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A drawing of a person wrapped in a blanket and siting on a couch. Amanda Northrop/Vox

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The Lost Year: A quiet year, alone in one’s head

“Your to-do list, some days, it has just the one thing on it: Stay alive. And if you can do that, it’s a successful day.”

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

This is The Lost Year, a series of stories about our lived experiences in 2020, as told to Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff.

I spent most of 2020 in quarantine. I didn’t spend that quarantine alone. I spent it with my wife, Libby Hill. Libby and I have been married for 17 years, together for more than 20. (We got together the first day of college. Awwww.) At this point, I feel like I know her and she knows me as well as any two people can know each other.

But is that true? Our experiences of quarantine have been wildly different. I have mostly spent quarantine doing things, taking on new creative projects and challenges, because on some level, I’m trying to outrun my own sense of the world having frozen in place. Libby, meanwhile, has struggled with major depression for as long as I’ve known her, and quarantine has become a slow, grueling march through an experience that has all but forced her to have a depressive episode by making her stay inside and rarely leave her spot on the couch.

The cruel irony is that Libby, who works as the TV Awards Editor at Indiewire, had an experience this year that gave her the kind of clarity and psychological freedom she’d been hoping to have her entire adult life — and it happened way back in February. Just a few weeks later, the pandemic forced us into lockdown, and much of that clarity would sap away. But her view of this pandemic is one I’ve seen so many adopt: So long as you survive each day and make it to another, you’ve been wildly successful. Libby articulates that beautifully.

So here is the story of my wife’s 2020, as told to me.

I’ve struggled with major depression for the better part of my life. In the first couple months of 2020, I was functional, but I was very depressed. It was back when things were still normal. I was going to award shows and sitting in press rooms. I was productive, but I was dead inside. I wanted everything to stop. Not necessarily to die, but for everything to pause, like a coma, like I could remove myself from the hustle and bustle of every day and go somewhere quiet.

I told my therapist that in my head, that place was a white room. It was quiet, and nothing was expected of me. I could just rest. It was so alluring to me. It’s what I needed, but it was so hard to explain that to people. What people would hear was, “I don’t want to be here anymore. I don’t want to live. I don’t want to be a part of this world anymore.” After a few months of talking about that, my therapist said, “You’ve been in this place a while. We’ve adjusted your meds. We’ve talked about this. I’m worried you’re suffering.” She suggested I consider in-patient treatment.

When I was growing up in South Dakota, there was this one state facility, a mental hospital, and we didn’t talk about it, really. We would just call it by the town name: Yankton. “Oh, she got sent to Yankton. They’re going to send you to Yankton.” That was shorthand for “crazy.” So when my therapist suggested that to me, I was like, “They’re sending me to Yankton. That’s where I’m at now.”

But I’m lucky. I have good insurance. I have a flexible job. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, “I’ve tried everything else. Maybe it’s time to try this.” So at the end of February, I checked myself into a psychiatric facility. I was there for about a week.

It was such a distinct point in time. There was a single TV in the general area, and it would always generally be on the news or showing action movies. The news would talk about the election. Super Tuesday was coming up. There were also a few headlines about the coronavirus, but it didn’t sink in with me. It was on the fringes. When you’re in a psychiatric institution, you don’t have to care about all of that. I didn’t have my phone or my laptop.

Looking back now, it was definitely foreshadowing. I got out of there after a week. My wife [Emily] picked me up. We went home. I went back to work. I was so happy to be there with my coworkers. I want to say the stay in the hospital changed my life. Because it did! I came out of there feeling better than I ever had. I had a new perspective on my place in life. I felt free of so much that had been weighing me down for decades. I had an equilibrium I had been seeking for such a long time.

And then two weeks later, March 12 was my last day in the office. We packed up our things and went home. It’s the middle of December, and I haven’t been back.

I’m lost. A little bit. A lot. Mental illness isn’t something you have control over. You’re always in an unchoreographed dance with your body. You’re moving with the music. You think you get the rhythm and understand where it’s going, and then the music changes. You’re out of step, and you don’t know what’s next or what the right moves are.

That’s what happened. It felt like I had come to a gentlewoman’s agreement with my depression. We would find a way to work together and share the space that is my mind. And then the entire globe was put into a functional situational depression. No one left their house or saw anyone. Everyone was isolating. People weren’t changing out of their pajamas or showering. It was like I had been shoved physically back into depression by a universe that would not allow me to escape it. Obviously, the pandemic was not sent because I got treatment, but in the base sense of my brain, that’s what it felt like.

I’m an introvert and a depressive. I don’t love leaving my house or attending large gatherings of people. I’m at home on my couch in my pajamas, staring at my computer for 18 hours a day. That had been my resting state of choice before this pandemic. But I knew how to do this. I knew what the moves were. I never wanted to go to the grocery store before, so I certainly didn’t want to go during a pandemic. So it was kind of routine.

It was probably around the second time I got my period during the pandemic that I was like, “Fuck.” It was a very clear passage of time in a year where all time ran together. I realized one day that lounging on the couch had changed. It wasn’t what I chose to do. It’s what I felt capable of doing. All of a sudden, instead of being in lockdown, I was depressed in lockdown. That’s a very different, very dangerous animal. And it’s made all the worse because of how good and clear things were just weeks before we entered this state.

At the beginning of the year, all I wanted was silence. Now in lockdown, I need distraction 100 percent of the time. It’s in the silence that I find fear and anxiety and uncertainty. I need a beloved TV show streaming in the background at all times. I need to be playing a video game and reading Reddit. During my free time, I need 17 different things pulling my attention or else I’m going to drown.

Sometimes living with my wife was very difficult during this pandemic. Marriage is all about negotiations, to the extent that on our anniversary, we call it “contract renegotiations.” We’re deciding if we want to move forward for another year or take early retirement to pursue something new. Being locked down together takes that to a new level. Everything that annoys you about someone, everything that annoys you about yourself, every tiny conflict — they’re all blown up because you can’t get away from each other.

It was a couple months in before I realized we were having fights and disagreements and resentments that just wouldn’t exist if I was going to my office for eight hours a day and if she was able to go to her office or meet friends for coffee. But that didn’t mean the conflicts we were having weren’t real. They were real, and they revealed real fissures in our relationship that we needed to look at, even if they weren’t going to bust up the foundation.

My wife’s an extrovert. She had a much harder time in the beginning of the pandemic. I miss my friends, but she misses her friends a lot. She’s a social butterfly. She needs constant care and attention to an extent that I cannot provide. She needs 15 projects going on. Whether I’m in lockdown or not, I’m not that way. That was intensified by being trapped in the same apartment with each other. Our differences became so stark in lockdown that you’d wonder, “Is this tenable? Is this still the right decision?”

But then you realize you’re only questioning that because you’re trapped in an apartment with this person. It’s always a little miserable spending that much time with someone, no matter how much you love them. We were always together. We were never alone. But we didn’t spend much quality time together. So it felt like we were not really together but still like we were never alone.

One of the symptoms of depression that you’ll see in people is not caring about things and withdrawing. Laying all of my cards on the table, I’m noticing a lot of my routine is built up to not care. I can’t open the can of worms where my emotions are because they’re so big and so scary. They’re so sad, and they’re so mad. It’s a tightrope of not feeling but staying busy but not being vulnerable, which complicates things with my partner because connecting with my partner requires vulnerability and emotion.

Depression is like running waist-deep in water while everyone else is running on the shore. You’re expending more effort, and you get a quarter as far before you get tired in a way sleep doesn’t really help. I’m so lucky. I have great mental health care and medications and therapists. And I’m still miserable in lockdown. Everyone, no matter where they’re trapped in the world, is also trapped in their own head, and some people’s heads are a little more haunted than others.

But I’m not dead. I figured out how to stay alive for nearly four decades. On some level, I have to credit my depression with that. If anyone was prepared for what it would be like to live in lockdown, it was me. I have more pairs of pajama pants than I have normal pants. I was made for this. But if I hadn’t gone into inpatient treatment immediately before lockdown, I don’t know how I would have survived it. I was in such a bad place. It scares me to think about it.

Every day, for me, is a series of challenges. Whether or not I can get out of bed. Whether or not I can shower. Whether or not I can change into real clothes. Whether or not I can eat. Some days, I can. Some days, I can’t. But every day so far, I climb back in bed at the end of the day with one huge accomplishment under my belt: I stayed alive. That’s the one that counts. It’s the one thing you have to accomplish every day. Your to-do list has a varying amount of things on it every day. But some days it has just the one thing: Stay alive. And if you can do that, it’s a successful day.

I don’t want to go back to the place I was in right after I got out of the hospital. I’ll be more than a year older. I want to be better than that place. I’ve lost a lot of time to depression. I can’t afford to lose more. I have to grow from this. I want to learn something from this year. I have to fix things in my life that have been exposed as broken.

This is not a silver lining situation. More than 300,000 people in our country are dead. This is not making the best of it. If we don’t learn something from this and change the way things work to make the world better, then their deaths were completely in vain. That’s not a world I can live in.

I’m not going to lie and say I’m going to go out with new eyes and appreciate everything, because there’s a lot of annoying shit out there. But this is also an opportunity. It doesn’t have to be like it was before. I hope it isn’t. I hope we are kinder to employees. I hope we’re more flexible for parents or people suffering physical or mental health issues. I hope we learn lessons from this year. I don’t want it to be a lost year. [pause] You’re going to use that as the end, aren’t you?

Read the complete Lost Year series here.


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