By Lacey Aimee-lee Vernon
Like many other young people, I am an introvert and struggle with social anxiety. My whole life I have built my habits and lifestyle around my fear of other people, down to the times I went to the grocery store so I could avoid other people’s eyes on me. At times, even sending an email to someone I didn’t know could take hours of mental preparation out of fear of being misunderstood. I know a lot of my social anxiety stems from growing up in a special-needs home. We used to get stares for the strange noises made by my brother, who has nonverbal Autism Spectrum Disorder because we grew up in a small town where something like autism wasn’t well known. I came to terms with this years ago and the stares of misunderstanding people don’t bother me anymore when I am with family—but social anxiety is still a hard habit to break when I am on my own.
I’ve never been good at things like small talk or light conversations. In our house, we were constantly on the path of social advocacy, so if we had conversations with new people it was usually lengthy conversations about disability awareness, healthcare, politics, etc. If anyone who wasn’t in that realm started a conversation with me, I wouldn’t know what to say and I would just go blank out of anxiety. Yet, the irony of this is that I desperately want to be around people and want to find camaraderie in others, which can be very lonely when I feel rejection from those I desired to be friends with.
I have struggled with this for as long as I can remember and only got the hang of it in the past four years or so. After a lot of practice by forcing myself into social scenarios outside of my comfort zone, I was starting to feel comfortable with myself. I had managed to forge a few great friendships with some people I see regularly and actually felt good about my social abilities.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
I have been in my apartment since the early part of March with the only conversations being with people in my comfort zone… and it shows. I realized this when my husband, Chase, and I went to the grocery store for the first time in a long time to stock up on supplies. We walked into the Smith’s entrance and was greeted by an associate disinfecting cart with Lysol wipes… and I felt that familiar wave of fear crash over me for the first time in a very long time. My whole body shook with fear and I couldn’t speak when they said hello, couldn’t bring myself to look into their eyes, and quietly ducked behind Chase as we made our way into the store. “What the heck has happened to me?” I thought to myself and I kept repeating this over and over in my head the remainder of the day. I had been doing so well before all of this! Because of how I had reacted in that moment of nervousness, I found myself doubting my abilities and self-worth. How could I ever function in society? Am I doomed to never make new friends? Will I forever be that awkward kid I was as a child that panics in almost all social situations? That trip to the store made me feel like human garbage! But, after some self-reflection, this experience also made me reflect on how far I have come. In the past two years I have made new friends after moving across the country, have started working for my dream job by networking over the internet, and can manage to carry on a functional and entertaining conversation (with some mental time to prepare, of course). Once I had thought how much progress I have made, I started to try to think about that trip to the grocery store as a moment of reflection rather than a negative representation of my worth.
I also thought about how important social practice is for other young people like me. With the pandemic having forced many of us into our homes, canceling everything from school to work to social gatherings – – how are those of us dealing with social anxiety supposed to maintain the progress we have made? I rely heavily on daily interactions to maintain my progress, so Zoom meetings with work and loved ones have been a blessing for me. I am thankful for Chase, who is my best friend and partner, who has been there when I have been struggling through the depression that is associated with the lack of social interaction I am used to and the loneliness that comes with it.
I hope that other people like me have a good enough support system to keep them going during these isolating times, whether it be the people they live with or those they communicate with over the internet. And if they don’t have the support system they need, I hope they are brave enough to reach out to others in this time of separation. Once this pandemic is over, I think that there is going to be a period of major readjustment as we all learn how to look at each other in the eyes, say hello without our voices shaking, and feel like regular humans again.