COVID-19 has brought the world tumbling to her knees. It’s been a devastating moment in history for all of humankind. The wildest part of this is that everyone is affected by the Coronavirus in some small way. Yes, some people have been absolutely more impacted by this virus than others, but we’re all experiencing a sense of loss. No matter what happens to us individually, one thing is certain: Life as we know it has shifted in a way that can’t be reversed.
And while I do believe, in the deepest pit of my gut, that we’re going to come out of this more beautifully and rawly human than we’ve ever been before — this “shedding of the skin” period that we’re in right now? It’s uncomfortable. It hurts. It’s scary. And while honoring these difficult emotions can feel unbearable at times, feelings are meant to be felt. You know that famous saying, “The only way out is through?” That quote used to confuse me. That’s great, but how do you get THROUGH? I used to wonder. But after years of trial and error, I now know how to crawl through the thickest of mud: You do it by feeling your feelings.
But you know what we like to do in this obscenely filtered culture of ours? We like to tie every experience up, no matter how dark and dire and wholly unfamiliar, in a glittery pink bow! I mean god forbid something looks raw and ugly and, dare I say, real for a moment, right? Our poor eyes won’t be able to handle all that gore! So we must dress reality up in a cheerleading costume and clown makeup and force it to “rah rah rah!” the day away with pom-poms! Right now, in particular, we’ve practically put a gun to reality’s head and demanded it to backflip across our phone screens as it chants:
“Use this time as a way to optimize your fitness routine! STREAM MY WORKOUTS 90 DAYS FOR FREE!”
“This is the time for you to start that PODCAST you’ve been dreaming about, girl!”
“I’m really taking care of my SKIN during this quarantine. Swipe up to see which Korean Beauty sheet mask I’m using today!”
“I’ve been deep cleaning my closet and color coordinating my underwear! Look at how pretty and neat and PERFECT the inside of my drawers look!”
All of this noise — the endless stream of suggestions on how you should really be your best, most sparkly, most vibrant self during this quarantine, the constant images of impossibly pretty couples isolating with smooth hair and smooth skin and perky asses as they work out together, the goddamn sheet masks! At first, it all made me feel ashamed for being sad rather than super-humanely motivated like everyone else appeared to be.
“Everyone is out there working out and being productive during this quarantine. What’s wrong with you?” my shame hissed at me, taking the form of a skinny, emerald green colored snake.
“I’m just so depressed. I don’t want to get out of bed, let alone do pushups,” I sniffled, pulling the covers up over my weepy-red eyes.
My shame pulled the sheets all the way down with his sharp snake fangs, exposing the entirety of my sweat-pants clad body. “Depressed?” he purred. “What do you have to be depressed about? You’re not dying. Privileged bitch.” He slivered up next to me like a smarmy dude two decades too old to be at the twenty-one-year-old party.
“I’m empathetic,” I closed my eyes as I pulled the covers back up over my body.
“You’re pathetic,” he said, pulling the covers back down again. “Feeling sad is a cop-out. Force yourself to smile and downward dog like everyone ELSE!”
I gave in. “You’re right,” I whispered into the ether. “You’re right.”
And for a moment, I believed the shame snake. I decided to swallow my sadness like a giant horse-pill sized multi-vitamin. I mean, my sadness wasn’t valid anyway, so what was the point? I suspended my decade long belief that one must honor their truth. After all, so far, this quarantine was exposing what I had always secretly feared was true about me: I’m a lazy sack of shit who doesn’t want to do anything except stuff her face with carbohydrates. Might as well resist my truth if my truth is bloated and unimpressive.
Since, like most women, I have masochistic tendencies and love to pour bleach right into the fresh wounds in my banged-up soul, I took to social media to further hurt myself. I feverishly scrolled through Instagram and stalked all the glowy nutritionists and taut fitness influencers, marveling at their tight, frizz-free ponytails and clean-looking athleisure. I read all of their not-interesting-at-all captions in which they waxed poetic over how #blessed they are and how #blessed we all are and how now is the time to lean into a yoga practice and buy their flat-tummy tea so we shit out everything bad that’s ever happened to us and so we too can be neat and empty and small like them.
I was completely un-showered, hair haphazardly tossed into a mental illness bun, a constellation of zits peppered across my face, and B.O. so dire I smelled like a field of wild goats, when my higher-self came to pay me a visit. Her name is Sharon, and she has the bluntest bob you’ve ever seen, a rich Brooklyn accent, and she chain-smokes mentholated cigarettes.
Sharon cradled her sensible Coach bag, protectively like it was her child as she stood in the doorway of my bedroom. Her brown eyes twinkled. Her over-arched eyebrows furrowed. She released a small smoker’s hack, cleared her throat, and began to speak.
“Zara. You need to chill out, baby.”
“What do you mean? I’m laying in bed reading Sylvia Plath in dirty pajamas,” I scoffed.
“First of all, you’re lying. You’re not reading Sylvia Plath. You’re reading a trashy Joan Collins novel.”
Busted. “She’s underrated.”
“Agreed. Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that even though you’re in bed, you are not chill. Like, at all. You’re a ball of goddamn anxiety! You have to stop being so hard on yourself. Resting is good shit!”
I shook my head so hard I could feel my brain rattle inside of my skull. “Working out is healthy! Eating clean is healthy! LEARNING A NEW LANGUAGE AND WORKING ON MY CAREER IS HEALTHY!” I roared, as a lifetime of pent-up rage poured out of me.
Sharon reached into her good ol’ Coach purse and pulled out a gold-plated whistle. She pressed it between her lips and let out a loud blow. The sound was so loud and so shrill that the dogs leaped out of my bed and scuttled away.
“I didn’t want to do this, but it was necessary. You need to get a grip, honey. We’re in a global health crisis, for crying out loud. Your work is on the line. Your friends are losing their jobs. People are dying at an alarming rate in your city. You don’t know what the hell is going to happen next. No one f*cking does. You’ve never been out of control like this in your entire life. Sadness and destruction is all around you—”
“STOP!” I wailed. “I don’t want to think about it!”
Sharon crossed her plump arms. I noticed three of those hideous Pandora bracelets stacked up on her wrists and silently judged her for a moment. “That’s the problem,” she sighed. “You’re sad, but you’re feelin’ guilty for being sad. But, like, tell me somethin’, Zara: How else are ya supposed to feel during a pandemic?” She began to critique her fresh set of acrylics with focused eyes.
“BUT what about the influencers and the sheet masks and the crunches?” I pleaded with her. They had to be thrown in my face for a reason, right? All that guilt and beating myself up had to be for something…right?
“Baby, you know that bullshit isn’t real. You know it’s being curated and filtered and edited. You know that. You, of all people, know that pretty bitches can be the saddest bitches. We all have different ways of dealing with fear. Some people like to place blame on others when they’re afraid. Some people bury themselves in work. Some people obsessively workout. Some people, like you,” she paused for a moment and looked me dead in the eyes, “let themselves be a hot mess. They sit in their pajamas and eat peanut butter and cry. I personally think that’s a pretty sexy way to handle devastating shit.”
“How? How is that sexy?”
“Because you’re acting like a real human. Because you’re letting the magnitude of this shit-show affect you. Because you’re not distracting yourself by being manic and numb like you might’ve done in the past,” Sharon lit up a cigarette, boldly, daring me to ask her to put it out. I didn’t. She continued. “Look, this mess is going to hit us ALL at some point. We’re all going to have to grieve at some point. This is where you are in the grieving process. No one can bypass the grieving process.”
“So it’s okay to just cry and be a mess and be broke and scared all at once?”
“Yes, so long as you don’t self-medicate with drugs and booze which you know weaken your spirit and stop you from growing. You’re free to take this day by day. Just don’t be a fake,” Sharon winked at me.
Before I could wink back, Sharon was gone, but her words stuck with me. “Don’t be a fake.” “This is where you are in the grieving process.” “You’re acting like a human.”
And I’m here to spread Sharon’s message along to all of you.
Look, if I’m being real, I’ll admit that a decade ago, I would’ve forced myself to swallow my feelings and try to write some sort of long-winded masterpiece to sell to some frou-frou publisher. Only, that would’ve been more fruitless than what I’m doing now, because it would be more fake than a “Chanel” bag for sale on Canal Street. I would be working against my natural instincts, and when you work against your natural instincts, you feel phony. And that phoniness bleeds through your creative work and makes people uncomfortable, because nothing is more unappealing than inauthenticity. Get yourself a fake handbag, but a fake piece of art doesn’t do anyone any good.
The pressure to perfectly quarantine will cripple you if you let it. But let’s take a moment and think of how absurd of a concept “perfectly quarantining” is! We can’t even isolate during a crisis without feeling guilty about not doing it, right? What kind of toxic garble is that? There is no right way to quarantine, and there is no right way to grieve what you’ve lost. There are as many ways to deal with grief as there are people in the world.
This doesn’t have to be a time of perfecting and optimizing and crushing — this can be a pause. In fact, I think it’s good for us to just take a hot second and let ourselves be human. A human doesn’t have to always have a goal or a plan or ambition. A human can just exist.
So if all you’re doing is existing right now, I think that’s sexy. If all you’re doing is crying right now, I think that’s a beautiful way to cleanse, and I hope you’re crying on behalf of all the times you wanted to cry but didn’t. If you’re reading Jackie Collin’s novels between spoonfuls of frosting, indulge, girl. Girls never let themselves indulge, and indulging is extremely restorative.
The only rule is that you must honor where you are each day. You must let yourself feel — unabashedly feel — without guilt. Without shame. Shame is a venomous snake. One bite and your feelings are poisoned.
Don’t let them poison your feelings, because feelings, even when they seem mundane or unproductive or unnecessarily painful, have their own way of making sure you get through to the other side. And I don’t know when we’ll get there, but I’m certain we will get there. So relax. Let your feelings do the hard work; they know what they’re doing.
Trustingly ride their wave, and I’ll meet you on the other side.