Pandemic Blues: Lonely New Life

This summer, while Norway was slowly easing its lockdown but cross-border travel was still severely restricted, I relocated from Göteborg to Oslo. Moving across borders during a pandemic posed many bureaucratic and logistical challenges, but these are too numerous to get into here. What I want to write about instead are some of the issues that have arisen from relocating to a new city and department during a pandemic, while struggling with my work as a violence researcher.

Beginning a new academic position during the pandemic has been an unusual experience. Already when I started in October, most colleagues were working from home, and a short while later, corona regulations were tightened once more. After a short reprieve, I went back to working entirely from my new Oslo apartment (a place not ideally equipped for the purpose and not even big enough to fit a desk, although I am quite comfortable working from the couch). It is difficult to feel like you have “arrived” in a new place when you’ve met most of your new colleagues only as Zoom squares in formal department seminars. Although I have been able to have coffee with a few people, who have done their best to make me feel welcome, I miss the casual encounters with colleagues one occasionally has at the office.

Even for an archetypal introvert like myself, this whole new level of enforced loneliness has been tough. Between mid-March and end of July I had no social interactions whatsoever. When I left my Swedish home of five years, I was not able to say an in-person goodbye to any of my friends and colleagues. The next step, building up a new life in a new place, is no picnic. This is where the particular circumstances of academia meet the unique circumstances of the pandemic. Academia expects flexibility and mobility from its junior and often precariously employed scholars. And especially those moving to another city or country without a partner or a family will normally have to start from zero in building up a (skeletal) social circle. Once you’ve hit your late 20s, let alone your mid-30s, it becomes difficult enough to establish new friendships during “normal” times, and it is near impossible during a pandemic.

Sidebar: It does not help that people in my situation tend to be overlooked in public discourses and debates about measures relating to the pandemic. The risk of loneliness is often, and of course rightly, brought up with respect to the elderly. But there is very little acknowledgement that for many people in their 20s, 30s and 40s living alone, loneliness is also magnified every time corona measures are tightened (as a Germany-based friend working in the private sector and I agreed the other day, there’s something utterly depressing about not even feeling seen).

These circumstances further exacerbate the isolating experience that academic research can be to begin with. What I appreciate most about my open postdoc position – almost complete independence and flexibility – also has its downsides. So much of my work consists of coming up with ideas on my own, reading on my own, and writing to and for myself. Once I no longer had work colleagues to distract me with a chat over a hot chocolate or whose brains I could spontaneously pick about a difficulty I encountered, it felt a lot like I was writing and thinking into the void.

Add the fact that I work on armed conflict and (sexual) violence, and I was left with few distractions from the harshness of this world during the average workday. For months this spring/ summer, as the pandemic unfolded (it will be a long time before I forget the footage of a convoy of military trucks driving bodies to crematories in Italy), I had all but lost my enthusiasm for my work. Try as I might, I simply could not bring myself to read or write about violence while… *gestures vaguely at 2020*. Being unfocussed and unproductive, in turn, became a source of guilt and anxiety – so there I was on the downward slope that is imposter syndrome, wondering if I belong in academia at all: Is it the circumstances, or am I deficient and insufficient?

What is there to do?

I have no intention whatsoever of writing an instruction manual for how others can overcome some of the struggles discussed above (heck, I am only halfway there myself). The following are merely some reflections on things that have helped me.

1. Talking to friends and colleagues. It may sound like a cliché, but it helped me to just open up to a select group of friends and colleagues and verbalize the things I was struggling with. Just putting it out there was a relief, but it also helped to hear that some experiences were shared by others, and to receive some quality peer support.

2. Co-authoring. The single best remedy against both loneliness and lack of motivation turned out to be engaging in joint writing and research projects. Most immediately, it assuaged the feeling of “writing into the void”, because there is someone at the other end to engage with my text. There’s also a sense of accountability, of not wanting to let the other person down or keep them waiting. Other benefits include Zoom socializing and frequent chats on social media, both of which have compensated somewhat for the lack of social interactions at the workplace.

3. Acceptance. Accepting that we live in unusual times and that things are different and will remain so for a while is much easier said than done. Some days I am better at it than others.  That’s why a particular kind of acceptance has been important for me: It is what it is, you are who you are, and you do your best 🤷‍♀️ Some days I manage to be very productive in my work. Other days, all I can do is congratulate myself for getting out of bed, putting on pants and keeping it together. Where in the beginning of the pandemic I felt ridden with guilt for not being able to focus like I used to and sunk deeper and deeper into imposter syndrome, I have now started to accept that there quite simply will be sh*tty and utterly unproductive days. I have become better (albeit not great) at redirecting my thoughts towards the things I am accomplishing rather than the ones I fail to do, and – as a colleague recommended – I try to remind myself of my academic accomplishments of the past few years to legitimate my place in academia to myself. And I try to remember that it’s not realistic that I can uphold a consistent (let alone a consistently increasing) level of productivity all the time. There will be ups and downs anyway, and if the pandemic circumstances are not a reason to experience a dip, then what is?

4. Enjoying every minute of things that make me happy, including whatever corona measure-compliant socializing is possible. This summer and fall, I managed to read several crime fiction books, something I’ve always enjoyed but rarely felt I had the time for during my PhD. In the fall, I also ventured outside with my camera for the first time in months and realized how much I’d missed that. And I absolutely love watching the beautiful fall sunsets in Oslo.

5. No, thanks! BUT I refuse to hold myself to any standards of productivity raised by others: Knit sweaters for your entire family! Learn Mandarin! Bake your body weight in banana bread! Construct an obstacle course for squirrels in your backyard (OK, this one I’d do if I had a backyard)! If all I feel like doing in the evening or on a Sunday is to watch Netflix, then that’s what I’ll do and not feel bad about it. Of course, no criticism at all of those who enjoy being productive, whether it is in the form of cooking, baking, learning new skills or whatever else (you go!) – my point here is merely that we all have our own ways of coping and keeping as alive and well as possible. And for me personally, these are not the circumstances for personal development and growth.

6. Whiskey (in moderation of course). And German Christmas cookies. And looking at pictures of squirrels.

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