As my flight landed in Borjhar airport, I smiled and cried tears of bliss at the same time. I felt safe like I do every time I reach my city, Guwahati, in Northeast India. I had rushed back from the USA as my father was unwell, but I still smiled. Yes, Guwahati always did that to me.
That was January 2020.
A couple of months later, my father was better, I was all set to return to the USA on 25 March, but flights were grounded from 24 March and India went into a total lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
My daily schedule for the last two years, shuffling between a part-time job and a full-time master’s course, has been chaotic. However, after being apprised of the situation, my office approved my working from home (WFH) from 30 March. My classes were moved to the online mode too. I was home, yet, I felt stranded, and my mind was muddled; I was a mixed bag of emotions. I was happy that I would be able to care for my bed-ridden father for longer. But with no future travel date, I worried for my spouse, Neel who was all by himself in New Jersey.
Zombie in the Making
My WFH schedule matched the evening hours of India. Meeting colleagues on Zoom video chats after so long was fun for the first week. The next week started with work in full swing and Zoom video classes from 3am to 7am. My 24/7 schedule with Zoom videos from evening to sunrise and the care routine for my father through the day started taking its toll by the fourth week. USA was at the center of the global pandemic with the New York-New Jersey belt accounting for the highest number of infection cases. Neel was working from home too and staying indoors but a constant worry gnawed at me.
Month after month, there was no respite from the lockdowns, WFH’s, live video classes and my daily routine. I lost count of time, walked in a trance, finished chores like a robot, took quick naps with eyes wide open and my mind obsessed over the next task to be ticked off the checklist…. Folks around me were not helping, either. The indoor-bound situation was making chefs out of people who couldn’t boil water, artists out of ones who couldn’t draw a line straight, dancers from those who had two left feet, and gardeners of people with no green thumbs. While everyone was busy acquiring new skills, I was trying to survive the ordeals of a ‘Zoom Zombie’. This sounded cool but it never felt so for a moment. I had a ritual of two phone calls per weekday and at least one video call on the weekend with Neel. I would be waiting for his calls and even a little delay from the expected time interval would put me in a state of frenzy. I would tell myself that he was safely indoors, he might have woken up late or had a morning meeting, to explain the delay. But negativity would envelop me. My absent-minded husband, meanwhile, would not realize that his phone was ringing with my frantic need for his response. My father, guilt-ridden for my situation and worried for Neel, was getting delirious at night and losing sleep. This was worrisome as his health was still fragile.
Zombie is the New Normal
Each day was a replica of the previous with the same routine tasks from dawn to dusk. On one such day, my professor (bless him!) forwarded this article, ‘Why Zoom video chats are so exhausting?’ and it stirred me. No, I was neither unZoomed nor unZombied, but this article told me that I had company. Now, I could answer the question, “But when I’m Zooming my friends, for example, shouldn’t that relax me?” This pandemic has made the unlikeliest of my friends and relatives go nostalgic and share old photos and videos, call up to reminisce memories and some even scheduled Zoom group calls. But I evaded such enthusiasm. As someone who carried her heart on her sleeve, this self-alienation was unfamiliar to me. The article explained how Zooming was like going to the same bar to speak to one’s professors, meet one’s parents and meet a date. Feeling weird about that, it said, was be normal. This helped explain what I was going through and reassured me that I was still normal.
In one of our Zoom sessions, a guest speaker had commented, “Whoa, we seem to be popping up as one big Brady Bunch.” Our whole class laughed, but later, I realized that the multiple screens was disturbing. Reading the article, ‘Zoom fatigue’ is taxing the brain. Here’s why that happens, article confirmed for me that multi-person screens magnify fatigue. The gallery view with all meeting participants in a Brady Bunch view challenged the brain’s central vision to decode too many people together making it overwhelming and difficult to cope.
I also read about the predicted rise in global rates of depression and suicide as a consequence to the pandemic. I was filled with self-loathing, at times when I was irritable with my father and not being an ideal caregiver. Sometimes, I even questioned the depth of my love for my ailing father. Watching your parents grow old is painful, and my guilt and inexplicable emotions only aggravated this ache. Friends and relatives rallied around, providing valuable emotional support, but I receded into an uncomfortable reclusive world. And maybe for the first time ever, I was experiencing for real what depression felt like.
Managing the Zombie
Reading other people’s perspectives and analysis of the metal health aspect of pandemic living helped. Research by social behavior experts helped me understand what was happening to me, alleviating my worries to a large extent. And I found simple suggestions on ways of managing the stress. Zoom and other video apps are here to stay, pandemic or not. So the first step is to accept this reality. I adopted a few tips from the articles, intermittently, in my meetings. For example, I would turn on the camera for a video call only if needed. Moving the camera to my side instead of a direct view gave me a feeling of chatting with someone in the adjoining room and it helped. I have also started walking around in some meetings. Walk-the-talk methods have been known to improve creativity and reduce stress.
An uncle suggested yoga and daily meditation sessions to ease my mind. I have started a daily regime of floor exercises for half an hour. With no experience in meditation, I was reluctant to try at first. However, I started a morning ritual of a few breathing exercises and hoped that counted as meditation (not sure if my meditation obsessed uncle would appreciate that!).
There was no sudden transformation, but in a few days, I did calm down. I have also learnt to appreciate my Catch 22 situation. If I had been in the USA, I would have worried about my father, the same way I was stressed for Neel now. So, this was unavoidable and as they say, whatever happens, happens for the best.
Waiting for an ‘uninteresting tomorrow’
“May you live in interesting times” is said to be an ancient Chinese curse. Today’s stark reality has made me realize how we are living this curse daily.
My schedule is still unrelenting, but I am coping. The rise of COVID-19 cases in India is worrying Neel too, so his calls are less delayed. The biggest surprise has been his newly found habit of picking up his phone when it rings. My father is improving both mentally and physically and his mobility is better. I am appreciating the silver linings amidst the dark clouds and I hope that we soon start living in uninteresting times. Till then, stay home and stay safe!
Lopamudra Bhattacharyya lives in East Windsor, New Jersey, and is an avid reader, a blogger and a technology enthusiast.