This post deals with life in Manhattan during the peak of the corona virus pandemic. It involves events that have been diagnosed as causing PTSD, including death, homelessness, panic attacks, and social isolation.
I got a lot of questions in recent weeks, actually months, how I managed to make it through the COVID-19 crisis in New York. A week ago, I left Manhattan and moved further south. But let me wind back a bit.
It was the first week of March, I was living on my own (basically), and we were all getting ready for spring break. My last semester before graduating from Columbia University was supposed to be the final accomplishment before heading out into the job market.
It all looked brilliant. No struggle with grades, and only a few cases of the covid-19 that seemed to be largely confined to those with underlying conditions. The possibility of a broader outbreak was more of a hypothetical discussion, but it allowed me to study the last week before spring break from home.
That came in very handy as a first-time single mother.
Over spring break, everything changed dramatically. First came the messages from the school, no more in-person classes until further notice. Classes would resume on-line in mid-March. Then the restrictions on businesses and social distancing from the governor. Shortly thereafter, we found out that there was not going to be a regular end to the academic year, no graduation. At least not in person.
Some of my friends had been away, including abroad, during spring break. The message to them was ‘do not come back’. Within a matter of days, all while the campus was empty, the world changed. I had no idea if I would ever see some of my friends again, no graduation, probably no job, and largely confined 24/7 to my apartment.
There was no time to think about how to make it through. Nobody had any clue how long this would last. We went through the motions of attending class on-line, but our minds were no longer engaged. The constant news of infections and rising death counts would not stop. With hourly updates, the entire episode was (and is) like watching the Titanic sink in slow motion.
I was scared to death. For two months, with the exception of one doctor’s appointment, I did not go outside. The support among the students was great, but the pressure each of us was under never really surfaced. Only when I read about a death in one of the buildings close to school, where I knew some of my classmates lived, did the situation become real.
Everyone had to evacuate the building, get tested, some tests came back positive. The building had to be sanitized before anyone was allowed back in. In the meantime, students stayed in hotel rooms nearby. From that moment, I was just praying that my building was virus-free.
Daily confirmation about the ease with which the virus was spreading through the city, how it had been in the subway system long before the first official cases, made me wonder if I already had the virus without knowing it. I never felt sick, though that was no longer any assurance either.
The first few weeks weren’t so bad. All classes were on-line, a bit awkward, but doable. And the logistics were easy, food was delivered, all seemed good.
Until that moment comes when the world closes in. What if I had to move out? One of my classmates saw the dead body being carried out of his building. He was diagnosed a few weeks later with PTSD after having a mental breakdown.
What if that’s me, where would I go? I didn’t think I had anyone to turn to should something happen. Posting entries here and there was a bit of a relief from the smell of sickness and death that permeated the city. Nobody knew how bad it was going to get. All we knew was that the worst was still ahead of us.
I had hoped to get a job in New York, work for a few years, and then return to Germany. That seems like a pipe dream at the moment. Overnight, hiring stopped. Interviews got canceled or began with ‘We’re really interested, but…’ Doing everything by video was not so bad, but never allowed for a sense of security.
Speaking to people, presenting myself, that’s what I’m good at. But not through a video-conference, doing a job interview. Nobody in my class had anything good to report. I don’t know of a single student in my class who had any luck since the city was going into lock-down.
And the death count was still rising. Now New York was the ‘epicenter’ of the global pandemic. Great, and I was sitting locked behind my door, right in the center of it.
I gave up caring about school about four weeks ago. I had never before lost ambition. The feeling of doing something, just to complete it, was totally alien to me. Even more so, what would come after the end of the semester, when I technically have my degree, is still not clear.
As a German citizen, I only had a student visa. That gives me technically 60 days following graduation days to find a job and stay in the US. Otherwise, my visa expires. In the past, this was often overlooked and nobody cared. But with the current administration, and the political climate, over-staying my student visa was a sure ticket to unemployment and most likely deportation.
So, the clock is ticking. With every day that passes, I’m one day closer to leaving the US behind. If I can even leave! Nobody knows how the virus unfolds over the coming weeks. I really don’t mean to be political here, but when it comes to dealing with a pandemic, the US is nothing more than 50 states (plus a few territories), ranging from semi-dysfunctional to complete insanity.
For someone who grew up with a social safety net, easy access to healthcare, and a basic social understanding across political party lines when it comes to tackling a pandemic, listening to the news was terrifying. Sure, I’m a stranger in this country, but I thought I had learned at least some things. Now what I learned was that this was no country at all. This was a game of survival of the fittest. Almost like ‘Lord of the Flies’.
I’ve finished my last exams, though don’t know my grades yet. But then, it doesn’t really matter. Everyone is being graded on a pass/fail basis. So what difference does it make? Looking for a job is just an invitation for rejection, not something I’m very good at. And with the 60-day clock starting to tick by the end of next week, my mind is thinking about going back to Germany.
What will I do? I don’t know. I may know more when this nightmare is over. All I can say is that I loved being at Columbia and now I fucking hate being trapped in this shithole.
I’m sure I’ll get some comments saying that I should leave the US if I hate it so much. Well, spare your comments. This is not the US right now. This is what the US is when everyone is scared. When too many people have died to keep track of the numbers. When nobody knows who is sick and who isn’t; when there is no immunity to a virus that nobody can see.
The way I feel is how many people feel. We just want this nightmare to be over. But it’s not going to be over just by wishing it away. So, I decided to leave New York, move to a place where I can get outside, spend some quality time, and not think about Manhattan for a while. I stopped thinking about it for a week, but nothing changed.
I still feel insecure. Tired. Unsure of what the future brings. And then I think that there are 20 million others who don’t have it any better. They have it worse. At least I can return to Germany where I have family, a place to stay, and all the support I need. Others, even in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, are dependent on food kitchens. I read about them in letters from my family just after WWII.
Keeping myself busy, trying to relax, get my mind of the immediate situation and the feeling of being trapped is all I can do. My posts lately have been weird. I can’t even think about ‘sex blogging’. My heart just isn’t in it.
I’ve been posting more on Twitter, and a bit on Instagram. I’m responding more to DMs, even stupid ones. It’s all an attempt to feel connected. To avoid falling into a sense of complete social isolation. I count statistics. How many people like my posts. It’s fucking stupid and messed up. That’s how I managed to get through COVID-19 in Manhattan. I didn’t.