‘Who’d a thunk it?’ There we were on a dark Friday evening in January, watching the Taoiseach walk down that long flight of stairs to address the nation again. Thanks to the usual leaks to the media, we anticipated that some of the restrictions that ruined Christmas would slowly be lifted over the following weeks and months. Or maybe not. It felt like we’d seen it all before and we weren’t holding our breath for any sort of significant reprieve to the last 10 months. What we didn’t expect was to be freed at last at 6am the very next morning.
Back when the pandemic started, in what now feels like the distant past of March 2020, I couldn’t wait for this lockdown business to be over. I imagined that when that blessed day came, I’d be like a teenager on the last day of school, a terrier let loose on the beach. I’d be jumping for joy, running up the street hugging everyone, a mariachi band following my every step. We’d have a massive party, a monster pub crawl, an epic session…So, it was a bit of a surprise to find that the first weekend of liberty was a non-event. We didn’t go out. We saw the same friends who have been in our social bubble from the start. I know that there was craic to be found, but we just didn’t feel like jumping in. Frankly I just wasn’t feeling the party vibe. In fact, I felt more like a character in a movie who after being locked up in a dark shed, suddenly finds that the shackles are gone and just stands in the doorway, shielding their eyes from the sun.
It isn’t just the dread of catching Covid, though seeing a large group of people without masks socialising feels vaguely weird. We’ve been on high alert for an invisible virus for long enough to feel vulnerable in any situation that calls for mingling. But there’s more to social anxiety than the fear of contagion. Here’s what I think happened. As we yo-yoed from a 2km radius to 20km to nationwide, from no pints to pints with a nine euro meal and back to pints (but not after 8pm), and from no nightclubs or concerts to watching a gig with a face mask on, our territory expanded and contracted, but we were never really left off the leash. When restrictions eased it was as if the powers that be had merely got a longer leash. Now the leash has finally been taken off, but I can feel it still. I have become comfortable with its limitations. My world has contracted, not only geographically, but socially. It’s going to take a while to get used to.
Another thing that I’ve noticed is a sort of brain fog. I have trouble remembering people’s names after not seeing them for two years. I mix up summer 2020 with summer 2021. I’d be worried about it except that memory ‘holes’ are apparently a common complaint. For many people the pandemic has become one big blur. With none of the usual memory landmarks of birthdays, anniversaries and festivals, the past becomes very samey. We need distinctive events to be able to log memories.
The advice is to not worry if you too feel social anxiety or have memory holes. Take it slow and easy. Gentle exposure to social situations that only slightly push at the borders of your comfort zone is better than forcing yourself straight into the mosh pit. So tonight, I am venturing out to the cinema followed by a visit to the pub. Then we’ll meet friends for Sunday lunch. I’ve also booked tickets to visit my sister, who I haven’t seen since 2019 when our father passed away.
Welcome back world. It’s good to see you again. I’ve missed you. Just please don’t be insulted if I can’t quite remember your name….