by Gina Mingoia
Eight-year-old me was incredibly concerned with the mental health of caterpillars. In third grade, we did a unit on monarch butterflies. We were each assigned our own caterpillar to observe as it grew into a butterfly, but as I watched my own caterpillar build her chrysalis, I wondered: Did she know she was going to be a butterfly? Did she have any sense of the future? Do caterpillars have depression during their isolation? Anxiety about being a butterfly? Do they even want to build their chrysalises or are they peer pressured into it? When I asked my third grade teacher, Miss G., all these questions, she pulled the typical teacher cop out: “Well, what do you think?” At the time, I decided caterpillars must know what they’re doing, and they must be happy about it every step of the way. But, Miss G., if you’re reading this, I’d like to change my answer.
Just before COVID-19 hit the pause button on the entire world, I graduated from Saint Joseph’s College with a B.A. in English and Literature. I had just started working full time at the car dealership that had kindly catered to my ever-changing college schedule for the last four years.Working there part time was so much fun. I worked surrounded by some of my very best friends, customers brought in Dunkin Donuts for me, and I learned just enough about engines to one-up the misogynists in my life and make them question their own manliness. When I got bored, I could do a lap around the shop and talk to each technician. When I didn’t want to answer a phone call, all it took was half a frown and my coworkers would answer it for me.
Working there full time was another story. The day was long. The customers were mean. I was sick of every single snack in the vending machine. The LED lights hurt my eyes, and the sickening jumbled smell of gasoline, diesel fuel, and antifreeze hurt my head. Worst of all: while a few hours a week was all fun and games, my coworkers were fed up with my 45 hour/week shenanigans. I was forced to sit at my desk all day and have the same conversation over and over again with customer after customer. I was bored, using probably one brain cell a day, and I didn’t feel like I was making a difference in anyone’s life.
I found myself withdrawing. I was physically and emotionally exhausted all the time, and I could barely remember a time when I wasn’t. I woke up early every morning and worked until it was dark only to come home, eat dinner, and go back to bed. I never had time to read. I never had time to spend a whole day on the couch in my pajamas. I wanted to learn French, write a book, cook dinner — but I didn’t have it in me. My weekends were jam-packed with volunteer work and maintaining friendships I didn’t want to maintain anymore. I was miserable.
But then the world stopped.
My job closed down for five weeks; my volunteer work was put on hold for five months. I went from having no time to all the time in the world, and I wasn’t quite sure how to handle it. Like most other people, I spent a lot of time completely consumed by anxiety. My sister, a nurse, was working 18 hour days and staying far away from me during her very few hours at home, and I had nothing to do but watch the news and grow more and more anxious — for her, for me, for the world.
After a week of not eating from severe anxiety, I turned off the news, and I turned to my favorite coping mechanism since the third grade: rereading Harry Potter.
I read sixteen novels during my quarantine. Then I drafted one of my own. Then I started a journal in French, took an online Shakespeare course from Harvard, worked with Johns Hopkins to publish my senior thesis, watched every movie on my Netflix queue, started cooking, reorganized every drawer in my house, worked out for an hour every morning, and unintentionally trained my new puppy to get her bone and join me on the couch every time I picked up a book.
In my five weeks away from my job, I realized it wasn’t the act of working in general that I didn’t like, but the meaningless, monotonous work of making appointments and having the same conversation with fifty different customers in the same day. So I applied to LIU for my master’s degree, and, from my couch, I applied for a job at the LIU Post Writing Center.
It first occurred to me as I lay on my couch after my Writing Center interview, wrapped in my buffalo plaid blanket, a book clutched in my hands and my puppy gnawing on her bone beside me: I may not have been turning into a beautiful monarch butterfly, but in my buffalo plaid chrysalis, I was changing.
I was one of the fortunate ones: a nonessential worker who still lived under my mom’s roof and ate my mom’s groceries and had a copy of my mom’s credit card. I was lucky enough to stay home where it was safe and spend over a month bettering myself. I went into quarantine stressed and overwhelmed with a never-ending list of things I wanted to accomplish; I came out of quarantine an entirely different person. I was able to use my time hidden away from the world and emerge from my chrysalis better than I was before.
So, Miss G., I don’t think caterpillars know they’re going to be butterflies. I don’t think they have any sense of the future, and if they do, I don’t think they have any idea that they’ll wind up better than they began. I’m almost certain caterpillars experience depression, and I am 100% certain they have anxiety — for themselves, for the world, and for their sisters who have already become butterflies and are no longer wrapped in the safety of a chrysalis. And no, they don’t have a choice; caterpillars are entirely forced into their chrysalises — but they’re better for it.