It's unusual I think, after re-locating for the PhD and then being on the academic job market for years - going from fixed-term contract to fixed-term contract and moving around accordingly - to then come home. Not by choice (you don’t get a choice, you apply everywhere and when you finally get an offer you accept it), but by chance. In September 2019 I started my first permanent job and remarkably, this one is just about commutable from the town where I was born. And so, having returned to England from Scotland’s Aberdeen a year before (for a different job, in Central London), I eventually moved ‘back' all together, just in time for the pandemic.
In this entry of my COVID-19 health diary, I am writing about my experience of coming ‘back’ (people tell you they’re glad you’re ‘back’ but you can’t go backwards, you have not gone back) because, now living again among family and school friends (who either never left or strayed not too far and only fleetingly), the ways in which PhD life and the precarious post-doctoral existence prepared me for this lockdown have become increasingly apparent and disturbing. Yet in and through this crisis I am finding new common ground with those I had until now felt dislocated from - even and especially upon my return.
Unlike those I’ve returned to, I am used to being holed up - for sometimes weeks and months on end - and partaking in very limited social interaction. At first in the University library, then in the office, always with headphones jammed on so I could concentrate on writing. There is little distinction between week days and weekends in the PhD and early post-doctoral calendar and in these ways lockdown feels a lot like going back to normal. We didn’t even have Zoom then and I try to avoid it now - like the plague (no pun intended). So much am I used to once voluntary and now enforced solitude, it seems I’ve built up a tolerance. Unlike those I've returned to, I am used to being physically separated from my loved ones for extended periods of time and to missing out on events and special occasions due to unforeseen circumstances - usually deadline related, stemming from the excessive research and teaching commitments, and/or or suddenly getting an interview and having to drop everything. This used to sting, sometimes intensely, but I got used to it and now we’re all missing out, and so we plan to reschedule. However, it is hard to watch those around me going through some of the things academic life has already hardened me to. My family and friends finding their daily and weekly routines disrupted, careful plans scuppered, and jobs threatened or worse. As an academic not even through the 1 year probationary period of my first permanent contract, I have known nothing different for my entire adult life and am not alone in this experience - in fact, I am one of the ‘lucky’ ones to have secured this much at all. What is now most troubling is that with Universities threatened existentially by this ‘crisis’ and my future hanging in the balance along with those of my family and friends, it seems that my once comparatively precarious way of life is now something that those around me can finally relate to.