I was still getting used to being unemployed when the coronavirus became a pandemic in early March. You’d think that not having a job during a global pandemic would be a time to pause, but I was panicked that my career prospects would surely plummet if anyone saw a months-long gap in my CV, and so I did not stop working, dedicated to pushing my scientific papers through the publication process.
Arguing with reviewers via essay feels pointless when you’re worried about your loved ones dying at the grocery store and also have no income. But I couldn’t stop. Meaningless as they felt, papers are currency and I needed them. In my precarity and panic, I hungered for the CV lines that would soon be mine, Dynarski et al. 2020, one item after another. Perversely, I felt that being caught unemployed in the middle of a pandemic and an academic hiring freeze was indicative of a deep and unredeemable failure on my part. Propelled by fear and shame, I buried myself in unpaid work and refused to stop.
Eventually, the papers were accepted. Summer came. No reason to stop now. I completed a fellowship, accepted a new job, agreed to move across the country for the position, away from my partner and friends. Erik and I had been in our home in Vermont together for less than a year when I moved out, but I did not, could not, stop.
More than half a million people have died of COVID-19 by now, and another eight plus ten have died in mass shootings this week alone. Still I do not stop. I send emails, write code, talk into my webcam, read new papers, numb to the world around me. I joke that I am a hollowed out husk of a person, that I am just dragging my carcass around, but I do not stop. I feed my cat, talk to Erik on the phone, walk the same route through my neighborhood three times a day. The motions of a life, devoid of all context or connection.
I wonder how long I can continue on like this, nonstop. My body mechanically performs its service to the academic-industrial machine, but the rest of me is having a hard time keeping up. I want to hold Erik, retreat into the handmade life we’ve built together, but he is thousands of miles away because I could not stop. Instead, I wrap myself in his voice over a fuzzy Verizon connection and try to remember what his face looks like.
I want to believe that being a scientist means I’m making the world a better place, but so many days I suspect I am just turning numbers into words into money, an ouroboros that I am powerless to stop. I feel hollowed whenever anyone makes a cheerful statement about things going back to normal again soon, even as the planet heats and Flint still doesn’t have safe water and another man with a gun kills people for no reason. But every morning, awakened by my nausea, my body still heavy with yesterday’s grief, I nonetheless open up my computer and get to work, unable to stop.