So it turns out that living in and out of lockdown for over a year can have a pretty dramatic effect on a person, and when faced with “life as normal” in a different country it manifests in a not so delightful way. I can tell you that now, for certain.
Let me just refresh the situation for those of you that aren’t familiar. In March 2020, I was living in London. The week before the UK officially went into it’s first lockdown, due to Covid, I moved out to the countryside with my boyfriend, where we then went through three (I think that’s the official count) lockdowns over the course of 15 months. “Lockdown” in the UK means not leaving your house apart from essential exercise and essential shopping (food and pharmacy basically). All non-essential shops are closed and you aren’t allowed to congregate with friends or family outside, or in, while in full lockdown. Groups of people are absolutely prohibited and over the course of the year I was seldom in a space where more than fifteen to twenty people were together, while lockdowns were lifted.
I say all of this as coming into America, earlier this month, I had a substantial panic attack in the airport because of the quick change of pace from what I was used to. Pre-pandemic, I was constantly out and about, travelling the world, dining in restaurants, shopping til I would drop and more. I never had a hard time in big groups of people and I was one of the weirdos that loved the tube. I can feel Londoners’ eyes popping out of their head regarding that statement. Who loves the tube?! Yup, even after two decades I was that person.
However, It seems in just one year I have reconditioned myself to a new world, where people don’t stand close to one another, where someone not wearing a mask is a potentially a scary thing and where big groups are, well, apparently completely terrifying.
Arriving in the USA, I was exhausted. I think more emotionally than anything else. I wasn’t sure that day would ever come and it all seemed pretty surreal that I was once again standing on American soil. I thought for sure something would happen that would once again delay my flight or send my plans into chaos. Even the morning of, I had five alarms set and bags packed days in advance. I was a nervous wreck!
So here I am, finally in the USA and I’m standing at baggage claim and watching as people start to gather. Around the carousel, there are roughly 100 people as I wait. My hands start to sweat and I don’t think too much of it. Then a man comes up next to me and brushes my shoulder with his arm as he gestures to his wife, across the carousel, to fetch his bag. His mask was around his chin and I could feel the warmth of his breath on my neck.
I have never, before this past year, cared at all about personal space. I’ve been to festivals, stood in crowded market spaces, spent endless hours in transit on public transport in London and never felt uncomfortable about the people around me or close to me. It’s just never been a problem. Sure it’s not always the best, but you get used to it and over it.
On this day, my arrival day, it was not ok. As his arm made contact with my shoulder, I immediately turned to him and said, rather sternly “excuse me, sir, you need to please maintain social distancing.” I swear I was like a UK government poster talking. But I could feel my own fear and anxiety in my voice. I backed away from the carousel, as this man seemed very annoyed by my paranoid presence, and decided I would simply wait a bit further away for my bags. I wanted to sit down and cry. I honestly didn’t know what was happening. Why was I freaking out?! How had it come to this? Everyone else was so normal and easy going and I was a walking talking anxiety attack.
Finally my bags arrived and I let them go once more around the carousel until there was a wide open space to grab them. I just wanted out of there. Out into the open warm and sticky air of Charleston, South Carolina, my mom pulled up to retrieve me up from the airport. I threw my luggage into the trunk and reached out to hug my mom. The tears came fast and heavy. Cars drove by, windows down, and people shouted “aww” from their front seats as I stood in the middle of the pavement balling my eyes out, hugging my mother for the first time in as long as I can remember. Half of me was glad to see her and the other half felt like she had become my touch piece, in that moment, for getting out of this anxious situation.
We drove through Charleston on the way home, as we were picking up my little brother before heading to the island. It was a Saturday night and Charleston was alive. People were spilling out onto the streets from busy bars and restaurants. Live music played as people swayed, arm in arm with beers in hand. Like scenes from my college days, such scenarios would usually fill my heart with joy and warm flashbacks. Instead, my heart felt like it was beating out of my chest and I felt sick to my stomach. I so badly wanted to be back in the cottage in Hampshire, sitting on the sofa with Bonjour and looking at the rain pelt the window beside us. That felt safe. This felt entirely the opposite and it terrified me. I had done everything I could to get home to this place and this place was giving me the worst panic attack on record.
So, why even mention this?
Well, first of all, I want to remind everyone that I left the UK before things had “opened up” again. I left the week before and I have a feeling things would have been very different if I had had a chance to acclimate to the new normal in the UK before facing this “completely back to normal life” in the USA.
But, I wanted to write this for anyone, globally, that is about to come out of lockdown, about to face “normal” after a year of anything but normal and say… “things might be right as rain or they might look like THIS.” I wasn’t expecting THIS. I was expecting that I’d be fine, overjoyed and oh so ready to have my life look exactly as it was before. It seems my brain had other ideas.
I’m sure there will be plenty of studies to come on the effects of lockdown on a whole generation of people. I’m sure the statistics will be scary and staggering. But for right now, in this moment, let me tell you that the experience of not being allowed to hug, handshake, stand next to or in big groups with people you love, like or even just remotely tolerate, has changed so much for so many.
My own new found anxiety has truly made me realise that this is not easy for anyone and every person we encounter, as we come back to “normal,” is going to have a different level of comfort we need to try and accommodate. Please try and be as understanding as possible with this, and kind. Every country has had a different reaction to this pandemic and as the world opens up and we all start to travel again, using that knowledge to understand people’s reactions will go a long way!
While I hope that my own anxieties have diminished with these past few weeks in the USA, I do a apologise if my weirdness sticks around a little longer and I see any familiar faces and don’t immediately go in for a hug as usual (oh man I do miss being a hugging person)… I think it’s just going to take a little time and space before I’m back to my own state of “normal.”
And again… for those who didn’t hear it in the back… it’s ok if you too are feeling a bit out of sorts with all of this. What has happened in this past year has been a trauma for all, whether you were sick or not, whether you lost loved ones or not. This is a year in which no human being has gone untouched by the events that unfolded. Go easy on yourself as we move forward and try to find our feet in a worldwide recovery.
Now, I’m off to watch the sunset with the dogs. I will gladly report there wasn’t an ounce of anxiety hugging those two the moment I walked into the door!
Hope everyone has a great day and, as usual, feel free to carry on the conversation below! This is a safe space for discussing any and all experiences. I’m here reading and learning as always.