2022: Groundhog Year

The video version of this blog post. This video is not scripted, so it is similar in essence to what is below, but very different in delivery.

2022 was a hard year for many people. When talking to friends and family members about their year-in-review, many said, “I just got through it,” implying a slog to the finish line, a pleasureless shuffle through repetitive days. The days, for many, lacked distinct border, blurring together, making for foggy memories of the year. What did we even do? What even happened? We mused on the causes of this fog. Was 2022 so hard because it marked nearly three years of a global pandemic? Was it the political extremism? The war? The general deflated sense that we do not, as humans, have the capacity to save ourselves from climate change and anti-democracy because we are too divided and short-sighted?

One friend commented that 2022 felt like the same year as 2021 and 2020 – a perpetual bubble of time. 2020, the Groundhog Year. Another friend speculated that grocery shortages and supply chain issues will become the new normal, and that it will grow worse, but slowly enough that we will adapt to it. They think the years of economic abundance are over. These thoughts strike me as well. I am not immune to this absence of hope. “I’m deeply optimistic,” I told my friend, “simply because I have all of this love in my heart.” I told them that I don’t want anyone to suffer, ever, and that I just want peace and happiness for all, that’s all, that’s the tall order, but I feel it in my bones, a sincere and innocent sort of love. That feeling gives me optimism, because I know I cannot be the only one who feels it. Surely there are many of us, millions of us.

And yet, the absence of hope haunts me. Just last night I was researching log cabins. I make jokes about outback survivalists but the jokes are insincere because I understand the impulse, the fear, and the desire for control. I think about where I would go and what my family would do and how to pull together a group. What tools and materials we would need. What skills my soft modern self could develop. At the very least, I want to be harder to kill. How far would I be able to run before my lungs, or my legs, gave out? So then, work on the lungs and legs. Be less soft.

I understand the impulse. But mostly I just roll the dice and hope that everything will be okay. Maybe the situation is not so dire after all. There’s this big, bright rising sun, and there’s family. There is so little that actually matters, but these few things are enormous. The ultra-wealthy will adorn their luxury bunkers and the rest of us will keep living in cities and loving our families and forgetting about forests but they’re still so close inside. Maybe everything will be okay.

So this was 2022 for a lot of people. The indistinct passage of time. Maybe this was what the year was for you. What word would you use to sum up your year, if you had to pick a word?

For me, it might be challenge, or intensity, or grit. My year, contrary to many others, was not an indistinct blob. And for much of the year, I was quite happy. But it was the busiest year of my life, hands down, and at times I wonder how I made it to the finish line. I added a full university workload to my already-busy life. The trade-offs were obvious before I began in January 2022, and I accepted them. Yes, I would have less time for hobbies. I would have less time for friends, for partnership, even for parenting. I would have much less time for sleep, and for leisure. But not forever. Just for a few years. It was a trade-off I accepted, and I will continue to accept it in 2023, because university is bringing more joy than any other occupation of time at the moment, save maybe for unhurried time with loved ones.

In 2023, I took fourteen university classes, released my first album in a decade, and a couple of music videos, and I continued teaching piano classes and courses. My family endured major personal hardship in the spring, and yet still made wonderful memories in the midst of heartache and chaos. My year was book-ended by illness: Covid at the start, and at the end, a mysterious respiratory virus which had me bedridden for weeks. We had a good financial year and managed a move to a larger place, but expenses were very high with inflation and crises. I neglected physical fitness for most of the year, and doing yoga these last few days has been very challenging in a way it has never been. I did not read 52 books; I read half that, but several were thick textbooks. Pleasure reading has fallen by the wayside. Those long, absorbing sessions with The Economist were rare, replaced instead by mindless scrolling through Reddit, my perennial bad habit. I smoked cigarettes earlier in the year (not for months now), justifying the destructive indulgence with personal hardship. I got half a mouth’s worth of mercury fillings replaced because they were wrecking my teeth after three decades of use, and my final wisdom tooth was yanked. Though eating mushy food for two weeks was not a party, I’ve mostly healed.

The end of 2022 has seen, locally at least, significant pediatric admissions, and, along with Covid, is continuing to highlight over-stretched healthcare workers and inadequacies of our crumbling system. Canada’s conservative premiers ask for healthcare funding from the federal government, but refuse to provide receipts and a plan for spending. Healthcare has been underfunded for decades. It seems Ontario and Alberta especially, but perhaps also Alberta’s little tag-along buddy Saskatchewan, are moving in the disconcerting direction of healthcare privatization. I temper my fear of this in two ways: 1, the actual expansion of healthcare in 2022 (the NDP is pushing the liberals to subsidize dental care as healthcare, with the goal of making dental care fall under the umbrella of free healthcare), and 2, the strong pro-free-healthcare identity Canadians have. It’s part of how we define ourselves, and one of several important distinctions between us and the United States. I remain cautiously optimistic.

The pediatric illnesses have been alarming these last two months. I even considered taking my child out of preschool temporarily while cases of influenza and RSV were skyrocketing with no end in sight, but decided against it. Fortunately, the kiddo has been vaccinated for both flu and Covid, but hearing stories of otherwise healthy children being rushed to emergency rooms shook me. I remember, back in 2020-2021 when the world was still Covid-cautious, times when I temporarily pulled the kid from care during surges, and we self-isolated a few times. Even though Covid was showing no evidence of causing problems for young people, except in very rare instances, I was still very cautious, and others were too.

But now? With emergency rooms filled with children? I just send her to preschool and cross my fingers. Why this difference of attitude? Now, when there is an actual risk, I lack my characteristic caution. These decisions are not based on reason. They are based on social norms and emotion. Emotionally, the situation felt scarier a couple of years ago. And, it must be mentioned, there were no vaccines for a while, which was a legitimate cause for caution. Emotionally, the situation does not feel scarier right now, even though it quite literally is. My feelings, and thus my actions, are not aligning with reality. I am certainly influenced by large social forces; no one else seems to be worried, so why should I be? Everyone else is sending their child to school, and besides, I am very busy and could use the time to work. There are reasons and justifications. I trick myself into thinking these reasons and justifications accurately reflect reality, instead of simply what I want reality to be.

Is reality hard data and numbers? Science? Crisp logic? Yes, I do believe this is the case. That there is an objective reality that exists independently of the way I think about these things. Yes, data is subject to interpretation, and science has its own biases, but it represents the best we have. So here I am, looking at data and numbers and making emotional decisions, not rational ones. I probably make emotional decisions about almost everything.

But what is one to do? Not go to school? It seems all one must do, and in harmony with the climate of the moment, is trudge onward.

2022, “just get through it,” might have been the climate of the moment. Onward in 2023, it feels (it feels!) imperative to put a spotlight on mental health. My anxiety, typically a low hum in the background, has become worse, and at times more acute, in a way that it has not been since more than a decade ago. Deteriorating mental health is an experience I have been sharing with most of my peers and family members. There are so many of us. Whether we are depressed or anxious or freshly-diagnosed with something else, there is a we, there is a zeitgeist, and the proof is in the explosion of (often dubious) mental health videos on the TikTok pudding. ADHD for you! ADHD for you! ADHD for everyone!

I view this culture of self-diagnosis and over-interpreting of symptoms with deep skepticism. Yet I have family members who are formally diagnosed. For us, at least, it seems not to be some mental health astrology. This is something, like many people, I have spent hours contemplating. Where does normalcy end and abnormalcy begin? Now that I officially have a Minor in Psychology (reveling in pretension over here), I understand that a DSM-5 diagnosis involves not only the appearance of symptoms, but also the severity and its negative impacts on one’s life. One might be easily distracted, say, but if it is not causing problems in one’s professional or personal life, then it is not diagnosable. This is mostly how I feel. I am not handicapped, and I have created many workarounds by accident, including drinking coffee and being quite strict with time tracking and planning. I am also very sensitive to sound and sensation, and white noise in particular creates an immediate thrum of anxiety inside of my chest. I seek out pleasant sensory items such as fresh sheets, and handily avoid unpleasant ones such as bare feet on laminate flooring. Interestingly, a hot beverage is an excellent modulator of my attention. I am able to sit still and focus on conversations, lectures, and my own teaching, by simply having a beverage to sip nearby. Rue the day when such a beverage is not present.

No, anxiety is by far the bigger problem. The dark “what if” scenarios that roll through my head umprompted, dreams of terrible things, and daily worry especially as it relates to the kiddo are all things that negatively impact my life and inhibit normal functioning. However, I am not going to consider pharmaceuticals at this stage. The first order is to just connect, find a spiritual centre, exercise, meditate, supplement with EPAs, get fresh air, and see what that cocktail does. My first year of school and the subsequent flurry of activity it brought was a reason to make poor eating decisions and avoid exercise. The goal for 2023, in prioritizing mental health, is to do those very simple things that I avoid and talk myself out of. Exercise alone will likely put an enormous dent in my worry.

I’m also playing around with a neat app called Effecto this year. It’s a paid app, but I was intrigued enough to purchase it. Effecto is a sophisticated mood/energy/everything else tracker, which finds patterns and charts data. For example, I can record my mood each day, and note key activities (time with friends, lots of exercise, waking up early, and so on), to see what kinds of correlations emerge. Perhaps time with friends is consistently correlated with improved mood, but staying up late is consistently correlated with poor mood. Instead of manual calculations, the app does the work for me. It is the kind of tracker that will improve with continued use. I expect it to really start providing interesting correlations after three months, which I’ll report back on once I hit that point.

My hope for 2023 is that we all experience a boost of connection and find ways to improve our collective ailing mental health. I don’t expect world events to be positive; the opposite will likely be true. Recession, war, political polarization, discrimination, poverty, illness, and extreme weather will continue. Perhaps we will learn more about Covid’s long-term effects (some things are not looking good). But I hope we will be a little nicer to each other. I hope we’ll move away from the grinding feeling of “just get through it,” and I hope that 2023 will not continue to feel like Groundhog Year. Yet again, I nurture an emotional sentiment that is not based on reason. But optimism, however fragile, is worth nurturing. It provides a reason to wake up, and to try, and to love.

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