The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Oh, we’re still in this.’ The pandemic wall is here.

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Of all the things that could have caused Ashley Murcia to come undone, she did not expect it to be tacos.

The 42-year-old, who lives in Sycamore, Ill., had mostly kept it together for the past 11 months. She’d been holding things down at her marketing job, making sure her two kids were logged in for virtual school and keeping her family clothed and fed and virus-free.

Because her husband works in the evenings, Murcia also cooked all of the meals. At first, she loved planning out new recipes weeks in advance. The only mainstay was Taco Tuesday, her kids’ favorite. It was fine, until one day last month when suddenly it wasn’t.

She was out of meal-planning ideas. She was sick of all her previous meal ideas. She was especially sick of tacos.

Cooking, cleaning up. Cooking, cleaning up. The quotidian cycle of pandemic living had become overwhelming — and not just in an ugh, chores way. It felt more existential. How much longer? How many more Taco Tuesdays?

“I just reached my limit,” she says.

Murcia had run headlong into the pandemic wall, a term popularized by New York Public Radio host Tanzina Vega to capture the particular and sudden feeling of spiritual and emotional exhaustion with life during covid times.

“Hitting the wall” is a running metaphor, describing the phenomenon of suddenly running out of energy partway through a long race. And the pandemic has been a super-marathon: We’re heading toward Month 12, one complete lap around the calendar.

“It kind of felt like I was just running until the end of the year, and that January time frame hit, and that wall was in front of me,” Murcia says.

The year 2020 was cursed; this is widely acknowledged. But New Year’s Day brought little relief. The first month of this year felt a lot like the 13th month of last year.

“At the end of 2020, it was almost like we were all looking forward to the end of the year, and it felt like there was something to hold on to,” says Grey Gordon, a 27-year-old creative director for a record label in Nashville. “And then once 2021 hit, it was like, ‘Oh, we’re still in this.’ ”

Gordon is high-risk, lives alone and hasn’t left her apartment much. She made contact with the wall a few days after the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20 — the day when she thought she’d finally be able to exhale the stress of the past four years, but which ended up being fraught with reminders of how much stress remains.

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“I was like, how much longer can I do this?” she says. “These are my lost years.”

From practicing mindfulness to spending time outdoors, here are some tips for overcoming what some are calling “pandemic fatigue” and avoiding burnout. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The pandemic wall pops up at different times for different people, but for a vast group of people, the wall has smacked them in the face within the past three weeks.

“It’s just chronic overstimulation,” says Imogene Cancellare, a 33-year-old biologist in Charles Town, W.Va., who was so worn down the last week of January that she was convinced she had covid. When her test came back negative, she realized that she was just hitting her wall.

“Your body and your mind and all aspects of you are suddenly a little overwhelmed,” she says. “It results in people feeling kind of numb.”

In marathon running, “hitting the wall” is predictable — as are the rewards for powering through to the other side. Many runners hit the wall around the 18- or 20-mile mark because of simple physiological math: “Our bodies store about 1,800 to 2,000 calories worth of glycogen in our muscles and liver,” Runner’s World explains. “On average, we use about 100 calories per mile when running, depending upon run pace and body mass.”

Marathoners know that the finish line is not all that far past the wall, at 26.2 miles. We have no idea how close we are to the end of the pandemic. The vaccines are here; so are the variants. Herd immunity might be further away than health officials had hoped. Are we hitting the wall at Mile 20? Or are we still on Mile 14?

When the coronavirus first shut down schools and churches and bars and arenas in March, many people thought the finish line was two weeks away. President Donald Trump claimed that the country would reopen by Easter. Then Easter became Memorial Day, which became Labor Day, which became “next year,” which became . . . well, no one seems to know. Maybe this summer, if we’re lucky. Maybe 2022.

Through it all, Chris Garland, 49, has been driving his bus route in the Bay Area. Most days, he gets only a handful of passengers. Sometimes, he drives a completely empty bus. Both feel equally depressing: He either worries his passengers will infect him or laments how many passengers he has lost — people he used to see every day and considered friends. For a long time, he described himself as the optimist in his social circles, motivating his family and colleagues to keep going, day after day. But one day last month, he was bicycling through the streets of his neighborhood on his day off. Even though his bus route took him past closed and boarded-up businesses every day, he finally recognized the magnitude of the loss that had been accumulating all around him.

And that’s when it hit him — or rather, when he hit it. The wall.

“This fear of being around one another — that that fear is not going to go away in eight months,” he says. The realization made him pull over and start to cry. “Those people who I was trying to console and keep upbeat — now it’s official, I’m one of those people.”

“Many people were, at some level, hoping that vaccinations and the new president would change these things,” says Lynn Bufka, senior director of practice transformation and quality at the American Psychological Association. Then came the last president’s attempts to overturn the election results, followed by a violent insurrection at the Capitol and an inauguration held under tight covid restrictions and an ominous military presence.

With a new administration overseeing things, old problems persisted: disagreement about economic relief, chaotic vaccine rollouts in some states, weather too cold for relatively safe outdoor social gatherings in much of the country — and, of course, the arrival of coronavirus variants, first identified in Britain, Brazil and South Africa, that threaten to thwart humanity’s hope for deus ex vaccina and extend the pandemic.

Those who do get vaccinated may be disappointed to find out how little it changes things. Many businesses are still closed or operating under strict health guidelines. The rise of variants requires vigilance for those who wish to protect themselves — and others, because vaccinated people may still be able to carry and transmit the virus.

“I guess my mentality was, everyone’s going to get vaccinated, and everything’s going to be fine,” says Paula Tomlinson, 60, who lives outside of Tampa and received both doses of her vaccine. “But I don’t see that happening at all.”

A survey by the National Center for Health Statistics found that 41 percent of Americans showed some symptoms of an anxiety disorder or a depressive disorder in January, up from 34 percent in May.

“There’s a lot of disappointment in January, a lot of depletion,” says psychiatrist Lori Plutchik, co-founder of Caring for Caregivers, a New York organization that offers therapy to front-line doctors (whose burnout has only increased in the past month, Plutchik says).

Chronic uncertainty is bad for our mental health. When we’re stressed or anxious, finding something we have control over can make us feel a little bit better. For all the hope vaccines have brought in theory, uncertainty reigns. “Getting vaccinated, in most places, does not feel like something you have a whole lot of control over,” Bufka says.

How are we supposed to power through the wall?

Therapists often say that one of the ways to get through tough times is to cultivate gratitude. Many of the people hitting the wall are employed, fed and healthy. That doesn’t diminish their suffering — everyone is struggling in a different way — but Bufka encourages them to try to look at all they have.

Because they could always have it worse. Like Nichole Gonzalez. The 25-year-old in Columbus, Ohio, lost her health insurance in 2020, and with it, her access to therapy. She hasn’t been able to get her asthma medication or her antidepressant. Her job barely pays enough to make her rent, she says, and she has fallen behind by about $1,600 on medical bills and car payments, collectively. Her only hope, she says, lies in the disbursal of stimulus payments.

Last Tuesday, she slammed into the pandemic wall at a high velocity: Her car was repossessed.

“It just felt like, what’s the point in all of this anymore? Like, there’s no help coming. I don’t know why I’m here,” she says. “Should I just give up?”

In their bleaker moments, some of the people who are approaching their pandemic wall might turn to the same advice given to runners. Distract yourself. Try “positive self-talk.” Ask for help. Eat some more carbs. When all else fails, just put one foot in front of the other.

It can be overwhelmingly dull. Murcia, for example, said she would be thrilled “if I never saw another taco in my life.”

And what was she planning to have for dinner that Tuesday?