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Coming of age, paused

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Photograph courtesy of Peter Van Agtmael/UNICEF Elaine and her daughter Julissa in the living room of the family home in Brooklyn, New York.

For 18-year-old Julissa, coming of age in Brooklyn, New York, during the pandemic signaled a loss of her rites of passage into adulthood. Schools were closed, which meant she didn’t see friends, attend senior prom or have a traditional graduation ceremony. Her excitement at finishing school and going to college was diminished.

One week into New York City’s lockdown, Julissa’s mother, Elaine, and her father, Carlton, fell ill with Covid-19. For Julissa, fear became entwined with daily life.

In the early days of the pandemic, when little was known of the virus, Julissa had to experience both of her parents falling ill. Carlton contracted the virus first. Initially, it seemed no worse than the regular flu. But then her mother Elaine fell ill with chills and weakness, and found herself bedridden for days. On the 14th day of her illness, she went to her window to see an ambulance taking her next-door neighbor away, dead from Covid-19.

The virus, up close and personal, brought a deep and unknown fear into the family’s home and community. “I was afraid to go outside for months,” Elaine says.

Heavy with the emotional trauma of watching her parents fall ill and worried they would contract the virus again, Julissa frequently shut herself in her room, lights off, sitting on the floor, teeming with anxiety. “I’m not used to seeing my parents like that… That was really hard for me,” she says. “At the deepest point, I just felt like, (my depression) was going to last forever.”

Julissa started going to a therapist to discuss the emotional and the mental toll the pandemic was taking on her. “I was stressing about everything. I felt the physical toll it was taking on my body. I was dealing with Covid-19, I was dealing with racism, I was dealing with going off to college and starting the beginning of my adulthood and being on my own for a little bit,” she says. “As a young person, and someone (who) graduated that year, it almost felt like nobody cared about what I was going through.”

She left for college in August 2020, but quickly returned to Brooklyn when classes went fully online.

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