“This is the life we signed up for,” my boss answered.
I don’t remember the question.
It came during a newsroom meeting last month, before coronavirus spread across the nation like the virus it is. The context of the conversation we were having — our managing editor, plus our assistant managing editor, and three reporters including myself—referenced 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, and he was saying “You’d be surprised at how comfortable this floor can be,” implying that, having to work or perhaps being stranded and having to work, he slept on the conference room floor. (Realistically, there is no scenario there in which he did not also have to work.)
I remember thinking at the time, Hell, no. If I’m getting quarantined anywhere, it’s going to be at home with my husband and my dog — NOT at the office.
What a hell of a crash course in disaster journalism.
But that is the life I signed up for.
Recently, I was reprimanded by our assistant managing editor via text, after I made the mistake of back-talking her in the group message with the reporters. (She was right to reprimand me; if I was going to say what I did, at the very least I should’ve said it to her privately and not in a group text, where I know she expects me to set an example for the other two reporters because I’ve worked there the longest of us three.)
But part of what she said to me was, “I’ve done nothing on my day off since I woke up but report on prison transfers. It’s the nature of the job sometimes.”
This is the life we signed up for.
Except I didn’t sign up for a pandemic, and I know I’m not the only one. None of us signed up for this — not the media, not the healthcare workers, not those with elderly or immunocompromised family members. Not those who have lost their jobs. Not those who have seen their workloads and stress levels increase.
This is not the life we signed up for, but this is the hand we’ve been dealt.
It’s the nature of life sometimes.
As a reporter, I’m considered an essential worker, so I still have my job and plenty to do — and for that, I am grateful. But if I thought my job was sometimes difficult and often stressful before, what it is now is a hell of a crash course in journalism, particularly regarding a disaster situation.
This is not the life we signed up for but it is the hand we’ve been dealt. It’s the nature of life sometimes.
Here’s what that crash course is teaching me.
My attitude has been poor.
First and foremost, this is what I learned when our assistant managing editor put me in my place, and this is what I continue to learn every day that I do my job. It’s not your normal 9 to 5 and it never will be. It doesn’t matter if I’m working from home, or if I’m feeling tired and burned out, or if I’m dealing with the worst poison oak rash I’ve ever had in my life (which I have been, by the way). None of that matters more than the work that I do, because people are counting on me to do my job, and to do it well.
No matter how much I might feel like slacking off or cutting corners on any given day, I can’t because not only is that a poor representation of my workplace, it’s a poor representation of myself. I owe it to everyone, including myself, to give the best version of myself to my work.
Every adversity presents an opportunity.
Coronavirus sucks. This entire situation sucks. A viral pandemic is probably one of the worst possible disasters that I could be tasked with covering, because, unlike a hurricane or a tropical storm—fairly common threats here on the Gulf Coast—there’s no discernible end to this, and no way of truly sheltering from it.
Toward the beginning of all this, our editor and publisher walked through the newsroom and commented that we’re getting a crash course now, through this crisis. We are. It’s a hell of an adversity, and a hell of a learning opportunity. There’s a lot to be taken away from this: how to calmly and consistently report on a disaster. Practice for how to come up with fresh angles of looking at the exact same topic day after day. Ways to communicate and work as a team even when we’re not all consistently in the office like we were before. How to keep the community informed while not causing panic and while finding ways to share strength and spread encouragement.
I contain multitudes.
Walt Whitman was on to something, though this isn’t a rumination about how I contradict myself (which I often do).
On and off, I’ve had a really tough time ever since this started. Being a journalist for a daily newspaper and having little to no experience sometimes felt hard enough and stressful enough before the pandemic. There was even one day toward the beginning that just felt like a series of mental breakdowns—I teared up in the bathroom at work, I broke down on my way to a school board meeting, and I sobbed all the way home after.
I cried earlier this week while I was texting my mom—I thought it was because I miss my parents and I’m afraid I won’t get to visit them next month like I’d planned. But I think it might be because she was telling me all the things I need to hear.
“You underestimate yourself and you always have,” she said, and she’s right. I do. I always have. But now is not the time to underestimate what I’m capable of, and I am capable of so much more than I think.
It’s for me to decide whether I can handle my job in these circumstances. It’s for me to decide whether I will be successful.
It’s for me to decide that I contain multitudes.