An Introvert’s Guide to Coming Out of Lockdown: When the end of a pandemic causes panic

My dirty little secret

“I’m nervous about the idea of going back to the office,” my coworker admitted.

I understood, but felt like that’s something one shouldn’t admit out loud.

“I’m over it!” a lot of other people have been saying. “I’m done with this pandemic!”

My anxiety actually went down during the peak of the lockdown.

I know that makes me sound selfish. Of course, I don’t want people getting sick and dying and losing their jobs just so I can feel more relaxed. But the fantasy of everyone staying in quarantine forever is more than a little appealing.

What I didn’t miss during lockdown

I didn’t have to ride a bus two hours from Lambertville, NJ to work in NYC and then two hours back three days a week. Actually, it wasn’t as terrible as everyone thought. I wrote an entire book on that bus and I watched the complete series of Game of Thrones, Succession, Madmen, and Handmaid’s Tale. But I definitely did not enjoy being crammed next to someone with body odor or eating ear-splittingly crunchy chips or shouting on a conference call while sitting under a NO CELL PHONE sign. And even pre-corona I worried about my health. I’m still haunted by the time that old guy in the seat behind me sneezed so hard I felt it on the back of my neck.

I haven’t had one single bout of pre-party social anxiety in the last three months. Even after years of therapy, I still look at a party invitation as some sort of threat. My husband Saul and I used to spend the entire day before every social event debating whether or not we should go.

ME: “It’d be nice to stay home.”

SAUL: “Do you think we’d regret not going?”

ME: “I guess it’d be rude to cancel now.”

SAUL: “Why did we agree to do this in the first place?”

I was no different before I met Saul. I once went up to the door of a party I had driven an hour to get to, stood on the porch listening to all the people inside, and promptly sprinted back to my car and drove home.

Zoom parties aren’t so bad. I don’t get trapped in a corner with one annoying person, and if I want to leave, I can pretend my connection is bad instead of sneaking out the bathroom window.

As much as I love theatre, I don’t miss people next to me who can’t stop themselves from texting. “I’m trying to meet someone after the show,” one guy lamely explained as he texted on his glaringly bright phone while Sally Field performed a monologue as Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie a mere few feet away. At another play, a woman explained she was obsessively texting throughout the first act of On Golden Pond because she had a family member dying at home. If that was true (and I had my doubts) perhaps she shouldn’t have come. I love theatre, but only a play starring Angela Lansbury would be worth skipping a loved one’s deathbed.

New abnormal

Quarantine suited me.

I loved how strict the rules became at my grocery store with arrows taped on the floor that pointed the proper direction to walk down each aisle. I glared over my mask at a woman who blatantly defied them to grab a can of creamed corn. I’m pretty sure I would thrive in a police state

I began to look forward to walking with my dog Alfie and rarely seeing another soul. If I did, it was like seeing a zombie. It was as if I had the world all to myself — just me and the zombies. Alfie liked it too. His main job became barking hysterically through the window at the FedEx man who dropped off packages of unnecessary items around 17 times a day. That was plenty of excitement for him.

Who was that masked man?

But now the world is opening back up. The streets are crowded with non-zombies and you can walk willy-nilly in any direction at the grocery store.

And we are divided between the maskers and non-maskers.

This stupid debate drives me absolutely bonkers. I lived through AIDS, where people debated for years whether to wear protection on an entirely different area of their body. Why would you not want to wear something that at the very least makes other people feel safer and more secure?

I know some claim masks are weak, but I find a man who wears one kind of sexy. Maybe it was my crush as a kid on Batman’s sidekick Robin. In fact, I wish we could wear tights and a cape to go along with our masks.

I live a ten-minute walk from one of the most charming little towns in this country: New Hope, PA. You have to cross a cute little bridge over the Delaware River to get to it and the walkway is narrow and often crowded. The ratio of maskers to non-maskers is about 30/70.

A few weeks ago, Saul and I walked across it to meet with a friend for a socially-distanced backyard meal. A couple was strolling toward us wearing no masks while holding hands and making no effort to move to the side. Finally, I couldn’t take it.

“WALK SINGLE FILE!” I screamed.

The guy just mocked me. “You’re not socially distancing if you’re talking to me.”

Saul joined in with, “Grow up and be a responsible adult and wear a mask.” There may have been a few curse words thrown in there. I can’t recall.

It felt really good to yell at such entitled jerks, but it is probably not a good habit to get into. Still, I wouldn’t mind having a job as a Bridge Mask Monitor with all the power that would come with it. In the olden days, I think I would have made a great bridge troll.

What I miss from pre-quarantine

· Walking by myself after work in Manhattan and getting lost in the anonymous crowd as I took in the sights of this city I’ve known since I was 18 and has yet to bore me.

· Observing every type of humanity from all over the world on a crowded subway car.

· The thrill a moment live theatre can bring that no film or TV show can — Ruthie Ann Miles singing “Something Wonderful” in The King and I so simply that it brought chills, or Andrea Martin singing “No Time at All” while hanging on a trapeze in Pippin. Both moments caused the audience to set down their phones and rise to their feet to cheer.

· How my town filled up on weekends with people who came to appreciate its charm, and then how it belonged to the townies again from Monday to Thursday.

A trick my dog Alfie can teach all of us

The truth is, I want those things back as much as the rest of us, but I don’t think rushing there is the answer.

As always, Alfie shows me the answer if I just pay attention. He hurt his front leg about a month ago. Every time he stopped limping, we would take him on longer walks and let him chase deer and play with other dogs. By the time we got home, he was limping again. We finally realized we have to wait longer — even when he seemed totally okay — if we wanted his leg to really heal. We had to exercise self-discipline and patience to make progress. It wasn’t the most convenient solution to the problem, but Alfie’s injury didn’t care.

It seems pretty logical that the same goes for the pandemic. So, I am going to go at my own pace and not care if anyone thinks I’m being too cautious.

Saul and I were going to walk across the bridge again last Friday evening. My husband had convinced me we could do it. He told me was going to keep me calm. “Who is going to keep you calm?” I asked, and it was a very good question.

As we were about to go out the door I realized I wasn’t taking care of myself. “I can’t do this.” I said.

Saul immediately understood, and we decided to drive across instead. As we did, we saw groups of people without masks taking up the entire walkway. We yelled at them through our rolled-up windows, which was just as satisfying but safer.

It’s like on the plane when they tell you to put on your oxygen mask first before you try to help your baby: Put on your mask first… then you can help put our world back together.

About the author: Keith Hoffman lives locked away in Lambertville, NJ. He dreams of being a superhero or a troll or a hermit. Or maybe even a hunchback if he can find a nice bell tower to hide in.

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Keith Hoffman lives with his artist husband, dog and two cats in the small town Lambertville, New Jersey 72 miles outside of New York City. He has completed a memoir entitled The Summer My Sister Grew Sideburns.

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