On May 31, 2021, I, along with the rest of the students at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM), received an email from The Bulletin Brief about our upcoming school semester:
As Canada ramps up its Covid-19 vaccination campaign, the University of Toronto is busy preparing its three campuses for a safe return to in-person academic instruction this fall.
I’m not sure what sort of a response this provoked in students. Joy? Relief? Excitement? I felt some of this, too—a break from the repetitive cycle of my unchanging life felt like being relieved a burden. I wanted to be happy about this; after all, the goal the entire world has in mind is returning to normal. Now, with vaccines available, that goal is floating within reach. Malls and gyms are re-opening and people are starting to meet up and socialize. I’m not denying the emotional and mental benefits of that.
But I felt a loss at the thought of returning back to a supposedly normal life.
It’s the second week of eleventh grade and I’m heading to the mall with Tharany during our lunch break. Around us, other students head in the same direction. I’m smiling as Tharany and I banter, but something feels wrong. She suddenly grabs my arm—I had almost walked onto the street, right into the path of a turning car. The car honks as it speeds away.
“Are you okay?” Tharany asks. “What were you thinking? Didn’t you see it?”
“I’m fine,” I say, “I wasn’t paying attention. You were saying something about Ms. Davis?”
As she continues—only after giving me a look—I realize I am completely fine. My heart isn’t racing. No signs of an adrenaline rush—even though I almost died.
I focus on what Tharany says as we cross the street, safely, and I smile and groan where I deem appropriate, but can’t exactly enjoy the conversation. I don’t feel happy. I feel like there’s a wall between us, something only I am aware of, and it’s keeping me away from her, from the world.
The first week of February in twelfth grade, I sit in a waiting room. A few closed doors over, a psychiatrist, Dr. Butler, and my therapist, Sarah, discuss a potential diagnosis.
“I can’t bring myself to care about anything anymore,” I had said to Dr. Butler. “Everything I feel is on a superficial, surface level, but nothing truly matters—most of the time I can’t even identify what I’m feeling. I can’t focus on my classes. My average has dropped. And I’m so tired, all the time, even after twelve hours of sleep.”
The sound of a door opening breaks me out of my thoughts and Sarah calls me in. After I take a seat in Dr. Butler’s office, she informs me, gently, that she’s diagnosed me with depression.
“I thought I had dysthymia,” I say, referring to the form of depression with supposedly milder symptoms.
Dr. Butler pauses. “No, I think your symptoms are severe enough to be considered Major Depressive Disorder.”
I’m in my first year of university. I take a seat in my lecture hall and bury my face in my hands. It’s only my second lecture—an English course I prefer to my chemistry classes—but I’m tired. I only start unpacking my stuff when the professor pulls up a PowerPoint and begins to speak.
Focus, I tell myself as I come close to zoning out.
Chemistry, my brain argues back. You’re behind in chemistry. And in biology. And math. You’re behind even with a reduced course load. You swore you’d do better this semester.
I’ll catch up, I say— the same words I said to myself last week, and the week before. There’s still over a month until exams.
Which means you have another month to go home and throw yourself in bed when you should be working, says my brain. Might as well add English to the list of things you need to catch up on.
I glance at the PowerPoint, which is now on slide seven instead of slide two. There’s no textbook for English and I didn’t make any friends so I can’t ask anyone for notes. Shit.
The way depression manifests itself is unique for every affected person. Our symptoms vary, as do our coping mechanisms. My primary symptoms were apathy, lack of motivation, anhedonia—a fancy way of saying the inability to feel pleasure—and constant fatigue.
There’s also a disconnection from my environment. Some people call it dissociation. Others call it emotional numbness, which is what I prefer to use.
Because of this disconnection, it can be difficult for me to predict how certain situations will affect me until they actually happen, so I had no idea what to expect with online learning.
Over the summer, I took two courses, one during each session. The first one was on classical mythology and the second one was on creative non-fiction writing. These did not require much effort on my part, besides attending lectures every week from my bedroom and completing several reading responses. While the experience felt different, it wasn’t in any way bad. I was lucky that my professors were clear on instructions and expectations, and with only a single course to focus on at a time, I did well in both of them.
Then the Fall semester began, and students at UTM began discussing the changes.
“I know a lot of you have been struggling with online learning these past few weeks,” says Professor Allen. “So I’d like to spend the first ten minutes of class giving you a chance to talk and share what’s been going on lately.” He pauses. “And you can turn your cameras off for this if you want.”
Almost everyone does, including me. The camera always feels like an invasion of my privacy, and I hate constantly seeing my face on the screen.
There are a few seconds of silence.
“I know that many of us professors are struggling to teach online,” says Professor Allen. “And some of us are struggling with anxiety and insomnia because of it.”
Professor Allen’s admission makes it easier for others to open up.
“I have anxiety,” a girl shares. “And that was something I often felt on campus because of my coursework. Coming home used to mean getting away from it. But now, without that change in environment, it’s become difficult to cope.”
“I feel like some professors are taking advantage of the situation and giving us more work,” a boy shares. “They also change deadlines without giving us enough of a notice.”
“I’d talk to the cashier every morning when I bought my coffee,” another girl says. “And now, it’s kind of strange not having that opportunity anymore. I know it’s not a big deal but it’s just really lonely now.”
“I’m really starting to hate Zoom,” a boy says, and several students laugh and agree in the chat.
I stay silent throughout the discussion.
It’s not that I hadn’t experienced any of what my classmates shared—excluding the last bit, since most of my professors were very understanding of the situation. However, I found that my experience of online learning was easier when compared to in-person learning.
The lack of commute—which had been a huge source of fatigue—meant that I had an extra three hours each day and was less exhausted. I could attend online workshops without worrying about them ending near rush hour.
I had lectures recorded and available online, which meant that my inability to focus, my restlessness, and my anxiety were no longer barriers to absorbing information and taking notes. I also had more freedom when dealing with my medication’s side effects. I had access to my chosen foods and drinks, and I could sleep or take breaks when I needed to.
But I think the main reason I preferred online school was that I was used to many of the things that people had just begun to feel during the pandemic, due to my neurodiversity, or the variations in my brain.
“I felt that healthy people had entered the world of the chronically ill,” Lisa Grunwald, a woman with a chronic illness, writes in The Atlantic. “And they even knew to be careful not to complain about it too much, because with the hospitalizations and fatalities climbing, they understood that so many people had it so much worse than they did.”
Learning and interacting on Zoom did not feel so different for me because I always feel disconnected from my environment. The social isolation did not impact me as much because I always feel isolated from my peers. The looming feeling of something not being right wasn’t what separated me from others but rather something that connected me to others.
“Of course I’m thrilled a vaccine is here,” writes Rivka Soloman, another woman with a chronic illness, in Washington Post. “I hope life for most healthy folks will soon get back to normal. Thank goodness. Yet when the rest of the world goes off video conferencing, those of us who live with health challenges and disabilities may not be able to join back in.”
I am grateful for the supports I’ve received during both online and in-person learning at UTM. They greatly improved my experience and alleviated much of my stress. I also believe that if there was anything specific I felt I needed to make my experience better, such as extra time to complete assignments, I could negotiate those with my professors or counsellors.
That’s exactly the part where it becomes difficult, though.
Chronic illness does not exist in a vacuum. It impacts every part of your life, even if that is as simple as being too tired to do something and hating yourself because of it. It can be difficult to pinpoint a specific reason or moment that makes life difficult because your illness is so deeply intertwined with your life that it is almost impossible to separate the two.
When life returns to normal for everyone else, there are people and places and activities to look forward to. For me, though, it’s about a variation in the way I live my life, because there will always be a looming sense of missing out, or not getting the chance to do enough, or wasting the supposedly best years of my life because I can’t snap out of it.
Part of what people experienced during the pandemic— and are desperate to get away from—is what I will continue to deal with for at least a few years, if not the rest of my life.
After I reread the email from The Bulletin Brief, I wonder how I’ll readjust to in-person learning.
I’ll time block everything in Notion, I decide. I’ll try harder to focus in class. I’ll—I’ll—
Sure, my brain says. Sure.