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The Year of Blur

By Alex Williams

 
Chloe Pang for The New York Times
 

For Kate Baer, a poet in Harrisburg, Pa., 2020 feels like a time warp. She compared it to when she and four friends escaped to a woodsy cabin in Maryland and tried cannabis edibles. “Time stopped,” Ms. Baer, 35, said. “And this is how time feels in this pandemic. Fluid and very confusing.”

Avi Bonnerjee, 34, a tech analyst from Brooklyn, said that 2020 recalls the “ambient sense of timelessness” of Los Angeles. “In New York, each season has such a distinct character, there’s always a passive sense of forward progression,” he said. “In L.A., you’re in a perpetual state of warm weather, so you seem to hang in some sort of purgatorial state.”

To Dulci Edge, 34, a consulting creative director in fashion in San Francisco, 2020 reminds her of the old parenting adage: “The days are long, but the years are short.” Except in the pandemic, she said, “the days are long, and the year is also long.”

Do you feel like time has no boundaries anymore, that the days just bleed into weeks, that January may as well have been 2017?

Chloe Pang for The New York Times
 

You’re not alone if you feel that 2020, perhaps the most dramatic and memorable year of our lifetimes — and that’s before Election Day — seems shuffled and disordered, like a giant blur. A dream state, or perhaps a nightmare.

That’s the paradox of 2020, or one of them: A year so momentous also feels, in a way, as if nothing happened at all.

It’s not entirely an illusion. Without the usual work mixers, festive holiday celebrations, far-flung vacations or casual dinners that typically mark and divide the calendar, the brain has a harder time processing and cataloguing memories, psychologists say, and the stress of the year itself can shift how our brains experience time.

What month did Kobe Bryant die? Was it actually this year that Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, de-royaled themselves? Wasn’t there something about murder hornets, or was that 2018?

Chloe Pang for The New York Times
 

For some who have recovered from Covid-19, there is a medical explanation for the feeling of mental haziness: Covid brain fog, a lingering combination of dementia-like symptoms including memory loss, confusion and difficulty focusing.

What about everyone else? For many, the year has been a monumentally odd mix of crisis, either experienced personally or witnessed in the news, and boredom. And for many of us, life in the age of lockdown consists of seeking out novel ways to escape isolation while not bingeing too heavily on the tragedy in the headlines.

Alcohol consumption is up by 14 per cent (and 17 per cent for women) compared with a year ago, according to recent report in the JAMA Network Open. Makers of cannabis vape pens and cartridges are reportedly seeing booming sales in states where marijuana is legal.

But maybe the sense of jumbled chronology is not just in our heads — or rather, it actually is. Sheer monotony has the ability to warp time and tangle our memories, psychologists say, with quarantines and lockdowns robbing us of the “boundary events” that normally divide the days, like chapters in a book.

Without breaks in a repetitive routine, the mind has difficulty differentiating between memories, which psychologists call pattern separation, said Lucy Cheke, a psychologist and lecturer at Cambridge University who is researching the effects of the pandemic on memory.

Chloe Pang for The New York Times
 

That might explain why Ms. Edge, the creative director from San Francisco, can’t tell what day it is sometimes.

“The usual time markers are gone, so everything is bleeding together into one amorphous blob of days,” she said. “It just keeps going and going in a way that reminds me of my teenage years. Like, high school was four years long, but it might as well have been 40. I remember feeling like I was watching paint dry, just kind of going through the motions until graduation day when my real life could begin.”

It doesn’t help that so much of our lives are virtual now, happening only on screens. Instead of stimulating our senses in real life — going to shops, meeting friends for coffee, chatting with colleagues in the office — we FaceTime when the mood strikes, we binge Netflix shows from three years ago and we browse Amazon perpetually. We lose that sense of grounding, in place and time.

“Normally, there’s a good deal of variety in our lives, so this makes that process a lot easier,” Dr. Cheke said. “If you had lunch at your desk at work on Monday, that makes it easy to distinguish from eating in a cafe on Tuesday.”

It all adds up to the blur. Does anything change?

Last spring, Ashley C. Ford, a writer in Indianapolis, packed away her sweaters and winter coats, wondering what the world might look like half a year later when she finally unpacked them.

“I took them out two weeks ago,” Ms. Ford, 33, said, “and it’s all the same.”

Chloe Pang for The New York Times
 

If one problem is that there is too little going on in our lives, another problem, it seems, is that there is also too much.

A remarkable thing about this year is that it’s marked not by one big crisis alone, but a giant stack of them: a killer virus blended with political chaos, environmental catastrophe, racial strife. The list goes on.

It is a “cascading series of events that just doesn’t seem to stop,” said Alison Holman, a professor of nursing and psychological science at University of California, Irvine, who studies the psychological effects of shared crises, including the current pandemic.

The unending sense of crisis is an “ongoing, chronic stressor” that can lead to a collapse of the reassuring sense that our lives move in orderly fashion: past, present, future, which is key to mental stability. Instead, many of us feel stuck in a lousy present with little sense of the future.

In researching the psychological repercussions of devastating Southern California wildfires in the 1990s, Dr. Holman said that victims felt like “time slowed down" and “the days blurred together.” “Their sense of reality changes,” she said. “They’re not sure what’s real anymore. They feel a sense of a blur, like time is just a blur.”

Chloe Pang for The New York Times
 

“This is particularly true of young people,” she added, “who have a lot of life ahead of them.”

Trying to plan a future has been a challenge for Emily Caldwell, a senior at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s rough,” said Ms. Caldwell, 22, who is studying Latin American studies and journalism. “I feel like I’m just treading water right now.”

Before the coronavirus, she hoped to move to New York, San Francisco or Washington, D.C., and get an internship at a magazine. Now, many magazines’ websites include messages to prospective interns along the lines of, “As of May 2020, this program has been suspended for the foreseeable future.”

“For the ‘foreseeable future’?” she said. “When is it going to be normal again?”

Chloe Pang for The New York Times
 

Yes, we’re doing less. Yes, we’re worrying more. And too often, we’re doing less and worrying more alone, cut off from friends, family and colleagues.

Isolation itself can also distort the shape of the days, weeks and months, said Craig W. Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who studies the effects of isolation in one of its most extreme examples: prisoners in solitary confinement.

“This is not to say that the deprivations are in any way comparable to the deprivations a lot of us are facing now,” Dr. Haney said. “They’re not. But even people in solitary confinement will tell you that the essence of that experience is something we’re all experiencing now — the deprivation of normal social contact. And human beings really do depend on each other to structure our lives and tell us who we are.”

In isolation, whether relative or extreme, “there aren’t any psychological anchors in time and space that human beings ordinarily provide for us,” Dr. Haney added. It is easy to just drift.

And for plenty of people, pandemic isolation has also been accompanied by geographical relocation — urbanites who have fled to the suburbs or the country, young people who have moved back home to live with their families — which can mess with their sense of time on a macro scale. What happened to the familiar chronology of their old lives? What stage of life are they actually in?

Chloe Pang for The New York Times
 

That may explain why Eric Kim, a food writer who moved from New York to live with his parents in an Atlanta suburb, spends so much time thinking about his homecoming king crown, which he found in his childhood bedroom closet.

“It’s really ironic that it’s in the closet, because I was closeted when I was in high school,” Mr. Kim, 29, said. “I feel like I’m in my high school body again.”

As he hunkers over the stove alongside his mother, just like in his teens, preparing recipes for a cookbook on Korean home cooking, life becomes a time warp. “It’s hard to see the future because time is moving very slowly,” Mr. Kim said. “I feel like I’ve been here for a year, but I’ve actually been in Atlanta for three months.”

Whether you’re talking about the devastating Spanish flu of 1918 or the current crisis, “a pandemic screws up our sense of time,” said Laura Spinney, the author of the 2017 book “Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World.”

Then, as now, the mental exhaustion from the relentless sameness can lead some people to try to impose an artificial endpoint on the pandemic. “We’ve all had basically enough of wearing our masks and having our lives disrupted,” Ms. Spinney said, “which is what we’re seeing now with Covid fatigue.”

That’s one approach to dealing with a pandemic where time seemingly has no meaning. The other is simply to go with it.

Chloe Pang for The New York Times
 

For Taryn Southern, a futurist and documentary filmmaker in Los Angeles, the pandemic time warp of 2020 feels eerily similar to 2019, when her busy professional life ground to a halt as she underwent chemotherapy for Stage 3 breast cancer.