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I Worry I’m Turning Into An Agoraphobic!

I didn’t realize that I felt pressure to socialize until I stopped going out.

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woman holding a cup of coffee looking out her window
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In February, my husband and I went out with our best friends in the city. The four of us had dinner before heading out to see David Byrne’s American Utopia on Broadway. We had an amazing evening. The meal, the show, the company — all fantastic. I remember huddling with my best friend, singing “Psycho Killer” as we walked back to our cars in the cold NYC streets and thinking, “I love nights like this!” The four of us hugged goodbye and promised we would get together again soon.

Of course, we broke that promise. At the beginning of the pandemic, I would look back on that evening and think, I can’t wait for this to be over. I missed getting dressed up, going to restaurants, seeing shows and walking in crowded streets without fear. I missed being able to safely hang out with friends from a nonsocial distance and give them a great big hug at the end of the night.

But now, 10 months later, I find myself less drawn to going out and seeing people in general. I’ve become used to rarely wearing makeup or jewelry or heels or even real pants with zippers. Once a staple of my daily routine, I am not even sure where my flat iron is. Prepandemic, if I saw an empty Saturday night on our calendar, I would get worried. Why don’t we have plans? How come we aren’t going out more? Now, a free Saturday doesn’t make me feel like a loser. It makes me feel like a good Samaritan. And good Samaritans get to wear sweatpants, cook (or order take out), do puzzles and watch Netflix with no guilt. It’s glorious!

I didn’t realize that I felt pressure to socialize until I stopped going out. I’ve found that I actually like being a homebody. And now that the weather is getting colder and it’s pitch dark at 4 p.m., my inclination for hibernation is in overdrive. Of course, it helps that I’ve always worked at home, so my job hasn’t been impacted by the pandemic. In fact, my day-to-day socially distant existence has me spending less time alone.

With my husband and two of our three children living/working/schooling at home, I have tons of “we” time in addition to “me” time. We have more togetherness than we have in years, which may be part of why I am not craving more outside socialization. But I worry that I have gotten too attached to my Q-crew. Eventually they will leave, and how will I adapt? I worry that I am becoming agoraphobic.

Even when I do leave our house to go out on errands or take a socially distant walk with a friend, I feel anxious. And my small-talk skills have definitely waned. After all, not much is going on. Does anyone really want to hear about my new Crockpot recipe or how fabulous I think Nicole Kidman’s coats are in The Undoing?

I went to Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist, to discuss my concerns. She says, “The current pandemic has forced many of us to slow down and take a good look at ourselves and our needs, both internally and externally. Although this has been challenging for many, it is a good reminder that there is more to life than our schedule.” It’s true. This downtime has helped me to reevaluate my life. I find myself appreciating little things I used to take for granted. It has made me less concerned whether my life is as busy or fulfilling as someone else’s. Instead of focusing on making plans for the future, I’ve embraced just enjoying the present day.

But is not pining to make plans or see friends a problem? Leaf says, “The mind and brain need quality, not quantity, so if we are intentionally deliberate in how we ‘make socialization happen’ in our day-to-day lives, even in the midst of a global pandemic, we can derive many of the same benefits.” So, it’s about finding a balance.

Prepandemic I was probably too concerned about filling my calendar. Now I’ve gone too far to the other extreme. According to Leaf, “Human beings are made for connection. We know instinctively that we need each other, and we see the evidence in science that isolation and loneliness lead to negative changes in brain and body health, down to the level of our DNA.”

While it’s great that I have embraced this new normal, I also need to remind myself of all the good and important friendships I have beyond these four walls. If you feel like me, a little out of your social sync, take some small, safe baby steps. Leaf says, “Thankfully, with the advent of modern technology, we can reach out to our loved ones even if we can’t be in the room with them. Video calls are a great way to do this, whether you are using Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, Google Hangout, WhatsApp, Facebook Chat — the list is endless. Although this may feel awkward at first, it can really help improve your sense of belonging and mental health.” Don’t worry if your conversation skills need some work. Everyone is probably feeling the same way. “This is new for all of us,” Leaf says, “so if we are awkward or mess up, that’s fine! There is no set blueprint for dealing with the social effects of a global pandemic, so it is perfectly OK if you are learning on the go — because we all are.”

Hopefully, in a few months, we will again stroll the busy streets of NYC with our friends. For now I need to make those connections using technology or a masked walk, even if I feel awkward or clumsy. In time, the outside world will be safe again. I made a promise last February, and I am going to keep it, even if getting together “soon” was a little longer than anticipated.