The World Seems to Be Going Back to Normal, but I’m Not 1

Vaccinated Americans have been promised a summer of abandon, a once-in-a-lifetime bacchanalian return to partying, hedonism, and tongue-kissing the first stranger in sight… or at least having the chance to see the lower half of their unmasked face.

Though the pandemic is far from over—India’s devastating second wave reached its peak this week—its hold on the this country’s attention span certainly seems to have wavered.

Whether its New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tearing into a Shake Shack hamburger on camera, promising free fries to those who get their shot, or Joe Biden ceremoniously addressing the press face uncovered, the intended message seems to be: You deserve fun. Go out and have fun.

Since I got my vaccine at a local CVS, while Gloria Esteban’s “Turn The Beat Around” played prophetically in the background, I have tried to have fun the old way: small parties, outdoor gatherings, meeting a friend for drinks just because it’s Tuesday. For the most part, my efforts have been incredible failures.

A few weeks ago my friends trudged through Prospect Park to set up a birthday picnic of Popeyes and wine in celebration of my birthday. I felt very loved, appreciated, and lucky. I also had no clue what to say to any of them. I let my chattier friends go on about an impending vacation while I stared at the grass.

When one of my best friends and I set up a night to catch up, I decorated the day in my calendar with sketches of hearts and lots of exclamation points. But when we sat down across from each other, I found myself suddenly shy. Thankfully, an adorable dog sitting with a couple dining one table over from us took interest in my friend’s hamburger. We spent an hour giving it scratches and cuddles, which distracted us from any real conversation.

The “post-quarantine” conversation, already parodied by Saturday Night Live, is a tortuous exercise. Nothing makes me recognize how completely empty my brain has become than struggling to figure up a response to, “So what have you been up to?”

At a recent backyard barbecue, I found myself wanting to stab a stranger with the grill tongs after he told me his pandemic was “Great!” He picked up journaling and even bought a house. “Aw,” I cooed and nodded in response. I don’t think I’ve ever ever hated anyone more.

Britt Mullin, a 29-year-old receptionist from St. Paul, Minnesota, already had “mild society anxiety” before the pandemic. A year of few interactions has exacerbated those feelings.

“Oh gosh I kind of forgot how to talk to my best friend for a bit!” Mullin, who uses they/them pronouns, told me. “We’d been chatting via text or Snapchat and my brain just kind of shut off and forgot how to have an in-person conversation for fun.”

During Mullin’s reunion with an old friend, the pair sat in a car and talked about some nearby construction projects. “It was so awkward,” they said.

But Mullin’s friend can relate. “We all have some post-pandemic anxiety, I think,” they said. “My family thinks my stories of my brain turning off and forgetting how to talk or be ‘normal’ are funny.”

There’s that phrase: If you don’t use it, you lose it. The same goes with social interactions—we’ve forgotten how to do it.

Allison Chawla

Jessica Lam, a software engineer and startup tech executive describes herself as an “introvert.”

“I was fine for most of the pandemic, but after about a year, I really miss live music, parties, dancing, and being out,” she said.

Lam will finally attend her first post-vaccine party next Friday. She’s forgotten how to prepare: “I need to make sure I still fit in my clothes… and it’s been so long that I think all my makeup is expired and I’m not sure if I even remember how to use them.”

Allison Chawla, a psychotherapist and certified coach who works in Rhinebeck, NY, assured me that many of her clients feel a similar way. “It’s a huge issue,” Chawla said. “There’s that phrase: If you don’t use it, you lose it. The same goes with social interactions—we’ve forgotten how to do it.”

Socialization, Chawla said, is all about sharing things you have in common with others. “But we’ve all been mourning and hearing only about that pandemic or other tragedies,” she explained. “We have nothing else to talk about right now, and even trying to be nostalgic can be painful for some people. It’s uncomfortable to think about the pleasurable things.”

Rebecca Weingarten, a counselor, suggests that people still try to connect, even if just in small groups. “Assert yourself in a comfort zone, and don’t try to move out of it too much,” she said. “Slowly get used to getting back in the swing of things. If you go to one party, maybe plan to go to another in two weeks, three weeks, a month so you have a break. And when you get home from a gathering, do something you loved doing while you were in quarantine.”

Chawla also recommends baby steps. “Don’t throw yourself into a huge group, but find ways to submerge yourself in a sea of people so that it’s normal again,” she said. “Maybe just go shop for food when it’s a little bit busier in the grocery store, to get used to people.”

Jennifer Tomko, a psychotherapist and owner of Clarity Health Solutions in Jupiter, Florida, added that “there is a delicate balance between one’s comfort zone and avoidance.”

“That’s the biggest thing I would say—everyone’s rusty, but check yourself to make sure you’re not just trying to avoid the future,” she said. “Test yourself a bit. If you don’t want to go to a concert, go to the beach. Don’t expect the moon, but don’t use the pandemic to avoid your own anxiety.”

Spurred by Tomko’s tough love, the first really sunny day of the season, and the CDC’s announcement that vaccinated people can ditch their masks indoors, I tried again. I made plans with a friend of a friend—someone I’ve seen around and think is cool but don’t know very well.

We were having fun. Not the balls-out bender the people who use ‘Shot girl summer’ in a sentence might be talking about, but fun nonetheless.

We met at an astrology-themed bar. At first it had the air of a Tinder date—that awkward moment we recognized each other and fumbled into a half-hug. I think I might have nervously held up finger guns, a gesture I’ve never made in my life, when I said hi. I wished for death.

But then a funny thing happened. We were talking about quarantine hobbies, namely how we didn’t have any. I copped to completely abandoning my workout routine, she said she hadn’t felt nearly as creative as all her friends who learned how to throw pots or bought paint sets during the pandemic did.

“This is the first time I’m seeing someone since March 2020 who’s not my boyfriend or my best friend,” she said. I agreed. “It’s kind of fun,” she said.

Fun! We were having fun. Not the balls-out bender the people who use “Shot girl summer” in a sentence might be talking about, but fun nonetheless.

I didn’t look at my phone once. Suddenly, it was last call. We made plans to meet again soon—a promise it will feel good to keep.