Editor’s Note: Julie Gallagher is a journalist and freelance writer. She most recently covered the 2020 election as an assignment editor for CNN. The views expressed here are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
I spent last Thursday evening the same way many of us have spent uncountable hours over the course of the last 12 months: talking on a Zoom call with friends I haven’t seen in person in more than a year. I’m sure you can set the scene in your mind, but if you can’t: I was sitting in my pajamas, in my bedroom at my mom’s house, drinking a glass of bottom-shelf white wine.
We updated each other about our lives in between sips and screen freezes from shoddy internet connections.
I told them about my job search, how I’ve temporarily moved back in with my mom and brother (again), and the latest TV shows I’ve been watching. I gushed over Taylor Swift’s upcoming re-recorded albums. But I also lamented the loneliness I was feeling, how the monotonous days of this gray winter have made me feel as though nothing good will ever happen again.
My friends all shared similar updates: new jobs, boyfriends-turned-ex-boyfriends, family arguments, dreams that feel just out of reach, their latest farmer’s market finds.
“I also got my first dose of the vaccine,” my one friend added.
This news ricocheted across our screens like a shot of electricity. We buzzed about who else in our lives has been vaccinated, who has had trouble booking an appointment, who was eligible in our home states. We went through our bucket list of what we will do first once the majority of Americans have been vaccinated and our worlds return to “normal.”
Drink at our favorite bar. Hug our extended family. Go on dates. Throw parties. Travel to Las Vegas. Visit another country. See a movie. High-five every stranger we pass on the street. Dance in a crowd. Sing along at a concert.
But the conversation quickly lulled into an uncomfortable silence. I thought about how far away that reality felt.
“I’m just scared to feel hopeful,” one of my friends admitted.
I knew exactly what she meant.
This month marks one year since American life was upended by Covid-19. It was this week in March 2020 that most Americans left their offices and schools to quarantine for what was only supposed to be a few weeks. It was supposed to flatten the curve, so that hospitals didn’t become overwhelmed. We thought staying 6 feet apart from each other would be just a temporary inconvenience for the greater good. We thought we could prevent the death toll from reaching 1,000 people. We assumed normalcy would come by summer.
Yet here we are, a year later, with more than 525,000 coronavirus deaths in the United States. A year of our life has been defined by illness, grief, devastation, isolation and hardship. The highs of life we’ve experienced have been weighed down by this pandemic, and the valleys wedged down a little deeper.
This is a painful anniversary, a marker of time we wished didn’t hold any importance. It’s impossible to not think about what could have been, had all the hope we held 365 days ago proved justified. It’s only natural to feel skeptical of the promise of better days that vaccines and more hours of sunshine will provide. It’s a defense mechanism – if we don’t get our hopes up too much, we can’t be let down.
As I got ready for bed after talking with my friends that night, I realized this paradox of emotions felt familiar. I’ve been scared to feel hopeful before. Oddly enough, it was just over a year ago. At the end of February of last year, I had just taken a medical leave from my job at CNN covering the 2020 election. I was headed across the country for residential treatment for my eating disorder. My grandma had just died from cancer, and my grandpa’s health was taking a turn for the worse (he would die from pneumonia just days after I was discharged from treatment).
My first night at the treatment center, I felt paralyzed by swirls of fear, grief, shame, hope, relief, inadequacy, excitement and anxiety. So I did what I always did when life felt too overwhelming for me: I pushed my dinner aside; I went numb. The physical emptiness seemed to make space within me for all the emotions I was trying to suppress.
I didn’t know how to hold that range of emotions all at once. The unknown terrified me. Even as I was grappling with family tragedy, I didn’t know what my own recovery would entail. I knew I would have to eventually let go of my twisted coping mechanisms. I’d have to grieve the body I’ve always desperately wanted but might never get. At the same time, I was relieved that I didn’t have to be stuck in my eating disorder forever. I was excited that my future body could be nourished enough to carry me through a long and healthy life. I yearned for the day I could look at myself in the mirror without obsessively inspecting and ridiculing it, but questioned if I was even capable of such compassion.
I was scared of being hopeful.
Now, I consider myself a year into eating disorder recovery. March 2021 marks a year since I turned my life around.
The irony of these two intersecting milestones is not lost on me. I’ve been wrestling with how to handle celebrating my recovery while simultaneously mourning the people and experiences we’ve all lost due to the pandemic. How can I let myself feel proud of myself for eating dinner, when someone else’s kitchen table has an empty chair?
Over the past year, I’ve learned that the only way to not be swallowed up or starved by my emotions, is to just unapologetically allow myself to feel them. I had to acknowledge that fear and hope could exist within me at the same time. I can be thankful that the pandemic stripped away many of my eating disorder triggers, while nervous that it has stunted my recovery.
I can be excited to hold my friends close again soon, while nervous they will be able to feel a difference in the size of my body when we embrace. I can grieve for my grandparents, while being relieved they didn’t have to suffer through their failing health alone in the pandemic.
I can be excited for what the future holds, and resent that our “normal” way of life may be changed forever. I can be soothed by the idea that future lives may be saved from the vaccine, while angry that we’ve lost so many people. I can be stressed that I am unemployed, but trust that my life will go on.
This week and month are going to bring up similar emotions for all of us. Whatever we’re feeling, it’s okay to allow ourselves to feel all of it. We deserve to show ourselves extra compassion this March. We deserve to let ourselves feel hopeful. We deserve to let ourselves feel scared. We deserve to let ourselves feel.