Why the Library is Still the Only Place I Feel Safe, Even During a Pandemic

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been hopelessly insecure about my introversion. I had so strongly internalized our culture’s extroverted ideal that by the time I was a teenager I’d judge myself based on how many activities and commitments I had going on outside the house—even though I most probably hated all of them. I grew up to believe that in order to be perfect, loved, and worthy—three things I’m still obsessed with—I always had to be booked and busy. I became an expert at the art of giving my time away, even though what I’ve always loved most is being left alone to my own devices. And whenever I would get anxious about not having enough going on, afraid that other adults might call me lazy, there was only ever one place I could go that would make everything feel better: the library. Well, at least until a global pandemic arrived.

Throughout the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were only two places I yearned to go the most: the barbershop, because when everything feels out of control (which for me is usually always), obsessing over my appearance makes me feel in control of at least something. The other place was, of course, the library, because typically when life starts to feel even a little hard, it’s the only place that can bring me back down to earth. But even as barbershops and libraries across North America began to reopen, I wasn’t first in line, face up against the glass.

I told myself and everyone around me that it was because a lot of cities were reopening too soon in my opinion, so I didn’t feel safe. (I still don’t feel completely safe for that matter, and none of us should—this pandemic is still very much present.) But it wasn’t until the topic of the world resuming production came up during a phone therapy appointment, when my therapist asked, “But why exactly are you so worried about things reopening?” We had obviously discussed to death the idea of people everywhere disregarding guidelines, and businesses prioritizing profit over safety. But she sensed this was snagging a deeper issue for me. “Would you say you were happy before this pandemic?” And here’s the thing, dear reader: I was not.

Sure, I was happy in the sense that I have a roof over my head, clothes on my back, food in my stomach, and enough money to go out for brunch with friends. But what makes me miserable, frustrated, exhausted, annoyed and other adjectives of this nature is the idea that in order to achieve anything, you always have to be tired and strung out—booked and busy—or else you aren’t working hard enough, and if you don’t achieve something, well, I guess that’s why. Anxious behavior is even rewarded in our culture—you ask someone how they’re doing, and they wear their response of “too busy” as a badge of honor. I’ve openly denounced this way of living for myself in the past, but sooner or later I somehow always end up back on the perpetual capitalist hamster wheel that is “grind culture.” That is, until a global pandemic shut everything down and we were all forced to have a little necessary—albeit uncomfortable—me time.

I’ve struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) for most of my life, and it was only upon reaching the start of adulthood that I had to confront my own toxic belief system that everything in my life, including myself, had to be polished and perfect. If I don’t do everything in my power to make something turn out perfect, even to the extent of adopting compulsive rituals to control the outcomes of things I can never control, I haven’t done enough. Even as I’ve worked hard at dismantling that belief system over the last few years, it still tends to arrive on my doorstep uninvited. In the months leading up to the pandemic, I was overworked and simply not happy. I was juggling university, a new part-time job, new freelance writing gigs, and a podcast. Because these were things that I had applied for and generally enjoyed, I figured I didn’t have any reason to feel stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed—and if I did, well, I guess I brought it on myself. Eventually I had a breakdown trying to hold it all together, and two days later, COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic and everything shut down.

Since coming to terms with my mental health issues, I know that OCD feeds lies to me, but during a lockdown that signaled the start of a rather depressing period for our world, I was starting to listen to its lies again. You could have prioritized yourself better, and you didn’t. You chose to let yourself get that stressed out before this happened. Therefore, you don’t deserve a haircut. You don’t deserve to go the library. They’re closed because of something you did, and you’re not ever getting the chance to make things right. (I don’t know who this person is inside my head, but I don’t like her.)

book lot
Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Last week, it finally happened. My local library was gearing up to let people back in, with certain obvious restrictions based on government guidelines. I had, of course, a million hold requests that I’d submitted during quarantine, and while I had received a few of them courtesy of a “contactless loan” service in June, I was ready to read all the books. My first time back in the building was brief; I only stopped by quickly to pick up a hold, but I did manage to snap a few pictures of the aisles for my Instagram story, which I posted with clips from certain songs because I am just melodramatic like that (“Hello” by Adele, “Feels Like Home” by Chantal Kreviazuk, and “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion.) But on the other hand, I wasn’t being melodramatic: my mental illness had successfully convinced me that going to the library was a privilege I was not worthy of anymore. And I was determined to prove it wrong.

A few days later, I performed a ritual I hadn’t done in what felt like five years, but was actually just five months. I got a haircut in the morning, had some lunch, and then I walked to the library to get some new reading material. It also felt very poetic and apropos that it was insanely hot and humid—weather I don’t do well in—and was raining off and on. In the past, I would have agonized over doing these sacred activities on the most perfect day, but I’m done adhering to the voices in my head: who’s going to let a little rain stop them? (The answer, it seems, is not me, even when I got stuck in a torrential downpour on the way home and ended up having to dry the edges of one of my library books with a blow dryer in fear that they would now never let me back in.)

I have also realized, to my own surprise, that I did benefit from some time away from the library. I might have charged way too many new books to my credit card over the course of quarantine because I could barely hold my focus on anything, but at least buying mountains of new books didn’t make me feel contractually obligated to be productive. I’ve also learned that my own ritual of going to the library whenever life feels hard isn’t always healthy. While making a visit to sit and read amongst the quiet from time to time is harmless, it’s different when I deliberately stress myself out by checking out a mountain of books and forcing myself to read them, just to feel productive—something I had been doing a lot in the time before the pandemic. It’s nice to not feel obliged to like a book because it’s free to borrow from the library and the hardcover didn’t cost you $35, but sometimes owning books that you know you’re going to love can be beneficial, too.

It’s normal to be a little on guard out in public right now, because the pandemic is not over. But no matter what the circumstance, I always feel safe at the library—not only because they aren’t a business putting profit above safety, but because it always serves as a good place to check in with yourself. Unhealthy coping mechanisms aside, some time away from the places we love the most does make us appreciate them even more. A common question among friends right now seems to be, “How’s the pandemic treating you these days?” And the only answer that comes to mind is a rebellious song lyric from The Chicks: “It turned my whole world around, and I kinda like it.” I recognize and acknowledge my own privilege in being able to say that, but if you don’t take something away from what looks like modern society’s most monumental reset and apply it to your life at a later date, you’ve missed the point entirely.

Note 8/5: the author of this essay acknowledges and is aware of the risk that librarians have been taking by working at libraries during a pandemic, and his intention was never to gloss over that fact. The author also lives in Canada, where his local library has been strictly imposing restrictions that put the safety of the staff above anything else.