by Gabbie Kopchinsky
Nobody really saw the year 2020 coming. Among our campus community, endless plans were made, opportunities like scholarships or internships were applied for, and our roadmaps were, with the exception of the occasional and quite common hiccup, more or less adhered to. We naively allowed Spring Breaks to be arranged as the Coronavirus, or COVID-19, waited hungrily for us in the wings. Following the virus’ global dissemination, you’d be hard-pressed to find a member of the campus community who could honestly tell you that some portion of their life or another hadn’t been rudely interrupted by the spread of COVID-19. In Arthur Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller, Frank writes how the introduction of illness forces us to reshape or, in some cases, discard, our plans for ourselves, our roadmaps, as we had once imagined them entirely (Frank 1). My interview with Jo March* further corroborates Frank’s theory about the disruption of our roadmaps, showing myself and viewers that COVID-19 is a virus that forces us to take hold of, reexamine, and revise our coveted roadmaps, just as Frank foretold.
I’ve known Jo since our freshman year at the College of Charleston. Since then, we’ve traveled, studied, and attended classes together over the course of these three years. When I had to start thinking about who I wanted to interview for this project, the idea of Jo almost immediately flashed through my mind. One of the brightest and hardest-working students I’ve ever met here at the College, I had a feeling that Jo, who was involved in more on-campus clubs and organizations than I could even count pre-COVID, would especially be feeling the gravity of this pandemic on her life. At the start of 2020, Jo and I had planned our different study abroad programs side-by-side, imagining ourselves spending our fall semesters in Europe.
Instead of sampling fine foods, learning a new language, or becoming studious globetrotters, however, Jo and I both learned that our programs were being canceled by the College’s Center for International Education due to the rise in COVID cases overseas. On top of the cancelation of both of our studies abroad, Jo had additionally been accepted to an elite summer internship at the United States Embassy in Estonia. I had seen first-hand the extensive application, then interview processes that Jo labored over the previous semester. Jo, who had then been considering a career in the foreign service, had been banking on this internship for the priceless first-hand experience it provided, as well as the future doors it would hopefully open for her. In other words, this impressive program that she had been accepted by was the first, and perhaps most important, step in her life’s roadmap.
Frank writes that people whose lives are affected by illness find that they have to learn to “think differently” (Frank 1). The same was true for Jo. With a light-hearted laugh, Jo says that “this year was supposed to be a really big year for [her]” (Kopchinsky 00:16:57). Instead of a summer spent working alongside and learning from distinguished foreign service officers and ambassadors, Jo found herself spending her summer break in her room, petrified to go outside, spending the entirety of the day in her pajamas getting “stir crazy” (Kopchinsky 00:16:36). As she watched case numbers continue to rise across the European continent where she was expecting to study and work from May to December, Jo tells me that she understood the programs’ decisions to postpone or outright cancel their terms altogether, but from the tone in her voice, you can tell that she’s still saddened by the potential this year had in store for her (Kopchinsky 00:17:37).
While Jo is fortunate that she’s evaded contracting the Coronavirus this long, she still is feeling the effects of the illness on her life and roadmap. This is despite never having actually fallen ill with COVID. To me, this is a remarkably profound and unique application of Frank’s theories on illness narratives and disruption. While we read many moving illness narratives in our English class, most of those were told with the narrator being the one going through an experience with an illness. To see an illness have such an effect on so many people’s lives without them actually having contracted it is fascinating and shows the rippling effects of this pandemic on global citizens at nearly every level.
Through the telling of their stories, Frank writes, those sharing their narrative’s experience with illness shape their roadmaps through “new perceptions of the world” (Frank 1). The same can be said for Jo, whose own roadmap and world perceptions have been forced to be reevaluated by the introduction and impact of the Coronavirus pandemic. Spending months sitting at home prompted Jo to face her mental health, a consciousness that had been pushed to the backburner by her busy, enterprising life pre-COVID. Jo admits that her mental health pre-COVID quarantine wasn’t perfect and though she had tried different medications at the suggestion of her doctor, she eventually stopped taking them altogether. Months later, sitting at home with little else to do, Jo began to recognize the manifestations of her anxiety in the insulated world around her (Kopchinsky 00:15:00).
Jo saw her work and rest cycles changing. She found herself staying up into the early hours of the morning working on arts and crafts projects, then going to bed and sleeping until midday. She was hardly eating, and she was exhausted all of the time. Jo finally realized that she needed to talk to her doctor about getting regulated with a medication for her mental health that would help her “get out of this room,” and help her feel more like herself (Kopchinsky 00:19:12). When I saw her a few months ago, she couldn’t stop talking about how pleased she was that she’d made the decision during quarantine to work with her doctor for her mental health. She had told me that she was feeling so much more calm and like herself, which is the best kind of “perception of the world,” as Frank calls it, that any of us could hope to have following an experience with illness (Frank 1).
As a student, much of Jo’s life and academic career are dictated by decisions beyond her own control. Jo didn’t have the choice or agency to go to Europe this summer or fall on her own, the decisions to cancel those programs were made for her by the organizational “powers at be.” Plans found themselves hanging in the balance of a lot of different factors beyond her own control, which can be frustrating when you’re banking so much on an opportunity that can be made obsolete by this pandemic in a snap. Jo tells me that she didn’t realize how serious COVID-19 really was until it hit so close to home with the cancellation of her prestigious internship in spring (Kopchinsky 00:00:59).
No matter when the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic “hit close to home,” the thing that was made clear through Jo’s and so many others’ narratives is that there seemed to be a new way to measure the timeline of this year. Things were either “pre-COVID” or “post-COVID,” with no in-between. As a history student, I was struck by how much these new units of measurement sounded like “before common era” or “common era.” Our new maps, Jo’s included, have already begun “taking shape,” as Frank writes, whether we recognize it or not (Frank 1).
Perhaps Jo doesn’t know or understand the new shapes that her roadmap is developing, but that’s okay. The only thing that’s known, as I later realized following my conversation with Jo, was that there’s so much about this virus and it’s startling impacts on the lives of everyone (not just it’s victims) that is unknown. Type-A workers like Jo are starting to come to grips with this same realization, to go with the flow and try not to fruitlessly anticipate the next obstacle to appear just around the bend. Jo’s advice for handling these adjustments to our own personal roadmaps? Log off from the computer and just take a break (Kopchinsky 00:52:53). “Everybody’s going through the same thing,” Jo tells me with a smile, obviously finding comfort in that fact, “when things start to get on top of you…go outside…” (Kopchinsky 00:52:15).
All of our roadmaps are changing, not just Jo’s, and perhaps there’s something to find solace in there. None of our roadmaps likely had “experience global pandemic” written in the margins under “2020.” Not one of us saw this coming, and we’re all dealing with that reworking of our roadmaps in different ways. Perhaps there’s comfort, however, in appreciating that we’re all dealing with it. By listening to each others’ stories, like Jo’s, we can appreciate the many different ways, big and small, that our stories differ. I didn’t suffer the loss of an internship that I worked myself to the bone for as Jo did, but I had my own private sets of loss and disappointment in my own ways.
If we don’t share our stories through these illness narratives, then we won’t appreciate the more general effects that this virus has on our roadmaps, or the more minute effects that COVID-19 has on the important details that make up our everyday lives. We need to continue telling our stories and looking at the points in which they compare and contrast. We can learn, just as Jo did, that everyone is going through it, without discounting or discrediting the ways in which our stories are markedly different. Understanding the science behind COVID-19 is what saves lives, but understanding the stories of the people experiencing the Coronavirus and the effects of this pandemic is what’s going to prepare people for all-consuming effects this virus has on every other aspect of our ever-changing roadmaps.
Frank, Arthur W. The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. The University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Kopchinsky, Gabriella.“Interview with Ms. Jo March.” 23 November 2020. Online Video Clip via Zoom. Accessed on 07 December 2020.