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It's OK If Your 'Normal' Doesn't Look Like Someone Else's During COVID-19

Editor's Note

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As quarantine continues, many questions swirl in my head. Like many of us, I too am anxious to get back to my “normal.” I miss seeing my students in class and talking to my colleagues on my lunch break. I relish the thought of going to dinner with a loved one or having a girls’ night out with my friends. I miss the routines of daily life, like going to the grocery store or on a Target run without panicking. As much as I am looking forward to getting back to my “normal,” I also know I will need to redefine what “normal” is for me. After the coronavirus (COVID-19) and so much time in isolation, there will be no going back to my “old normal.” Before I walk into a Target, I will still have to do my 10-minute meditation routine to curb my anxiety long after the threat of the virus has diminished. The threat of the virus coming back will always loom in my mind. More than that, I will have to get used to being around crowds again. Before the pandemic, I had only experienced a panic attack once in my life. I can remember it vividly as if it had happened yesterday.

The heat began in my cheeks and then spread through the rest of my face and down into my neck. My lungs began to squeeze together in my chest. Then came the burning sensation all down my body, like I was being set on fire and bugs were crawling all over me at the same time. Then came the racing thoughts and the waves of nausea.

“There are too many people in here. If there is an emergency, I won’t be able to get out because all of the exits will be blocked. I will get trampled in the stampede. I can’t breathe. I need to get out.”

The thoughts of panic bounced around in my head as the room began to spin and my breathing became more labored. I couldn’t shake the feeling of impending doom, even though there was nothing going on around me. After this experience, I avoided crowds like the plague, refusing to go to concerts or clubs with crowded dance floors. Therapy and medication allowed me to get my anxiety under control enough to eventually venture back out to bars, but even without the panic attacks, I still felt a sense of claustrophobia. I masked my uncomfortableness with alcohol and smiles so none of my friends could guess all I wanted to do was leave. “Fake it til you make it,” as they say.

When the COVID-19 outbreak hit, I was concerned, but not overly anxious. As an asthmatic, I took the necessary precautions as advised by the government. I worked from home. I avoided going out in public with the exception of picking up takeout or going to the park for a walk (this was before the park was shut down). I stayed at least six feet apart from others on the track, and even started wearing a mask before it became mandatory.

When I needed some basic supplies, I contemplated ordering them online, but decided I wanted to get out of the house, so I made a quick run to Target. I was not prepared for how being out in public after weeks of isolation would bring back my panic attacks. At first, I felt a sense of being out of place. Everyone was wearing a mask and avoided eye contact. I was nervous I would accidentally invade the six feet apart rule, so I tentatively double-checked each aisle before tuning any corners to avoid any collisions. As in before, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to what triggered the feeling of panic. Perhaps it was the shock of actually seeing people walking around in surgical masks as if I was an actress in an apocalyptic movie. For whatever reason, I once again began to feel uncomfortable, like I needed to get out fast. Luckily, I was able to calm myself down enough to focus on getting what I needed before the fiery tingling sensation and the nausea set in. But the tightening of the chest and labored breathing was so severe I was almost fearful that those around me would think I had the virus. I developed a kind of “tunnel vision” where the only thing I could focus on was getting what I needed and getting out fast to avoid the racing thoughts from flooding my brain, almost like as if a survival mechanism had kicked in.

My “normal” now consists of convincing myself I am not in danger whenever I am in the general public. It includes taking a few minutes to take some deep breaths to clear my head before entering a store and taking time afterward to decompress. I will have to limit my time out in public until I become desensitized to the crowds again, however long that will take. Before, my focus was on things that were out of my control. I was constantly worrying about the future and agonizing over big decisions. Now, I am literally taking life one day at a time. Every day when I go out, I know I will be exposing myself to something that could potentially kill me. There will be a battle within myself of weighing the risk with the reward, of facing the enemy or retreating back to the safety of home. My focus has become on what I can control. I can’t predict whether or not I will get the virus, but I can take the appropriate social distancing measures and hope that it will be enough. I can recognize when the panic stirs up inside me and take steps to relieve it.

My hope is, as a society, we begin to recognize every individual’s “normal” is different. Whenever this does end, some of us will adjust rather quickly to life’s ebbs and flows and will be eager to flood the bars and restaurants again. Others will be more hesitant to venture out in public and will need more time, such as myself. If, like me, you require more time, know there is nothing “wrong” with you. Be kind to yourself. Celebrate the small victories and take as much time as you need before tackling outings with larger crowds. If you are one of those people who will be ready to go out and hit the clubs, be patient with your friends who may not be so eager to go out with you. It may not be fair to expect every person to be comfortable with being in public, even if that person never experienced discomfort  prior to COVID-19. They may have been personally affected by COVID-19 or have a condition that could affect their chances of survival.

The point is, you just don’t know. Instead of focusing on getting things back to the way they were, my hope is, we, as a society, focus on moving forward without judgment and with kindness and understanding instead, so we can make the world a little better than we left it.

For more on the coronavirus, check out the following stories from our community:

Unsplash image by Brooke Cagle

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