Friendships in the Time of COVID-19

I don’t know if this is just me, but my time in quarantine has made me have weird flashbacks to my childhood. As a kid growing up with CP, especially with a speech impediment and mobility limitations, my lifeline to making and keeping friends was through AIM (AOL Instant Messenger, for those of you who are too young to remember) and one of the first video chatting platforms, ooVoo. Fast forward 15 years, many of us are in a similar situation. To slow the spread of COVID-19, most of life has moved online, including friendships.

In the early 2000s, I’d plant myself in front of the computer screen after school for hours on end. To start the internet, I’d first have to make sure that no one was using the landline since the phone used the same cord as dial-up internet. Once turned on, the little yellow man, AIM’s logo, greeted you by eagerly racing to sign in. AIM offered me a sense of normalcy; behind the computer screen, my speech impediment didn’t matter because communication was via typing on both the receiving and sending ends. In this virtual world, my peers couldn’t see my wheelchair or hear my voice; we all became equal.

It took me so long to realize that my speech impediment wasn’t the issue, but rather the problem lay upon my peer’s lack of patience and fear of anything different. Just like CPF’s “Just Say Hi” in Schools” program aims at, the key to starting a conversation with someone who might look or speak differently from you is, literally, just to say “hi.” Since the whole concept of diversity and inclusion in classrooms had yet to be widely incorporated, the next best thing, during my elementary and middle school years, was to depend on AIM and equivalent online platforms to forge friendships.

Through countless sessions of speech therapy and increased self-esteem, I finally started to use my voice IRL to chat with my friends in high school. In college, I was a social butterfly; I couldn’t get across the campus without running into friends and talking up a storm with them. By then, I was notorious for not answering texts/chats, but once you got a hold of me in person, I’d give you my full attention and talk up a storm.

As an extrovert, I love in-person conversations and meetups. During my first year of being a freelance journalist, I’d mostly work from my apartment or neighborhood. I’ve never been so lonely and sad for such a long period as I had during that year. That was a significant part of the reason I joined The Wing, a co-working space and community for women and non-binary folks. Weeks after joining, I noticed a substantial shift in my mood and motivation. I made new “work” friends, and although we were working on entirely different things for completely different companies/organizations, I genuinely enjoy their presence and our chitchats.

Come 2020, and a global pandemic has moved the majority of our lives into our homes. And I, personally, feel like I’m back at square one. First, I’m back in the same situation as I was at the beginning of my freelance career — isolated and lonely. Second, the fact that I need to depend on technology to chat with friends brings me back to my pre-teen, AIM years. Although advances in technology have made keeping in touch with others more possible than ever before, multiple studies have shown that the use of social media has adverse effects on a person’s wellbeing by increasing feelings of depression and loneliness.

Zoom fatigue” is spreading like wildfire — since all of our interactions and socializing are happening over Zoom, at a certain point of the week, we can get pretty exhausted from continually having to talk or text all day. Although I love my friends and cared about them dearly, the last thing I want to do after being on the computer and phone all day for work is to have another Zoom call at the end of the day or to stay on my devices to answer more texts and emails.

I know I’m not the only one feeling this way. Although the mantra of quarantine thus far has been, “alone together online,” there’s a limit of how far that sentiment can go. Before the pandemic, you probably didn’t receive a morning call from a relative or scheduled back-to-back hangouts with different groups of friends regularly. But now, those kinds of things have become the new norm.

To prevent myself from sinking into a looming funk, I’ve made an effort to set boundaries for myself and my friends. I schedule my calls with friends in advance so I can make sure they are well-spaced out. I make sure my boyfriend and I spend some quality time together without being on our devices. When I go on my daily walks outside, I put my phone on airplane mode, allowing myself to be alone with my thoughts and myself. When I schedule Zoom calls with friends, I try to add some sort of structure to them, because, let’s be honest, how many times can you talk about “how you are”? A friend and I would cook the same dinner together while on the call, and I would take the same fitness class at the same time as a friend while facetiming each other.

Because everyone is in a similar situation right now, it can be hard to decline a Zoom party or FaceTime call. But you’re not going to be the best friend or conversationalist if you’re ignoring self-care and your own mental wellness. Just like on airplanes before takeoff, the flight attendants remind you to put your oxygen masks on first before helping others, the same sentiment rings true here.

A digital world in 2020 has indeed made it easy to stay connected with our loved ones, especially during a mandatory lockdown in a global pandemic. But too much of anything can, ultimately, be harmful. If your friends truly care about you, they’ll understand if you’re forthright about why you’re unavailable or can’t talk. It’s better for you psychologically rather than to force yourself to get on a call or to come up with a lousy excuse.