Not quite the success story I imagined

A personal essay about the financial and emotional toll the pandemic has taken

Cal State LA student journalism major Marlene Cordova poses on campus for a portrait. (Katherine Conchas/UT)

Marlene Cordova, Community News Reporter

My height, at 5-foot-9-inches, and my brown cat-like eyes can come across as striking.

My daily balancing act — maintaining mostly A’s and B’s in my classes at Cal State LA while juggling a job and two internships — may seem impressive.

They play into the notion that I’m a happy, energetic, full-of-life kind of girl, and yeah, that’s half of who I am. 

Before the flip switches in my head, anyway.

Then I become a sad, unmotivated, full-of-doubt, kind of girl. I’ve never understood how this was possible, but yet I have been experiencing anxiety attacks since high school.

Back then, I worried about my plans for the future and what I wanted to do after graduation. What college would I attend? What major would I choose? And would I have a job? 

Three years later, I’m asking similar questions. What will I do after college? How will I support myself financially? Did I choose the right major? 

The pandemic has only exacerbated my worries and eliminated social outlets that helped me stay balanced.

Finances fuel concerns

The financial aid that’s helped me get through the last three years of college isn’t processing or coming through for some reason.

Emails threatening the consequences of not paying the full amount upfront haunts me.

My credit card and car payments are beginning to overwhelm me because the reduced hours at my fast food job merely allow me to pay the minimum fees.  

My instant escape from all these problems is shutting down my laptop because those problems don’t exist offline. 

Once my classes finish, I mentally check out, and my body follows. I sit doing nothing on the couch while my mom cooks and cleans.

I remember a couple of months ago, I just lay there watching her do the dishes.

“What’s wrong with you? You don’t do anything to help around the house anymore,” she recalled saying.

 “Nothing. I’m just tired,” I responded, blankly staring at her, feeling nothing and not wanting to move.

Her annoyance at the remark quickly turned to worry, she recalled.

I could see it in her face, which made me feel worse. But how do you explain to your mother what’s wrong when you do not have a clue yourself?

I know I’m not alone. Anxiety and depressive disorders have increased compared to last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Distractions replaced by stress

Before COVID-19 appeared, I could hang out with friends, go out for a drink, and spend time with family. It would all distract me from dwelling.

I’d distract myself in the gym, reignite my muse through conversation, body language, and encountering the perfect stranger. The kind of person who shows up randomly and shares a smile, friendly comment, or kind gesture on days that you really need that.

The little things back then kept me sane. Blossoming friendships and a sense of community somehow fueled my drive to get things done.

It has been almost eight months since my classes went remote.

All that has happened since — the escalating deaths and ensuing closures, the stressful presidential race and debates, new reports of police brutality and continued protests, and a racial reckoning rocking the country — has felt momentous and historic but it has also heightened my anxiety.

And all the while, I’m navigating through Zoom meetings, challenging my concentration span, and submitting last-minute or makeup assignments.

How am I supposed to magically give all my effort and attention to my last two semesters of college with all of this going on?

I can’t find it in myself to care about this virtual world when in my day-to-day reality, it feels like doomsday is coming.

Dark days

The person inside me that I’m familiar with, the nonstop, dedicated, likes-her-plate-full kind-of-girl, has somehow vanished. 

I am now mentally drained. I cry because things seem pointless. I lack my creative spark and am fighting to get my “go-getter” spirit back. 

I feel trapped in this house and trapped in this pandemic. There are no clear answers as to when my life or mental state will go back to being as normal as can be. 

I thought that these feelings would vanish, especially since I had the best summer of my college career and both of my internships offered me extensions.

Maybe I just needed structure. I figured once I got in a routine again, everything would fall into place.

Days, weeks, months went by and it never happened.

Making a change

I made the toughest decision of my short career when I declined to stay on in both internships. I knew that I needed a break and didn’t want to commit myself when I couldn’t give 100% to it. 

That break has helped. I’m juggling my job and classwork better. 

And even though much of it feels pointless at times, I’m going to push through to graduation.

I know that this feeling won’t last forever.

I’ve always wanted to be a success story and share how I defied the odds. I didn’t realize until recently that my struggles this year would be part of that story.

Community News reporters are enrolled in JOUR 3910 – University Times. They produce stories about under-covered neighborhoods and small cities on the Eastside and South Los Angeles. Please email feedback, corrections and story tips to [email protected]