I could almost feel the heavy weight of jet lag clinging to tired but happy bones, the pressure of my forehead against the glass of a taxi window, lapping up every frame of my adventure as new cities sped past. I could almost feel the soft spring breeze of the Midwest brushing the hairs on my arms as I explored Ohio and Indiana and Missouri and Nebraska.
I didn’t actually go to any of those places. I didn’t feel the breeze or the jet lag. I didn’t take in the views. Because I couldn’t. Two weeks before I was due to fly to America for a monthlong trip across five states researching the history of women’s rights, President Trump announced a travel ban in response to the arrival of COVID-19. A few weeks later, much of the world was in lockdown. As it stands, US borders are still closed to travellers from the UK. British Airways refunded my flight, apologetic emails were sent to those I’d arranged to meet and I wore my Bruce Springsteen T-shirt repeatedly, a sad substitute for the Americana I was chasing. I was heartbroken. I had hustled hard to make this trip happen. I had worked extensively to organise it, to find the right people to contact, to jig-jag my way across unknown places, alone, in what was both a professional and deeply personal project. I had finally pushed myself over the edge of my own self-doubt and into the free-fall of having the kind of adventure I had always dreamed of.
Welcome to 2020: the year of lost opportunities, cancelled plans, trampled hopes and a daily run-in with the ghost of all that could have been. This year, we haven’t just lost things that we had planned – weddings, house moves, job offers – we are haunted by our unknown futures, the ones that were brighter, busier and full of a thousand possibilities which we might now never know.
Welcome to 2020: the year of lost opportunities, cancelled plans, trampled hopes and a daily run-in with the ghost of all that could have been.
Dr Emma Hepburn, a clinical psychologist, tells me: “Our brain is a planning and future-anticipating organ so we can experience loss not just about what has gone from our past or present but what has potentially gone from our future too.” Where once we felt FOMO, a fear that time was passing too quickly, in 2020 we bask in a collective grief for all the time lost, suffer the same chronic affliction of chronophobia (the fear of passing time) and attempt to stifle the panic of time running away from us like beads slipping off a string.
Clinical psychologist Dr Catherine Huckle of Surrey University tells me that the grief we’re feeling for the lost time is similar to the five stages of grief often associated with bereavement. First comes the denial (in the run-up to the flight ban, I told my friends there was “no way” the UK would be on the list); next, anger (“F*cking Trump!”); then there’s bargaining (maybe I could write about America without going to America?); followed by depression (tears and self-loathing); and, eventually, acceptance (TBC). For Catherine, the greater the meaning we attached to the cancelled event, the longer this process will take. Catherine’s hairdresser had saved up for three years to book a six-month round-the-world trip. She quit her job and had one week in Peru before lockdown began and she had to come home. Grieving for a life-transforming trip will, I imagine, take some time.
There are similar stories everywhere. Thirty-five-year-old Lucy was six weeks away from getting married in Italy when lockdown was announced. “At first it was surreal,” she says but very soon it became “heartbreaking”. After that, she and her partner couldn’t contemplate another wedding in Italy because “it just wouldn’t be the same”. Lucy had hoped to start planning a wedding in the UK this autumn but then the infection rates crept up. “Besides,” she says, “I don’t think we can face cancelling a second wedding.”
Thirty-four-year-old Jamie, similarly, was about to change her life when the pandemic hit. She was due to fly across the globe to be with her boyfriend permanently in South America. She was due to start a brand-new life. “I know I’m not alone in feeling like life has been put on hold. The thing is, I already felt that way eight months before the pandemic. I’d been patiently – and sometimes not so patiently – waiting to finish up some work commitments before moving to another country to be with my boyfriend. This was the year that we were really going to give things a go and if all went well, we had plans to start a family in the next couple of years.” Then lockdown happened. “His country closed the borders and I haven’t seen him for a year now. I turn 35 in a couple of weeks and while it feels like life is on hold, I’m all too aware that my biological clock is still ticking away, louder than ever. If things don’t work out between us, will I get another chance to have a family?”
Vic, 30, was already aware of lost time before lockdown, too. She and her partner had been trying for a baby for a few years. This spring they were due to start IVF treatment after a lengthy waiting list. Because of COVID, everything has been postponed. “It really impacts my mental health, knowing we can’t move any faster. I just feel so powerless,” she laments.
Our brain is a planning and future-anticipating organ so we can experience loss not just about what has gone from our past or present but what has potentially gone from our future too.
Dr Emma Hepburn
This feeling of lacking control is at the root of much of our distress, Catherine believes. “One of the biggest factors of depression is feeling helpless, and COVID has hit lots of us with that,” she explains. To combat this, Catherine recommends exercising as much control as we can in the areas that we can. Emma also advises us to “focus on the present and build positive experiences in the here and now”, something we’re not particularly good at in a culture that constantly fetishises planning the better version of ourselves via diaries, bucket lists and elaborate vision boards. “What I’ve been saying to people in my clinical practice,” says Catherine, “is that it has to be a day-by-day approach. Plan a week ahead at the most and make sure your week is full with productive tasks but also moments of pleasure and relaxation.”
Right now, as a society, Catherine thinks we’re in the bargaining stage, which perhaps explains the uptick in rule-breaking (seeing more people than we’re ‘allowed’ to, for instance). I suggest that another reason rule-breaking is on the rise is because we feel we’ve already lost too much and for younger generations, we’re not so used to things not going our way. “There’s interesting research about what we expect from our life,” she says. “Whereas older generations didn’t expect life to be rosy or easy, we’ve got freedoms that are implicit in our lives. COVID has really disrupted our ideas of what life should be like and it’s a huge challenge to our belief and value systems.” Broadly speaking, the message that having big enough dreams and working hard enough will open doors for us all has profoundly shaped our increasingly individualistic society in which we believe we deserve, and can access, anything and everything we want. When we can’t, it’s one hell of a nasty shock.
“A lot can happen in a year!” is something my mum has often said to me. For the first time ever, perhaps, she might be wrong. But according to Catherine, 2020 hasn’t been wasted. “We learn by our experiences and that’s how we manage challenges in the future,” she says. “Showing what we can do in situations of high stress and depleted resources gives us the capacity to deal with a whole bunch of stuff in the future.”
And of course, a lot did happen this year: the global Black Lives Matter movement, the election of Kamala Harris as vice-president of the United States, the rejection of Donald Trump… The America I would have flown into at the start of the year looks very different, in some ways, from the America of today. Of course I lost time but while watching and waiting, stuck in my flat in south London, somehow my project took on even greater meaning. In other words, yes, in 2020 we have had to stick some major losses but we’ve made some great gains too, even if we don’t quite realise what they are yet.
So as we face a dark winter of restrictions, and as we feel grief and panic over all that could have been, I will wear my Springsteen T-shirt and I will continue to email the American women I was supposed to meet. Simply, I will do what I can. Because for now, that is all any of us can do.
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