The 2020 Dumpster Fire

Credit: Ben Watts via Flickr

Most years, the cards are so sweet. This year, I did a few in watercolor and found myself painting a defeated Santa sitting on the curb, a crushed beer can next to him, some trash in the street, drinking the dregs from a whiskey bottle. Inside, it was easy to write, “It’s been a rough year. Here’s to 2021!”

This year was, by consensus, a Dumpster Fire. That may be the only thing we all agree on. We need the year to be over. Worn out, nerves shattered, restless and sick of our own four walls, we need a little liveliness, a little reassurance. A fresh start.

But after talking to a psychologist and a psychiatrist on Wash.U.’s faculty, I realized the folly of my fervent Let this year be over.

“If we just put this in an envelope called 2020, it’s dangerous,” says Dr. Jessi Gold, assistant professor and director of wellness, engagement and outreach in the department of psychiatry. “It’s important to be understanding what the experience was like, what our feelings are like, and not just going, ‘That was 2020.’”

I know she is right. But the thought of dredging up that early paranoia, wiping down milk cartons and bananas and car keys, makes me wilt. Not to mention these inexorable months watching body counts rise with an abstract grief I am not sure, morally or emotionally, how to handle. I knew none of these people personally. But someone did.

Years ago, when my mom had Legionnaire’s disease, I waited, panicky, outside the ICU doors. A young woman joined me. Then an alert went off inside the ICU. “I think that’s my mom,” I gasped. She shook her head, strangely calm. “No, it’s my mom.” For an instant, the boundaries between us dissolved. Whoever was coding, it was both our mothers.

Those of us who have been lucky so far have witnessed a lot of grief that is not ours but somehow is and certainly could be. All that loss is waiting to be felt and spoken.

“There’s a reason that when people go through trauma therapy they write the narrative and then say it out loud,” Gold remarks. “It’s not fun for them, but they are claiming the story. Understanding what it means. Owning it.” After a year like this one, she says, it is important for everybody “just to be able to say, ‘It was very hard for these reasons,’ and understand who you are within that narrative. Otherwise, we just move forward as the pre-2020 person, without acknowledging there’s absolutely no way a year like this one doesn’t change you.”

And it will keep changing you, because the calendar year is an illusion. Years do not dissolve like movie scenes. Problems do not vanish because a twelve-foot crystal ball has dropped in Times Square. Yet come December, we crave an endpoint, a fantasy of fresh start. Once, after an especially rough year, I ripped the calendar to shreds on New Year’s Eve. Once I wrote the year’s worst, threw the list on a bonfire, and watched it curl and blacken.

This year, the recent vaccine approvals make such rituals even more tempting. And even more illusory. Nothing will be safe and relaxed for quite some time yet. Why am I so desperate for artificial closure?

“We frame things to protect ourselves,” Gold says—and to impose a little order after a year of chaotic uncertainty. But clinging to an artificial endpoint only sets us up for a letdown.

Yeah, right, fine. The stubborn child inside me still wants a bright, exuberant, kick-up-your-heels New Year’s Eve—even though I will have to drag my husband into a silly waltz in our own kitchen, and we will be drinking whatever champagne Schnucks has on offer and telling COVID to do unspeakable things to itself. If we settle for ginger ale, it will still feel like getting drunk, and we will laugh hysterically just to release the stress, forget for a while, banish 2020 like yesterday’s news.

And then I will wake up, string a tight mask over my ears, catch it on an earring and, with a little mild profanity, resume caution. But in a new year that spells more hope. That could work, right?

“I appreciate the optimism, but I get slightly nervous about it,” says Dr. Tim Bono, a lecturer in psychological and brain sciences. “Because we are not going to snap right back to normal.” He worries that hints of normal, tiny returns to old ways of doing things, will loosen our caution, sliding us right back to old habits. Context, he points out, is often what cues behavior and emotion.

Bono also worries about the timing: Seasonal affective disorder is at its worst in January, when the days are short, cold, and gray. Even in “normal” years, icy January and bleak February put a few stress fractures in our mental health. What will happen now, when we have primed ourselves to believe an unprecedented, horrific crisis is about to end and then we wake up and find that people are still sick and dying all around us?

Talk of post-traumatic stress disorder is a little too dramatic for those of us who just worked from home next to a dog and a cozy space heater. Delayed trauma is the terrain our frontline workers will have to navigate. But there is newer research on post-traumatic growth, Bono says, and any of us can grow from this crazy year. The trick is to stay aware and reflective, not just guzzle a vat of champagne and sashay, relieved, into 2021.

“It required some psychological strength to make it through this year,” he points out. “It’s important to reflect on how we coped.”

A little recalibration, then. On New Year’s Eve, instead of using magical thinking to extinguish the 2020 Dumpster Fire, we can raise a glass to all the sacrifices and adjustments we have already made—sometimes in an understandable panic, and sometimes with real grace.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.