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Where Did Everybody Go?: Romance, Friendships, and Self-Worth after COVID-19

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Illinois State chapter.

Life before COVID-19 was tricky for me. Fresh into college, I had a lot of self confidence issues. I went through two different friend groups by sophomore year, and I felt how every college student feels when they first step out into the world: lonely, lost, and clueless on where to start. I explored different campus organizations to see where I could fit in. I sought out to recollect my life and build myself a vast array of social connections. I knew that I wanted to reclaim myself in a lonely world and find something to be passionate about. Of course, that takes time for anybody. Especially with self-esteem wounds.

I was on a volunteer trip in Denton, Texas, when I heard that school was going remote. All of a sudden, restaurants were closing, yoga shalas were canceling class, and libraries were making you read six feet apart from your neighbor. Our social world was flying off the hinges.

Yet there I was, just starting to figure things out. I hadn’t even gotten a grip on my non-pandemic life yet. I had no idea who I was. Regardless, my self-discovery was put on the backburner. I guess widespread disease and panic often takes precedence over that kind of thing. 

When the whole thing started back in 2020, I had this weird complex that the pandemic wouldn’t touch me. When the rest of the world panicked and cried about their restricted freedom, I was morbidly excited. You’re telling me that college is entirely virtual and I get to lounge in my pajamas all year? Great, I’ll go make some popcorn. Feeling nervous about endangering others was valid in its own right, but it also served as a perfect excuse for a prolonged introverted vacation to my bedroom. I thought I was immune to the boredom and loneliness that others predicted of the situation.

It is only now that I’m starting to reap the shortcomings of pandemic life. If you had asked me during 2020 (my sophomore year of college), I would have denied that quarantine had any lasting impact on me. I perceived my mental health and relationships to be fine. Only recently have I understood that life has been split into two timeframes: before the pandemic, and after.

When we were all told to quarantine, I initially went back home to live with my mother. We weren’t able to do much besides watch the news and bake cookies, but she adored having me around. At that point, it seemed like the entire world was hurriedly dowsing their groceries in Lysol and avoiding one another, so I didn’t feel too bad about only hanging out with my mom. She was probably the only person I saw for months. I read a ton of books and aced my online classes. Eventually, I decided to return to my college town and spend the remainder of quarantine living with my boyfriend. We were already tight-knit, it just seemed natural that we rode out the pandemic in domestic comfort. 

At first, everything was awesome. I was so in love with him. I had fun just sitting on the couch and watching television. Except for the occasional trip to our neighbor’s house, we never saw anyone besides the Taco Bell drive-through man. I preferred that our lives centered around only us, because I was content. There was no pressure to engage with an outside world that didn’t exist. We had mutual friends, so any excursions to see them were in tandem. It was like we lived on our own little island, sailing away only if we chose to.

But eventually, thick black curtains covered every window so my boyfriend could see his television better. His video game sessions used to be an hour, but they began to last for days. Weeks would pass without socialization beyond our brief conversations. We didn’t go anywhere but the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and then kitchen again. My makeup brushes crusted over from abandon and my N-95 masks stuck together with old gum from the bottom of my backpack. My boyfriend began to say mean things. Flies began to swarm around dishes in the sink, because I wasn’t cleaning up after his mess as “a good girlfriend should.” I was reminded daily that I wasn’t as appealing as e-girls on Twitter, that I asked for too much, and that I needed to do something productive with my life (despite recently getting accepted into a Master’s program). I began sleeping for sixteen hours a day and neglecting to call my mom. I stayed home from every social gathering I was invited to. I lost weight and avoided full meals. Eventually, people stopped caring. There were some friends who stuck around through the ignored texts and bailed plans, and I can count them on one hand. Unfortunately, there were an extraordinary number of people who labeled me a “flake” and never took the time to ask if I was okay. They attributed my social absence to a lack of care.

Our relationship stayed like that for nearly two years. Two years lost to abuse and disease. Two years of missed opportunity to make new friends and establish self-worth. I had been spit back out with nothing besides heartbreak, a tendency for social avoidance, and a network full of people who thought I was the bad person. It’s almost 2023, and I still haven’t picked up the pieces of my life. I’ve somehow been trained to believe that these outcomes are all my fault.

I am telling this story for two reasons. Firstly, to finally reveal the truth of my situation to interested readers and friends. Secondly, to validate others who have experienced ostracism, maltreatment, or division since the pandemic. I am with you, and I see the power you have to change your circumstances. 

It’s really amazing to see who sticks around when things get hard. Before COVID-19, I could’ve sworn that I knew some cool people with good intentions. I had girls to go dancing with, friends to volunteer with, and academics who had a similar passion for philosophy. I had a boyfriend who seemed to love me. Now that it’s all said and done, I’m all alone again. My deepest desire is to blame quarantine, to blame my ex-boyfriend, and to blame myself for not doing things differently and having boundaries. But no amount of boundaries in the world could’ve prevented this.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that showing yourself love is paramount. If you love yourself, you can put others in their place when they mistreat you. If you love yourself, you won’t worry about who’s to blame for your situation. If you love yourself, others will be drawn to love you- and if people push you away, self-love can be the cushion that breaks your fall. In a world that has been known to crumble apart unexpectedly, it’s important to focus on what you can control. Loving yourself is the strongest tool in your toolbox. Like a sword, it’s difficult to use…but once you sharpen it, it becomes your greatest protector.

Contributor account for Illinois State