It happened the other day. I’m at my first non-Zoom book club in ages. It’s in a beautiful garden. The sun is shining. I’m with women I’ve known for years. We have a decent book to discuss (Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene). And yet I barely say a word. When I do speak, it’s like the words ring tinny in my head. I feel awkward and discombobulated.
I’m pretty sure I have Covid Lockdown Syndrome (CLS).
Unlike Covid-19 — high temperature, continuous cough, loss of taste and smell — with CLS (I’m making this up) you feel anxious and sad and your brain’s a fog. Hanging out in person with groups triggers stress.
I know other people with CLS. My friend Ann and her daughter met up with friends for the first time in months. Later, her daughter said: “Oh my God Mom, you were so awkward!”
“I’m having a hard time,” my friend confessed to me later. “It’s like I’ve become someone who plays too many video games and can’t handle the real world.”
It never occurred to me that socializing was a muscle that could atrophy from lack of use.
Then again, it didn’t seem like my life changed dramatically during the long Covid winter. My work as an editor is usually via phone or computer. I’m not entirely isolated. I have a husband and daughter. (Although there have been times I wish I were more isolated). As for meeting with friends, I’ve been on walks — with one other person, as allowed in London until rules were relaxed this month.
In the evenings, I’ve been playing Rummikub and Spades online with friends, and with my mom in the US. Sometimes, my husband and I have Zoom cocktails with other couples before dinner. In fact, thanks to Covid, we’ve discovered that we can spend time with friends in Minnesota just as easily as we do with friends down the road in Putney.
And yet, I have been affected. I find that getting together with more than one person (in person) can overwhelm my senses — while leaving me painfully aware of my bushy gray streaked hair and my Covid 15. (I exaggerate, but I have put on a few pounds during lockdown.)
Some friends tell me they fear returning to offices after a year of Zoom meetings in pajama bottoms. “There’s no mute in an office,” one friend says, “and I’ve gotten so used to my beauty light. I have younger colleagues I’ve never met in person. I’m going to go to the office for the first time and they’re going to realize I’m 20 years older than they thought.”
In the UK, people’s movements have been severely restricted on and off for a year now, limiting our time outside the home, our ability to work and socialize, send kids to school, etc., leading to increased stress and anxiety.
Studies indicate mental health problems have surged. Research on UK households show a “pronounced and prolonged deterioration in mental health” emerged between April and June 2020. Those most dramatically affected were 18–34 year olds, followed by women and high-income and education groups.
It turns out that social media isn’t a good enough social substitute for young people, and as for women (and particularly women in high-income and education groups), I understand that finding as: women who usually have childcare are now homeschooling kids, while also doing their own jobs, childcare and housework. Just the homeschooling part alone could make you mad.
Thankfully my child is back at school, my husband has been into the office, and we’re starting to see friends again like in pre-Covid days. We’ve even discussed eating outside this weekend at a pub. Slowly but surely we’re returning to our old lives. Now, if only I could get back to my old self.