I’ve long had what’s called social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, which is a chronic and overwhelming fear of being with people (whether strangers or friends), according to Mayo Clinic. For the past year, with few social interactions I’ve suffered very little of that anxiety or distress in my day-to-day life. After the first months of the lockdown, my house became more sanctuary than prison. And once I learned to be solitary, I did not miss the social anxiety that comes with being out and about.
“Overall, Americans are hesitant about the future, regardless of vaccination status,” reported the American Psychological Association in a study published last month. To my concern about leaving the cocoon, nearly half of the respondents, 49 percent, said they felt “uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction once the pandemic ends.” (Curiously, even those vaccinated like me were just as likely to feel anxiety about reentering as those who hadn’t been.)
On a daily basis, I see the joy of friends and family who have been vaccinated, whether in their one-shot/two-shot selfies, or in their plans to share a beach house, or to congregate for drinks and dinner at our town’s new restaurant. If they knew I’d been vaccinated, I’d likely be invited. But I wasn’t — and that was more than okay.
I did get an invitation to Easter dinner — a get-together of some 30 friends — that required vaccination (including the two-week window after the second or only shot). I missed that gathering last year, but this year — although qualified to attend — I passed on the invitation.
Frankly, my heart races — not in a good way — when I think about joining such a big group for Easter dinner. Do we hug again? Or are we back to elbow bumps? Will I feel naked without a mask. Even more worrisome: I fear I’ve lost the art of small talk or simply making my way through a crowd.
I’m not alone in feeling apprehensive about reentering the world. A neighbor (a psychotherapist) told me she thought she’d lose her sanity at the beginning of the lockdown, but her attitude has changed. “Now, the thought of commuting to an office and exercise classes seems daunting,” she confided.
Another friend confesses, “My whole work world is now in my cozy home workspace and my breaks — except for runs — are all in my yard and garden. Let’s not even talk about wearing real clothes: I don’t know how to operate buttons and zippers anymore.”
I know that feeling. “Can I still tie a tie?” I ask myself, after a year of alternating T-shirts and my four open-collar “Zoom shirts.” That simple question belies a more complicated one: How do I get past my dread of a heavy work travel schedule, in-person meetings, gym workouts, weekends away, even a full slate of social events from dinners to parties to evening events.
I know I can only keep my vaccine status quiet so long — without appearing to be anti-vaccine. (Clearly, I’ve blown my cover with this essay.) To help me, I’ve found myself thinking about the yoga retreats I’ve attended. Toward the end of these retreats, the teacher will usually ask, “How do you take what you learned on the mat off of the mat?” The answer: intention and discipline.
That’s why I continue to attend my Sunday evening restorative yoga class (via videoconferencing, of course), regardless of competing in-person invitations. The class quiets my mind and anchors my week. Not long ago, our teacher began class with a pose called “Instant Maui” (“a 20-minute beach vacation”), and while on the mat I felt the pull of the post-pandemic world. Supine, I struggled to hold on to the present, to this sense of peace that has sustained me all year. I vow that if nothing else, I will continue this weekly class as my touchstone to the pandemic and its lessons. So far, I’ve only missed one in the past two months.
Of course, yoga and meditation are not the only answers. I’m continuing to bake twice a week, another “practice” that calms and centers me. I’m walking more and more, especially now that the weather is more hospitable, often with a friend or two. When I tell others I’m apprehensive about “reentry,” I hear a chorus of “me, too,” which surprised — and comforted — me. I am not alone in trying to reshape my post-pandemic life.
The pandemic, it turns out, became “a master class in how to achieve and be content in solitude,” a former colleague told me, adding that for those with social phobias, the stay-at-home order was never a jail sentence but oddly liberating.
I recently emailed about this fear of emergence with Richard A. Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine, who told me: “There’s wide variation in social affiliativeness in humans, and the lockdown afforded those who are comfortable with less interaction a baseline to indulge in what they have always preferred. When the jail door opens, they don’t go rushing out because, well, it wasn’t jail to them.”
I’m also taking baby steps toward coming out or reemergence.
Recently, two friends (in their 80s and fully vaccinated) were honored at a small birthday party. I was invited after disclosing to the host I’d gotten my shots. I said “yes!” because we would be a small group, only four, and because of the honorees’ age. I didn’t want to miss out on any more time with them.
Unlike getting ready for a videoconferencing party (just choose one of those four shirts), I found it stressful to get properly dressed, which meant matching socks and shoes and worrying about what I wore below the waist.
On the 25-minute drive over, I became reacquainted with my long-standing and persistent social anxiety: My hands got clammy against the steering wheel; I noticed that my breathing became shallower as I got closer.
But did I have a good time? Absolutely. I loved seeing my two friends, and we all loved hugging one another. Hallelujah!
Our host, a formidable chef, reminded us of her prowess in the kitchen and the joy of being together around the table. Three hours later I drove home, spent. I promised myself that the next day I would remain in my cocoon. And I did.
I’m still not ready to jump into the “after” life with both feet yet. Maybe, after this quieter and more home-focused year, I never will — and that’s okay, too.