Art Credit: MoonStatic

A Bottle of Bitter Pills

In college, one of my best friends burned her esophagus by dry-swallowing a bunch of Advil.

It took her a few days to figure out what had happened — we were ballet majors, accustomed to weird kinds of pain and inordinate amounts of anti-inflammatories. She was barely able to speak by the time she got an appointment at the incompetent campus health center, and then it was a few days more of Gatorade and mumbling before things got better. Though quite literally sidelined by a “bitter pill,” she didn’t see a Hallmark-esque lesson come out of the week, other than the reminder that she should take water with Liqui-Gels.

The American idiom “a bitter pill to swallow,” describes a disappointment that’s gnarly to process, but results in some kind of retrospective lesson. The past year wrote many of us a regular prescription. I feel as though I dry-swallowed most of mine, and maybe you do, too. So did we learn anything?

Dosage varied by demographic. As a gainfully employed, upper-middle-class white chick, my pills were minor disappointments: at first, cancelled trips, concerts, and parties. I was accepted and then rejected by the Peace Corps (which is another story, a pretty funny one about my walnut allergy and the lack of infrastructure in Eastern Europe), which sucked for a long time until I realized I am maybe not cut out for things like squat toilets and a culture that discourages women from drinking.

Essentially, I received, like, a 50mg dose of pandemic-era bitterness, rather than the 250mgs many people in this country — and across the world — choked down when economies shuttered, jobs disappeared, home dynamics destabilized, etc.

(Can we agree to acknowledge the variance in pandemic experiences, rather than compete in trauma Olympics? I’d say your disappointments and struggles are valid, regardless of associated earth-shattering implications or lack thereof.)

You likely felt such disappointments as an initial side effect, too. As your calendar cleared itself, it still felt shocking to see airports empty, to watch people hoard toilet paper, to witness case numbers climb. Then, months into our collective prescription, things shifted: ennui took over. Swallowing each bitter pill wasn’t surprising anymore, just sad. Airports remained clear. I assume those people used some of their toilet paper. The numbers climbed. Your calendar remained blank. Did you even touch your planner? I didn’t.

Mundaneness clouded a lot of months.

While normality never announced a launch date, the vaccines did. Big Pharma knocked Bitter Pills from its 50-something-week stint at the top of the charts, and things are looking up. I’m incredibly grateful, and unless you’re That Cousin From Facebook, I bet you’re pretty excited, too.

Our dosage is being lowered. The side effects are wearing away. So why can’t we cancel our prescription?

Because disappointment is a constant. Frustration is eternal. And though COVID-19 may start to fade from the front of our brains, we can’t expect a post-pandemic future to hold the keys to our happiness, or fulfillment, or whatever feeling gets you past your basic mammalian threshold of breathing and being warm-blooded. The faster you can accept this little ever-present pattern, the better.

I’m saying this not to be a killjoy, but because I’m guilty of unrealistic expectations. In January, I’d just started a new job and was in a new relationship. Traditionally, those are the novel things/situations that make people feel like they have it together. That stability is supposed to bring happiness (see Hallmark reference in paragraph 1). I felt like I was exiting my dull, corona-induced blah period rather well.

Guess what? The job is kicking my ass, and the relationship ended pretty swiftly. It was as if the proverbial pharmacist who deals my bitter pills handed me the bottle and said, “C’est la vie, b*tch.” I didn’t learn some life-altering lesson or come to a million-dollar conclusion. Well, other than this:

There will never be a morning during which you’ll wake up, yawn, and pluck a pill from your pocket full of sunshine to enter a world devoid of discomfort or discontent. No matter how perfectly and respectfully and dutifully you live your life, you will be disappointed — by people, by things, by global health crises. Perhaps that is the bitterest pill in the bottle.

But we’re lucky. With every “today” comes the potential for the opposite of disappointment: delight. Our odds for surprise, excitement, happiness, etc. greatly outweigh our odds for disappointment. Plus, you’ve a hell of a lot more control over those chances. Here is where I would include a poker metaphor, but I’m such a terrible gambler that I will spare you an attempt. Also, I would like to note that none of us is going to waste away in an iron lung post-COVID, like all those poor people did after the polio epidemic. Ick.

If you don’t believe me, that’s fine. At least remember this: resilience is sexy.

Shallow, but true! Conflict is central to a good story. If you’ve found yourself utterly knocked down by the past year, you’ve likely got something interesting to say.

Bring it up at your next party. Fill up that calendar again!

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