2020 won’t stop, and I’m exhausted.
Maybe I should have known this year would be cursed when the New Year’s Eve party I attended missed the countdown to midnight by three minutes — the year has been a downward spiral ever since. On the personal front, my cat died on my 24th birthday, I went through a break up during the loneliest period of modern history, and my apartment flooded three times.
The world, meanwhile, experienced a string of disasters: a global pandemic is forcing us to completely restructure our way of life, raging wildfires tear up the West Coast and confine those outside of the evacuation zones to our homes because the air is so toxic, and democracy could crumble at any given moment as the president wages war on an app infamous for dancing teenagers ahead of an election. 2020 has been marred by the losses of celebrities like Kobe Bryant, Naya Rivera, and Chadwick Boseman, whose deaths felt especially sudden because they were so young.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death was icing on the cake of a profoundly shitty year.
Justice Ginsburg was a trailblazer for equality in the United States. She lived an incredibly full life, and leaves behind a powerful legacy of dignity and respect amid a divisive political climate. Justice Ginsburg was a fierce defender of reproductive rights, and her dedication was unmatched. She even participated in several Supreme Court hearings from her hospital bed; in May, she defended cost-free contraceptive coverage while recovering from a gallstone. Despite her age, battle with cancer, and judicial duties, she still managed to maintain a workout routine. Regardless of politics, Justice Ginsburg was an inspiration.
While the news of her death is heartbreaking, especially for the women who looked up to her, I had been bracing for it for the last few years. Justice Ginsburg had fought colon, lung, liver, and pancreatic cancer. She was aging. It was inevitable. I thought I would be better prepared for the loss, but I still felt deflated.
There are others who are experiencing grief more tangibly in wake of Justice Ginsburg’s death, but as someone who’s skeptical of worshipping public figures, I’m mostly just tired.
The grief I’m experiencing isn’t quite grief. It isn’t quite despair, either. It’s more a quiet, overwhelming exhaustion that creeps into every aspect of existing and clings to my day to day. It’s grief compounded over the entirety of 2020, growing larger and stickier with every tragedy this year tosses at us. I’ve learned to stop saying, “It can’t get worse than this!” because it does, in fact, get worse than this.
Describing this sensation as depression doesn’t feel right. I was diagnosed with major depression and generalized anxiety disorder in college, and have spent a majority of my adult life being treated for it. Major depression is characterized by a severe and persistent low mood, a loss of interest or pleasure in life, and an ongoing sense of despair. Exhaustion is a common symptom as well, but none of my depressive episodes have put me in a state like this before. This state of being seems to be a universal experience.
I’ve been describing this feeling as the “hell zone,” a sudden dip in mood and energy that’s unique to existing through this pandemic. In April, comedian Dan Sheehan described the hell zone as an “anxious, semi-agitated state where you’re just sorta ‘off’ for the whole day and time flows like you’re wading through chili.” It tends to follow an otherwise normal feeling period of a few days when you can almost forget about everything that happened this year.
Despite promises of a vaccine and a return to normalcy, the last few months of 2020 are looking bleak, and the hell zones I’ve been falling into are more frequent than they were when social distancing began. My coworkers and I have been referring to the days of decreased productivity, gentle dissociation, and overwhelming exhaustion as hell zone days, because this is so widely felt.
The hell zone is an anxious, semi-agitated state where you’re just sorta “off” for the whole day and time flows like you’re wading through chili and your hell zone will NEVER sync up with other peoples hell zones and that’ll always make you feel weird and stressed out
— Dan Sheehan (@ItsDanSheehan) April 18, 2020
It’s easy to wax poetic about honoring Justice Ginsburg’s legacy by continuing her fight for equality. The sense of despair over possibly losing our civil liberties should galvanize all of us into activism if we haven’t been doing so already.
Following the news of her death, I checked my voter registration to make sure I’ll receive my mail-in ballot in time for the election. I made sure my family had theirs all squared away, too. I donated to another bail fund for protesters fighting against police brutality and systemic racism, even though Justice Ginsburg had some outdated stances on race. I briefly considered getting a copper IUD, which is effective for 10 years, and stockpiling Plan B in case reproductive rights are stripped away by a conservative-led Supreme Court.
Justice Ginsburg’s last wishes were weighted by a similar urgency. In her last days, she told her granddaughter, “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
But the morning after her death, I fell back into the hell zone. Time felt warped, moving both too fast and too slowly. I chugged a latte loaded with espresso shots and even though my heart was racing with the sheer amount of caffeine I consumed, I still felt tired. There was objectively nothing wrong, so why did I wake up so easily annoyed? It’s just the hell zone.
Existing in a constant state of crisis is exhausting. I am, of course, immensely privileged. I have a salaried job during some of the worst unemployment rates in American history. My home in California is not threatened by wildfires. While so much of the world struggles with loneliness during social distancing, I have a tight knit quarantine bubble that keeps me somewhat sane. I’m not an essential worker who has to interact with the public amid increasing COVID cases. My medications are covered by insurance, for now.
That being said, I find it greatly comforting to let myself despair every now and then. This capitalist hell we live in encourages productivity and looks down on spending the whole day curled up in a depression nest.
It’s almost easier to ignore that sticky exhaustion that comes with the hell zone, and distract yourself with working and hobbies and organizing for progressive causes. But you’ll have to take a break from it eventually, and you’ll have to contend with the fact that everything just sucks right now. That’s not to say that you can’t find joy in this bleak quarantine — I’ve picked up new hobbies, adopted two sweet cats, and finally started medications to treat my mental health. That compounding grief, though, will continue to grow with each tragic event this year manages to spawn.
During our weekly sessions, my therapist reminds me that it’s perfectly fine to feel exhausted and defeated. Sometimes, it’s all you can feel, and you have to let it wash over you before you can begin feeling anything else. Some call it self care, and others might call it laziness. For me, accepting the fact that I’m in the hell zone gives me a chance to recharge.
Is it enjoyable? Not particularly. I’d rather not deal with it at all, but suppressing this ongoing exhaustion will only make it worse. You do not need to be on top of it all of the time.
When I let myself really settle into the hell zone, I’ll sequester myself in my bedroom for the night without doing the errands I planned for the day. I’ll smoke enough weed to get cozy, burrow in my comforter, and play Animal Crossing until I fall asleep. I’ll ignore messages until the next morning, and when I emerge from my self-imposed hermitage, I’ll be ready for another handful of days without the hell zone. I think of these nights as controlled depressive episodes – if I indulge in these every now and then, I won’t fall into an actual depressive episode.
A lot of people don’t have the luxury of hell zone nights like mine. I’m not responsible for small humans like many parents dealing with a lack of childcare are, and I don’t work overnight. Sinking into the hell zone doesn’t necessarily require blocking off a whole night. You can let yourself be in the hell zone in a variety of ways, whether it’s having a good shower cry or indulging in a late night ice cream. The most radical thing about hell zone moments is that they’re a rejection of productivity.
If Justice Ginsburg’s death sparked a fresh wave of energy and you’re ready to take action, by all means do it. If you’re dealing with this ongoing, dull exhaustion like me (and you probably are, given the state of the world right now) sit with it. Take a moment, or a few hours, to really soak it in. Maybe this year will get better. It’ll probably get worse. Let yourself wallow in the hell zone for a bit. Once you emerge, you’ll be ready to tackle whatever shit 2020 has in store for the rest of the year.