Ashera is a Marriage and Family Therapist with an extensive background in sexual health education. You can ask her stuff anonymously and she won’t get weirded out. Seriously, try her. Send your queries through our anonymous contact form here.
I think it goes without saying that 2020 was a complete and total shitshow. Like many, I struggled with adjusting to the pandemic. Social distancing was so painful at first and I had a hard time remembering to carry a mask. But then, people I know started losing friends and family members to COVID. Then, I lost my uncle to it.
As if the whole “terrible disease ravaging the planet” thing wasn’t enough, there was the election to divide up my friends, family, and community. I knew that I held different political views from many in my hometown, but, in the past, we were able to politely avoid the elephant in the room. After seeing so much bigotry come from them after the BLM protests, I ended up cutting (or at least very much modifying) ties with a lot of people. And that really fucking hurt…until it didn’t.
Being separated by other people for safety, and then cutting social ties, and then continuing to keep my distance eventually stopped hurting so much. If anything, I really enjoyed not having to navigate political bullshit with my Trumper cousin at Thanksgiving, and I really loved not having to do company Christmas parties and deal with awkward small talk. I love having an excuse to grocery shop at weird times, or to use curbside pickup. I’m really used to not dealing with other people’s bullshit. But now, there’s a vaccine coming, and while I’m SO glad that maybe I won’t lose anyone else I love to COVID, I am so scared of going back to being around people.
I don’t know how I’m going to adjust to water cooler talk at work after working remotely for 9 months. I don’t know how I’m going to ever justify not engaging with my cousin’s antagonistic comments at holidays. And don’t even get me started on dating. My aunt hasn’t tried to set me up with anyone in like a year and it’s been grand. I get really panicky imagining having to socialize after finally just getting comfortable with not.
Am I broken for not wanting to go back?
This may come as a relief to some and alarmist to others, but I don’t think there’s any “coming back” from this. The collective trauma that we’ve all been walking through will continue to shape our lives for some time. So much so, that people are reporting feeling uncomfortable even seeing crowds in movies. Naturally, we’ve had people since the beginning who deny the virus’s reach and effect. Those who remain willfully ignorant, who continue to gather in crowds, who cling to the belief that “it’s just a flu,” will always be present and very vocal. It’s important to recognize this as a trauma response as well—it’s easier for some to downplay the effects of a tragedy, or to blame a catastrophe on an unseemly entity. If it’s not that big of a deal or if it’s the work of some unseen foe, that means that someone is still in control, which is a hell of a lot easier to swallow than “the world is confusing and this situation is out of control.” But just because people are loud about something doesn’t mean it’s real, and you have the emotional scars and losses to prove it.
There’s been an overwhelming amount of change in the past year, and it sounds like you’ve been a real trooper about it. It’s totally understandable that seeing yet more change on the horizon would make your whole being shut down. You’ve finally reestablished some emotional safety for yourself, found some cognitive reframes, and maybe developed a coping mechanism or two. You found novel pieces of yourself that you like, and likely shed some other pieces along the way.
The narrative that you seem to be holding suggests that you feel like you don’t have as much control as you’d like. It sounds like there were some very real silver linings to the pandemic for you—you were able to hold better boundaries through necessity with family members (not engaging with an antagonistic cousin, not having your aunt meddle in your love life), and really align yourself with your values by saying “I’m not okay with bigotry” and to make changes based on that. It would totally be a shame to lose that progress. The good news is, you don’t have to.
It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that you are always allowed to hold and maintain whatever boundaries you need to in order to protect your own well-being. You do not need to engage in conversations you don’t have space for, go on dates you don’t want to, or otherwise negotiate with terrorists. You will, however, have to practice actually saying and maintaining “No,” because the world will not always be able to do it for you. If you have difficulty maintaining emotional space from family members (or friends, or coworkers), there’s an opportunity to examine where that comes from before you actually have to deal with them again.
I hear some panic in your letter that change will happen too fast. It’s important to remind yourself that there will be a longer transition period here than at the start of the crisis. When the pandemic first occurred, shutdowns were sudden and swift. Reopening will likely not be the same. You have time to adjust. In the meantime, you have the opportunity to get yourself comfortable with some perceived eventual changes. It could be helpful to take some time and journal about what you have learned over the past year and what modifications you want to keep. Think about what kind of world you want to see and how you want to interact within it. When I say “journal about it,” I don’t mean aimlessly wander around the topic for 10 minutes. Take a week or two and think about it for a half hour or so every day. Write things down, call a trusted friend and talk about it, draw a tarot card if that’s your jam, or consider finding a therapist.
On a mental hygiene note, it’s pertinent to deal with anxiety head-on and develop coping mechanisms and a support network. NY Project Hope is an excellent resource to help you on your way. I would also be remiss to mention that agoraphobia, or the fear of leaving the house, is a condition that can develop over time. As the world opens up, if you find yourself fearful that you won’t be able to stop panicking once you leave your home, or if your perception of danger does not match the actual danger of a situation, seek professional help to navigate those thoughts. It sounds like you’ve found a lot of comfort in being alone, and that’s okay! Enjoying solitude is a strength. Avoidance, however, is a crutch. It’s still important to cultivate community and to have meaningful (safely distanced) interactions with others, even, no – especially — now.