There have been periods in my life where it felt like the story ended mid-sentence. I spent days, or weeks, or months waiting for the wheel of fortune to spin, aching for a second chance. Moving on has never been my forte. I am a writer, a poet, the most dramatic woman on this goddamn planet – I have made self-indulgent wallowing an art form. It’s different now. I’m not pining over a person; I’m mourning the loss of all my fantasies at once.
Every year I’ve spent at university has been a struggle in its own unique way. Fourth year felt harder. There were moments of softness, quiet moments where my heart was happy. But overall, I’ve spent most of this year feeling like I was treading water, and if I stopped for a second, I would drown. I wanted time to slow down. The moment this year began, I knew it would end too soon. In the blink of an eye, it would be time to say my goodbyes, move away from my friends, from the life I have created. The countdown ticked in my mind, and it paralysed me. It taught me to pick my battles, play it safe, not risk rocking the boat for fear of losing the precious time I had left with people I loved.
It’s easy to look back now and say I wish I hadn’t skipped so many classes, wish I’d been braver in November and saved myself a lot of trouble in January, wish I’d applied for different jobs, or started writing my dissertation earlier. There are a handful of things in my life I would do differently if they would give me different results. But overall, I don’t regret the past.
I was tentative to write a blog about the massive societal standstill we’ve come to as a result of coronavirus. So many people are sick, or dead, or losing their jobs, it seems ridiculous for me to cry over cancelled graduation ceremonies or the fact I can’t see my friends. But I can only write from my own perspective. There are so many people who are worse off than I am, but I still want to pay tribute to everything I’m losing.
I found out this morning that my graduation ceremony has been cancelled. If graduation is a symbol of the work we’ve put in over the past four years, and all the things we’ve achieved, then this felt like a symbol of the future I had counted on crumbling beneath my fingertips. I am a goal-oriented person. A lot of my goals are unrealistic, and should most likely be categorised as fantasies, but they are my saving grace. I thrive on false hope, but it’s false hope that gets me through the day. Fantasy softens the blow of reality. There’s nothing I can fantasise about now, because no one knows how long this lockdown will last, or what the world will look like when it’s over.
I had this vision of how the future would be. I would get into the one Master’s course I applied for. I would work all summer, and then move to London. I would study and work and write, and eventually be successful. I would love someone and they would love me, and one day we would get married. I would travel, and have a good circle of friends, and every night I would come home to a person I would never get bored of. I would adapt my novels into TV series, I would write more novels. I would live a meaningful life, filled with art and love and literature. It was a fantasy, and a rose-tinted one at that, but there was a tiny spark of possibility that I would succeed in making it my reality, and I clung to that fantasy.
Now I look at the future and see a dystopia. I imagine the world being on lockdown for one year, or two. I imagine our infrastructure changing so much that the field I’ve studied for four years will be irrelevant, or our country ending up in such a state of poverty that a career in the arts just wouldn’t be an option. I imagine going so long without human contact that I won’t remember what it’s like to feel the warmth of my friends sitting beside me on my creaky blue sofa, or the awkward uncertainty of shaking someone’s hand and not knowing how long to hold on for.
I have read (and written) a lot of dystopian novels in my time. They shaped my world view, made me sceptical of the government, and gave me a fascination with how we exist in the wake of destruction. Dystopian novels taught me that the one thing we have left is each other. I think of the moment in Divergent when Four says “I’ll be your family now” after everyone Tris loves dies or betrays her, the way Katniss and Peeta hold each other through their nightmares in The Hunger Games. Life is cruel, but love remains. I never thought the real-life dystopia would be one where I can’t even hug people.
I didn’t have close friendships until I came to university. I’m 22 and I’ve never been in a relationship, I’ve never been on two dates with the same person, never loved someone romantically who loved me back. I’m 22 and my life has barely started. Okay, I’ve written seven novels, learnt to play somewhere between one and three instruments, travelled alone to seven countries, survived four years at university… My life isn’t meaningless, but it’s hardly begun. I feel like I’ve always been three steps behind everyone else, and now there’s no chance to catch up.
I like to think I’m an optimist, but my optimism is conditional. I am an analytical person, I look for meaning, I look for answers. No one has the answers now. I can’t look at the bigger picture, because we’re all in the dark. All I can work with is what I know. And right now, what I know is that life does not go on as normal.
Both my best friends are moving back to their home countries within the next couple of days. My support network is disappearing. It’s not like I would have seen them anyway, in this time of social distancing, but it feels weird knowing they won’t be here. I spend a lot of time trying to cultivate the image that I am in control of myself, my life, my appearance. In my experience, people either see the illusion, or they see through it. They don’t see the duality, the layers of the illusion over the inner self. There are a few people in the world who see me for most of what I am. Perhaps it’s selfish to say I need to be known, need to be seen, need to be meaningful to somebody. But right now, I do. The whole world is in pain. Every country is in panic. We’re small and insignificant, I am a speck of dust in a room full of cobwebs, a grain of sand in the world’s largest desert, and I still want to scream “see me, know me, love me!”. If there’s one thing I know about dystopian worlds, it’s that they don’t stop us being human.
We are living through a pandemic unlike anything we have seen in our lifetime. There is so much to be scared about, so much to be angry about. If I’d written this blog two days earlier, it would be a 5000-word rant about why we need a rent freeze, but right now I’m too emotionally drained for political rants.
Even if we’re used to crises, we’re not used to them on such a global scale. We’re all in this together, and that means no experience is entirely unique. There are no hot takes on coronavirus. I can’t write something insightful or original, I can’t write something to make people think – and perhaps I don’t want to. I write to acknowledge that I feel something – something other than numbness or anger or despair. I’m grieving for my hopes and dreams, but one thing I’ve learnt about sadness is that it means it’s not the end. Sadness is not the final frontier, it is a sign to excavate your brain and your heart and your mind, to find what lies beneath, what is worth fighting for.
I don’t know how to fight right now. I feel powerless. I am trapped in a world I can’t control, a world where sickness isn’t the only scary thing. I don’t know how to live without hope, live in a world where the future feels so far away. All I can hope for right now is that if I reach out, someone will reach back, if I fall, someone will catch me. These days, it feels like even my false hope has failed me. There’s no fantasy strong enough to see me through, and reality feels like a collective fever dream.
I don’t have the answers. We’re in a global crisis, and all I can think is that I didn’t know what I had until it was gone. But I did know, and I knew it would be gone soon anyway. I appreciated it; I promise I did. I appreciated my classmates, and my improv group, and my lecturers. I appreciated the cafes that are now closed, the pubs where so many friendships were formed (not to mention the pub toilets where I cried so many times). I appreciated it all and it wasn’t enough. I loved hard, and it wasn’t enough. All I have left now is social distance and a dissertation deadline. But it’s not over. Everyone I love is alive. I have so much to be grateful for.
My future hasn’t been stolen from me (as much as it feels like it has), it has simply been put on pause. There is a blindfold over my eyes, and my hopes and dreams have been stored away in a cryogenic chamber, but it’s not over for me, not yet. I can feel myself slipping back into a depression I thought I had under control (I’m not going to write a blog about the implications of social distancing for mental illness, because it’s already been done, but I have a lot of thoughts on the topic. As I said, there are no hot takes on coronavirus. My hot take is that there’s nothing left to say), and I don’t quite know how to stay afloat when there is such a physical distance between me and the people/things/life I hold dear.
For now, all I have is fantasy. I will watch movies, and read books, and listen to Taylor Swift and cry. Aside from my dissertation and final essays, I won’t force myself to be productive. I will write when I want to, but I’m not obligated to use this time to write the sequel to my novel, or turn myself into a literary genius. I don’t care what Shakespeare did in quarantine, I’m going to hug my cat and cry.
Perhaps this obsession with productivity is a way to convince ourselves that these months of our lives won’t be lost. But to me, they are lost. These were the months for my goodbyes, the months to make amends, the months to hug my friends and tell them I’ll miss them so much when we graduate. Now the goodbyes are rushed – if I get to say goodbye at all. There is no graduation, no final time to see everyone. My time at university ended mid-sentence, and all I can do is pray there’ll be an epilogue.
If you, too, need fantasy to get you through these next few months, try escaping from the real dystopian nightmare into a fictional one. You can buy my novel The Purest Form of Chaos from my website, Amazon (ebook or paperback), or Waterstones.