Arts·Pandemic Diaries

What's worse than a global pandemic? Going through a breakup during a global pandemic

Comedian Brendan D'Souza can't help but laugh at the collision of a messy heartbreak with devastating career upheaval.

Comedian Brendan D'Souza can't help but laugh at the collision of a messy heartbreak with career upheaval

"Me doing stand-up and the audience LOVING IT, off camera." (Olivia Stadler)

Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.

On January 1, 2020, my boyfriend of two years broke up with me. Within a week of that, the first cases of an unclassified respiratory virus began surfacing from the Wuhan region of China. I'm not saying that my ex is at fault but, just like him leaving me, the virus had no known cause or cure. Simple cause and effect. (This is as good a time as any to let you know that I am a narcissist.)

Let's back up a bit. Three months ago, I was dealing with my pain the same way I have spent the past four years doing: writing jokes about it and telling them onstage. Stand-up comedy has always been my way of dealing with hard times. If you can laugh about something, you can talk about it and eventually understand it. I didn't see why my breakup should be any different. So I wrote jokes. Fortunately, I am very funny and very talented, and sharing stories with an audience was the first time I started to feel better. Thank god for narcissism!

Fast forward one month. I was having the time of my life, living my rom-com breakup montage fantasy. I was Elle Woods on an elliptical at Harvard, Anne Hathaway in the samples closet at Runway magazine. I was feeling funny and having fun again. I am proud to say that this was my first breakup that I was actually navigating in a healthy way (with the exception of one particularly hedonistic night that CBC probably won't let me talk about). I was finding a new normal and getting back on my feet — being active, being social, tiptoeing toward being okay again.

And then the world went to hell. My day job told me not to come in anymore. Grocery stores had become wastelands, and toilet paper had become as scarce as a person of colour at the Oscars. And then the elevator doors from the Overlook Hotel opened and a tidal wave of cancelled gigs crashed over me. My rom-com had become a horror movie.

Suddenly I was trapped in a basement, sanitizing my hands into the texture of sandpaper, using Kleenex for toilet paper, and begging my landlord to let me off the hook for April's rent, as daily reports of more and more COVID-related horror stories flooded in. Every day the amount of time before 5:00 pm that I consider socially acceptable to drink increased by 20 minutes (at the time of this writing, I have successfully wrapped my head around the concept of "breakfast Merlot").

My parents called me daily to insist I come home, which I ardently refused because the only thing worse than being quarantined is being quarantined in Thornhill. No one should have to get legally grounded to survive the apocalypse. The world was ending and I wanted to be in the middle of the action when the zombies arrived.

Which they did. Somehow I had become a zombie.

"A zombie in self-isolation." (Brendan D'Souza)

I spent days aimlessly shuffling around my apartment, not changing my clothes, slowly developing the body odour of a reanimated corpse. The only difference between me in the first week of quarantine and the classic Romero model is that instead of craving brains, I was craving my ex. I had managed to relapse into the state I was in three months ago when this all started, compounded by what seemed like the end of the world. All of my usual coping mechanisms had vanished behind a face mask and a safe six-foot social distance, and the one person I knew I would have gotten through this with had told me that it "just wasn't working" for him.

I couldn't talk about how I was feeling through jokes anymore. My living situation and mental state, not to mention the state of the world, had reached levels of absurdity you can't help but laugh about — but there was no one to laugh with. It's crazy trying to process a world in which the art form you practise basically no longer exists.

As an artist, the drive to create something that's going to speak to people doesn't go away, even if it's just to make someone laugh for a moment during the end of the world.- Brendan D'Souza

Thankfully, the great thing about comedians is they are as versatile and resilient as a rapidly mutating respiratory virus. Comedians have rallied all over the internet to keep creating content even in isolation. There have been Zoom open mics, blogs, Instagram talk shows, even a homemade 90s-style sitcom called Quaranteens. Every comic I know has either talked about live-streaming their stand-up or already done it. More than anything else, watching my peers adjust to this new normal has been the most calming element of this whole thing for me.

Since the start of the quarantine, I've released the first episodes of my very first podcast. On it, I interview comedians about their worst breakups because, and I know this is going to shock you, they're all I can talk about right now. (Check out Shredded: The Post Break Up Podcast, available on all streaming platforms.) It seems trivial, but as an artist, the drive to create something that's going to speak to people doesn't go away, even if it's just to make someone laugh for a moment during the end of the world.

Stop me if you've heard this one: What's worse than going through a breakup? A global pandemic. What's worse than a global pandemic? Going through a breakup DURING a global pandemic (pause for laughter).

"When will my husband return from war?" (Brendan D'Souza)

I still wear the same sweatpants every day. And despite my best showering efforts, the reanimated corpse smell hasn't gone away, so maybe that was a pre-existing condition. (Was that the reason my ex broke up with me? Must remember to find out later.) And the loneliness hasn't gone away either. Twice a day I have to ask a friend to talk me out of texting my ex. But there are still jokes to make about it all. If you can laugh about something, eventually you will understand it.

Much like my breakup, I have to believe this quarantine is for the best. It's hard to be alone, but it'll be healthier for everyone involved in the long run. And when this is all over, this whole thing is going to make a great joke.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Brendan D'Souza is a Toronto-based stand up comedian and writer. An electric combination of outrageous story telling along with rapid fire delivery and acrobatic wordplay, Brendan has been featured at JFL42, NXNE, We're Funny That Way and more, and was nominated for the I Heart Jokes Award for Newcomer Comic Of The Year in 2019. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter at @dasouzie

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