Lost and Found

The story of how feeling lost in a global pandemic helped me to find my place in the world

For most Michiganders, the world changed at 11 p.m. when Governor Whitmer made the statement that in order to prevent further spread of the Coronavirus, Michigan schools would close for the next three weeks. 

But for me, my world didn’t change until the next morning. I typically put my phone away at 9 p.m., and check it first thing in the morning. That means that the first thing I saw that early Friday morning, the 13th, was a tweet from the Governor including the statement.

It was my birthday.

What a birthday gift. 

No school for three weeks. I was already relishing the idea of not having to wake up early for the bus and being home all day. 

The reality of what this situation, or what it could turn into, was nowhere on my radar. 

It was my birthday, and even though school was shutting down, I planned to go through my day like normal. I donned my birthday outfit–my favorite gray sweater, jeans, leather jacket, and high heeled booties. I curled my hair and did my makeup just like I would have on any other day. 

Because to me, it was any other day. 

At least, it was, until I got to school. I walked in the doors, feeling excited and confident, and I ran into one of my teachers who I was really close to.

She wished me a happy birthday and hugged me, then immediately pulled back.

“Maybe we shouldn’t be hugging. We could get in trouble,” she said, and my brain skipped a beat. 

My immediate thought was, ‘‘Why couldn’t we hug?” What was so wrong with that? Why could we get in trouble?

But a few more seconds of processing and I realized it was close contact like that that spread the virus, and it might be frowned upon. Even so, no hugs?

I didn’t think that was something that would actually be banned. That 6 feet apart would become a rule. 

The countries already employing this rule were far away, just like the virus. At least, in my mind. 

It got a little closer as she explained to me the measures she was taking to be prepared for teaching from home, which she thought would last longer than three weeks. 

Though her precautions made sense, at the time, I felt like she was jumping the gun. 

The rest of the day, all anyone could talk about was the virus. Teachers skipped lessons, instead updating students on Dr. Matthew’s emails and spitballing ideas for teaching the next three weeks. Students divided their attention between teachers and their Twitter feeds, constantly checking to see if the governor had made any other statements, myself included. 

I knew that it was inevitable that the virus would make it to the U.S., but the possibility felt so far away. And then, within what felt like a matter of days, there was a case in Michigan, in our county, and then in Novi. I couldn’t help but think about all the people I served as a waitress, and how even among them the virus could spread quickly, let alone a whole country. 

The first I had heard of the virus was from my grandma, near the end of February. We had planned a trip to Germany for May, and my uncle, who we were to be staying with, had called to let us know that the virus had spread to adjacent towns. At that point, the trip was up in the air, but a few weeks later he called and canceled.  

I knew I was supposed to feel disappointed, but all I felt was relief. 

At the time, it wasn’t close enough to the trip for me to get excited; I was just anxious about being in a new place. I felt slightly dissociated from the trip, and that allowed me to feel the same way about the virus. 

But then it was on my doorstep, closing my school, taking away my structured and predictable routine, and I couldn’t ignore it anymore.

All day, it hovered over me, permeating my thoughts, my conversations. But the storm never truly touched down until I got home from school. 

My grandma was perched on the couch, watching the news. On the TV was a countless parade of images and videos from around the world: people in masks and hazmat suits, hospitals overflowing with patients, people in line at grocery stores and empty shelves, and other, more harrowing scenes of body bags and gurneys. 

I knew I should look away, the panic already rising, but I couldn’t. 

My feet were glued to the floor. And so there I stood, leaning over the back of the couch, my eyes searching the headlines scrolling across the bottom of the screen. 

The numbers were so big.

The ring of the house phone broke my twisted reverie, and the crushing reality of what I had seen closed in. I ran to the bathroom, and was just able to turn the handle of the sink before I began dry heaving, sucking in huge gulps of air that seemed to do nothing at all. 

I coughed and cried simultaneously, a contradictory need for more of something warring with the desire to empty myself out. It felt like if I coughed hard enough, I could heave up my stomach and heart, the things that weighed me down so heavily. 

But the coughing only brought tears, hot and heavy as they fell, and hard, racking sobs. I hadn’t had an episode like that in months, and it terrified me. There are few things worse than feeling as if you can’t breathe, than the anxiety sitting on your chest and pushing you down, down, down.

I sat there on the bathroom floor for almost an hour, until I could finally bring myself to stand up and rinse my face, avoiding my eyes in the mirror. 

That wasn’t the first time I broke down during the last year, but it was the worst. I can still feel the fear that coiled in my stomach, how fast my heart raced. I never want to feel that way again, but if there’s anything this year has taught me, it’s that nothing is guaranteed. 

The following Sunday, we celebrated my birthday at my other grandma’s house. The stay at home order went into effect Monday, and she wanted to celebrate before we couldn’t see each other anymore. It was a regular family birthday celebration, with cake and presents.

This year was much the same, in the way of celebrating. Cake and presents, lots of pictures and smiles. 

But it almost wasn’t. 

My uncle had a fever a few days before our established date, and although the doctor said it was because of gout and not the virus, and even though we were given the go ahead to get together, I still had that familiar feeling of the world being so much bigger than how I was feeling. 

Last year, I was faced with something so much bigger than my birthday that I had to sew into my fabric of reality, no matter how much I wanted to just focus on celebrating and being happy. 

I wanted, so badly, to care about my birthday. To complain that I wasn’t going to get a party. To throw a tantrum because the world got in my way. Because it was easier to devote all my attention to something as trivial as my birthday. 

If I focused on that, then I wouldn’t be able to worry about the virus, and the fact that it was in my town, that I could be or already was exposed to it, that my grandma was more at risk, that it could be more than just a bad flu, that there was no school, that we were basically quarantined for the next three weeks, and that that time would likely just be extended – all those thoughts and more wouldn’t be allowed to exist if I kept my mind busy with my birthday. 

But as much as I wanted to prevent that anxiety spiral, I couldn’t bring myself to. The guilt weighed too heavily on me, like an old, quilted blanket pushing down on my shoulders. As much as I wanted to ignore the world ending, I couldn’t, because who was I to put myself above everyone else like that? What made me deserve a respite from the pain and anxiety that was plaguing everyone else?


And so I felt it all, at least for a little while.

But then I realized that it was OK to find joy in such a dark time, that it didn’t make me selfish or evil. Yes, others were suffering, and I could feel for them, but I couldn’t let it consume me. 

So I journaled, and I read, and I listened to a lot of music. All mediums to help me process what the world was feeling and what I was feeling in the world, 

I listened to “If the World Was Ending” by JP Saxe and Julia Michaels over and over. It was a song of heartbreak and loss and reconciliation that I had loved before, but like it did for so many others, it took on a new meaning this past year. 

In all technicality, the world hadn’t ended. It was still spinning, and still is.

But my world as I knew it had ended, the school and friends and schedules, the hugs. And that was my world, wasn’t it? That was our world. 

I still believe that that feeling was real a year ago. The feeling of the world ending. 

But changing and ending are two very different things. 

I really dislike the term “new normal”, but it’s what we’ve found. We adapted to the change, and found ways that we could still be human with each other. Now, the light at the end of the tunnel seems a little bit brighter, a little bit closer.

The world changes, but it still lives. We still create.

I held my newborn cousin for the first time with a mask on.

I didn’t see my grandparents for months.

My grandma just got her first round of the vaccine.

I started a novel. 

I lost friends.

I found myself.