The COVID-19 pandemic intensified my quarter-life crisis

When I was three, on my first day of school, my mother stood in the schoolyard fighting back tears at the sight of me entering my kindergarten classroom. I—ruthlessly—dropped her hand and walked up to one of my crying classmates to tell her we were going to have a great day. Supposedly, I didn’t look back.

Of course, I don’t really remember this, but it’s incredibly on brand: the only thing I enjoy more than making friends is going to school. Put the two together and I’m in my element.

For 18 of my 21 years, I’ve been a student, and I’m fast approaching the end of my academic career.

Around the edges, I’ve been an athlete, an editor, a friend, a degenerate, and a teaching assistant. But my identity has been enmeshed in academia.

Last year, I started my master’s degree in English literature, and recently I realized that this was the last step of the life plan I created when I was 13. I’m set to graduate in April of 2021.

Now I get to wonder how I can control the job market or plan for a job that I don’t know exists. What if no one will hire me? Why do I have to get a job at all? And what kind of 13-year-old wants a master’s degree?

My therapist tells me this is all part of a quarter-life crisis.

Not far from a midlife crisis, the quarter-life crisis is attributed to twenty-somethings who are being forced to enter the “real world.” No more deflecting the “So, what do you do?” with an easy smile and an “I’m a student!”

In my own defence, skipping a grade vaulted me a few steps closer to this square in the Game of Life.

This semi-ancient article in The Guardian found that 86 per cent of adults surveyed in a British poll were overwhelmed by the realities of so-called adulthood.

Once I finished my master’s, I’ll have no more excuses: it’ll be time to put myself out there, try to get a job, fail miserably a few times, and build a life. Adulthood, here I come.

I’m still learning to remember that whenever it feels like the end of the world, it’s not.

Two photos side-by-side. On the left, a university library study area. On the right, a photo of a McGill campus building in winter.
Photos courtesy of: Maggie Gowland

When I first moved to Montréal, where I still live today, I hated it.

Leaving behind the safety of my undergraduate life at Queen’s University—which, as I expect you all to know, is practically a cult—seemed like a great idea. My life will be changing anyway, I said. I need more space to grow, I said. This is what they call adventure.

Oh, to be so naïve.

Since I only knew two people in the city, I decided to live alone. Roommate drama seemed like an unnecessary risk to add to my grad school experience.

Plus, the beloved, crooked, rat-infested house my friends and I had called home for the past two years was empty. My inheritance—the dishes, the couch, the kitchen table—was packed into a U-Haul after our last round of finals and brought with me to Québec.

By February, I settled into my life. I grocery shopped on Monday mornings and I’d figured out which subway lines—no, I won’t be calling it the metro—spat me out at my friends’ front doors. I had a favourite seat at the library, where I dutifully completed my silly little university tasks.

Then, as every story you read these days seems to go, COVID-19 showed up.

Being a part-time journalist, an unfortunate percentage of my screen time is split between the Globe and Mail and the New York Times, and for three unfortunate years, I was a biology minor, which meant that the pandemic made nothing but sense.

Suddenly, the shelf I balanced my mental health on collapsed.

When I was standing in the gym and one of the weight room supervisors climbed onto the counter to tell us all the facilities would be closing early, I was hardly surprised. Stressed out, sure. Within hours, the libraries closed and classes were cancelled for two weeks.

I went through the typical motions of acquiring extra toilet paper, Lysol wipes, and cans of soup. I bought a mug with the “THIS IS FINE” comic on it, for the irony.

April rolled around and the sun started coming out, so I’d study for a few hours on my balcony, acting like I was happy to drink a cup of green tea and squeeze in a workout before the light faded.

Going to visit my friends from a responsible distance and then heading back alone was harder than a Zoom call, so I mostly stayed home.

I went without physical human contact for the entire month.

In May, Michael Lista wrote about the pandemic through the lens of the Romeo and Juliet ballet. He mentions in the piece, like many have, that William Shakespeare likely wrote King Lear while quarantining during the plague.

As an English student, I’ve participated in a lot of debates about Shakespeare’s best play, and my answer is always Lear. (Yes, we really do sit around and do this.)

I’ve seen dozens of tweets about people’s pandemic masterpieces, laboured over in our collective excess of free time.

It’s highlighted the paralyzing tension between the “Hey, you haven’t done anything with your life” mindset and the “Hey, what’s the rush? You’ve got a whole life left” mindset.

Questions about how to use your time seem to be more pressing than ever. You have all of this free time, but you’re also living a really warped reality—so you deserve to take a nap, instead.

There’s been a lot of time for me to deliberate what I’ve contributed to the world, or what I will contribute to the world. What if I never write my King Lear?

Thanks to this question, my hours-spent-staring-at-the-ceiling sessions have reached an all-time high.

Of course, we can always point the finger at millennial burnout. We’ve all been primed to be busy all the time, to have the fullest plate, to be the most successful. My entire undergrad was a full planner and the mantra “I work best when I’m busy,” like I’ve ever known what it’s like to not be busy.

My therapist pointed out a few weeks ago that I use the words “productive” and “constructive” a lot.

 “Well, Maggie, why not tell x how you feel about y?”

“Well, that wouldn’t really be productive, would it?”

 I said it like it was obvious, as if everything I do has to have a clear endgame.

Modern productivity culture has made it feel like the so-called “downtime” of the pandemic—when we aren’t, you know, worrying about the pandemic—should be directed towards doing something productive.

Of course, burnout doesn’t just belong to millennials.

It belongs to everyone.

Side-by-side images from Maggie's living room. On the left, a brown dried bouquet leans against a painting. On the right, a newspaper is taped to the wall above a black couch.
Photos courtesy of: Maggie Gowland

As the pandemic’s story continued on, like anyone else, I tried to find a balance between my own reality and the world around me. The rising death toll was paralyzing. The New York Times updates came daily, and I scoured the website in a masochistic quest for knowledge, like knowing where each country’s count stood would protect me from the virus.

Each day was a balance of grieving, like Emily L. Hauser tells, and hoping, in the words of Elamin Abdelmahmoud.

On top of the weight of the world was the shattered illusion of my post-pandemic life. None of us know how long the impacts of COVID-19 will last. A sustainable pace is hard to find when you don’t know how long the race is.

It’s tough to convince yourself that everything will be fine when, perhaps, it’s not.

Now the school year is in full swing—I’m a TA, I’m an editor, and I’m a student. Things are exactly how I’ve always wanted them.

Three days a week, I get to lace up my beloved running shoes, run laps in my favourite park, breathe in the crisp Montréal air, and smile at my good fortune. My beloved friends and I drink coffee, or the 5.9 per cent Pabst Blue Ribbon that has the best alcohol-to-dollar ratio my money can buy.

Of all the generations, the almost-millennials are maybe the least primed to have our lives “on hold.”

An April Buzzfeed article interviewed a handful of people my age about being part of what the digital publication called “Generation Free Fall.”

COVID-19 means paralyzing fear, no options, stalled progress.

The succinct timeline of our lives—the need for productivity—can’t be interrupted. Relaxing is simply a form of self-care that’s necessary to keep us functioning at our highest level when work time inevitably rolls around. We’re conditioned to use every waking minute of our day and all our hobbies to maximize our lives.

There’s a chance that we’ve been equipped with the right amount of resilience to put our heads down and work, to convince ourselves this really is fine, that we’re finding a new normal.

Our access to information and our awareness of climate change, civil rights movements, and political unrest have all primed us to power through. Even when people are dying all around us.

But with our productivity on hold, what better time to find out what it really means to maximize our lives?

What if we get to realize that the best things in life really are as simple as splitting a pizza with your friends or getting to hug your family again?

I still haven’t resolved my crisis or found answers to these questions—although hugging my parents would solve about a dozen of my problems.

Maybe what’s coming next will be the best step yet.

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