Not long ago, I had a leisurely breakfast in Manhattan with two friends I hadn’t seen since February 2020. With the exception of a night in Boston and one in New York, I had hunkered down in Vermont through the worst of the pandemic — those first 15 months when over 600,000 Americans died. One of those friends had been in a Westchester suburb throughout that period, and the other had been dramatically more itinerant as she tried to figure out how best to keep her children and parents safe, and not lose her mind juggling work and that innermost ring of Dante’s Inferno known as Zoom School.
But prior to that breakfast, because we were connecting mostly through the images we shared on Instagram and Facebook, we supposed we all were just fine, thank you very much. Oh, some of the images were meant to be darkly funny — the usual jokes about sweat pants and how Pop-Tarts calories didn’t count in a pandemic — but most of the pictures we were posting suggested that we were hanging in there pretty well, all things considered.
Little by little, however, as the coffee and eggs were replaced by midmorning booze, the truth came out. There were tales of friends who had had psychotic breaks and children who had celebrated not one but two birthdays without parties and, dear God, the friends and relatives who had died. Or nearly died. Of careers that had come to a crashing halt. Or people close to us who had lost nearly everything.
Suddenly we were crying. We were all a little broken, we admitted, and the tears were both because we were so happy to see one another and because we were finally confessing that the lives we portrayed on Instagram were a myth. We weren’t fine at all. Not even close.
Despite the false optimism on social media — personal misinformation, if you will — and the gradual reopening of society, the truth is that many of us continue to struggle as the pandemic barrels toward its two-year anniversary. Talking about these struggles, I’ve learned, is the first step toward healing our pandemic-addled souls.
Studies vary, but there’s consensus that many more of us are grappling with mental health issues than before the arrival of COVID-19. A survey spearheaded by the US Census Bureau showed that in the first months of the pandemic, roughly 36 percent of adults had symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders, up from the 11 percent reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a year earlier. Research published in The Lancet revealed our depression’s persistence, with the numbers of people reporting symptoms rising from 28 percent in 2020 to almost 33 percent a year later.
But weren’t the vaccines supposed to tame our worries and usher in a sense of normalcy? They provided us with protection, but then they were politicized — and that was before the new variants arrived, causing our ever-thrumming disquiet to shoot up once more. (Someone suggested on Twitter we’ll know the entire Greek alphabet before this is over.)
And yet, even as the pandemic raged, my social media posts continued to brim with optimism: happy pics of my bike rides across Vermont, Negronis, and Lake Champlain sunsets. Often, I was posting images because I wanted to cheer people up. The reality, however, was that I was hanging on by my fingernails.
Part of my personal brokenness has been, literally, my voice: My ability to speak was fine on March 13, 2020, and gone, mysteriously, by the end of the month. It has come back a bit, but it may never be what it was, and the vocal disorders I’ve been diagnosed with seem as limitless as coronavirus mutations: phonasthenia, muscle tension dysphonia, and dystonia caused by COVID. While I never had any symptoms of COVID, people around me were sick those first weeks.
Not being able to speak on the phone or FaceTime increased my isolation in the lockdown — and that broke me further. Meanwhile, my daughter, a blossoming actor, and my wife, a fine art photographer, both saw their careers gutted by the pandemic. My wife had galleries shutter and solo shows canceled, and I heard my daughter’s theatrical clock ticking as if it were a time bomb. One moment I might be weeping alone in the woods while I walked my beloved dog, Jesse, and then I would post an adorable picture of her as if all was right with the world and my family was soldiering on unscathed. I would post images on social media about their work, and the posts would be celebratory and cheerful — the antithesis of what I or they were feeling.
Which was wrecked.
I’m not angry that the social networks, in this regard, were a source of this kind of “misinformation.” Nor am I disappointed in myself for being part of the charade. It’s even possible that the little lies we spread about ourselves helped keep us sane. I just wish I had known the pain that my two friends I met for breakfast were enduring and I know they wished they had known more of mine.
But if I learned anything from that breakfast, it was this: The truth does indeed set you free. There is catharsis in admitting that we have all been changed and that none of us in 2022 will be who we were in 2020. I say that with a small measure of hope. Who knows? Maybe our brokenness will make us better.
Chris Bohjalian is a novelist known for such books as “The Flight Attendant” and “Midwives.” His most recent novel, “Hour of the Witch,” arrives in paperback in January. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.