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17 March 2021updated 29 Jul 2021 10:56am

It’s finally getting easier to imagine returning to normal life. So why do I keep crying?

I fear the return will not be a simple reunion with my old joys, but a reckoning with all the joys we have missed out on over the past year.

By Megan Nolan

Since last summer’s illusory Covid ­reprieve, my expectations for the ­future have become smaller and ­smaller. Back then, in my blind optimism, I was tentatively but genuinely looking forward to getting back to visiting friends in America, throwing a big belated party for my 30th birthday, and sweaty gigs.

When the year instead sank into a ­disastrous and terrifying crisis, my mind contracted in response. Instead of grand parties and distant travel, I longed to leave the London flat where I live alone to spend Christmas with my parents in Ireland. When that possibility receded my hopes narrowed once again. I dreamed of sitting among a modest group of friends outside, without feeling anxious about risk or judgement. I thought of tepid corner-shop beers and laughing at slightly too cold wind blowing tobacco out of our hands.

When the restrictions tightened in December and continued into January, I felt submerged by panic. It seemed realistic that things would get much worse, and I would be on my own for an unforeseeable number of months. Some people tried to reassure me by saying that come March or April, failing all else, the weather would likely be good enough to be outside with others again. It was difficult not to get angry at this: how absurd to be comforted by the prospect of “only” three or four months of isolation.

I was right to be afraid: it was as bad as I imagined. I woke up crying with loneliness several times a week and felt my mind playing tricks on me. I experienced mild auditory hallucinations as I tried to sleep, the ghost-sound of another person in my flat. But now, we’ve made it through the worst of the winter months and that longed-for prospect of seeing friends outside is very near to being possible, both practically (better weather) and legally. Why then is that same prospect creating a new kind of pain for me, when it’s all I’ve focused on for so long?

I know there are a substantial number of people who fear the easing of lockdown because they expect that their health anxieties will not end just because a certain date has passed. Still others expect the social demands of an inevitably hedonism-hungry country will feel overwhelming. Neither of these things bother me. Luckily, a preoccupation with my health is one of the few anxieties I have escaped. Unless I am in immediate pain or something is visibly wrong with me, I assume I am healthy. Nor am I frightened of the burden of fun. I want as much of that as I always did – as much as I can get.

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[see also: While many learned to bake or sew in lockdown, I have revelled in the beauty of isolation itself]

This week there was an unexpected and dazzling afternoon of good weather. In the park, on my daily institutionalised route, children were playing and friends sitting down to sunbathe and have coffee and sandwiches and conversations. It felt as close to ordinary life as I could remember since October. But this scene did not fill me with joy. Instead I began to cry, mortified and inelegant and unable to stop behind my sunglasses. I realised then that it wasn’t so much that I had feared I would never ­experience these moments of everyday happiness again, it was that their gradual ­return would fill me with pain at all the ones we have missed over the past year. I felt a new, irresolvable hurt and anger. The return to life will not be a simple reunion with my old joys. It will also be a reckoning with the bottomless sadness I feel about what was lost and what is not retrievable.

In January, during one of my loneliest periods, I watched the film Sleepless in Seattle, and there is a part where Sam, a widower played by Tom Hanks, says of his grief: “Then after a while, I won’t have to remind myself to get out of bed every morning and breathe in and out. And then after a while, I won’t have to think about how I had it great and perfect for a while.”

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I found this line intolerably moving, and familiar – although, granted, his “great and perfect” was having a wife and family while my “great and perfect” was being on the right side of 30 and shagging about New York. I’m aware of my own graceless, ­inordinate self-pity, but I find it difficult not to feel angry when I think about the ­uniquely pivotal time in my particular life that was obliterated by the pandemic.

I was 29, solvent for the first time ever, single, ready to meet everybody and see what and who might suggest a new ­direction for my life. If I had been able to date freely last year, would I have met the love of my life? If I had been able to stay in New York, would I have followed through with my plan to move there? I’ll never know, and it is that uncertainty which I resent and I am struggling to process.

In happy periods of my life I swerve guiltily away from others who are unhappy, because I’m aware of the all too porous line between the two states in myself. I desperately want to stay on the right side of my emotions for as long as possible.

When the pandemic began, I was quite resilient: remaining in denial and broadly happy. Now that I’m on the other side of things, as is always the way when I’m depressed, I can’t quite imagine how anyone feels happy. I believe it logically, but I can’t empathise successfully. The happy few seem to belong to a different species to me. I worry that I have suffered irreparable ­damage thanks to the strange toll of living alone in these circumstances.

But I have to hope that the things which made me happy a year ago will retain their ability to make me happy in the future, and that my enlivening appetite for being with other people will take centre stage when it is allowed to. Perhaps the thing I must ­remember is that my grief – for all the ­people I did not get to meet, the moments I did not experience – will have its place in my ­future too, and should be honoured alongside whatever new happiness emerges.

[see also: For most of us, lockdown life will pass. But for some, there is no “getting back to normal”]

This article appears in the 17 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold