The ding of a text message notifies me of a third text this morning asking the same question, “How are you?” It’s my friend from university, doing his morning check-in.
What can I reply?
Days have turned into months and weeks into years. Life has changed from running around campus, collecting research data, assisting professors as a teacher's assistant, preparing new research, and working in the Behavioral & Social Science department at Western Colorado University. Aspiring, creating, moving. But now my brain is stuck in a swamp.
“I am fine.”
“Are you okay?” a professor asks me when an angry roommate slams her bedroom door so loudly it can be heard through the audio of Zoom. My dog, Sequoia, cowers in his crate from my roommate’s anger. These days, my door is shut more than half of the time, my walls become a cage and my window a two-way mirror.
Sequoia and I only leave to go on walks or to buy groceries. At night, I lay under my covers, drenched in tears and sweat from nightmares, struggling to not fall to the weight of a panic attack. Now on day twenty of barely any sleep, I curse the mid-day light creeping through my curtains. Wishing I was motivated to do anything else but lie in bed.
“I am...” not okay.
“Are you getting your work done?” an email from two professors ask.
One hasn’t held class in five weeks, since our school moved to online learning. The expectations from him are a heavy weight when the research is impossible because it’s biological data. My research group and I spent hours learning how to work a biofeedback system and how to read EEG waves. We were about to start data collection when campus closed. We need human subjects, and if there’s one thing we don’t have access to right now, it’s other humans.
The other had hired me to work on data analysis before quarantine. I was excited as it was to be my first professional experience in psychology analysis. It’s hard to learn how to do research when I’ve never had hands-on learning. The Excel file begins to read as coded words and a new language I’ve only just learned. Slowly the sheet becomes the day.
“How are you?” asks my new counselor over Zoom. She seems nice as she throws a lifeline, yet I am not sure as I’ve never met her in person. The next week she asks the same question. “How are you?”
This time I explain that my angry roommate has moved out. I am able to cook, sit in the living room and on the porch, Sequoia can run the halls with his toys. I pull myself with optimism out of the swamps, forgetting what's coming.
“I am better than last week.”
“Are you being active?” the morning NPR broadcaster asks before droning on about politics. I want to tell the broadcaster that I need to go for a hike, but there are too many people on our trails and too few of them wear masks. Since the dog park is closed, I take Sequoia to play on campus.
There, I see my boss, and we wave from a distance as she reminds me that I must move out of my office in the psychology department before the end of next week. The semester is done, which means that I am as well.
After I move out, I pull my name tag off my mailbox. The tears well up in my eyes, and I take a sharp breath to force them back in.
After I finish loading my car, I lay in the grass. Sequoia rests his head on my stomach. My expectations for these last few weeks play across my eyes. Waking early to work with my boss, catching up on life as we plug words into documents, organizing mail for professors as they walk through and crack a joke, going to the biological lab to run participants for my research projects, late nights analyzing data, writing a presentation, going to conferences, and presenting theories. That is what should have been.
The grass begins to cause hives on my legs.
At least I feel something.
“Congratulations! Are you doing well?” my family askes over a Zoom graduation party. Today, I finished five years of university. My family was supposed to travel from Pennsylvania and Vermont to celebrate with me in Colorado. Instead, I sit in my room wearing the closest I can to a smile. I feel overwhelmed by the faces of family.
In one tile is an aunt and uncle I haven’t seen in person since leaving for college in 2015. In another tile, I see an uncle I saw two months ago. Since then, he’s gotten so sick from COVID-19 that his family keeps moving city to city in hopes a doctor will treat him. In another tile are my mother, uncle, and aunt who I haven’t seen since Thanksgiving. Three little cousins who bring joy and laughter dance across three separate tiles. In another tile is a grandfather who knows the best dad jokes and my stepfather reminding me of the river I grew up on and will soon return to. And there is my grandmother who perseveres.
With everyone talking, I only want to listen; their voices are a song I haven’t heard in too long. I wish Zoom could teleport me into their homes. I want to hug them. All I can do to keep from being completely alone is to watch them. Surprisingly for the first time ever Zoom doesn’t cut and the internet doesn’t go out.
How am I doing?
All that escapes from my parched mouth is “I am fine. How are you?”