red tulip flower in yellow tulip field
Photo by Rupert Britton on Unsplash

On Monday morning I woke up to a message from a friend that read, “I am sorry to hear about your lockdown!”

I had literally just woken up moments before picking up my phone (I know, I know, I’m a millennial), so the fact that we were going into lockdown was news to me. When I’d gone to bed 8 hours earlier, I expected to wake up to another normal day. Instead, I found out from an interstate friend that Brisbane was going into a snap lockdown to control the spread of some new covid cases.

Now, it’s only a 3-day lockdown at this stage (though likely to be extended over Easter?) and I have an essay due on the third day anyway. So I’m not complaining. I know this impacts many others far more negatively than it does me, so I’m not trying to understate or overstate the impact of the snap lockdown. I’m also aware that most of my overseas friends are facing far more dire situations weekly, and again, I’m not trying to portray this mini-lockdown as some trying experience.

The reason I’m writing about it is because going back into lockdown for the first time since this time last year is giving me some interesting flashbacks: glimpses of what that first lockdown was like, and thought-provoking comparisons of how this one feels so different.

The most significant difference, to me, seems to be the fact that this is a very localised experience. It’s not even a state-wide lockdown, but just the Greater Brisbane Area, whereas this time last year it felt like the whole world was going into some sort of lockdown.

Every time I have one of those flashbacks of what last year’s lockdown was like, I’m struck by how much it felt like a shared experience. Everyone I knew was experiencing the same uncertainty, loss of freedom, fear for the future, and isolation from loved ones. Of course, people had varied experiences of lockdown; certain types thrived while others found it harder, but through it all we kept hearing the same message: “we’re in this together.” As time rolled on, resources were developed that helped us make sense of what we were experiencing: like when we started seeing articles explaining the phenomenon of “zoom fatigue” or hearing discourse on how important human touch is. It was hard, but it was hard for all of us. That shared experience made it feel normal to reach out to old friends we hadn’t spoken to for months or years and check in to see how they were coping with this new crisis. It even made us follow international news to a whole new level; stories from far away that we’d usually dismiss as irrelevant were now plastered across our screens and newspapers as we suddenly felt like we could relate to these people in foreign places. The thing about a crisis being global is that it felt like we were in it together. We felt solidarity.

This week feels weird in comparison. Probably a majority of my friends live outside of Brisbane scattered across the country, and some of them haven’t even heard that we’re in lockdown. Others might have seen a news headline, but it hasn’t affected their life in any way. While our next few days look very different in Brisbane, all around us people are charging ahead with completely different rhythms of life that bear no resemblance to our current reality. It’s not like they can’t relate at all… for some states it’s only been a matter of months since they experienced a lockdown themselves. But our rhythms of life are completely out of sync right now; they’re no longer feeling the kind of emotions that we are, and our daily experiences look markedly different at the moment.

Last night I was feeling some complex emotions and I instinctively went to call my best friend from Canberra. Then I remembered that Canberra is going about life as normal, and in that moment I realised how much effort it would be to explain the current circumstances and describe my emotions to someone outside of this situation. I knew my friend would be understanding and empathetic, but it always costs emotional labour to communicate across an experiential divide. And last night I just didn’t have the emotional energy or the words to articulate my feelings coherently enough for an outsider to understand.

It always costs emotional labour to communicate across an experiential divide.

In the end, I messaged a Brisbane friend. He got it straight away because he is ‘inside’ the same situation as me and didn’t need any explanation.

There’s something powerful about the solidarity shared between people experiencing the same hardship.

There’s something really isolating about knowing that only a finite number of people are experiencing what you are.

I think that’s why so many of us who have experienced trauma earlier in life found 2020 relatively bearable. For many of us, it was the most visible and intelligible our struggles have ever been. I’ve spoken to so many people who experienced trauma who tell me that 2020 wasn’t the worst year of their life; it doesn’t even make the top 10 list of worst years for them! Sure, things were really hard and continue to be hard, but being such a global experience meant that we weren’t alone in facing hard things. For many of us, that solidarity was a new and grounding experience. It was this time last year I was writing this post about How Singleness Prepared Me for the Coronapocalypse because so many of the challenges that we singles had been navigating on our own for years finally become an ‘everyone problem’ in 2020.

As a friend said to me tonight, when 2020 happened, it finally became socially acceptable to cry in public; because everyone was doing it tough. For the first time in my life, people finally started talking about how important human connection was; because we all felt the impacts of isolation. The Medicare Mental Health Care Plan doubled the rebate to offer 20 sessions with a psychologist instead of the 10 sessions it had been previously. People with chronic illnesses who’d been asking for flexible work arrangements for years were told overnight that their jobs could be done from home now. We could suddenly say things like “I don’t feel up to doing another video call today, can we catch up another time?” and everyone would understand without no explanation needed—because they felt it too. When a problem affects everyone, the shared experience makes a powerful difference. We are seen and understood in our suffering. Mental health support, work arrangements, economic support, and societal norms can all shift in a moment if it’s an ‘everyone problem.’

Again, I’m not trivialising the past year by suggesting it was easy! It was really freaking hard. But the thing is we all know how hard it was because we were there.

We were all there.

Now imagine if you’d had to go through the experience of the last year again, but this time you were the only person experiencing it. Imagine if you were the only one feeling that uncertainty about the future, the only one afraid of getting sick, the only one suffering social isolation and anxiety and zoom fatigue… the actual hardship would be the same, but there would be the added challenge of not being seen by anyone.

You wouldn’t have terms like ‘zoom fatigue’ or any other vocabulary for putting your complex feelings into words. Even if you did expend the emotional labour to find those words for yourself, people might never truly feel what you felt. How could some well-chosen adjectives ever come close to capturing the experience of the past year?

You wouldn’t have the camaraderie of having been through something together. You wouldn’t have any of the 2020 memes, and you wouldn’t understand any of the memes about other people’s ‘relatable’ experiences. You might try telling your story over and over and over again, but it never gets less exhausting trying to make people feel the emotions you felt so strongly. They try their best to listen and understand, but how could they? They weren’t there.

You might feel like you lost a year of your life because even if you did whatever you needed to ‘get through’ it, everyone else just charged ahead with their usual rhythms of life playing to a totally different tempo than you… and now no one can understand why you ‘wasted’ a year doing so little while they achieved so much. They don’t see that it cost you everything you had just to keep your head above water for that year.

I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but I think this is an important window into what the minority experience is like for so many people. Regardless of how hard or how easy things may be, what really hurts is how all of it is invisible. People think they see us; they think we’re not that different because they can only see the outer shell that has learned to adapt and conform well enough to get by in a majority world. Sometimes when people tell us they don’t see us as any different from them, it reminds us how fluent we’ve become at translating everything into terms they can relate to.

A friend said to me today that “part of queer suffering is how hard we work to keep straight people from knowing we’re doing any work.” That resonated with me so deeply. It also reminded me of how two different neurodiverse friends have recently been sharing with me how problematic ‘high-functioning’ labels are and how those labels can trivialise the immense labour required to conform to majority norms… just to appear ‘normal’. It’s always going to be easier to see that experiential divide from the inside than from the outside… because when you’re on the inside, that discrepancy colours your entire experience. But watching from the outside people can appear to ‘function’ so well that we’re unaware of how much of a toll that ‘functioning’ is taking for them.

Regardless of how hard or how easy things may be, what really hurts is how all of it is invisible.

When Melbourne was in lockdown for months, I was aware of the facts and data of their situation, but I didn’t ‘know’ that experience. I was on the outside. When Melbourne friends messaged me about how trapped they felt, I remember how foreign that felt to me as someone who was doing life as normal. Any insight I had into their experience was entirely dependent on their capacity to explain it to me.

But now the tables are turned and I’m sitting here in lockdown while the rest of Australia ticks along. It’s only been two days, and again, I’m not pretending I have it hard, but already I feel the experiential divide opening up as I watch outsiders inhabiting a different world and different rhythms to my current world. It’s my Brisbane friends that are the ones checking in, asking ‘how are you holding up’ with that extra softness in their voice that communicates ‘I get it too.’ Other ‘outside’ friends can ask the same question, but when I hear their version of ‘how are you holding up,’ it carries a slightly different tone: a note of curiosity that doesn’t know the answer, but asks ‘could you explain to me what you’re feeling?’

Speaking across an experiential divide can be good and healing, but it’s helpful to acknowledge the emotional labour it costs us.

As I’ve been navigating some trauma involving sexuality and religion, one of the things that my best friend has done really well in supporting me is recognising the value of solidarity I share with other queer Christians. While he’s very generous at making time to listen to me for as long as it takes, he’s also shown a lot of humility in recognising that as a straight white man, he doesn’t experience things the same way I do. Sometimes he’ll acknowledge this experiential divide and say something along the lines of: “If it’s not too exhausting for you to share with me what’s going on, then I’d love to be a listening ear and help you process; but if it’s going to be easier for you to have this conversation with another gay Christian, then please do that and know that I won’t be offended at all if you prefer not to share any of this with me.” By having that conversation, he recognises the emotional labour of trying to speak across an experiential divide. He’s wise enough to know that it’s going to cost me more to do the translation work and that sometimes that translation costs me more than it’s worth.

At times, I gauge my capacity and decide that investing in a conversation is totally worth it. I’ve spent hours sharing with him in deep conversation, and it’s worth it because he’s a good friend and I know he’s in it for the long haul. I want him to know my whole story, so I opt in to that emotional labour. But the fact that we both understand it’s emotional labour, and that I have the agency to opt in or opt out, makes all the difference.

Other times, I don’t have the energy left to find the words, so instead I reach out to someone who is ‘inside’ that experience. Last weekend I was processing some particularly heavy feelings, and a celibate gay Christian friend sent me a one-line text that resonated so deeply that it left me crying on the kitchen floor for five minutes (in a good way–it was like I finally had words for this thing that I felt so deeply but hadn’t been able to name). Even without much explanation, my friend could understand the complexity of being gay and Christian because he lived that reality himself. He felt solidarity.

There will always be stories outside of the realm of our experience. That’s part of what makes hearing stories so beautiful—it wouldn’t be as exciting if every story was the same.

But there’s also something especially cathartic about hearing those rare stories that are so relatable that they could be your own: the stories that resonate so deeply that you feel more fully you after hearing them. Stories that you start listening to as a “me” but by the end of the story you hear it as a “we.” That’s solidarity. Becoming an “us.”

We all need spaces where we can have a rest from translating: people who understand our shared vocabulary, or people who don’t need words at all to know our story. We all need solidarity.

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