Day 39: Keeping an anti-social distance from “normality”

I’m back in Dublin. After over three months spent in complete isolation in Cork, where the only people I have spoken to outside my family are siblings’ other halves, two family friends and the lovely cashiers in my three trips to Ireland’s best, prize-winning Supervaloo, I am back once more in the cacophonic breach, floating through the rippled tributaries of wave on wave on wave of people and dogs and small families and joggers and cyclists and ambulances and tykes on bikes and young couples and homeless wanderers and buses and malicious gulls. And it is wonderful: I am grateful for this slice of normality to nibble on – the dipping of an apprehensive yet hopeful toe into the restorative waters of the “before” and, hopefully, the “after.” The sumptuous joy of ordering a coffee, of having someone ask how my day is going, of my returning their smile and replying, ‘it’s better now’, of getting to sip and savour it outside, in a park, on a bench, far from the confines of home, safely surrounded by reclining strangers and beyond the boundary of our garden wall.

But it is also incredibly daunting. Social unease has become an elective accompaniment to most interactions as my brain ignites in fireworked spasms of impending meltdown as it attempts to process and respond to a plethora of stimuli it has gone three months without. I feel perpetually hungover – that jittered, preoccupied, vibrating hysteria that churns through you like last night’s gin – as I attempt to steer myself through social cues, crowds that lurch towards me with no regard for social distancing, billboards, traffic, loud, now foreign, noises, and the debilitating pressure to embody the person I’m talking to remembers me as. I am not an anxious person and yet I feel awash with it; my mouth soiled with the acrid, bitter bite of it.

Not constantly but sometimes. And I feel embarrassed by this, tarred by implications of hysteria, melodrama, preciousness and well, the sullen and unspoken opinion that I’ve become just a bit dull.

Yesterday, I met friends in town and when they came to hug me, I lunged backwards. I was wearing a facemask and felt like a total fucking idiot and yet, weren’t they the idiots for not wearing one? Walking through the city centre and the hordes of people (all of them good-looking, by the way – when did Irish people become so attractive?) having free and tactile and groping fun, I felt near-tears in this alternate reality so completely at odds with my small orbit of rural habitation. I longed for the serenity of the quiet country roads I’ve spent three months safely ensconced in.

The tears were my complete and lifelong failure to transition easily from binary situations (I am queen of not culture shock but REVERSE culture shock) and my confused longing to be a part of this heaving, laughing, spluttering, back-slapping, spitting mass while feeling physically petrified of it. They were the product of this strange new normal of having to battle every impulse, to second-guess every instinctive grab for human touch, and then deal with the resultant perceptions of “uncoolness” as you are deemed anal, reserved, cold.

Perhaps it was in my head – heightened as my predilection for over-analysis is these days – but I thought I sensed a cold front of something approaching resentment, a silent judgement for my precautionary measures and face-masked hyperventilation. Everyone just wanted to pretend normality for a day and I – physically representing the fact everything is not and cannot yet be normal – was spoiling the fun. I often feel this is my occupational hazard as self-elected killjoy feminist, climate activist, PC police.

In the overanxious state of my mind, I felt like it was not the deathly, rampant and by no means diminishing coronavirus that was being villainised, but rather me for acknowledging its existence in the blatant emblem of my handmade – and frigging uncomfortable – facemask. My reaction to this interpretation of events was to go out of my way to explain the myriad reasons for the facemask, the lack of hugging, the very obvious sore thumbness of my social distance… and then to feel bewildered by the perverseness of this – wait, shouldn’t they be the ones justifying their lack of concern navigating these teeming city streets?

I feel perpetually hungover – that jittered, preoccupied, vibrating hysteria that churns through you like last night’s gin – as I attempt to steer myself through social cues, crowds that lurch towards me with no regard for social distancing, billboards, traffic, loud, now foreign, noises, and the debilitating pressure to embody the person I’m talking to remembers me as.

It’s been many years since I’ve felt peer pressure but I felt the burn of it yesterday. And by that I mean not the pressure put upon me by peers necessarily – everyone I was with, by the way, was cool and accommodating about the facial garb – but rather an internal pressure to assimilate and assume the behaviour of those around me. The desire to conform and the agonising conflict of knowing to do so involves sacrificing something integral and important within you.

With the first can, I caved. When I had removed my facemask, someone asked “oh, so you’ve relaxed now?”

I felt weirdly shamed and pressured to exonerate myself with an explanation of just how different things are at home, drumming up superfluous reasons and over-exaggerations for my carefulness: “I’m just not used to this, you see; things are so different up here; my dad’s in the at-risk group so I have to be careful.”

Over the last few weeks, many conversations have been an attempt to justify what is a very natural reaction of discomfort and dis-ease to the switch from complete insulation to exorbitant overstimulation. I didn’t think I would need to explain my qualms and worries for this blossoming of near-normality and the potential implications it will have for case numbers and yet, here I am, dramatising my personal risks with each retelling in an attempt to make my basic adherence to social distancing palatable. I don’t know if anyone is asking me to do this or if this is something I feel the need to overcompensate for. That’s a bit mad, isn’t it?

I am annoyed at myself that I feel I need to do this – that once againi the people-pleasing defect within me defers to the judgement of others instead of remaining stalwart and secure in the knowledge that I am doing what I deem to be the right thing.

Most of all though, I am irked by the implication that my hesitation stems from a place of fun-killing wet-blanketness. That my reluctance to jump on the “fuck it” bandwagon stems from a place of dull insensitivity instead of genuine – and honestly bewildered – good intentions. I don’t know what the right thing to do is and thus I am trying to do my limited best by doing nothing.

I am not an anxious person and yet I feel awash with it; my mouth soiled with the acrid, bitter bite of it.

For the first, genuine time in my life, I am trying to err on the side of caution. I am trying – and mainly flatline failing – TO BE RESPONSIBLE. Not for my own health or pleasure, but simply because I feel I owe it to the lives impacted by coronavirus thus far. And I cannot understand why this is not more widely understood or accepted. I am baffled that my apprehension for the easing of measures is not more widely shared or, at least, acknowledged. Amongst some friends, I feel completely irrational, out-of-touch, neurotic. Yet I know I am, if anything, moderate in both my fears and in my adapting to the shifting sands of these bizarre periods we’re still insisting on calling days.

I do not like this culture of villainising or denouncing those of us who are struggling to deal with nationwide reopening. As if we are the threat or danger; as if our actions now – a mere few weeks after the entire world CAME TO A HALT, PEOPLE – are irrational. I do not like the implication that I just don’t love my friends enough or am not sensitive or fun or sympathetic enough to say “to hell with it.” As if I too don’t want to jump across a table and hug someone, as if I don’t want to see people having fun and enjoying themselves.

By the end of the evening, I had abandoned attempts to social distance. It was impossible, I felt too self-aware, too stilted, the complicity of mob mentality irresistible, the beer fanning complacency and laziness. And it felt good. It was joyful to hunker into a conversation, nice to touch someone’s back as you waded through friends en route for a refill. Now, I don’t know how I feel about it. Was I right, am I right, is this my addled hangover fear talking, am I just a big, blubbering mess of boring placidity?

I honestly don’t know. This is not the piece I thought I’d write when I opened up my laptop. I realise I’ve used inflammatory language like ‘annoyed’ and ‘irked’ a lot and wonder if this will offend those who might have been present last night, who might think this is pointedly about them when instead this is the culmination of so many moments of fear over the past few weeks, and a persistent feeling of being misunderstood. This is not about other people – hence my proliferate use of the phrase “I feel” – but rather about MY response to situations. The in-my-headness of an interaction that was unremarkable for everyone else present yet for me was a spiralising hyper-awareness that left me exhausted and depleted and completely unsure of myself.

Tomorrow, I could wake up and call this all a hangover.

Even so, I know I’m not alone in this feeling. I’m writing this because I know the very act of feeling it can feel so lonely. That you can feel unbearably strange in your own skin, hopelessly adrift in your own thoughts, wondering where and how and when you had been invaded by this alien persona of social awkwardness and extreme insecurity and if you’ll ever be your relaxed self again.

If this is you, I’m with you. Through the re-evaluating, the questioning, overthinking, agonising, analysing, fear of judgement, genuine anxiety at this big group of lads coming towards you with not a facemask or fuck given for two metres in sight. It is ok to be contradictory in your adherence to social distancing – to sometimes decide it’s fine to hug a friend and other times refuse to touch another. You don’t need to justify having sex with someone yet not wanting to go into your friend’s house yet – you don’t need to tie yourself up in hard and fast rules that end in words like ‘failure’. It is ok for us not to be immediately ok with the fact our period of quiet respite appears to be over. It is ok for us not to want things to be “normal” again; it is ok to be afraid of this normality and then afraid of yourself as you wonder if you’re a loser and uncool and boring and incapable of love or fun or the naive optimism everyone else seems drunk on.

I’m going to go now – run off the ickiness and strangeness that being in a large group of people has unexpectedly awakened in me. Before I do though, I’m pretty sure what I’ve just described is an anxiety many people I know have lived with long before coronavirus. These feelings are unbearably new to me and I am learning the insidiousness of them, and their complete invisibility to others. I am learning how they can come across as selfishness or coldness, how a quick word or certain look can send them spiralling into overdrive and compound them with feelings of insecurity. I know I have been the creator of such words and giver of such looks. I know I have often been inconsiderate in my understanding of these deep-rooted thought cycles – I have been insensitive and impervious to them. And so I just want to say I’m sorry. Even when these feelings of mine subside, I hope I will be better in understanding, in listening, in seeing and in pulling you out of that intangible alienation that is sometimes never stronger than when surrounded by people.

Tree Tings

I realise that was a lot. Time for some joyful goodness, I think? Below please find tree (three for the international audience not reared in rural Ireland) songs to buoy you through any anxiety, impending meltdown, wallowing, feelings of unexplained blahness, general Sunday fear. I firmly believe in embracing the melancholic when feeling ever-so-slightly off-kilter and find, in some perverse personality quirk, that sad music often uplifts me. Don’t know if I’m alone in this. I’ve gone for all Villagers because I’m not sure that anyone can condense icky, potent, un-explainable, uncomfortable emotions and human fragility into impossibly poetic lyrics and atmospheric melodies better than Conor O’Brien. But I mean I’m open to being wrong?

  • Pieces: “You just split yourself in two: one for them and one for you”. I mean. This song articulates everything I’ve just expressed and will fill your lungs up with strings. If you want a piece of music to describe the compartmentalisation of ourselves to fit into the mosaics of all kinds of relationships, all the while tormented by everything we DON’T show, this is it: “There are things that I could tell you but they never come out the right way.” Oh my goodness. Howl with it. Howl and roar into the Sunday evening abyss.
  • Hot Scary Summer: Ok this is about the end of a relationship so perhaps not applicable but the grieving forlornness of this song I think is an apt one for lockdown as many of us re-evaluate relationships and perhaps find that the personalities in our life we once thought permanent are instead fluid and ever-shifting. For many of us, some friendships are changing, the people we thought were ever-ours are, while still precious, taking on a new form and texture as our lives adapt – it is ok to feel this evolvement, it is ok to want it.
  • Fool: “The kind of anesthetic for the journey to where there is no need to worry.” Oh just bloody sumptuous.

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