Olivia’s Story

An American college student shares her experience with COVID-19 lockdowns, on and off campus.

Published  5 May 2021

Author’s Note:  Olivia (name changed to preserve anonymity) is a 19-year-old, second-year college student in the United States. She comes from a low-income, single-parent household in a large metropolitan city and is currently attending school on a full-ride scholarship. Olivia struggled with social anxiety pre-pandemic and her mental health, like many college students, has significantly degraded over the past 12 months. This is an edited first-person narrative, as told to me, with as much detail preserved as possible.  It is raw, honest, and addresses disordered eating and thoughts of self-harm which may be triggering for some readers. We are grateful she chose to share her story with us.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

“Sometimes carrying on, just carrying on, is the superhuman achievement.”

-Albert Camus

Last year, a student living on campus at my college was diagnosed with Tuberculosis, the number one infection-related cause of death in the world. My best friend, Rachel, was informed by the Student Health Center that she had been in extended contact with the infected student, and I, of course, had been in extended contact with Rachel. The school tested Rachel, who was negative, and the student with TB received appropriate medical care.

Out of an abundance of caution, the administration sent out a letter informing everyone of the situation, advising us what symptoms to look out for, and reassuring the community that the infection was contained.

That was back when I had a best friend. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is CG-page-break--1024x176.png

I flew home for Spring Break in March of 2020–one week after my 18th birthday. The extended dark of winter was getting to me, and I was looking forward to some TLC from my mom, as I was still recovering from a persistent respiratory bug. The New England winter, which was initially curious and novel, had become oppressive. I needed to spend the week revelling in my native west coast sunshine. Unsure if we’d be able to afford the five hundred dollar plane ticket, I was overjoyed when my little sisters called me just a few days before to tell me that my mom had booked the flight.

‘At home, I had no clothes and none of my school books – all I had taken was a pair of jeans and two t-shirts in a backpack.’

Moving away from home in the fall of 2019 was not easy. With little travel experience, 1600 miles may as well have been a trip to Mars. I’ve struggled with anxiety since childhood, finding social interactions particularly difficult and the move required me to interact with all kinds of new people and situations. It was incredibly challenging but also generally positive. Although there were days when even leaving my dorm took an extra dose of brave, it was a start. I made my first real friends. I attended parties at adjacent colleges. I was finally, finally feeling like a normal young woman. And I was also excelling academically, which was a relief.  Having graduated from an overcrowded, underfunded public high school, I was perpetually insecure about my ability to keep up with the prestigious program’s rigour.

The thing I was most excited about was my upcoming Study Abroad experience. I had just found out that I’d won a scholarship to spend the fall 2020 semester in Ireland – an opportunity I never could’ve imagined just a few years before. As someone who had only twice left her home state, to say I was giddy with excitement is an understatement.

Kids like me don’t get a lot of chances like that. 

I’m not like most other students at my school. The first group to reach out to me following my arrival on campus was an organization known as “FGLI,” pronounced “figly,” which stands for ‘First-generation, low-income.’ I always knew that my dreams of attending college came with a caveat: I would need a scholarship. A big one. So I studied compulsively, took the most challenging classes available, graduated early from high school, and managed a 34 on my ACT because I knew the quality of school I wanted to attend wouldn’t pay my way for anything less. I knew that college was my path to a better life.

That winter, it felt like everything was finally falling into place.

Two days before my flight back to resume spring semester is when my world stopped turning.

I was told, via e-mail, not to return to school due to fears about the COVID-19 pandemic. At home, I had no clothes and none of my school books – all I had taken was a pair of jeans and two t-shirts in a backpack. My home state and the state where I went to school issued emergency stay-at-home orders, and all of my classes went online for two weeks – a significant challenge for a school that had never offered an online option.

I love my home and I love my family, but the conditions in our apartment weren’t conducive to studying. There are two bedrooms between the five of us; myself, my mom, and three younger sisters. At the time I didn’t even have a desk where I could do my schoolwork and, regardless, I couldn’t escape the distraction of my younger siblings. Their schools were closed, as well. Even relocating to a coffee shop or library wasn’t possible given everything was shut down. And my building has notoriously spotty internet service, so even streaming lectures was an exercise in frustration and futility.

‘I had never earned less than a B in my life, but this upheaval stretched me past my ability to cope.’

Trying to juggle the demands of the university curriculum with unreliable internet in a home with no privacy left me exasperated and exhausted. Still, I kept trying. ‘It will only be two weeks’, I told myself. ‘This is the right thing to do because there are vulnerable instructors at my school. We need to figure out how to protect them and make sure they can get the care they need if they get really sick.’ We just needed to ‘flatten the curve’, the media said.

I had never earned less than a B in my life, but this upheaval stretched me past my ability to cope.

At the end of those two weeks, I got an email informing me that campus would be closed for the remainder of the semester, and I would not be able to return until further notice. My throat got tight and I suddenly felt like I was choking. I had left my friends and everything I owned – my whole life – behind and, at that moment, I was overcome with grief. Over the next six weeks, I lost my appetite and spent more and more time sleeping.

It was the only way to escape.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is CG-page-break--1024x176.png

Grieving the loss of all the things I had worked for and achieved in the past was relatively easy compared to the loss of a future to look forward to. My hope evaporated, as did my will to continue with my schoolwork and it was an unfamiliar struggle. I’ve always been someone with intrinsic motivation and curiosity. But as I felt my sisters’ spirits wilt as they began to lose touch with their friends and watched my mom stay up late, night-after-night, looking for any available work, a palpable heaviness descended on our house.

The media talked about COVID as if it were airborne Ebola but, even by April, that had been proven incorrect. We knew who was susceptible. We knew the initial fears about high case fatality rates were wrong. Yet, every news outlet featured tickers with real-time death counts and constant stories starting with ‘Experts fear…’ and ‘Authorities worry…” and I just couldn’t figure out how shutting down the world was a proportionate response.

Six weeks later, I had F’s in all of my classes and only about a month left of the semester. I had never earned less than a B in my life, but this upheaval stretched me past my ability to cope. With my mom’s help – and by that, I mean she logged into my online school portal for me and checked my email because I was too ashamed to confront my failure – I reluctantly reached out to my advisor and explained the circumstances. She granted me a month-long extension to finish my classes. And while I muddled my way to three A’s and two B’s, I’m the first to admit that I didn’t learn anything. All I did was preserve my good standing in the hopes of going back someday. 

The semester’s noteworthy accomplishment amounted to saving my college transcript from irreparable harm. 

The dorm’s brutalist architecture took on new meaning as we carried the artifacts of my old-new life back to our rental car.

I tried to stay connected to my friends via Zoom, but watching a poor-quality stream on my old iPhone 8 of their east coast mansions was painful and, honestly, a little infuriating. They talked only of how terrified they were of the virus and all the precautions they were taking to avoid it, like ordering takeout and driving to Connecticut instead of flying.  They made snarky remarks about all the people still going outside without any awareness of how many of them were delivering groceries to households just like theirs. They posted to Instagram from their vacation homes with captions like, “Stay home, stay safe!” without realizing that home isn’t safe for everyone.

People in my areas were losing jobs, shuttering their small businesses, and refraining from necessary medical care and yet my friends somehow positioned themselves as the real victims. I couldn’t listen to it anymore, so I stopped showing up to our video chats and slipped further into all-too-familiar social isolation.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is CG-page-break--1024x176.png

In May, my school gave me three week’s notice to schedule a four-hour window in June to move out of my dorm room. The email was laden with precaution after precaution, which I found irritating because I was no longer scared of COVID. I could read the data and had a good grasp of the age-stratified risk. Mine was negligible. Plus, I was pretty sure I had already had it in January and wasn’t risking anyone else’s health, either. Still, I was reminded daily on social media that entertaining either of those thoughts meant I was a terrible, uncaring, self-interested, unintelligent person. 

One day before I left to pack up my dorm, the governor in my home state issued a mandatory mask order, and all of the fears I had worked for years to overcome came flooding back. 

‘It felt like the community itself had died from neglect – or maybe a lonely, broken heart.’ 

For someone with social anxiety, trying to communicate through a mask is like trying to drive with a blindfold on – and I know I’m not alone. But, I wasn’t supposed to talk about my difficulty with masks. The overall message was that masks are “no big deal” and that any person who struggles, whether due to disability or anxiety or social/emotional impairments or concerns about bodily autonomy/personal freedom, is a selfish, murderous person. Even asking questions about the evidence supporting their use or efficacy was met with aggression and derision.

When it came time to retrieve my belongings, navigating a nearly empty airport with a mask on was a uniquely dystopian experience. Listening to our footsteps echo through one cavernous hall after another, It felt like the world had ended and we were the only survivors.

Upon arrival, my college town had a disquieting, militarized feel. We rented a car because mass transit was shut down and were shocked to find barricades and guards at the entrance of the manicured campus. My dorm’s brutalist architecture took on new meaning as we carried the artefacts of my old-new life back to our rental car. We heard a faint echo of voices from the opposite wing at one point, but we never actually saw another person the whole time we were there.

The homemade, glitter-adorned posters advertising clubs and community events that has once adorned the walls had been removed and replaced with warnings about social distancing non-compliance and reminders to “mask-up.”

It felt like the community itself had died from neglect – or maybe a lonely, broken heart. 

I decided to keep my dorm contents in a local storage unit instead of shipping them home, needing to believe that I would return shortly to move back in.

But when the “safety” precautions for Fall 2020 were announced in July, my heart sank for what felt like the thousandth time and I cried for two days before requesting a personal leave of absence. My school’s “safety” plan was for students to

  •  isolate for two weeks upon arrival
  •  live alone in a single dorm room
  • take all classes online
  • gather with no more than one other person and stay six feet apart
  • perform a daily ‘health check’ to be able to login to classes
  • allow no guests in the dorms
  • keep a daily list of any contacts, no matter how socially-distanced
  • eat cafeteria take-out in dorm rooms only (all dining halls closed)
  • submit to weekly PCR testing
  • cancel all sports, clubs, and social events
  • prohibit all parties under threat of expulsion
  • agree to ten days of mandatory isolation if named as a contact, regardless of symptoms or test positivity, and
  • wear masks at all times, indoors and out – only to be taken off with the door closed in our dorm room

If we did test positive, we would be relocated to a dorm on the edge of campus, completely isolated for two weeks. Nurses would check-in by phone, and food would be dropped off at a “no contact point.”

‘My family doctor’s solution to my ever-increasing anxiety and depression is to write me prescriptions for antidepressants, tranquillizers, and sleeping pills’

We were told it was “safe” to have zero contact with other humans for 14 days after being diagnosed with a disease we were told could kill us at any time.

I wondered why was no ethics review required for this kind of human experimentation. 

The expected challenges of college already include homesickness, social upheaval, academic stressors, financial pressures, and bouts of depression and loneliness–and now we were expected to manage all of that in solitary confinement?

And most troubling was that it made no sense. It was clear by this point that COVID-19 was not a risk to my age cohort. Add that to my fresh memory of the very reasonable – even nonchalant – way the on-campus TB situation was handled last fall, and I simply could not make sense of it all.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is CG-page-break--1024x176.png

My belongings are still sitting in a $100/mo storage unit ten months later. That’s roughly $1000 spent so far to house maybe $300 worth of goods.

And I’m not returning for Spring of 2021 because restrictions have only gotten worse. My school is already asking me to answer whether I’ll be back for Fall 2021. Just the idea of returning under even a fraction of the current limitations triggers a mini anxiety attack.

My fear isn’t of COVID19 but the restrictions relating to it. 

At school, we are obligated to narc if we see friends giving each other hugs.

But the alternative to attending school isn’t much better. 

My life at home feels a lot like the movie ‘Groundhog Day’. Every day is the same, and no matter how hard I squint, I simply cannot see a future on the horizon. I have lost trust not only in my school but in the media and our government leaders. My sisters’ schools are still closed, as well. They haven’t seen the inside of a classroom for a year, and ‘remote learning’ is nothing short of torture for little kids who need movement and play and interaction. How can anyone justify doing this to children?

My family doctor’s solution to my ever-increasing anxiety and depression is to write me prescriptions for antidepressants, tranquillizers, and sleeping pills–as if any of those are “safe” or “healthy.” I take the sleeping pills. Otherwise, I’d never be able to stop the hamster wheel in my brain long enough to rest. I sometimes take the Xanax, too, when the fear settles in my chest and causes my heart to jump around.

And it’s not lost on me that taking half the bottle could bring quick and relatively painless relief from this “new normal.” 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is CG-page-break--1024x176.png

My physical health is suffering. I have lost 20 lbs, and my BMI dropped below 18, which is clinically underweight. I’m not trying to lose weight. I just feel no hunger, and that reaction makes some sense to me. What’s the point of nourishing a body that has no purpose or direction? There’s no school to prepare me for my future career. No people to meet that could become new friends. No dates that could turn into meaningful relationships. Everyone treats everyone else like disease vectors upon threat of social ostracization.

I cry in the shower every day – at least on the days I can bring myself to take a shower.

Days that used to be full of challenge and growth are now rote and greyscale. I get up. I help my mom around the house. Maybe I’ll read with the TV on in the background to try to keep the dark, intrusive thoughts at bay. I run errands wearing a mask, avoiding eye contact and talking at all costs, and then head home only to fight the dark thoughts again.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve started sleeping with the light on. I’m scared of the dark now — just like when I was a little kid and the world seemed so dangerous. I jump at every little sound. Nothing feels stable anymore.

‘Everything I worked for is gone. The world is ugly. Everyone is scared of each other.’

And I admit that I relate to all the young people who are overdosing and hurting themselves. I personally know three who have self-harmed in the last nine months. But I can’t blame them.  People keep calling this “The New Normal” and who wants to live in a perpetually socially-distanced, masked-up world that paints you as morally bankrupt for resisting?

I know I’m only 18, and I still have my whole life ahead of me, but it really does feel like things may never change. These restrictions were supposed to last two weeks.  We’re now a year in with vaccinations available and still no end in sight.

The bleakness is suffocating.

But it’s not bleak for everyone.  My wealthy classmates don’t seem to be affected. They continue to take selfies in exotic locations, just like pre-pandemic, but now their posts are embellished with designer masks and #safetyfirst hashtags, even when the pics have nothing to do with safety. Their lives are relatively unchanged while my–and every other poor kid’s–world has ground to a halt. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was jealous.

The rich kids aren’t the only ones with lockdown privilege. There’s less of an impact on people with more life experience. They already finished their education or job training. They have life partners. They’re well-traveled. They have careers. They are financially stable. The people ensconced in the knowledge economy seem more than happy to stay in their comfortable homes and reinforce their moral superiority by giving their Door Dasher an extra $5 tip. 

All the while, those of us just starting out and those with meagre resources have lost the ability to meet our most basic needs.

My college believes that mental health is deteriorating because students don’t feel safe enough from COVID-19, and they need to impose more restrictions. For me, the increased anxiety and depression stem from the restrictions themselves that require us to not only passively tolerate the loneliness, solitude, and fear of being randomly isolated for two weeks; but actively resist all social impulses or risk getting expelled from school.

The administration made it part of my school’s Student Honor Code to report other students to the administration for “Covid safety violations.”

At school, we are obligated to narc if we see friends giving each other hugs.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is CG-page-break--1024x176.png

I don’t know how long I can continue like this. Every time the goalposts move further back, a little part of me gives up. Not only the restrictions but the complete lack of hope for a return to normalcy have me thinking ever more frequently, ‘What is the point? Why bother?’

Everything I worked for is gone. The world is ugly. Everyone is scared of each other. And I’m not allowed to talk about my grief without being labelled a terrible person for having very normal wants and needs.

There will come a point when continuing to live in this much pain is no longer a viable option.

I turn 19 next week. The first year of my adult life, which at one point looked so promising and hopeful, has been essentially wasted – and, right now, the future doesn’t show much hope of improving.