Re-Entry Anxiety; I think I’ve Lost All My Social Skills

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Right now everyone is concerned with re-entry. Re-entry anxiety is the fear that as the pandemic slows down and the quarantine lifts we will have to go back out there and, well, talk to people. Loss of social skills, bad home haircuts, extra pandemic pounds; as the reality hits, lots of people are freaking out.

It’s like a form of delayed adolescence where we are forced out of the nest into a post-apocalyptic world where we are assured hey, yes, you will be able to breathe, sure, it will be safe, no really, you will be fine. As long as there are no other viral strains, then it could suck, but hey, go on out, have a good time.

How do we leave home and try to find some semblance of a normal life?

Lots of us have lost our outside circle of friends, our casual acquaintances, we’ve only kept our close buddies and family in our pod, and now we want to get back out there into real life, but we are worried, do we have the social skills to connect with new people? What’s it going to be like to go to a party and talk about anything besides politics, racism, riots, the virus?

“Which vaccine did you get?” Is about the length of the conversation I have had with anyone, and mostly in the grocery store, and that’s six feet apart, a convenient distance to keep the story short, even though I’m desperate to know, desperate to talk. At the same time, I don’t want to engage. I have to get out of there as fast as I can, run back home to my place, to my couch, to my sourdough bread starter. Going outside, I’ve been trained, isn’t safe. I’ve had enough behavioral reinforcers from watching the news to know, staying home is the best policy. Anything else is just rude. Or deadly.

My single friends want to get back out there. They want to date, they want to go to sex parties, they want to go to bars and restaurants, but another part of them is scared. Scared and unsure. Isn’t it still dangerous? Isn’t there a variant out there that’s gonna kill them? Is kissing okay? What if they have sex without kissing?

We are all sick of the masks and afraid to take them off.

I’ve noticed that more men check me out now that I wear a mask. Is it because I have sultry, sexy eyes above my cotton blue mouth covering? It is some unconscious S&M fantasy turn-on where they see a woman with her mouth willingly shut and think it’s kinky? Do they think I can’t see them looking at me cause they’re in a mask?

Or maybe with half of our facial expressions covered, hidden, we have to stare, in order to discern whether or not we are smiling, or frowning, or acknowledging the other. So much has to be said with the eyes that used to be said with the subtle movements of the mouth.

I am naturally a frowner. That resting bitch face thing is real. I have been told my whole life, “smile!” which never made me want to smile. On the contrary, it made me want to punch someone in the throat. But now, no one sees my bitchy face. They might think I am making a kind, smiling face at them. It’s the mystery behind the mask that I think intrigues them. Plus it hides my real age.

I am afraid to re-enter real life. I say I want to get back out there. I miss traveling. I miss getting on a plane, going out to dinner, sitting in a theater. But I have been lucky. I have been locked down with my husband, and we haven’t killed each other. It’s actually been kind of nice.

There is an intimacy in being locked in, in being shut down, in hiding at home. Quarantine was long and crazy. Being home for a year, watching Netflix, making food. Yes, it was boring and, I mean, how much can a person take? But at the same time, it was cozy. It was a cocoon. It was a chrysalis.

Maybe you liked it too. Maybe you felt like you were growing. Perhaps you reevaluated all of the things that were important. You cleaned out some closets, sold your album collection, got rid of those old clothes that didn’t fit you.

Or you were like those workout people and you lost a bunch of weight, you stepped up your game, you lifted weights, you started running, you gave up drinking. Good for you.

Other people went nuts. They fought with their spouse. They learned that they hate algebra and they suck at homeschooling their kids. Their apartments were way too small and they found out the truth: there’s never enough room for toddlers and adults in the same house. Lots of people’s relationships fell apart and some even got abusive. Jobs were lost, the money ran out. Whole industries fell apart.

If you were one of the lucky ones and you made it through, you didn’t get Covid, you stayed healthy, you didn’t lose a loved one, you have a lot to be grateful for. As of today, there have been 31.4 million cases and 563 thousand deaths in the US alone. Worldwide, there have been 137 million cases and 2.96 million deaths, reported.

I had Covid last February. It was like breathing through Jello. I wondered at one point if I could die. And at the time I thought I had the flu, they weren’t diagnosing it back them. I wonder why I was lucky enough to make it through. I am grateful I was healthy and strong enough to survive it.

Thinking that this awful virus might be coming to an end gives me goosebumps. Will we be able to look back and go, ”Wow, we lived through that?”

Now we have to crawl out of our shared chrysalis. We are forever changed from this experience. It is the first time in history that we have shared such a global disaster. We all watched it happen in real-time, all of us tuned into our televisions, chasing the elusive rolls of toilet paper, watching riots in the streets, tracking the major shifts in our governments, trying to make sense of the upheavals in our lives, banging pots in the streets to honor our front line workers, crying alone, separately, for our dead.

What will happen? Will there be a magic ‘re-entry’ day? Will we flood out into the streets, like the roaring 20's, partying and singing and drinking and celebrating? Will the next year or two be a giant sex party? Will we be rowdier than we have ever been? Will our clothes be brighter? Will fashion be crazier? Will we pursue our dreams with gusto? Will we travel about the country, the world, with less fear, and more camaraderie? Will we hug a stranger, pet our friend's dogs, will we all get along? Will there be crazy dancing in the streets?

Or will we creep out into the new world, blinded by daylight, slowly getting used to the sun, like people who have been living under a rock for a year, our skin blue tinted from the light of our TV screens? With our polarized political views, guns held protectively under our arms, flags waved over our heads, masks still on, mouths covered, silent, protecting our real selves from one another, not trusting, afraid?

Will it take a while to settle in, sit back, get back on the subways, the highways, into the movie theaters? Back to school?

This year 30% of adults have seen a psychotherapist (and 19% are considering it). More people than ever before are using online therapy to talk about their stress and the problems of the pandemic. Mental health issues have included feeling overwhelmed, stress, job loss, and loneliness.

It’s not going to get easier just because you can get out of the house now. In fact, it might get harder. It could be scarier to think about making friends again. Talking. Hanging out.

Just going outside again can be anxiety-producing. The thought of it scares me sometimes. I have developed this weird agoraphobia that I had never had before. I am an extrovert. I would normally talk to anyone, anywhere, a telephone pole even if no one else was around. But now I am nervous about taking off my mask. What if someone tries to talk to me in the grocery store and I don’t want to talk to them? What if I don’t want to hear about their vaccine? What if I don’t have a real, literal mask to pull up? What if I can’t back up six feet without seeming rude or paranoid?

I’m going to have to rethink this whole reentry thing. Go slow. Be gentle with myself. Maybe start with a sex party.

Tammy Nelson Ph.D. is a licensed professional counselor and certified sex and couples therapist. She is a TEDx speaker and host of the podcast The Trouble with Sex. She is currently providing online telehealth sessions and can be found at www.drtammynelson.com

Tammy Nelson PhD is a Certified Sex and Couples Therapist, a TEDx speaker and host of The Trouble with Sex podcast. She is the author of The New Monogamy.

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