Déjà vu and Depletion

It’s been a year and I can no longer keep track of the days. We’re nearly a full year into the COVID pandemic lockdown and while I’ve adapted to it in numerous ways, merely coping with our reality means that there are days I can’t distinguish from others. Through this, we’re all just about running on empty and grasping on to any positive signs of change to recharge the batteries a bit. This is the feeling of depletion, which I came to discover, thanks to an awesome blog post by Sonja Blignaut here, is different than fatigue in that depletion requires way more than rest to overcome. We’re in the midst of completely uncharted territory mentally and emotionally, and it’s hard to get out of the rut.

The best way to think about depletion versus fatigue is that depletion is essentially fully draining a battery and requires intentional action to recharge whereas fatigue is the result of too much action and can be reset by simply stopping the action. In this case, fatigue comes from working too much, physical activity, and lack of sleep. This is problematic, especially when each day is largely the same, but a quick break can be enough to disrupt it. Depletion on the other hand comes from all of this fatigue and piles up, and requires much more effort to reset. It’s also a harder loop to break because it requires effort whereas fatigue only requires rest. The pandemic is a novel and unique source of both.

For me, this depletion manifests as an inertia to everything I do. There are days when it’s just hard to get out of bed and moving in the morning, especially when there isn’t something scheduled or a clear reason to get going. Weekends are the worst for this, but so are weekdays when I don’t have any scheduled meetings early in the day. Cleaning and other chores are the same. While I never love doing those things, the lockdown has made me feel even less enthusiastic to clean because I know the kids will just make a mess again soon. Even writing blog posts feels more like a chore and my frequency has gone down as a result.

It also just feels like I can only ever get little things done rather than bigger ones. It’s primarily the kids, but my work schedule also doesn’t allow for a lot of dedicated time for strategic work, and I end up only getting things done in 10-30 minute increments. When the kids are home, it’s the same thing. Between feeding them, changing the baby, naps, and keeping them entertained, I’m running around so much that I never know what to do in the breaks, especially because I have no idea how long they’ll last. The baby and the twins are on different schedules now which exacerbates it, and all three kids are going through shifts in nap time and duration which makes it even less predictable.

The pandemic has also affected the boys. I’ve written about all of the effects before, but as a result of the inability to get out and do things often, and having no real social interaction with anyone other than us outside of daycare, it’s been no less tough for them. They’re frustrated and emotional more often which makes the days harder for us and I end every bedtime feeling completely drained and unwilling to do anything other than plop in front of the tv or read a book. I know I should be making the most of the time together with them because in years from now I’ll wish we had more together, but in the moment, it’s easy to feel like it’s simply too much time together.

What makes it impossible to recharge and reset is the daily monotony of the lockdown, the repetition, and the sense that it’s not changing anytime soon. I’ve had numerous times feeling strong déjà vu over the last month including incredibly specific ones like feeling that I had done the exact same run on the treadmill, had the exact same conversation with my kids, while they watched the exact same episode of Octonauts. It turned out that this is precisely because we literally did do all of those things not just the previous weekend, but the one before that and before that, stretching back to this time last year. We’re a year in and we’ve settled into such a routine because there is nothing else to do that we’re literally doing the same thing every week.

It’s been so long it’s completely reset how I even view the world. I think everyone feels the same weird feeling of confusion and anxiety now when they see TV from the before times when huge crowds gather to do things without masks. The only normal feeling part of a tv show I recently watched on travel was when they went to Japan and people were in masks because it was cold season. The rest of it felt completely alien and creeped me out. Even if and when things go back to more normal operations, it’s going to take a long time to reprogram ourselves and what feels right. I honestly can’t imagine ever sitting on a bus with strangers for an hour without a mask on again.

The problem is that there is no way to restore ourselves and reset because nothing is changing. Depletion requires different activities that necessitate breaking out of our regular routines. The reason we’re in the routines in the first place is because we have no choice. There are no concerts, sporting events, races, amusement parks, or indoor activities of any kind to break up the same day after day routine. There are plenty of days when I don’t even get out of the house or see any scenery other than my home office. Refilling the tank isn’t possible when all of the exciting changes of pace are closed or unsafe.

My biggest restorer, travel, certainly doesn’t seem like an option anytime soon either. I’d honestly be surprised if we end up going anywhere other than a drive this year whether it’s because we’re still not allowed into other countries, or more likely just because it still doesn’t feel safe. Especially with kids who likely won’t be vaccinated this year unless the small number of studies suddenly increases, I don’t think we’ll be heading onto a small confined space with hundreds of strangers unless there are dramatic changes in safety precautions or vaccination. Even still the risks are very high for a family of five. So instead of getting a recharge through different scenery and experiences, we’ll more likely continue to be stuck together at home.

And while we’re stuck together, it’s not like we’ll be seeing anyone else. Unlike earlier in the pandemic when it was novel, we haven’t been doing many Zoom parties or FaceTime calls. We have barely seen friends or family since it began, and not at all in the last two months. With the winter weather, we haven’t wanted to break our bubble inside, and haven’t been able to meet up to do something outside. No trips to the zoo or breweries outside doesn’t just mean we aren’t doing anything different, it means we aren’t seeing anyone different.

The longer the pandemic goes on, the blurrier the boundaries become between work and home life. While I was previously a huge fan of flexibility and working from home, especially to make lives easier for parents, I’m now starting to think that the new shift to remote work is actually more beneficial for companies who can blur those lines even more. Slack, email, and the constant connectivity mean that I’m frequently messaged outside the hours I would have been available at work, especially with a hard schedule every day thanks to commute options. Now, there’s nothing to force me to sign off or even a hard line at the end of the day except for when the kids burst through the door after daycare which often happens while I’m still working. There is no boundary now and I think just about everyone is struggling with that. This may be the largest change in how we work and experience daily life even after the pandemic. It’s set an expectation of near 24/7 availability for everyone, and the lack of a hard disconnect leads significantly to depletion without recharge. With nowhere to go or anything to do, it’s not even like a vacation helps much.

I’m so sick of every day feeling the same. I feel like I’ve lost a year of my life with nothing to show from it. I need to do something new, different, and rewarding. I need time outside. I need time with people who I don’t see every single day. I need boundaries between work and my home life. I need kids who get social interaction and can have new experiences. We’re not getting any of those things right now because of the pandemic, and it’s bringing things to a low point. It’s ok to feel the same way about it. This is a once in a lifetime global problem, at least hopefully. One day, it will get better. We’re just not there yet, even after nearly a year.

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