The world has changed. One could argue that the world is always changing – but it is impossible to ignore how drastically everything has changed for everyone in just a few months. And now that we are starting to re-emerge from our shelter-in-place lives, there are so many questions that need to be answered.
I think it’s obvious that nothing will go back to the way it was before the pandemic – and maybe that’s a good thing. There were so many things about our lives which needed a tune-up, from societal interactions with one another, to fully appreciating the things we have which we never took the time to acknowledge. And while I have hope that we will soon see better days, there are still challenges to overcome in the coming months – and none of us are entirely sure what that entails.
As someone who struggles with anxiety, my whole life is structured around finding ways to deal with things that make me anxious. Things that are easy for neurotypical people, like ordering at restaurants and going to the grocery store, have always been a little more difficult for people like me. Through years and years of practice and strategizing my encounters with the outside world, I’ve come up with ways of dealing with things that trigger my anxiety, and it’s helped to make my life easier and more enjoyable every day.
However, this is something that no longer works in the world we see today. My main strategy – analyzing patterns of behavior in others around me and copying what I see others do – is difficult to implement, because no one quite knows what to do. I feel as though all of the progress I’ve made in the last few years regarding this issue has been for nothing, because just as I’ve finished memorizing all of the rules, the rules have suddenly changed.
I was that kid who would do anything to avoid contact with strangers. At church, I became extremely interested in the news bulletin whenever it was time for the meet-an-greet portion of the service. If I see someone on the elevator, I’ll either find a good reason to wait for the next one, or I’ll take the stairs. Too many people in the public bathroom? I’ll sit in a stall and wait until they all leave before doing my business. I’ve always had struggles making friends and having quality interactions with people, because the moment I go to put myself out there, anxiety says no.
I started putting a harsh override on all of my anxiety-induced commands: whenever anxiety told me to do something, I started doing the exact opposite. Maybe this sounds crazy to you, but sometimes the bravest thing I’d do in a day would be to use a public bathroom with other people inside. I started initiating conversations, waving to strangers, giving hugs to my friends, calling people, texting first, the whole deal – but now?
Like I said, the rules are different now. And even I don’t have a clear picture of how to move forward.
I can’t follow the examples of other people, because not everyone agrees on what’s right. I can’t just google “how to interact with people during a pandemic”, because this kind of global shut-down has never happened before. I can’t just read the room, because, well…we’re supposed to be social distancing, and there’s no one here to read. So what now? Do I dig into my hole of self-isolation and wait out the storm? Do I charge ahead with my best guess and hope that no one gets too offended? Do I just sit and speculate, while anxiety runs in my brain like a hamster on a treadmill?
So far, my strategy has been to wait. Wait, and let someone else make the first move. Wait, and let the government decide what to do. Wait, and hope that someone else figures it out…because I can’t sort out rational distrust and anxiety on my own.
Anxiety and I have a long relationship – but wrestling with it has given me some pretty useful tools to help me navigate even the rockiest social terrain, and maybe that’s one bright spot in the midst of all of this. I know that things can’t go back to the way they used to be, but I’m also really good at adapting to constant change – and because of anxiety, I’m on the alert for it. Maybe this is just one of those things where I’m going to have to hold on and hope for the best, while the world sorts itself out. And when I’ve got solid ground underneath my feet again, I’ll take one short step after another, until I’ve got the next set of social rules down to a T.
The part that I don’t like to acknowledge, the part that scares me the most, is that I am going to have to make mistakes before I figure this all out. There are going to be times when I accidently get too close to someone in a public space and they’ll get upset. There will be times when I’ll unknowingly touch my face and someone will get upset about that, too. There will be awkward moments where no one will know quite how to proceed. That’s just part of life.
So I want to encourage you, my dear friends, not to give up. If this sounds like you, then trust me, I know that these coming weeks are going to be hard. But they won’t be impossible, and they won’t last forever. We just need to take one step at a time, as slowly as is necessary, until we get it right.
We here at the Anxious Introvert are praying for you, and want to remind you that we are all in this together. Stay safe, everyone.
The Anxious Introvert