I wouldn't call it a breaking point, necessarily, but it feels like we've reached a moment in the pandemic when things are starting to change. There's been a shift, a dawning that normal isn't just going to come back. That things will not simply get better anytime soon.
In my mind, I’ve known that “normal” life won’t resume until we have a vaccine; however, I’ve had some wiggle room to play mind games with myself – by Memorial Day, by September, by Election Day things might be getting back to normal.
In the early days of the outbreak, due to the sheer uncertainty of what was coming, it was easy to feel somewhat optimistic. Major League Baseball initially postponed Opening Day by only two weeks; Disney's live-action Mulan was delayed from a late March premiere to what at the time seemed to be an overly-cautious date of July 24, 2020. After what felt like the worst of the pandemic, in April and May, you could convince yourself the spread was starting to get under control; cases were going down, anyway, and lockdowns were being lifted. States moved ahead with reopenings, only for the disease to flare back up again, as experts had warned it would all along. It isn't that optimism is being replaced by pessimism so much as it is that ignorance is being replaced by a new informedness.
Then again, maybe it's the little things that have added up for you: the way that you might be drinking a coke outdoors at your local restaurant through a straw stuck up in your mask, surrounded by groups carefully spaced six-feet apart, and realize how such a dystopic scene at some point became mundane. Or maybe it'll be the way you greet a friend you haven't seen since quarantine began, with the initial awkwardness of not knowing how comfortable the other is about physical touch and proximity. Or maybe it's the way it has already become intuitive to grab a mask before opening the door for a delivery, or the way a commute involves the grim relief that traffic is better now that everyone works from home. All this being normal just shows how far the old normal is still from coming back.
For me, strangest of all has been my dawning realization that December 31 — the latest benchmark I'd unconsciously picked to stake my hopes upon — doesn't mean any more than Memorial Day or Labor Day had at one point. Just because experts can all but assure "we will not reach pre-corona life" this year doesn't mean that magically things will be like they were on January 1, 2020 by January 1, 2021. By one estimate "the U.S. won't return to its pre-COVID-19 normal until August 2021"; by another, it won't be until "2022." In actuality, no one can really have any idea when normal will resume, or what it will even look like when it does.
Additionally, it's rattling to have nothing to look forward to in the near-future, to not be able to plan trips to visit family and friends, to know indoor concerts won't soon resume safely, much less if it is realistic to plan an international trip anytime in the next 18 months, or even what the holidays might mean and how to plan for them.
As the pandemic has continued, I began to notice a trend with my clients. As they were all grappling with the loneliness of isolation, the grieving of normalcy, sometimes even the conscious denial of the pandemic in hopes of “wishing it away,” I noticed they were beginning to also feel their depression deeper, experience more tightly wound anxiety, and express more and more existential dread. As I was curious with each of my clients around this, it began to dawn on me that there was nothing to look forward to anymore.
The way things are now, the future is uncertain. We’ve lost our ability to plan our lives in big and little ways. Social isolation me
ans there are no happy hours, no birthday parties, no movie dates on the horizon. Events, vacations, career moves, life changes? More or less on hold. Even weekends have lost their power as an end-of-the-week treat with how days are bleeding together into one large blob of sameness.
Limbo isn’t exactly a place for our mental health to thrive. In the absence of being able to look forward to things with certainty, the best we can do is create small pockets of future hope in the meantime. So in case it helps you too, here are just a few ways I’ve been cultivating the feeling of having something to look forward to despite being stuck at home for the foreseeable future. They’re not a replacement for the things we lost, but for now they’ll have to do.
1. Put upcoming TV, movie, and book releases on your calendar.
I know the pandemic threw a wrench in a lot of planned programming but at least with streaming, there’s always a steady stream (haha) of things in the pipeline. Keep an eye on your chosen streaming service’s social media and website (or google “coming soon to Netflix/Hulu/whatever” if you’re lazy like me) to find shows and movies you love so you can start counting the days. The same goes for books you can’t wait to read. If you don’t already have a list going, sites like Goodreads have plenty of user-generated lists of anticipated releases.
2. In fact, put any and all things on the calendar.
I’m finding that sometimes all you need to look forward to something is the reminder that it’s on the horizon. I’ve always been a calendar devotee and I’ve doubled down on the habit. Anything that stands to bring you a little joy right now—phone calls with loved ones, a new episode of a TV show, your weekly face mask (just got my new Wonder Woman mask delivered this weekend), whatever—put it on the calendar and see if it helps build some much-needed anticipation.
3. Save certain treats or activities for “special” occasions.
Things have gotten a little lawless in this household. Time is basically an illusion, and with the exception of things that get in the way of work, I’ve found that I’m pretty much doing what I want, when I want. In some ways, this is in service of self-care (we’re in the middle of a literal pandemic, I’m not going to beat myself up for eating cookies for breakfast), but in other ways, I’m robbing myself of the enjoyment I get from certain treats by making them commonplace. Kind of like how you can run a song you love into the ground by playing it over and over again.
In an effort to restore some balance to the universe and savor the pleasure I get from some of my favorite things, I’ve arbitrarily designated some activities and treats For Special Occasions Only.
4. Make your weekends feel like weekends.
If you’re someone who’s made the transition to working from home, your work-life balance probably feels significantly off-kilter. While I do think it’s important to cut yourself some slack and not try to replicate a typical workday from home (for example, I’ll never be the person to recommend you get dressed in business wear to work from your couch), finding some way to firm up the boundary between the workday and when you’re off the clock is just as crucial. Otherwise, all of your days will bleed together, and your weekends might not feel as restful or rejuvenating as they could. Which means obviously you won’t be looking forward to them. And I don’t know about you, but I really miss looking forward to my weekends.
What that looks like in practice will depend on your situation, but here are a few things that are working for me: I try to log off at around the same time every night. I have “work yoga pants” and “lounge PJs.” I don’t check my work email over the weekend. Basically, I do what’s still within my power to enforce a typical work-life balance and remind myself it’s extra important now. In the absence of those things, I try to make my weekends extra weekend-y—especially by making Fridays self-care-heavy to kick things off.
5. Send emails or letters.
You don’t have to find a pen pal or anything but the fun of waiting for an email or a letter from someone is powerful right now. Ask your friends or loved ones if anyone wants to switch things up from your usual texting and swap to writing each other long-form. I’m of the belief that we could always use more positive things in our inboxes anyway.
6. Order y
ourself something special (mindfully).
I won’t lie, there are a few things to consider when it comes to leaning into online shopping right now. There are decisions to be made around which businesses to support and how to be a conscientious shopper during a time when some people must rely on online shopping for essential goods, not to mention the essential workers involved in packaging and delivering your purchases. All that said, it feels disingenuous to pretend a lot of people aren’t using shopping as a way to give themselves something to look forward to. Ultimately, it’s a personal decision.
Personally, I’m trying not to constantly order a bunch of random things but have decided that the occasional special, intentional purchase is a helpful bright spot in my life. We’re all just doing what we can to get by, you know? I also have banned impulse purchases so I can pair “fun” things with necessary purchases when possible. I’m not saying this is the right way or even the only way to go about it, but I do encourage you to both think about how you shop and allow yourself small kindnesses and gifts during a rough time.
7. Pick up an engrossing video game, TV show, or book.
Sometimes it really is the little things. The truth is, that next tiny bite of joy truly gives me a sense of having something new to look forward to every day.
There are a ton of options out there. A book with excellent cliff-hangers. A binge-worthy TV show that always makes you want to click “Next Episode.” Anything that, when you put it down for the day, you can’t wait to pick it up tomorrow. Cultivating a sense of curiosity is fundamental to self-care. Now more than ever, we need to feel excited to find out: “What’s next?” And during a time when asking that of the world only leads to anxiety, asking it of entertainment is a quality replacement.
A few other things I’m considering adding to my life to help with this in random order:
Plants – I’ve also thought I would enjoy growing plants but have never really focused on them. I’m thinking that planting them and watching them grown might be a fun thing to add to this list.
Holiday gift giving – whether or not we will be able to gather at the holidays, gift giving will still take place. I can begin the process of thinking through special gifts for each person on my list and can look forward to finding them and then giving them (whether in person or by sending).
Meal planning – We’ve been using a meal service but I’ve recently paused it. I think I would like to try finding and preparing inspiring recipes and seeing how diverse I can make them. For some reason, that sounds like fun (probably because it involves food haha).
There are many small things we can do to help feel we have something to look forward to. A lot of it involves perception. I think I will also look forward to hearing the things you are each looking forward to. 😊