On Keeping a Pandemic Diary

I began my diary on the tenth of March 2020, and made the last entry on the sixteenth of September, intending from the beginning that my documentation of the pandemic would always be a six-month project, thinking, naively, that by autumn the worst would be over, that there would be some resolution to the crisis by then, that there would be, in short, a return.

I now know that hope to be wrong.

Throughout its writing, I was fully aware of all the things a diary could be, the many tropes and manifestations of the form. Added to this was a degree of self-consciousness brought about by the knowledge that I was writing the diary with a view to publishing it, that someday I would make extracts of the diary public so as to complete and give purpose to the project of documentation I had begun.

My diary became several things: an objective record of the state of the nation and the world I lived in as it faced the pandemic; a clinical account of my fluctuating moods as the effect of living under the pandemic bore down on me; and an expression of these moods and feelings in words which was far from objectively rendered. It was a place to process what was on my mind, corral and deposit all my thoughts, stop them from being unruly and put them in order, take away their ability to disrupt or cause me disharmony.

But it was always, too, a document, a record, of all that I could deem significant that happened during the day, including a daily tally of the statistics of infections and deaths in the country, a task that grew increasingly morbid and distressing as the months wore on.

Despite the layer of self-consciousness that remained as I wrote, there grew a struggle to find both purpose and meaning in the diary, and consequently rather than look outwards frequently to find that meaning, I more and more often found myself looking inwards, gauging my own feelings, my own self and being at any given moment.

For I was aware at a certain point that I was beginning to feel the effects of the pandemic acutely.

What was getting to me, throughout the time of its documentation, was a growing sense of dread, manifesting itself as an acute anxiety that had no particularly apparent origin or source, but that eventually resulted in a loss of confidence at some core level, in myself and in the world around me.

Mainly, the one continuing source of anxiety that I noted was the worry that there would be changes after the pandemic that would be irreversible compared to what was before it; that things would not return to normal in any foreseeable future.

All this anxiety and dread, this fear, I documented diligently in the diary.

Further, as the pandemic continued, with no appearance of that longed-for future without it in sight, fatigue set in as well as anxiety, a weariness borne of impatience and exhaustion with all of it.

This fatigue manifested itself in the diary also as it became a more wearisome task to complete, in much the way as the days, in their sameness to each other, were becoming wearisome to traverse.

Many times I was left wondering: did I have anything to add to a narrative of the pandemic that was unique? Or was the very ordinariness of my endeavour, and the life it documented, marked often by its tedium, the whole point of it?

At times, in recounting the ordinary, documenting it as if I were standing back and seeing it as if not involved, I could realise that it all was actually something to be seen as extraordinary, unbelievable in fact, and very far from ordinary.

But as if contradicting this there was the sense that because my diary documented events that were shared by so many, they were, by their nature, of little interest to others. For the reality was that everyone in the country had experienced the same high tedium as well as the same distress and anxiety of the pandemic, the same daily grind, discomfort, awkwardness, isolation, and uncertainty.

That tediousness of the pandemic, despite the anxiety it caused me, made it unwaveringly boring, and this had leaked into my journal. I felt the diary had become a source or conduit of sheer boredom, a site of tedium; but also the despair that comes of such tedium. So it became increasingly apparent that writing about the pandemic was beginning to push into areas of ennui which threatened to make the whole enterprise frustrating and futile.

I began to ask myself: would there ever be a reader for such a work?

Meanwhile, this self-reflection and self-consciousness was documented against a background of the terrible death toll and physical and mental debilitation inflicted by infection itself. Those narratives which were more definitive, and had, all too often, profound impacts. For those directly affected by the illness, their loss and grieving were real and palpable occurrences, while those not affected, the witnesses, could only be bystanders to such distressing happenings, rendering the idea of tedium and anxiety in the shade, or, at the very least, scaling them back to their correct perspective.

In life, fortunately, I too was a mere bystander and witness, and performed the same function in my diary also.

There were, thankfully, moments of reprieve, along with awareness of the need for positive action to counter the negative, rewarding endeavours undertaken even when the mood was admitting defeat and wishing to remain stagnant, static, defeated. There were, after all, adaptations, and within that adapted life there were still sources of joy. I could continue to do some of what I had formerly done, albeit in different ways, and could consider these doings themselves as sources of hope, and all this I documented.

So there came to the diary an acknowledgment of a sense of appreciation of any simple pleasure that could be grasped at, and this sense of appreciation, of gratitude, was worth being recorded and celebrated and thankful for; a documentation, then, of thanks and what could be deemed to be ideas of grace.

But then reading a newspaper would make me stop and think again: how can we go on, how can we actually be like this, and the diary would shift downwards to expressions of despair once more.

For we live in these times, they live through us, and continue to do so, with no immediate end in sight apparently. Therefore I kept to the idea of ending my chronicling of the pandemic, as planned, after six months, freeing myself from the task of keeping my pandemic diary.

Consequently, that enterprise of documenting the pandemic seemed to be ending on a question, not a statement as intended, and certainly not any conclusion. But that seemed the only direction to take with the diary in any case; there appeared to be no cohesive wrapping up of the pandemic itself, of our lives under pandemic, so how could there be a neat conclusion to an essay about it?

There never had seemed to be a satisfactory narrative to this unfolding event; there was no order or progress to the pandemic nor to its documentation in writing. No structured narrative of beginning, middle, and end presenting itself which naively I had thought would be the case when I had begun the diary. The pandemic simply seemed to become more of itself and I adapted or complied or grew into it, as it grew around me. Its narrative arc is clumsy, as is the narrative arc of the diary that chronicles it, it is unformed, the ending all but anti-climactic.

There was no end, no climax, nor catharsis, leading to a dissatisfying shape or form to the narrative, such as it was, and such as was being recounted. There was just a beginning, and a middle, an endless middle, that occasionally seemed to loop back upon itself, and become a beginning again, ad infinitum.

Today, I have to consider where I stand now, conscious of still not being particularly hopeful that the situation will improve anytime in the immediate future, and aware of how this affects me, with continuing poor concentration, anxiety that is ongoing, and a low-lying irritability.

If only there were a ‘But’ representing contradiction.

But the pandemic has no ‘But’, it simply is.

There is of course that record in the diary of what got me through, those things that still give me joy and that I appreciate, and it is hoped that I can carry that new appreciation with me into the future, an awareness of their proper place as bulwarks against despair. I have so much to bring into the new world that lies ahead, knowledge of what got me through, and appreciation of all that, if not gratitude, and it is to be trusted that I do remember to continue to carry that.

For now, in the present, I have to live with the knowledge that there is no more uncertainty, rather there is an awful certainty, a weary resignation to the fact that there will be restrictions and disruption and nothing will be returning to normal any time soon. These days there is no longer the anxiety of speculating what will happen next: rather there is the despair of knowing exactly what is going to happen and keep happening, for a long time to come.

But still, desperately, now, today, always, it is simply to be hoped for: the return.


Acknowledgments: With thanks to the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon for their support of this project & thanks to Munster Literature Centre/ Ionad Litríochta An Deiscirt also for theirs.


Arnold Thomas Fanning

Arnold Thomas Fanning, Arts Council Writer in Residence, NUI Galway, 2020, is the author of Mind on Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery, shortlisted for the 2019 Wellcome Bookprize.