The Omnipresent Feeling of Nothingness
COVID’s isolation through a teen’s eyes
For as long as I can remember, I have been an introvert. I like the quiet, the ability to think in peace, not having to be around people. Intrinsically motivated to an extent that had always caught people’s attention, I thought the year 2020 and everything that came with it would be a learning experience.
In the last weeks leading up to the start of a full year of online learning, I fantasized about learning how to balance my new heavy workload of three AP classes, taking time to jog each afternoon, get adequate sleep so I could get up every morning and get back to work, maybe catch the scholarly attention of a couple of teachers along the way. Really it was no different from any other idealized year, just the upgraded sophomore version.
When it didn’t work out that way, I’d like to say that I was shocked by it, but in the ongoing aftermath I often think that it was something I could see coming for a while. Yet some strange combination of optimism and fear held me back from truly seeing it, and certainly from accepting it, at least until the reality of the situation finally became dire enough to prompt some sort of response.
The online work environment was strange to say the least. With the lack of real structure, there came a crushing sense of pressure to prove myself. The fear of failure had driven me for years, and the threat of not being in person to prove that I wasn’t a failure was horrifying. The late nights and focus on every perfect detail were nothing new, but the inability to feel gratified by it was.
It was the boredom that kicked in, the repetition, the inability to do anything that seemed to matter anymore. I could work from bed in an oversized nightgown and that was okay —normal even. It was remarkably lonely in my room, which arguably started to feel more like a jail cell, nothing but a phone screen and computer to keep me some sort of company. The pink walls started to feel more like the inside of a pressure cooker, breaking down what I thought I had into the fear of never doing enough and the knowledge that I could do as much work as possible and I still would feel nothing.
Some years ago I would have been interested in the idea of nothing mattering, whittling my spirit down to something composed of no feelings and, I don’t know, maybe an epic punk anthem to go with it. But, not at all surprisingly, if I’m being honest now, one is not meant to feel nothing, and feeling nothing meant that everything I did didn’t matter anymore and that really was the final nail in the coffin.
One day of missed classes turned into many days. A day of nothing but naps turned into days of the same thing. Every time I told myself, “Just this one more time, then you need to get up,” but the “one more time” came and went and I never got up. Before that, I couldn’t remember a day in my life when I wouldn’t have wanted to go somewhere just to go out and see the world; after, I could hardly remember a day when I had moved from bed at all.
The days blurred into one another. I did no work, my ideal year was no longer possible, and even when I thought of what could have been, the thought was quickly shut down by the omnipresent feeling of a vague, existential nothingness, it’s just not very satisfying to do something when you actively feel like some part of you is begging you to do nothing.
About two weeks before the school year came to a close, I checked my grades for the first time since early October. In the first quarter, my lowest grade had been a 94% and I had three grades that were over a 100%. By the end of the fourth quarter, I found myself with five F’s. A few years ago I read a book called The Year We Fell Apart, and some part of me always thought that must’ve been an exaggeration … how can you be held together and then just not be anymore? I think I understand now.
In recent days, I’ve recovered enough motivation to speak with friends, at least over text, and have found that we’re all still trying to pick up the pieces that this year left behind. In standard communications of ours, saying that we’re “okay” usually means that somewhere along the line the busy days turned into lonely ones, the lonely to empty, the empty to meaningless, and now there’s just a gaping hole that we’re trying to fill. We sit around wondering where the year went wrong, what happened to us, for lack of a better word, and the one thing we can all agree on is that the pandemic took away something we thought we hated long enough to realize it was something we needed.
Willow Shaffer is a junior at Santa Fe High School.
Editor’s note: Thank you to Nina Bunker Ruiz, Santa Fe High School teacher and former Tumbleweeds editor, for providing essays. We welcome articles and personal essays by students. Please contact Claudette Sutton, email@example.com, with your ideas.