Now, as most of us prepare to return to something like our pre-pandemic routines, I felt it might be useful to share some thoughts about re-integration, reconnecting and trying to recapture one’s old life. When I was released, as happy as I was to be free, I didn’t feel as good as I expected. I hadn’t realized that adapting to positive circumstances also takes time.
The first thing to keep in mind is that everyone will have changed, even slightly, including you. At the end of 18 months in isolation, I certainly wasn’t feeling like myself. Friends and co-workers who you remember as being very affectionate may now loathe the idea of being touched. People who were once the life of the party may not want to gather in large groups. Some great communicators will have trouble looking you in the eye.
I went through all of this and more. Now, more than five years later, most but not all of that is thankfully a distant memory. The good news for people pining to go back to the way things used to be is that many of these changes will be temporary. The bad news is that tens of millions of Americans will be going through this readjustment at roughly the same time.
Next, you probably have expectations of what it will be like to start doing all the activities you missed. One thing you might not have prepared for, though, is how awkward aspects of it are likely to be.
The experience of losing your social connections is disorienting and disempowering. Add to that the fact that many people have lost loved ones very suddenly, or have been afflicted with covid-19 and are still struggling physically. So the best piece of advice I can offer is that, though the pandemic has no doubt affected you, it’s really not about you.
Try not to over-share about how difficult your experience of isolation was. The chances are high that if you allow yourself to do it once, you will get into the habit, and before long you’ll be whining to someone who experienced pain, loss and trauma. It’s probably a good time to practice listening rather than rushing to share every detail of the past year. No one is that interested in your isolation story — trust me on this one.
When I came home, many people — some of them old friends, others I’d never met — wanted to tell me about how difficult their experience of my imprisonment was. I started to joke that in these situations, especially if someone started crying, I’d apologize for putting them through that ordeal and reach out an offer them a hug. But I can’t do that anymore, and neither can you.
Which leads to my next point: Respect the personal physical space of others as best you can. A good mantra to repeat is, “Everyone needs a hug. But not everyone wants to be hugged.” One habit I’ve noticed in early post-vaccination encounters is people asking each other, “Are you comfortable hugging yet?” This seems like a very sensible and empathetic approach.
What you don’t want to do is “pull an Obama.” When my wife and I were invited to meet President Barack Obama soon after my release, we couldn’t have been more excited. And when we met, he stuck out his hand to shake, then thought better of it.
“You know what Jason?” He then paused just for millisecond, and said, almost to himself, “I’m gonna give you a hug.”
It felt totally natural to be in the warm embrace of the leader of the free world. In Obama’s defense, that was 2016, and that sort of display of affection was encouraged. It was completely welcomed at the time, as were the three kisses on the cheek that he gave my wife. Three was “Persian style,” according to the now-former commander in chief. But now, the idea of hugging and kissing a total stranger seems out of touch.
Ultimately, don’t expect life to ever go completely back to what it was before the pandemic. Some things are gone forever, but we will soon realize there have been improvements on our old ways. Embrace those. Change is rarely easy, but it’s one of the few constants you can count on in life. If you can accept that, you’ll be fine.
Watch Jason’s meditation on coping with isolation: