Pandemic Assistance Helped Me Make Ends Meet… But I’m Worried About What Comes Next

updated May 14, 2021
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There were times when I was a perfect pupil of the panna cotta: Deep-cleaning the house, preparing restaurant and bar faves at home, being a great mom to my kid. But I also thought the COVID-19 pandemic wouldn’t last that long — how could it? — and now, we’re a year into this mess. And I’ll be honest: I fear going “back to normal,” though not because of another spike in cases (though that’s valid, too), or because I’ve forgotten what normal is like. Just the opposite, in fact. I’m worried that going back to normal means facing poverty, ever-decreasing self-confidence, and a return to a “shut up and grind” culture that I could not maintain. 

Throughout the pandemic, my mind has continued to replay the phrase offered by many Black elders in my hometown of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, regarding the silver linings for people who were, as we say, in a bad way: “This storm was the best thing to happen to some people.” The FEMA rental assistance, free one-way transportation to anywhere in the country, United Way gift cards, food stamps, college tuition waivers, and other aid provided many with a quick boost that they needed. The assistance, though dire, helped people build new lives in other cities, with less stress than they had known in New Orleans. 

That phrase angered me at the time. I was finally living a normal life in college when Katrina struck. The last member of my immediate family died two years earlier, so my house, my things, my city, and my university were all I had left until the storm struck and took them away, too. Katrina certainly wasn’t the best thing that happened to me. But looking back, I understand what the elders were saying, because outside of getting the worst “flu” of my life in early March of last year, the pandemic has shown me that I had been “in a bad way,” too.

Sometime in February 2020, I stood at my altar praying for a financial miracle. The hours at my overnight copy editing job had been cut in half the prior Christmas, but the schedule — 10 P.M. to 6 A.M. — made it impossible to work another job. How was I going to pay the car note, car insurance, mortgage, light bill, phone bill, water bill, and keep food on the table for my son and me?

My miracle came in March, when utility companies were instructed to halt non-payment disconnects until further notice. For the first time in months… honestly, years… I was able to live peacefully. Joyfully, even! Trucks idling outside my home no longer made me worry that something was getting shut off. Thanks to pandemic EBT, I was able to buy fun snacks my kid wanted, like SpongeBob Go-Gurt and cheese sticks, instead of only whichever store-brand items were on sale that week. Turning my living room into a classroom for virtual learning was possible because I wasn’t choosing which bill to pay, or which exploitative late fees and reconnect fees I was now trying to tackle like whack-a-mole. 

Now it’s 2021 and it seems like the whole nation is expecting everything to instantly return to “normal” — from booking vacations to planning which music festivals and concerts they want to attend first. But that return to normal doesn’t just mean “freedom” and maskless indoor gatherings; it means financial insecurity and housing instability for millions. Evictions and foreclosures are back on the table, and emails from utility providers are saying the cut-offs will begin soon. 

I’m worried that reopening the city is too soon, both from a health perspective and an economic one. It’s festival season again, but many are virtual or postponed until fall. In a city that relies so heavily on tourism for revenue, I wonder what will happen to people who can’t keep up with their bills if the tourists either don’t follow proper safety protocol or don’t show up at all. How can people support themselves on tips when some dining is still takeout only and when people refuse to grasp the concept of tipping on takeout? My neighbor was carjacked, her contractor was almost carjacked, and I look out my office window and wonder if people’s desperation will only get worse.

Public health concerns are arising too since experts are still learning about both the long-term side effects of COVID-19, as well as the increase in mental health afflictions post-pandemic. I’ve seen more RIP posts on my social media timelines with hints that suicide was the cause of death — “I wish I could have done more,” “you can finally have peace now” — than ever before. Usually, I’m distracted by crawfish, snowballs, and outdoor fun this time of year, but now anxiety and depression are tag-teaming me, compelling me to stress eat Ben and Jerry’s by the pint. 

Thankfully I realized a lot of my anxiety can be quelled by remembering to take care of myself. I’ve been taking my daily vitamins, eating well, drinking water, and getting a full night’s rest. And mental health professionals say to put ourselves first, and to understand this is new to everyone. “Take things as slowly as possible,” Chantell Washington, MA, LPC, a therapist at New Perspective Counseling Center in New Orleans, says. “Prioritize your mental health. Prioritize your self-care, which is essential to our well-being.” 

And Amanda Hembree, LPC, of Lagniappe Counseling and Coaching, says it’s understandable that some people might be catastrophizing about the future while others are busy booking flights and reservations. “For some (extroverts, especially), the isolation and loneliness took a great toll on their mental health, and going back out in the world is met with excitement similar to the first or last day of school. For those with anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or trauma, reacclimatizing may be especially stressful,” she says. “We’ve spent a year being told to not gather in groups, to not hang out with people outside of our household, to be physically distant, to not eat indoors, and so on and now we are being told that those things are OK or are safe, and this information is causing cognitive dissonance.” 

God always works it out for me, so I know I shouldn’t be worried. But it’s OK to still feel overwhelmed and not know where to start. My house is a mess; I’m a year behind on my utility bills and the mortgage that my now-ex-husband took out; I feel less comfortable than ever in my body; the lawn man cut one of my trees accidentally and I don’t know if it will grow back this time; people invite me out but I’m afraid to spend money and I’ve forgotten how to interact with them to begin with; the last time I decorated for Easter, and I left the decorations up until Halloween because there was no Easter.

So instead, I’ve tried to focus on what I do know: I love my son Franklin, our cat Mr. Scratchy Pants, and the birds I feed with birdseed on my office window sills. Supporting local businesses and going on little road trips brings me joy. My prayers are for the necessary money, energy, motivation, discernment, and time to do my best so I can be rich and famous for my great work.

The biggest help for me has been knowing I’m not alone, and finding friends with whom I can celebrate or commiserate. The pandemic has affected everyone in so many different ways, and the advice I’ve held onto throughout the past year is to sit and figure out what I need. I’ve joined local Facebook groups to get tips on applying for assistance; to see if others were experiencing the same problems and had solutions; to find ways to help others. 

The scariest but most helpful part is something I probably should have learned years ago: To be brave enough to let people know if I’m not OK and need a little grace. That goes for employers, children, colleagues, friends, bill collectors, and landlords if they listen. Just by existing, I’m trying my best right now, and it’s OK to say I need help.