By Sarah Dickie
When I was first laid off from my receptionist job in March due to COVID-19 (with the promise of unemployment insurance), I was relieved.
I have social anxiety. I’ve struggled in environments my peers find ordinary – restaurants, waiting rooms, birthday parties, or really anyplace with unfamiliar people. My heart would beat faster in line at Starbucks as I rehearsed my order in my head. I would worry excessively about what others thought of me, especially those I was just meeting. I would examine what I say, how I sound, how I hold my body. I would decide it was all wrong; that nobody liked me, or could like me. I’ve struggled with disordered eating, partially due to poor body image. At the intersection of these anxieties, I found myself practicing obsessive grooming; always seeking reflective surfaces, or avoiding them; refusing to take pictures, or eat in front of others.
In this stage of my life these behaviors manifest much less often, and I can cope with them when they do – though sometimes I still struggle.
If you think this sounds exhausting, you’d be right. Given the shame-spiral I have historically been prone to in the company of others, it may come as no surprise that I’m quite introverted. (Is it a feature of the anxiety, or a true personality trait?) I spend plenty of joyful time with friends and loved ones, but at the end of the day, I recharge best in the company of myself. I had dreamt of shutting myself in, opting out of being perceived, only to venture out for food – and suddenly, when the lockdown began in March, to live like this was public safety. It was recommended. I breathed a sigh of relief – I could take off my carefully curated, public-facing mask for a while.
There was dissonance between the apocalyptic scene around me – desolate parking lots, entire strips of shops closed and darkened in broad daylight, shelves upon shelves emptied of toilet paper and disinfectants – and the relief I felt, privately, it seemed. I saw time stretch in front of me: day after day to do whatever, whenever, an indefinite vacation from the comfort of home, with no one to bother me and no one to judge me. I indulged in anti-productivity: I watched TV, I played video games; I danced around in my sleepwear. Sometimes I just did nothing. I got weird; I spoke out loud to myself, and made unintelligible noises just to hear them. I stayed up into the night and slept far into the day. I took my time eating breakfast. I smiled at myself in the mirror. I liked being alone – I liked me, if I wasn’t worried that others might not. I ignored calls and texts from friends and loved ones – social connection was no responsibility of mine anymore.
Summer came, though I never really felt it. My comfort in quarantine morphed into a maladaptive super-isolation, dissonant now with images online of folks flooding beaches and restaurants. Nothing tethered me to the passage of time. By August, I was outright avoiding speaking with family and friends. Conversation seemed too exhausting. I sent so many I miss you! texts, and ignored the responses. I couldn’t make sense of this myself, so I’m sure friends couldn’t either. I dreaded answering a how are you? – I didn’t know. I hardly felt present in my body long enough to assess that. I wasn’t moving much – maybe from my desk to the kitchen to the couch – so my own body felt foreign to me; it felt heavy. I was dissociating frequently. I scrolled endlessly through social media, absorbing bad news and others’ anxieties; engaging with others only superficially through “likes”, but never in real conversation. A voice in my head thought I might be struggling now, and it might be time to reach out for support – but I didn’t feel real, and I couldn’t imagine that other people were, either, if I couldn’t see them. I had unlearned object permanence. I had become so forgetful – what day was it? Had I eaten?
I showered only to replace old sweatpants with clean ones. I didn’t bother with my hair, or with makeup. I didn’t care how I looked. The NAN Project teaches middle and high school students that similar changes in hygiene habits can indicate poor mental health. Pre-pandemic, I was someone who found joy in fashion and hair; someone who was known in my social circles for my style – but in COVID-era isolation, I gave up on these things. Was it still a bad sign if my life was so different now? Was my obsession with appearance better than not caring at all? If I had nowhere to be, no one to see, did I still have to make the effort, or else have it mean something? It didn’t make me feel better not to get dressed.
In October, I asked myself another tough question: how did my body image change when no one was around to see me? How did my opinion of myself change when I was alone?
Now, in November, my pandemic unemployment assistance has long run out, and I am preparing to return to full-time, on-site work. I am afraid. All the anxieties I’ve worked so hard to quiet have reared their heads again. Will I do a good job? Will I make a fool of myself? Will people like me? I will make use of coping strategies I’ve learned and practiced pre-pandemic: grounding exercises, journaling, art as self-expression, seeking love and reassurance. There are some things, though, I cannot as easily cope with, like the fear that re-entering the public sphere will render me vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. How much of my fear of others is warranted now, to keep me safe? How much of it must I challenge in order to grow?
There is no right way to respond to this health crisis. (Except for wearing your mask and engaging cautiously with others in person, if at all – please continue to do these things.) No matter how you feel, you are not alone; no matter how strange your emotional responses, or the ways you’ve found to adapt, you are not alone. If you are overwhelmed by loneliness, or by fear, if you feel you are moving backwards (and then forwards, and then backwards) in your recovery journey, if you have asked yourself some heavy, existential questions – me too. Keep in touch with the people who lift you up and calm you down. Remember to remain present and take care of yourself in any way you know how. I am trying to remember, too.