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Opinion: A Personal Account of Pandemic Burnout

by Jonathan Ross

Photo by Raychel Espiritu via Unsplash.

I think we can all remember where we were when everything changed.

For me, it was a Sunday night. Pitt was on spring break, and I was up in Vermont with Dad. It was our last day on a ski trip, and we stopped for dinner at an Applebee’s that evening before the ride home. When I glanced over at the basketball game on TV, I saw officials running out onto the court, ushering everyone out like the building was on fire.

I could only read the commentators’ captions on the screen. “What’s going on? I think one of the players tested positive.”

Dad and I joked with our waiter about it. He was a 20-something in college, just like me. I think he said something like, “I hope it doesn’t get too serious. I have class tomorrow.” 

I thought the exact same thing.

When we packed up the car and started heading south, Dad kicked on the radio to listen to the Penguins game back home. And, wouldn’t you know, the Penguins met the same fate as the Lakers and Clippers game on Applebee’s TV. I could hear the whistles clear as day. The game got canceled mid-match and left the commentators on open air. They just speculated about what that meant for the playoffs.

Every radio station was talking about canceled games, sick celebrities, and worried governments. I started scrolling through the news feed on my phone, and every single scroll revealed a new case, a higher number, a canceled event, a closed airport, a new law. The list went on and on. 

When we stopped at a gas station in New York, I got an email from Pitt. Classes were canceled tomorrow.

And it just cascaded from there.

After that, we got EMS alerts on our phones, the kind that makes you curse because of how awful the alert sounds. It was a shelter-in-place advisory issued by New York. There were radio announcements and press releases talking about states closing their borders and activating the National Guard.

We were still two hours out from Pennsylvania. I remember calling Mom and asking her to keep an eye on the governor’s announcements. I crossed my fingers, hoping we didn’t roll up to a toll booth and find a group of soldiers standing in front of it.

Thankfully, that never happened.

My initial feeling about the pandemic was similar to how I felt about a snow day in high school: “Hell yeah! No school!” That didn’t last. 

In my first two years at Pitt-Greensburg, I made new friends, I joined a “Dungeons & Dragons” group, I got good grades, and I discovered a new interest in philosophy.

I liked being here because it’s a place I chose to go, and everything I encountered here made it worth staying. College wasn’t just about school, it was about being part of a community.

Overnight, all of those experiences, all of those things I loved, fell into limbo. Classes moved to Zoom, “D&D” moved to Discord, and friends graduated and moved away. And the whole time I just stayed put because going anywhere else was dangerous. It was a kind of an invisible motion, like being inside a dark room aboard a rocking ship. You know stuff is moving, but it just moves about you. You can’t control it.

I knew that, on Wednesday evenings, when my last class ended in Powers Hall, there was something to look forward to—a group of friends waiting for me just a walk away.

However, when classes went online, that was it. Class became the only college interaction I had. All it took was two semesters of experiencing college that way to really change something.

Class became an option to me, because it was something that wasn’t tied to the place I’d be in. It didn’t matter whether I’d go to class or not, because my bedroom wasn’t going to change either way. Nothing would happen whether I logged into Zoom or not, so why not log into Discord instead? It was just as easy.

Class became the monotonous remains of everything that college had once offered to me. I felt a sort of grief towards the college I knew. And I’ve discovered that when you grind down on yourself like that, you burn out from the friction.

Then began the struggle of returning to campus. It’s my junior year, and, again, my friends have moved away. Everyone I had regularly talked to here is now confined to a Discord server. It was like being a freshman all over again. I didn’t know anyone, and anyone I vaguely knew I’d forgotten about.

Going to class became a liability, and my ADHD symptoms came back, too, because all I wanted to do was distract myself. My attendance went down, and so did my grades. I ended up breaking a three-year leave from the medication I used to take in high school because focusing on anything related to class was impossible.

Today, the struggle continues. I’ve reached the point where the desire to settle in and try to make things better for myself here has matched the desire to move on and prepare for the next chapter of my life.

My reasons for burnout may differ greatly from everyone else, but what’s important about dealing with it is understanding it. If my burnout is the product of an experience that has since then expired, there is still nothing that stops me from renewing that experience. Find what made you want to be here, and bring it back.

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