Mary Ellen Ritter
There I sat, teetering on the edge of normalcy. All that was demanded of me was to walk through a waist-high wooden gate and into a backyard and I would be back to the blissful, pre-pandemic state of social nirvana that I had fantasized about for a year. I was at my first post-vaccination social gathering with a few friends that I had met last year before the lockdown, the type of friends that I was excited to be making as a freshman, but did not know well enough to keep in touch with during isolation. The first thing I did? I forgot the name of the first kid that came up to me to say hello. I substituted with a “good to see you, man!” Though neither of us mentioned it (thank God), we clearly both understood the blunder I had made and opted to simply continue rekindling. I will spare you the details and promise you that the rest of the night followed the same pattern. Despite my giddiness to see these almost-close friends, my jokes did not land, conversation topics refused to connect organically and I found myself exhausted by the energy I had to put into conversation. The triumphant return I had expected to make was a flop. As a frenetic extrovert, I was a little confused by and more than a little concerned for my own social skills.
For those of us who are fully vaccinated, the world may be getting back to some semblance of what it was like pre-pandemic. As of June 9, 48 U.S. states have fully lifted mask mandates. This, combined with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s post-vaccination guidance allowing for “resum[ing] activities without wearing a masks or physically distancing” in places that do not have mandates, means that these types of casual social gatherings are likely to be more common in your life very shortly if they are not already.
This is good news. This is the news we have collectively been waiting on for the last 15 months, and it seems (though I say this cautiously) that we may be making major headway toward the end of the pandemic in the U.S. With these much anticipated changes in mind, it is easy to fantasize about normalcy, and I do not blame you if you do; it is good to be hopeful about what lies ahead. However, it is also important to remember that while getting vaccinated and lifting mandates gets our foot in the normalcy door, it does not erase this unprecedented experience from our lives. It may take a little time before some of us are back to our normal, social selves.
Because, believe it or not, we are not all just waking up from a fever dream ready to get back to life as it was. The lockdown had and will continue to have salient effects on our psyche. This was presented by a large observed uptick in symptoms of anxiety disorders in U.S. adults during the pandemic. Even if you did not feel acute symptoms, the chronic stress of dealing with separation from loved ones, new formats of work/school and other large overhauls of normal life impair functioning of the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain broadly responsible for our social skills. These changes took time to occur in our brain and it will likewise take time for us to correct them.
Science aside, this makes intuitive sense. No matter how much FaceTiming you did, no matter how many outdoor masked gatherings you attended or phone calls you made to relatives, it is impossible to deny that social interaction was sparse for the almost year and a half that we were relegated to our houses. We are out of practice. Just like with anything else, it may take us a moment to shake the rust off of our social skills before we are out there commanding the room like the pre-pandemic charisma machines that I know we all were.
Understanding that “normalcy” takes a lot more than lifted mandates is important, and being forgiving to ourselves and others as we all socially readjust is a must. If you are fully vaccinated, and feel comfortable seeing people again, keep in mind that we are all coming out of a potentially traumatizing situation. With time will come comfort, as is so often the case. In the end, the reason we miss pre-pandemic life is because we (or at least I) miss all the activities we used to do and the people we used to see, and we need to remember to enjoy them, even if we have to put up with growing pains for a little while. For now we should take it slow, forgive ourselves and get used to embracing a little awkwardness.