How do you know when it’s time to stop mourning your pre-pandemic life?
If you’ve unearthed the answer to this conundrum, by all means let me know. I have yet to figure it out. But lately I think the answer is this: you don’t. It’s not a case of stopping mourning, so much as allowing the grieving process to mutate, watching your new life integrate parts of your old one.
I never got over the Before Times. It was when I really lived – at least, that’s what I tell myself now. I don’t know how much truth there is to it. Memory makes mockeries of us all, and I’m sure I see my undergraduate years through rose-coloured glasses. I am a thorough record keeper, but we all have revisionist takes on our own history.
The past few weeks have allowed me to unravel some of my grief, to take the threads I’ve been tugging on for two years and begin to weave a new web for myself.
A few weeks ago, an old friend came back into town. I hadn’t seen him since March 2020. I owe this friend almost all of the joy I found in my undergrad years, because it was through him that I joined the improv group where I met most of my friends, the improv group that saved me during my lowest points. It was my whole world, for almost four years.
As I sat in a group of my old friends, eating pizza and talking about our boring grown up lives, I stopped feeling like I’m 2 steps ahead of and 10 steps behind everyone around me. For the first time in forever, I was around people who were at the same stage of life as me.
That’s one of the worst things about leaving university. You spend years with people who are at your level, coming of age at the same time as you. Then a year or so down the line, you’re all in different places, both literally and figuratively. You go from your whole world being concentrated in one place, to feeling incredibly isolated. Add in the fact that I graduated in the middle of a pandemic—twice!!—and you can see why the grieving process is with me for the long haul.
I had a community, a social life, I was creative and vibrant and filled with hopes and dreams, and it all fell away.
I forget sometimes that I have the things past Eliza could only dream of. I have a boyfriend, who I live with. I know what career I want. I’m learning two foreign languages, I’m writing a new novel for the first time in almost a decade, I’m losing weight without being on a diet. In past Eliza’s book, I am winning at life.
But growing older is a grieving process too. There are parts of myself that I lost to the pandemic, and it really sucks that it was those particular parts. I lost Eliza the Traveller, Eliza the Performer, Main Character Energy Eliza. I lost my warmth and my sparkle and my joie de vivre. I’m less fiery than I used to be, and I miss being able to burn.
The parts of me that remain were forged in cold flames. The fire didn’t burn me so much as whittle me down. When I think of my personality now, I don’t see the drama, or as much of the yearning and impulsivity. I’ve finally learnt to be patient, and I’m reaping the rewards of that. I’ve always had a strategic mind, but never had the patience to follow through on my plans. It’s different now. There is something powerful about seeing a year pass by, going through all kinds of bullshit and diversions, and still wanting the same thing you wanted a year ago. I see my ambition more clearly now. It’s not naïve, it’s not rushed. I don’t care about doing XYZ by a certain age, I just care about doing it, full stop.
So I make plans, I learn, I bide my time. And there’s fulfilment in that too. I will turn 25 in January and I know it’s not old, but sometimes it feels it. There’s so much I thought I would do by that age, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. But there’s so much about me that I never saw coming, and it’s okay if your plans don’t match up to the life you live. Plans are a guideline; they keep you on track but they’re not meant to shackle you.
The more I learn about who I am, the more I reflect on the person I used to be, the Eliza who laid the foundations for me to build upon. I didn’t always like her. There were times when I couldn’t look at photos of my 19-year-old self because I was so disgusted with my appearance, or with memories of all the mistakes I made at that age. It’s different now, I see all the evolutions I went through before my brain was fully developed, and I have so much gratitude and compassion for that girl. Because thanks to her mistakes, I know what not to do. And beneath all the fuck-ups, there are consistent threads, weaving the roadmap I still follow.
I’ve learned a lot from failure. I used to say I had no regrets, because every poor choice led me to where I am now. I’ve changed my mind about that. I do have regrets. I can rationalise them; I can write them off as “everything happens for a reason” because I don’t know how different my life would be if I’d made better choices. One of these regrets was erasing my identity as a writer.
I had my reasons. I removed my novel from the world because it needed more time to grow into the book I still know it’s meant to be, and I stand by my decision. I removed my blogs because one of them had caused a lot of harm to my mental wellbeing over the years, and I felt panicky every time I saw it had new views. But I didn’t need to delete all of them. I erased a huge chunk of my identity by doing so, and I don’t know if it helped.
I can’t restore all my blogs, because I accidentally deleted some permanently, and there are others I don’t feel the need to re-share. But I’ve restored the bulk of my old blogs now, my personal archive. Read them with a pinch of salt, they were written by a teenager and a young adult, my brain was less developed than it is now. But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the light of day. So much of the life and identity I’ve spent the past two years grieving is captured within those blogs. I’ve changed so much I hardly recognise the person I was then. Perhaps that’s why I feel comfortable restoring them now. I look back on my pre-pandemic life, and it’s like a novel I once read. It doesn’t feel real, it’s more story than memory to me now. Time and distance have taken the emotion out of it.
I like the person I’m becoming. She’s clear and focused, she knows her strengths and works on her weaknesses. I am very clearly an adult now, and so much of the fascination I have with past Eliza is that she was only on the brink of adulthood. I don’t think coming of age happens when you’re 16, like every YA novel wants you to believe. There’s a particular kind of magic that happens between 18-22, in the space between worlds. It’s a dance of freedom and inhibition, an excavation of identity. I didn’t love being that age at the time, I only see the value now I’m older and calmer. But I want to celebrate the growth that took place in those years. That’s why I’m restoring my old blogs, as a museum to the woman I was, a love letter to the foundations she built for me. Maybe I will stop mourning her now.