Back to “Normal”

Earrings and pendant I made in a glass craft class I joined in fall 2021.

Phrases like “return to normal” are common on social media and the news across the U.S. this first week of March 2022 as mask mandates as part of a public health strategy to reduce the transmission of covid-19 have been lifted. It’s almost exactly two years to the day since most USians experienced an abrupt and substantial change in our lives at the start of the pandemic. Many of us are still assessing our physical health risks and mental health concerns resulting from the experience of living through an ongoing pandemic. 

I’ve been thinking about what it means to me to both move forward and return to normal in a psychologically and socially healthy way. And I’ve been thinking about how this transition relates to the work I do in helping graduate students make sense of their significant transitions during graduate school – whether through the pandemic, their qualifying exams, their thesis defenses, family status, or other personal, academic, or professional milestones. 

In sharing these reflections below, I recognize the privileged socio-cultural space I occupy as well as the systemic barriers and cultural hurdles I participate in that make this transition a different and more difficult experience for people of marked and marginalized identities. I believe our survival is interlocked and interdependent. I recognize my responsibility to being in good relations and to putting my privilege in service. I acknowledge that my perspective is partial and that I continue to have things to learn.

What feels unsafe?

I feel psychologically unsafe in the way the “return to normal” attempts to reject and erase the person I am now: my new knowledge, my battles and strengths, my new realities, and my new wisdom and self-authority; what I now believe we all deserve; and what I am now capable of. In the “return to normal,” I feel like I’m expected to bring the more naive and “asleep” person from 2019 to the new “normal” of 2022. Major transitions amplify core fears. I am afraid of and hurt by situations that silence, invisibilize, misrepresent, or eclipse my experience, perspective, and voice. The clarity about that fear of losing my new self motivates me to speak courageously about what this new version of me needs now:

  • Structure and routines
  • Grieving and mourning
  • Honoring and dignifying
  • New communities

Reflections: What is this (or any) transition amplifying of your core fears? What do you see of the you who is becoming that you don’t want to lose? Do these fears show up in other transitions of your graduate student experience?

Creating structure and routines

I think we anticipate going back to previous routines and cultures of work, picking up where we left off. But I’m struggling to do that. I am reflecting on how my fears need to be deliberately tended to and integrated into the new structures and routines I create.

There are aspects of my remote work life that worked well for me; I also learned that there were aspects of my Before Times life that weren’t working for me. I am becoming better attuned to how I feel – my emotions and body sensations – and how I intend for my life to feel on a day-to-day basis. I’m identifying the right mixture of those structures and routines and then committing myself to advocating for those needs in my workplace and homelife. (see the post about intentions and commitments)

I intend for my life to feel less reactive and less overwhelming as well as more reasonably paced, creative, thoughtful, and relationship-building. I’m committed to not engaging in overwork anymore. I am committed to creating humane spaces for others. I’m being more choosy about the projects I engage in, assuring that they are in alignment with the way I want to do my work – collaborative, communicative, reciprocal, emotionally honest. I’m experiencing burnout and exhaustion, so I am committing to more rest and sleep. I’m still figuring out what level of energy I can sustain working in person most days and facilitating in-person events and meetings. 

Reflections: What does “working for you” mean and feel like – in any aspect of your graduate student experience? What routines and structures have been working for you? What isn’t working for you? What do you want your day-to-day to feel like and include? How are you tending to your own fears in new routines? What would be one small change in your routines that you could make as a habit to start living that future day-to-day now?

What needs to be grieved and mourned?

I’ve written about grief before and the importance of grieving and mourning. Change and grief are interwoven – letting go of something as you become something. In this specific “return to normal” transition, I am grieving my loss of the more naive, innocent, and “asleep” person I was in the Before Times. That version of me had their season with illusions about safety, predictability, certainty, what I thought I could count on, and who belonged in my circle. To serve as compassionate witnesses to those losses, I have overlapping circles of friends – zoom friends I meet with monthly, walking friends I walk with weekly, and text friends I chat with whenever. 

Another loss might be the communities you belonged to in the Before Times that may not be the ones you need now. You might feel like you’ve outgrown some of your former communities or relationships.

Reflections: What have you lost during the pandemic, whether concrete or abstract? What was their importance in your life? What impacts have the losses had for you? Who do you trust to witness those losses and mourn with you, affirm your elder-status, and support you as you prepare to grow again? How does this grief process relate to any change you are undergoing in your graduate studies?

What needs to be honored and dignified?

My experiences in the pandemic have given me clarity about many things that I want to honor:

  • What’s important to me
  • My values
  • My priorities
  • How I intend for my life to feel
  • What I’m committed to
  • What sparks my inner fire
  • My boundaries and the time, space, and energy I need
  • Refinement of my voice and how I use it

I have found it helpful to consider how my tangible small and big accomplishments during the pandemic – projects, publications/presentations, relationships, collaborations, hobbies – reflect my strengths and the person I am becoming.  

Reflections: What strengths, courage, vulnerability, and commitments have you uncovered and refined during the pandemic? What is the difference you have made to yourself and others? What the growth have you seen in your knowledge of your Self and your capacity? How does this honoring process relate to any change you are undergoing in your graduate studies?

What community do you need right now?

I am a different person now with new commitments and interests, a new sense of purpose, and new needs for support in continuing my journey. It’s natural that this new version of me would also be refining the communities I am in. Those communities provide:

  • A sense of belonging
  • Validation and witnessing of painful experiences
  • Accountability, support, and challenge in my commitment to growth in new directions
  • Cheering for met goals
  • Comforting disappointments
  • Encouragement to put hard-earned lessons in service to others.

In my most satisfying and fulfilling work communities, we meet weekly to make progress on collaborative projects, give time at the beginning to talk about how we really are, identify and assign specific weekly tasks, and reflect honestly about barriers that make achievement of these goals more difficult. It’s like a group therapy recovery program. I learned through the pandemic that I always feel better when I get movement, nature, and social things so I do a lot of outdoor walks with friends. I am developing new social hobbies by joining a tai chi class and a glass arts class (recall those earrings in the image for this post). 

Reflections: What do you need now in your communities? What communities and relationships support and challenge your growth as the person you are now? What communities do you need to support you as a person with personal interests, BEYOND your academic and professional growth?

Final thoughts

I come back to the beginning. The transition we’re entering – willingly or not – in the “return to normal” is a mirror and amplifier of change processes I hope graduate students will reflect on related to _any_ of their life’s transitions.

Resources

  • Herman, Judith. (2015). Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence.
  • Kessler, David. (2019). Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.
  • Lesser, Elizabeth. (2004). Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow
  • McLaren, Karla. (2010). The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings are Trying to Tell You.
  • Trauma Resources: University Graduate School, Indiana University
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