Back in February, one month before Montreal’s lockdown began, my therapist explained to me that I was in a perpetual state of distress, constantly scanning my surroundings for threats. At its worst, this is how my social anxiety works: For fear of others’ judgments or interactions gone awry, I monitor everything I say and do, obsessing over all the what-ifs that might lead a conversation towards disaster. As a subtle undercurrent in my life, my anxiety is a shrug of resignation to the potential for lasting social connection. So when lockdown set in last March, and daily interactions started to fall away, it was with a hint of cool and pride that I told myself, this isn’t that different.
I wouldn’t fully admit it early on, but life in quarantine was a near total reprieve from the encounters I’d tried to minimize in my day-to-day. Often, those I’d wanted to talk to most were the ones that I found interacting with most paralyzing. Still, even minor exchanges, like group work in class or attending meetings for this newspaper, could become unexpectedly stressful. (It took me a full academic year before I could bring myself to attend my first meeting at The McGill Tribune.) This exhaustive fear causes social anxiety to run in a cycle: The relief of isolation follows the anxiety over socialization. For a time, it calms the need for social connection, which inevitably resurfaces, and the cycle restarts.
The pandemic helped to break that cycle. Quarantine restricted social interaction while also doing away with any communal onus for that interaction—staying inside wasn’t just expected, it was commendable. All that was left was my own personal drive for connection, and it lingered, though quietly. For two months, my life shrank to a series of rooms and hobbies—endless days spent reading, a few solitary bike rides—and I felt comfortable. But that comfort was steeped in avoidance. Social anxiety feels like an outward problem facing in: Your fear exists in reaction to delusions that you believe are real. Removing stressors as a break from your anxiety is therefore a fallacy, because that fear is inborn. Sooner or later, the fear adjusts itself to the conditions of your surroundings, even if they’re different than before. In August, I found myself in that familiar state of paralysis, trying and failing to contact a former co-worker, even though all communication was virtual.
What’s obvious to say now is something I chose to ignore in the moment: Quarantine is not a solution for my social anxiety. Now that the semester has begun, its restrictions on how we interact with each other have sometimes worsened my anxiety’s expression. Zoom classes are a foreign landscape where the knowledge that my classmates are watching me whenever I speak worries me at the start of most sessions. In a recent Zoom meeting, I spoke in rapid staccato, nearly incomprehensible, trying to divert the eyes on me as quickly as possible. These are new phenomena.
Somewhat ironically, though, the harmful effects that the pandemic has had on my mental wellbeing may be coupled with a renewed drive to begin addressing it again. What I felt indifferent about during the beginning of lockdown—the necessary barriers that prevented social interactions—are what have galvanized me to reclaim what’s been missing in my life. For many working through new and challenging realities, the solutions to our problems still feel out of reach, even if we’re making strides to improve. But living now through the unending isolation that I sometimes believed my future holds, I’m more intent than ever on making sure that that future remains hypothetical—as a distant and harmless what-if.