How I’m surviving quarantine

Learning to let go of control

Written by Abigail Swoap

I was squished into the back corner of the Paris metro on my way home from class when my phone buzzed. “Listen to this podcast,” my best friend had texted, “I think it’ll help you understand how serious this actually is.”

Back in early March, I was two months into my semester abroad. I’d been planning to spend the spring of my junior year of college in France ever since I was in high school. After months of paperwork, budgeting, research and language assessments, my first-ever trip to Europe was finally in full swing. My picturesque Parisian experience was complete with narrow cobblestone streets, hidden art galleries and secret gardens. At night, I explored the iconic lesbian nightlife (just to practice the language, of course). I’d even started dating a French girl, and I was having the time of my life exploring the city with her. I felt like the lead of a romantic comedy every day, and I never wanted it to end.

So naturally, as I grabbed the communal stabilizing pole in the middle of a crowded metro car, I was in total denial of the true state of things. I pulled out my phone and texted my friend back. “I’ll listen to it later, but I still think you’re sensationalizing this virus.”

A week later, I was back in my mother’s basement in Texas.

The shock of it all numbed my feelings for the first week. In the midst of so much tragedy on the front line of the fight against the COVID, grief for my semester felt like a luxury in which I morally shouldn’t be allowed to indulge. I operated in a somewhat catatonic state as courses that used to be held in museums and street cafes transitioned to PowerPoint slides over Zoom. I tried to remind myself that I should be grateful for the chance to finish my classes and get the credit I’d need to graduate on time. As time went on, though, it became increasingly clear that my time abroad wasn’t the only thing I’d lose to coronavirus. I watched in horror as my senior friends had their graduation ceremony canceled and their full-time job offers rescinded. The parents of the girl I’d been dating in Paris caught the virus, and her dad was put on a ventilator. Every news alert I got on my phone was COVID-related, and every health and government organization seemed to have a different idea of when it would all end. The future I’d worked so hard to plan for myself was no longer certain, and I got caught in a repetitive thought loop: I’ll never get that time abroad back, my job offer for this summer might be rescinded, my senior year of college might not happen, my family or friends might get sick, and I don’t know what to do about any of it.

My anxiety built up, and one morning, I broke down. Tears streamed down my face as I ate a bowl of cereal and divulged all of my worries to my mom. She listened carefully to everything I had to say and responded with a succinct nugget of motherly wisdom: “You can’t control your life, you can only control how you respond to what it throws at you.”

My mom made me realize that I was putting immense, crushing pressure on myself to continue operating as normal in a world that’s anything but. As a college student, I’ve been conditioned to believe that the steps I take now will dictate what happens to me in the future. Under normal circumstances, that’s more or less true; I’m fortunate to be able to take advantage of my school’s career center, study abroad programs, alumni events and other resources. The anxiety I felt during the first few weeks of quarantine was rooted in the illusion that, despite COVID, it was still up to me to ensure that my plans for the future stayed intact. I believed so strongly in my individual agency to plan my own life that I’d forgotten about the impact of external factors totally outside of my control.

Ever since my breakfast breakdown, I’ve been surviving quarantine by following my mom’s advice. Every time I enter an unhealthy thought loop, I force myself to think about whether or not the thing I’m worried about is actually under my control. The vast majority of the time, it’s not. This state of uncertainty still causes me occasional bouts of anxiety, but for now, I’m learning to let go of control in the midst of the strangest tragedy we never expected.

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