In QuaranTeen. Why the Pandemic feels like “Teenagehood”

“My friendships are pixelated. Disconnected. They do not extend beyond that flat, dull light of a phone screen.” Eilidh Akilade explores why the lockdown feels like being a teenager.

It’s all in the swerve. That wide berth was the stuff of teen nightmares – a conscious distance taken by others in school corridors which communicated I was wearing the wrong Charlie body spray, my hair was frizzy, and the rumour mill said I was almost-definitely-completely a lesbian. And so, it’s hard to believe the two metres between me and my fellow pedestrians is not because of some teen curse, but rather a pandemic.

Teenagehood is full of firsts. And this, for sure, is a first. Except we are not choking on our first cigarette or vodka shot; rather, we are choking because of private school educated politicians and not enough PPE. I, for one, would rather the vodka.

But there is little nostalgia to be found in a perpetual state of anxiety. Teen mental health is notoriously bad, and I don’t think anyone’s doing all that great right now either. Whether this manifests itself in binge drinking or meal skipping, it seems both the past and the pandemic are inescapable. The grainy lens of a Zoom chat hides shallow breaths and clenched jaws, our vodka numb tongues insisting we’re fine, really, we’re fine. I leave each chat with a hopelessness no anti-depressant can cure. And then we have to do the whole thing again tomorrow. My mum holds me now like she held me then, through teenage panic attacks and sleepless nights, whispering, ‘This too shall pass.’

That’s my life now: my mum, my sister, my cat. How we all slipped back into our old roles with such ease – my mother incessantly hovering, my sister heartbroken, my hormones dictating the peace at family mealtimes. While, yes, this smells like teen spirit, it is also somewhat unfamiliar. In recent years, I’ve drifted from that family support, instead confiding in friends. But things are different now.

My friendships are pixelated. Disconnected. They do not extend beyond that flat, dull light of a phone screen. And this confinement is not new. In my teen years, what happened online was more important than what happened offline: Ask FM, Facebook likes, leaked nudes, secrets over Snapchats. Now online is all we have. Being tagged in an Instagram trend is the closest we get to a hug. We become fixated, obsessed, returning to that teen routine we know all too well. I scroll through banana breads better than mine, abs tighter than mine, home haircuts edgier than mine. I fill myself with envy like it’s a vaccine. We are living vicarious lives.

And there’s no life more unattainable right now than a sex life. For most, sex has become a solo act. Through fumbling darkness and creaking beds, we are once again trying to find ourselves in teen bedrooms. No matter how Love Honey sells it, the vibrator under my bed is not silent – and so I, like most, am coming the DIY way. I wonder if this is the return to nature the eco-fascists hailed. Regardless of method, that same teenage shame seeps in. Our pleasure has been hushed to stifled breaths. We are suppressed and compressed into our teen bodies and state of mind: an untouchable loneliness consumes us. And we are all ever so horny.

There are other frustrations, as well. The “grown-ups” do not have this covered – and we are not some stereotype of an arrogant teen for seeing that. Boris does not have this covered any more than my high school when faced with a school wide mental health epidemic. Its high position in the league tables were a poor consolation in the same way that promises to jump start the economy are now, with god knows how many dead. I guess Nicola Sturgeon is that one teacher – the tattooed one with an arts degree and an anti-establishment edge– trying their best to help while your head of year suggests pushing yourself academically to cure depression. There is a collective urge to slam our doors, put Paramore on full blast, and scream, voices breaking with pain and puberty, ‘No one understands. No one is listening to us.’ Because, frankly, the Tory powers that be do not and are not.

But, as much as we will be told otherwise, we are not all in this together. The pandemic is not the ‘great equaliser’ any more than teenagehood is. Some have a nicer teenagehood than others; some have a nicer pandemic than others. When this is all over, I hope we will remember this injustice and not merely pick up where we left off.

Incidentally, I turned twenty a few weeks ago. It was celebrated with a fag and The Virgin Suicides. How else is one to cope when realising you have just escaped your literal teen years, only to enter a pandemic themed revival? Despite how it feels, teen years do not last forever – and neither do pandemics. But both will stay with us. I will process my teen years with a therapist some time in my early thirties after realising I will never buy a home and so I should probably just invest in my mental health instead. Maybe we too will sort ourselves out in a decade or so: we’ll go independent, pay key-workers properly, care for others, and realise that we, like teenagers, are not invincible to a pandemic. Until then, you’ll find me reading Twilight.

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    I read somewhere that recent research showed humans retain considerable neuroplasticity until their mid-twenties, so feeling like a teenager until then might be completely normal. Any social expectation that we should have matured by the age of twenty may not be founded in science or experience, and it might be healthy to challenge such assumptions.

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