside from my own.

“ANDY! Come thru,” the friend said.

“Come thru where exactly?”

“My house, I decided to have everyone together because I need a break from being here alone and shit…”

“I’ll try to make it!”

Except I didn’t make it. I flaked, to use the terminology. Not because I didn’t want to see everyone; au contraire, I desperately wanted to see my friends. But I freaked out.

Why is everyone getting together? This shit isn’t under control, not by a long shot! What if I get sick? What if I get someone else sick? Not everyone can work from home like I can… (Mind you, this was about a month and a half or so before a statewide mask mandate was put into place.)

I had a full blown panic attack. Possibly one of the worst I’d had in several years, if not the worst since October 2016. Meanwhile, my phone was blowing up like it was the 4th of July.

“ANDY where are you?”

“You coming through??”

“PLEAAAASE come over, we miss you”

I didn’t handle it well. At all. I removed myself from the group chat, uninstalled Instagram from my phone, and took a Xanax with a glass of Diet Coke and Amaretto. I didn’t wake up until the next morning.

Explaining to my friends the next day that I had a freakout wasn’t exactly “fun,” but they know that sometimes my mental health leaves a lot to be desired; this much was true in the pre-Covid era as well. They let me back in the group chat, and I caught up pretty quick with the shenanigans from the night before.

I didn’t make a single mention of the Xanax, not to anyone, let alone the fact I took it with alcohol. That was also the last time I ever took alprazolam for anything. I still have it in my medicine cabinet, but I refuse to take it.

The drinking continued, though. One night in April, in one of our group video calls, all of us were shooting the shit while we were drinking our concoctions of choice. Mine that night was a Godfather (some Scotch whisky and amaretto; simple yet wonderful, if I may say so). Eventually, the call ended, but I kept drinking. I switched from whisky to wine and downed half a bottle before I eventually knocked out.

Another night was all too similar, except in that video call, I was the only one drinking (as far as I knew); this time, I finished the bottle and opened a second one, of which I had one glass. After that, I knew it was time to call it a night. As I laid in bed that night, I thought to myself, Andy, maybe you should ease up on the drinking for a bit when you’re alone.

Aside from a couple of beers here and there with whatever it was I would be eating at any one time, that’s exactly what I did until I moved apartments in July (more on that move later). I had let alcohol become a crutch after a traumatic end to a past relationship, and I felt myself falling into a similar spot so it was certainly wise I caught myself before it got out of hand. Not to say I’ve given up drinking entirely since then – I certainly haven’t – but I don’t use it to tamp down my stress or emotions anymore, thank fuck. I suppose self-growth comes in all sorts of manners.

For the most part, the month of May was relatively uneventful aside from a couple of things. One was the beginnings of an apartment search; my lease in Lincoln Park was set to expire in the coming months and I had told myself months prior that I would be leaving that shoebox of an apartment if at all possible. It would be a pain in the ass in the pandemic, but I was dead-set on it.

The other was the national civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd; that, along with the dynamic with my family during the pandemic, is where I’ll pick up in the next post.

For maybe the one or two of y’all who’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. See you on the next one.