About this time last year, as I was taking the tube to school, I snapped my Oyster card in two.
The station was packed, and I was afraid that if I kept bumping into people everyone would judge me for my lack of spatial awareness. That, and obviously my posture, the way I walked, looked, breathed – you name it. Like most days, I clutched my Oyster card tightly in my fist, hoping the pain would distract me from what in my eyes was the inevitable disaster of my public existence.
It was like one of those movies where everything goes into slow motion and the white noise becomes unbearable. I opened my hand and knew I had lost. Lost not only against myself and my fears, but also because I felt destined to spend the rest of the day branded with my shame.
Social anxiety is one of the most common mental health illnesses, frequently occurring alongside others such as generalised anxiety disorder, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and others. It is characterised by a fear of performing in social situations and interactions, and affects people in many different ways, from making public speaking an object of dread, to limiting where they go and whom they interact with on a daily basis.
Personally, I’ve lost track of how often I’ve had such experiences, and though I’m certainly better off than I was a few years ago, the presence of social anxiety still ebbs and flows in my present life. Some days, it’s the kind of stuff that most people feel self-conscious about. And then there other days when I wonder whether I will be judged for stepping on the cracks of the pavement. Or I expend all my energy on internal conflicts like “Which is more humiliating? Bending down to tie my shoelace, or pretending I haven’t noticed that it’s undone?”
To put it simply, what is to most other people just ‘being in a social environment’, in my eyes is a question of ‘parading my defective self in public’.
Reading that, you’d be excused for thinking that being asked to avoid interaction would not require much of a sacrifice on my part. However, though social anxiety makes every outing something of an ordeal, I am still a sociable person who doesn’t find the idea of lockdown particularly appealing. Sure, there are things that have (at times surprisingly) been easier, but the effects of the pandemic on my daily life were not quite so straightforward as I expected.
In the first place there were masks, which, living in a crowded city, my parents and I decided to wear in the hope that it would catch on and turn into one of the better quid-pro-quo’s of recent years. Though hesitant at first (especially because face coverings are still worn relatively little in open spaces), I noticed a change from the very first time I left the house with my new sky-blue accessory.
Gone was the instant regret I felt every time I entered the park, which, despite being a favourite destination, always inspired dread. Gone was the fear of blushing, and with it the need for my obsessively-rehearsed protective deadpan expression, and even – thank you, sunglasses – the terrifying possibility of eye contact. There is something refreshing about the anonymity that comes from being totally unrecognisable, even when you know that the people you pass by don’t know or care about you. That sounds silly, but when you know, you know.
On the other hand, new challenges have arisen with the increased use of video chat. While hiding behind a mask can be oddly comforting, virtually allowing people into your personal space through a video call is stressful. Interaction, though daunting, is undeniably preferable in person, especially as social cues and body language play such a huge role in communication and are better at saving stilted conversation than a “Can you hear me?”
Nowadays, I find making contributions so much harder for fear of interrupting or being spoken over: if you read my mind during one of those prolonged silences on a group call, you’d likely find – if you could hear anything over the pounding of my heart – that I am bursting with things to say. And if I open my mouth to say something and someone else pipes up – well, that’s me done. And don’t even get me started on all the people I suspect are watching me through my webcam long after I’ve hung up or closed the YouTube video.
Perhaps the greatest struggle is the purely social side of things – Microsoft Teams meetings, Facetime, Zoom workout classes, etc. We inevitably feel the extra effort of having to contrive social gatherings now that we are deprived of casual settings like a common room, a park or a restaurant. And if the few inter-collegiate society events I attended were the result of hours, if not days, of pep-talks and indecision, you can be 100 percent certain that I will not be introducing myself into new groups online. While physically walking into a scenario rings of a reassuringly remote spontaneity, requesting to join a Facebook group full of random strangers and clicking a Zoom link decidedly does not. Nevertheless, I have at least forced myself to reach out to friends, because keeping in touch – no matter the inconvenience – is so worth it.
Anyone who has dealt with mental illness will tell you that it is an ongoing process that can bring as many new obstacles as it can milestones, and which of the two my experience of the COVID lockdown falls under I cannot yet tell. There have been true and false comforts and several challenges, but that only helps to remind me that I am a work in progress.
On the positive side, I’ve learned to look at social interactions in a different light, and to appreciate even the elements of these I was most afraid of. If there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s that pandemic or no pandemic, I will keep facing my fears, so that someday, when I take off both my literal and metaphorical mask, it will reveal a smile.