The Beforetimes Sucked

The semester before the world stopped, I worked ten hour days, five days of the week. I wasn’t supposed to, at least technically. I was supposed to work 7.5 hour days, with an unpaid half hour for lunch. But a new system was coming, and someone had to do the work of it, along with the work of collection development and reference and engagement and other duties as assigned, and that someone was me. So I worked ten hour days, except for the days when I worked twelve. Then the world ground to a halt, and for the first month of lockdown, I worked fifteen hour days, treading water as I tried, desperately, to get my faculty enough that they could do their jobs with minimal disruption.

Minimal disruption is a joke, obviously. There was massive, wide-ranging disruption. In some ways I was a lot less disrupted than most people, because, as a librarian, nearly all my work is online anyway. It’s no great thing to move entirely online when most resources are there already. Even for me, though, the transition from the #BeforeTimes1 to the #PlagueTimes was one of heavy disruption. The emotional was probably the hardest—I’ve known so many people who have died, over this past year and a half. I’ve lost so many dear ones. And, when I was pulled back to in-person work, I had to go knowing that my heart and my lungs would not survive COVID. So the emotional disruption was catastrophic, and I doubt I will ever fully work through it.

But the workplace disruption? The change to our daily lives, the advent of accessible conferences? That part was wonderful, and I wish that we’d continue on. We are all pressed to conform, in this world of ours. We are all supposed to be able to handle the same things, to socialize the same way, to have neurons that fire at the same time, in the way in which society thinks they ought. My neurons don’t fire right. I can’t socialize the way many others can. And I’m chronically ill, and in chronic pain, and illness and pain and misfiring neurons dictate the ways in which I can interact with the world at large.

The last three conferences I attended in person—all of which were good! indeed excellent!—sent me spiraling into pain flares that lasted, in one case, for a week, and in another, for a month and a half. I had to leave one conference early on the second day because the pain was so bad. I skipped out on sessions in another, because it was flaring. I avoid after-hours gatherings and anything at all in a bar, because I know I won’t be able to understand the words around me, even if I am fully able to hear them. My brain doesn’t work the way society wants it to, and so, because nor society nor anyone much cares, I have to accommodate myself. It means I miss out on opportunities, and on networking, but I’ve no choice.

It turns out I work better from home. It doesn’t really surprise me—I guess I’m pretty good at working out schedules and managing my time and my needs, balancing my spotty concentration with my occasional hyperfocus to get a whole lot done, working within the confines of my body to avoid as much pain and asthma triggers as possible. (I could talk about my emotional support cat here, too, but I’ll just say that since I am an intensely high-stress person, and since I push myself beyond the point of endurance, having an emotional support cat present is a pretty big deal for my own health.)

The virtual conferences have been great too. I’ve been able to partake of whole days without pain flares. I’ve gone to more professional conferences than I’d ever have been able to do, had they been in person. I’ve even picked up a second gig—reviewing for Third Coast—which itself has been facilitated by, you know, everything being online. And it seems that virtual classes offer me a space in which I can interact without sliding quietly into the corner and hiding in plain sight until the end of my session. I’ve been able to participate, to interact, to slice, for a moment, through the intense loneliness with which I live.

In the Beforetimes, I knew well enough not to commit to anything after work. I can’t, you see, drag my aching body to sit anywhere else after eight or ten or twelve hours on the job. Sometimes I can barely move through the motions required of my day because of pain levels. I definitely can’t meet you for drinks after work, because my body is unable to do what our society thinks it should be able to do, and my neurons don’t behave right either, and I know I won’t be good for much of anything by the end of the day. But for this brief and glorious moment of accessibility, I’ve been able to commit to things, and then to do them from my bed, or my futon, or somewhere else where I can actually manage pain. And I’ve been able to do so much more.

I’d say that I understand the frantic desire to get back to Normal and The Way Things Were, but I don’t. Normal sucked for me, before. Normal meant so many pain flares I’d end up curled in a ball in tears. Normal meant missed commitments and invitations that slowly dried up because I have a body and a mind that don’t quite work and so I could never come. Normal meant long days and loneliness. And, as we race hell-bent for “normal,” we forget, once again, that for so many of us, normal didn’t work.

1And yes the BeforeTimes is also a sci-fi trope.