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It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I don’t feel fine)

staff note

I survived the end of the world.

Despite my intention to toughen up at the onset of adulthood, I remained an oyster without a shell, soft and yielding. I worried about the world tanning my heart into an impenetrable leather and resisted this transformation at the expense of developing the thick skin emblematic of growing up. Sticks and stones did break my bones — as did words. I was excruciatingly sensitive; I would burst into tears for every reason and sometimes no reason at all. Occasionally, when anxiety would keep me awake and following hectic trains of thought that were more like toy race cars on an enclosed track than any train, I would wonder how I would fare in an actual apocalypse. Given my distaste for selfishness and my physical weakness, I inevitably realized that I would not make it. I was part of the body count, not a protagonist.

Many comparisons have been drawn between the year 2020 and the apocalypse, and while such dramatics seem in poor taste considering this political and racial upheaval has been long coming, the pandemic did in fact feel like the end. In a matter of days, the cement that had been holding my life in place melted away as if it had been nothing but frosting. Duke announced that the rest of the spring semester would be remote, prematurely ending my junior year and cutting me off from my friends, my research and my salary. I had just a day to drive up to Durham and grab my belongings before the campus was completely closed. Later that same week, I had an MRI to rule out the possibility of a brain growth having caused the massive seizure that I had suffered a few months prior. As I laid in the narrow scanning machine, tight and airless as a coffin, I felt utterly hopeless, resigned to my fate as a causality. 

Adapting to life in this radically different world was not the test of endurance or callousness that I had imagined. Instead, it became an exercise in embracing uncertainty, something that I had never really excelled at as an anxious basketcase obsessed with routines and predictability. I could no longer depend on the future as a nebulous source of stability; the tenuous security that the universe had promised had disappeared, destroying the tremendous effort that I had devoted to building a path to personal success and satisfaction. This was not an event that could roll off my back. My skin wasn’t thick enough for such a glancing blow. Like a peach in peril, I bruised, I rotted, I buckled under the weight of a dying world.

I wish this was a story with a moral, one with an uplifting message about the skills that I gained in quarantine and the merits of being vulnerable, but I have not come to that conclusion just yet. The world is still ending in its own way: the virus is still raging, still a constant threat. Five months in quarantine punctuated periodically by the masked trip to Walmart did not come with a lesson about appreciating loved ones or self-care or emotional closeness, no matter what social media and commercials filmed over Zoom implied. It was an incredible challenge, its own long-form mental breakdown that blew holes through years of recovery and coerced me to find makeshift solutions for frustrations and anxieties that could have previously been resolved through solitude or spending time with friends. 

Even now as I return to Duke and tentatively reestablish the connections that had sustained me, I feel unsteady and guarded. The infrastructure of my life has collapsed too many times now for me to trust it anymore. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Everywhere I step is a trapdoor, eager to drop me back down into the depths of despair and loneliness that I thought had long since been filled in by progress.

But the MRI scan came back clean as a whistle. My family and friends are still alive, and so am I. I’m not steel or glass; I broke instead of bending, but I never had to harden under the galvanizing pressure of a global pandemic. Being soft and open about my feelings, being selfless in my decision to stay home for five months, being willing to cry on the days when everything felt impossible was what allowed me to survive the end of the world. I have not returned yet to living. The cracks in me are still healing, not quite yet making me stronger than I was before the blast. I’m not a fable or a source of inspiration. I’m just a person trying her best to continue — even when the world is ending.

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