In a Year

Derek Tywoniuk
8 min readMar 13, 2021

Michael S was a coworker of mine. On his first day at the job, we hadn’t been informed of a new employee, so when he showed up, I politely asked him to sit on the couch and wait for a moment to buy me some time as I frantically looked through my emails to investigate how I could have missed an alert about a new client checking into treatment. We would laugh about it later. I don’t always feel comfortable around cishet men in social situations, but being around him felt instantly easy. He was a model colleague, reliable and self-starting, going out of his way to reach out to clients who were having a particularly hard time in early recovery, to try and ensure that they felt held by their community, that things would get better. Within a few months he was trusted as a shift leader, already an integral member of the team.

A few days before March 13, 2020, Mike was nodding off at work. The head of HR came to talk to him, but nothing came of their meeting. A few days after, he was MIA, and subsequently found dead of an overdose. It’s now apparent that by that time, COVID-19 was already in the U.S., but at the time, it felt like something vaguely concerning. In my memory of the last year, or my re-remembering of the last year, it feels almost as if the whole maelstrom of events spiraled outward from that singular death, one slight and bewildering absence creating a void that threw everything else into chaos.

Two days later was the last time I played music live with other people. The Industry frantically recorded Sweet Land before the lockdown. Ironically, Sweet Land was described as “an opera that erases itself.” On the day of taping, the air was frigid by Los Angeles standards, the ground wet, faces still naked. The mood was jovial, especially considering the production was ending halfway through its run, the set would be demolished prematurely, and the company would face significant financial challenges resulting from the shortfall.

Everything that’s happened in the interim is a long, indiscriminate blur.

This past January, I began the process of reading Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” ostensibly one of the great works of literature but gargantuan in scope, English translations spanning six volumes totaling some 4,000+ pages. The first time I heard of Proust was in the movie “Little Miss Sunshine,” in which Frank (played by Steve Carrell) is an unemployed Proust scholar, though that detail was obfuscated by much of the rest of the film. Proust didn’t really cross my path again until this past year, when I read Alex Ross’s “Wagnerism,” and found myself fascinated by his tracing of Wagnerian references within the Proust saga. As of the time of this writing, I am midway through the third volume, and reading it has been unlike any other literary experience. Wading through the seemingly endless pages of vivid, ornate description makes me think of the concept of the specious present, or “the time duration wherein one’s perceptions are considered to be in the present.” One is barraged with events, adjectives, colors, adverbs, smells, metaphors, countless characters. I repeatedly ask questions of myself such as: Am I remembering the right things? Am I keeping track of what’s happening? Am I retaining any of this at all? Is it even important that I retain any of this? Inevitably, as I get to the end of a volume, some things have become salient, but I am also surprised by how effectively the experience of reading the novel imitates, albeit on a much smaller scale, my perception of time in life itself. Discrete moments sometimes maintain their integrity, but often, these moments (each consisting of what was once their own specious present) collapse upon each other, like drops of water merging to progressively larger bodies of water. The relentless, sprawling nature of the prose, and the ways in which these moments coalesce, or don’t, are imitative of the last year: “Remember that time when Michael died?” “Remember that time when you couldn’t find toilet paper anywhere?” “Remember that time when everyone was obsessed with Tiger King?” “Remember the national uprisings in response to the blatant, senseless murder of black folks?” “Remember when we passed 500,000 people dying?” “Remember when Trump was president?”

Surely, in a few decades, when I think back to this period, it will all probably seem to collapse into a singular thought.

Like many other artists and musicians, virtually all foreseeable work was cancelled in the span of only a few weeks at the beginning of lockdown. Half a year prior, with a PhD in hand and a large amount of burnout, I had taken a day job working in treatment for substance abuse and eating disorders, both to support myself and to give myself a bit of a break from an academic life that I wasn’t sure I wanted. Working in treatment has always felt like something that took dedication and guts, but when the city went into lockdown and my evenings and weekends were suddenly empty, showing up to work at the clinic had a whole new weight. I felt (and still do feel) a sense of gratitude and of pride during this period, for being able to survive, for having this thing to give my existence some semblance of structure, for having the opportunity to help others at a vulnerable point in their lives. At the same time, it feels bizarre. I still identify as a musician, but the fact is that I am rarely making music these days. In the last year, I’ve written a couple pieces, but could count on two hands the days that I’ve picked up a pair of drumsticks or mallets. Mostly, I practice piano for fun. I am unsure whether I will eventually transition back into music full-time, or if my relationship to it will change permanently. The pandemic set into relief many of the doubts I already had about making a life in music academia; that it is a world that survives off of the exploitation of people, particularly graduate students and adjunct faculty, and produces far more students than the field could ever reasonably employ. Unless you happen to be stealth wealthy, only by tolerating years of living as a member of the precariat can a person have some possible chance of advancing. The likelihood of me scoring a full-time, tenured job in a desirable city is so incredibly low, and even if that occurs, can I ethically work in a field that essentially functions as an MLM, like Herbalife but with more cultural cachet? And furthermore, if I truly want to see that field decolonized, am I better off promoting and advancing the work of others, rather than being yet another white man “changing the system from within,” likely perpetuating many of the same harms? I don’t know that I could continue to do that work without it being overwhelmingly self-serving. On the other hand, working in treatment feels more anonymous, and more imperative. During the pandemic, relapse rates and overdose-related deaths have significantly increased. Because of HIPAA, it’s not possible for me to share some of the most tender, meaningful moments I have experienced professionally. It is a work of quiet, steady, ordinary devotion.

To return to larger points, it is not lost on me that the events of the last year have been cruel, and especially, unnecessarily cruel in this country. Essential workers made the entirety of the last year possible, initially praised as heroes, while a vast majority of them were not adequately compensated for their work through hazard pay, minimum wage increases, or even having adequate health benefits. In more workplaces than not, the most highly compensated employees have been able to protect themselves from exposure, profiting off of the exploitation of their workers. With health insurance tied to employment, swaths of people found themselves uninsured or underinsured during a crucial period. Rent was never cancelled, but perpetually postponed, staving off an eviction crisis quite unlike the country has ever seen. Undocumented taxpayers were excluded from large stimulus efforts. People continued to do non-essential travel, as made infamous by the Instagram account @GaysOverCovid, although there have been many others, even supposedly progressive individuals, who participated in this practice. As vaccines have been rolled out, wealthy individuals and predominantly white areas have been disproportionately favored.

Cataloging all of the violations of human rights that have occurred within our borders in the last year is beyond my knowledge, time, or skill, but what I am aware of has ossified my outlook as that of a nihilist. In the first of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.” By the time I first got sober, I did not have any qualms about accepting that I had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, that, to quote an AA phrase, “one is too many and a thousand is never enough,” but I have frequently hesitated to admit that I am powerless in other aspects of my life. Perhaps it is part of the American overemphasis on individualism, but I have always prided myself on being relatively self-sufficient, able to manage my way through any situation with enough dintism. The exponential chaos that began in March was humbling beyond measure, forcing me to reckon with the fact that, even though I am fortunate in so many ways, I am at the whim of countless variables beyond my control. It’s not necessary to try and find excessive, dramatic meaning from the larger arcs of events; it is enough to try and find contentment in small present instances, in the relatively mundane.

I’ve been fortunate to spend this period isolating with my partner, Ted, and while there have been tough moments, it has brought to my life a quiet, steady joy. After two years of knowing each other, living five minutes apart, we moved into an apartment in DTLA together. He has worked exclusively from home, I have still been going to the clinic. Weekends are quiet, filled with naps, reading, cooking, sending each other memes. Over the holidays, we made a zine together (to be more specific, a “QuaranZine”), filled with recipes Ted has cooked, photos of us in masks, a list of my favorite books read in 2020, a centerfold photo of one of the cats, a chorale with lyrics about the times we’re in, a Sue Sylvester meme I made (with Ted’s dissection of it), and lessons learned during the period. My favorite time of the day is after dinner, when we lay in bed reading, one cat (Bob) cuddled between us, the other cat (Kip) hanging out nearby. I’m fully vaccinated at this point, and Ted has received his first dose; with the new CDC guidelines, there is some hope that we could socialize with some restrictions by this time next month.

There’s no good way to end this, because we’re not through it yet. What I can say is that we are more resilient than we realize, and none of us can do it alone. I think a lot about what this last year would have been like with Michael in it, if he hadn’t relapsed. I have little doubt that he would have been a galvanizing presence.



Derek Tywoniuk

Musician, friend of Dorothy, he/him. Newly-minted PhD.