Social Anxiety + Covid = ?

As 2020 came to a close, the family and I celebrated Christmas Day at home and then took off to spend a week in a small beach shack in the Outer Banks.

I’ve always wanted to get away from the dizzying nature of the holidays, to escape the stress of the usual onslaught of social commitments, and just be somewhere else. Anywhere else. Bonus points, though, for a place where life is allowed to be slow, the schedule is clear, the screened-in porch is inviting, the sunrises and sunsets are glorious, the sound of the waves is hypnotic, the beer is cold, and where you may find yourself wondering what in the hell you’re going to do in order to fill all the hours of the day.

It’s not that I don’t love my family or enjoy seeing friends, because I truly do love spending time with them all. What I perhaps don’t like, though, is how so much of this visitation is crammed into a span of 7 to 10 days.

I mean, fuck, there are 51 other weeks in the year to get together. Do we really have to shove and compress and overschedule our holidays to the point that it causes stress and exhaustion? Is it truly necessary?

It’s very possible that you’re reading this and feel the exact opposite way. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you think I’m a massive grinch or a party pooper or something similar. And, maybe, just maybe, I might agree with you.

So, I have to admit, the forced socially distant holiday was pretty spectacular. The beach wasn’t exactly warm, the water was straight up fucking cold, and it started getting dark around 5 p.m. instead of near 9, but I got to hang out tons with my wife and daughter and we weren’t rushing around from place to place like a trio of rabid Santa Clauses trying to deliver last-minute gifts.

I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

One of the things I managed to do during this getaway was watch Bad Religion’s third Decades show featuring a unique setlist from the aughts. (In case you missed it *cough*likely*cough* they released four unique virtual shows, one show for each of the four decades they’ve been together, the 80s, 90s, 00s, and 10s.) And a couple weeks before this show, I caught The Bouncing Souls virtual Home for the Holidays show, which was straight-up spectacular.

Watching these concerts has been refreshing in a way I didn’t expect. For example, prior to watching them, I haven’t been a fan of watching bands or musicians perform on TV. It’s never been my thing. I’d rather put an album on the stereo and listen rather than sit down and watch. (Is that a thing people still say, “the stereo”? Good lord, I’m old.)

Now, though, after having not been to a show since at least March, I’m super grateful for the escape that these virtual concerts have provided. It’s not normal, but it’s an abnormal I can embrace. At least for now. At least until my favorite bands start touring again. And maybe even longer.

Why longer? Well, this question ties back to the whole socially distanced holiday thing I brought up at the start of this blog. I want to throw something by you and get your thoughts: Remember pre-pandemic, when it was time for an evening out? I don’t know about you, but I can tell you a little thing about me, something you may have already guessed: Very often I was the guy who just did NOT want to leave the house. More often than not, my anxiety would build up and I’d just be like…ugh, I really don’t feel like having to do this tonight. I really don’t want to go. And sometimes I wouldn’t. I’d make excuses and wouldn’t go, disappointing people along the way.

At times, this tendency of mine would show up in extreme ways. The end-of-year work party? Yeah, I’m the guy who has felt so awkward that I’ve shown up to the main party, always held at a hotel ballroom, only to disappear to the hotel bar or lobby until I figured that it was time to head back before being missed. I’m the guy whose anxiety gets the best of him so badly that very often the only reason I show up for big group events is because I know I’m expected to. When this happens, I’m freaking the fuck out on the inside and wanting to be anywhere else but where I’m standing. I eventually calm down, and I’m not sure if anyone has ever picked up on the extreme level of uncomfortableness I often feel, but it’s a thing.

The worst of it, at least for me, is when I’m at a thing with lots of people and find myself by myself, because that means I need to find a group of people to insert myself into. I need to be the person who walks up to a group that’s already in mid-conversation and stand there waiting for someone to move over six inches, to invite me in, all the while hoping to be accepted.

Now, let me say this: Rational Will, the Will writing this blog entry, realizes that 99% of the time this is not a concern I should have. It just isn’t. I think it’s fair to say that people generally like me and I get along with almost everyone. I know that. That doesn’t mean, however, that in the moment before I’m about to step up to a group I’m any less anxious about the situation.

Ugh. When you’re 48, you should be better at life than this.

Now, let’s take that anxiety and add in a year or 18 months of NOT really being able to go out. A year of not forcing myself into uncomfortable social situations. A year of limited isolation.  I don’t know about you, but I can already see how I’m going to struggle when things go back to normal. I have social anxiety. I have imposter syndrome. And the past year has allowed those personal attributes to stay hidden and unchallenged.

For as much as I say I can’t wait to go out and see people again, to mingle and socialize, I’m curious what my actions will show. I rarely feel 100% comfortable socially because I always fight the feeling that I don’t quite fit in with those around me. It’s a character flaw that I’ve never gotten over, and it’s one that has also convinced me to stay at home when I know I should go out. And while I don’t know this for sure, I assume it’ll have gotten worse when it’s time to enter the world at large again.

And I know I’m not alone.

For now, it’s not something I’m overly worried about, despite the 1200 words that preceded this sentence. It’s a flaw I know I need to address, and maybe typing this out and sharing it with the world is the first step to correcting it. We’ll see. Until then, I’m going to hunker down, wait out the winter, and anticipate the arrival of spring and its blooms. In 2021, all those new blooms may contain more meaning than they have in quite a long time.

Relaxing, At Least a Little Bit

I’m going to tell you the truth, I have no idea how far we are into quarantine/social isolation. Is it over a month? Two months? Six? I’m not sure. My COVID beard hasn’t gotten embarrassingly long (I’m not picking food out of it yet anyway), so I’m pretty sure it’s been less than a year.  All I know is this: The days and weeks blend together rather seamlessly, annoyingly so, and the fact that the Philadelphia area has been experiencing an extended cold snap that has prolonged winter has made things confusing.

I mean, it’s mid-April, and when I took the dog for a walk yesterday morning, it was only 30 degrees.  

Bah humbug, or something. Can you say bah humbug in April? Right now, I’m going to say you can, because there isn’t anyone around to stop me. And if a radio station can play Christmas music randomly and whenever the fuck it wants to for no apparent reason, well, bah humbug like a motherfucker.

When last we spoke, I regaled you with all the activities I’d been pouring myself into. It was an extensive list, and when you combined them with working Monday through Friday, there wasn’t a whole lot of time left for me to aimlessly meander around the house. I was attempting to fill every minute of every day because I was struggling to relax, to unclench, to accept the fact that the world as we knew it was grinding to a halt.

It was all a bit too much. I knew it at the time, but I couldn’t help it. My anxiety had taken over.

I’ve gotten a bit better since that last blog entry. I’m still doing all of those activities, but it’s fair to say that I’m pursing the majority of them less aggressively. My workout routine and diet have remained the most consistent, but all of the other activities I mentioned? I’m fitting them in while enjoying some down time.

Basically, I’m allowing myself to relax while refusing to feel guilty about it.

The relaxing thing? It’s important, for all of us. We need to do it. We need to shut ourselves away from the bad news, from the invisible virus that haunts most of our waking moments, and allow ourselves to just exhale. I wasn’t doing that. Now I am, and it feels good.

Don’t get me wrong. I still believe working out and eating clean are important right now. So are meditation and journaling. Learning new skills via Spanish lessons and ukulele lessons is keeping me from stagnating like a rancid pond.

These are all ways I’m performing self-care, and there may be no more important thing than self-care at the moment. It’ll keep us healthy, both mentally and physically.

That being said, it doesn’t have to become religion. It doesn’t have to become so all-encompassing that it becomes overwhelming. Whatever activities you’re doing for self-care should be a WANT TO rather than a HAVE TO, because once they become a HAVE TO they leave the realm of self-care and become stressors, and we don’t need more of those in our lives right now.

What am I doing differently? Well, I’m playing video games; watching shows on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+; and going for walks just to get a change of scenery and some fresh air.

And sometimes I’m allowing myself to slow the hell down and not do anything. To just veg the hell out, make an imprint of my ass on the couch, and relax.

So go ahead…be lazy and enjoy it. Balance it out with activity, with things that keep you engaged, but also make sure to disengage by doing whatever you want to do or nothing fucking at all.

***

Quarantine Recommendation of the Week: Taco Chronicles

This is a new portion of the blog that I’d like to try and keep up with on a regular basis. In this space you might see video game recommendations, show recommendations, workout recommendations…basically recommendations for any and all sort of things. I’ll try to keep them a bit quirky; you don’t need me to recommend that you go rewatch The Wire for the umpteenth time.

If you’re anything like me, you consider tacos one of the major food groups. They’re not just a favorite, they’re a necessity. You warm up a corn or flour tortilla, stuff lots of Mexican spiced goodness into it, and then chow down. Easy peasy.

Except, really, it’s not! Almost all tacos are good tacos, but the best tacos…they’re special. They don’t come from a box. And creating them is something of a craft.

Enter Taco Chronicles. This Spanish-language (and English-subtitled) six-episode documentary series on Netflix details the rich history of the taco, where to find the best, most authentic version of each variety, and highlights the true artistry that goes into creating the perfect handheld food.

Plus, in a genius decision, you actually get to hear the different types of tacos talk about themselves in the first person. It’s a neat twist that adds just the right amount of personality to what would’ve been an already entertaining show.

Right Now, My Super Power is Anxiety

In my last post, COVID-19: The Biggest Villain, I mentioned that we all need to slow down, stop, and breathe. With the world swirling full of terrible news, social isolation, unprecedented job losses, and untold hospitalizations and deaths, we’re all dealing with pressures and anxieties that we’ve never experienced before.   

In this post, I’m going to explore some of the ways I’ve been able to manage. And in the post after this one, I’m going to touch upon one thing I may be getting entirely wrong.

I’m one of the lucky ones so far. The company I work for has been absolutely phenomenal throughout the crisis. I’ve been able to keep up with my colleagues, and my normal day-to-day working hours haven’t been compromised. We’re meeting virtually, work isn’t slowing, and there’s really no reason why it should. Unless the world suddenly devolves into Thunderdome, our content will still be needed.

Like I said, I’m one of the lucky ones.

This doesn’t mean, however, that I’m still not filled with anxiety. I am absolutely, 100% terrified. If I’m going to be very honest, I’ve never felt this much anxiety. Ever. It’s not even close, and it’s motherfucking crushing.

I simply don’t trust the future. But I can’t lose my shit. Not now. Not when I have a 10-year-old daughter at home who is handling this SOOOOOOO well. I mean, she’s at home with two adults and no playmates. Talk about a fucking jail sentence. It has to suck. It just has to. And if she can wake up every morning, smile, and do her shitty schoolwork, I can put on a brave face and not let her know how much this is all bothering me.

To that end, I’ve had to find ways to cope, to release, to escape, to just feel better. Some of my mechanisms may work for you; others won’t. The ways in which we cope are very individualized. We have to take time to discover those mechanisms that work best for us. These just happen to be the ones that are working for me.

Working Out

I’ve dove headlong into as many at-home workouts as I possibly can. I have to admit that I’m a bit surprised at just how decent my little garage gym set-up actually is for pandemic WODs. I have a padded mat, a pull-up bar, a bench, some kettlebells and dumbbells, and a whole lot of resistance bands—plus a few pieces of equipment I’ve been able to borrow from Broad Street CrossFit, where I usually work out when the sky isn’t falling.

Small workout space in need of a rower, squat rack, barbell, bumper plates…and maybe a dusting.

The box’s owner is posting workouts for all the members to perform every day, and there’s also an online CrossFit competition going on featuring movements that are easily able to be completed at home. On top of that, I’m running more, rehabbing my shoulder via my ActiveLifeRX coach’s programming, and also working on various other weaknesses in my fitness regimen.

Who knows, it’s very possible I come out of the pandemic more fit than I was when it started.

Tracking My Diet

This one is going to annoy people. Probably, a lot of people. I’m a macro-tracker. I pay attention to how many grams of protein, fat, and carbs go onto my plate at every meal. I know that many of us have given up on attempting to adhere to a strict diet routine during the pandemic and that prayers to the almighty OREO have taken up a pretty decent chunk of heavenly bandwidth, but I feel like by paying attention to my macros, I’m keeping myself honest. I also know that if I didn’t, I’d be stress eating and all the unhealthy foods we keep in the house would be launching themselves straight into my mouth.

By forcing myself into a very strict diet, I’m limiting the damage. Cause right now? No beers are easier than one beer, and no doughnuts are easier than one doughnut.

Writing/Journaling

This blog came back to life. So did my practice of journaling. I’m holding myself accountable to two blog posts a week and am attempting to journal every day, though I’ve admittedly missed a few days here and there.  

I’ve always been in love with writing, but it’s not something I’ve pursued in a while. It can be such a great escape, and the journaling is something that I’ve really come to embrace because you just let yourself flow. It’s not formal writing, but it is writing. If you journal yourself, you know what I mean. And it’s so easy to do. I’ve been using Day One, and if you’re interested, I highly recommend you check it out.

Meditating

Like the journaling habit I’ve flirted with for a while, I’ve also had an on-again/off-again relationship with meditation. I’m trying to stay consistent with this as well, though there are missed days here and there. It just feels SO IMPORTANT to me right now to get these sessions in. I feel like I’m at my best if I sit and embrace stillness at some point in the day. It forces me to stop and breathe, at least for a little while.

Reading 30 Minutes per Day

Recently I’ve been burying myself in Marvel Unlimited. It’s a magnificent resource if you’re a comic book nerd like I am. I’ve also been reading The Priory of the Orange Tree, a high-fantasy novel by Samantha Shannon. There’s also a whole slew of books waiting on my nightstand that I’m ready for me to dive into.

Learning Spanish

Want to learn a language? Get Duolingo. Though the app offers a paid tier, you can take lessons free of charge, there are a ton of languages to choose from, and the platform itself is dynamic. I spend about 20 minutes per day attempting to master the next lesson. I’m quite a long way from achieving fluency and walking around Mexico City with confidence, but I’m enjoying the journey.

Learning the Ukulele

I’ve never played an instrument. It’s one of those things that I’ve just never taken the time to learn. For Christmas, though, my wife, Beth, gave me a ukulele, and now I’m taking three lessons per week using Yousician, with each lesson lasting about 30 minutes. The app itself is absolutely made for someone like me because it’s very gamified; it listens to your instrument’s notes as you play and only allows you to progress to more challenging songs and levels when you achieve a level of success at the level you’re currently at. Learning the ukulele has been challenging, but it’s also been very rewarding as I watch my skill grow.

***

As you might be able to tell, all of this is keeping me VERY busy, which is good, because the busier I am, the more distracted I am, and the more distracted I am, the less time I have to sit and worry about the ever-expanding growth of COVID-19 cases. This level of activity…it feels like a necessary evil at the moment. It’s needed; at least I need it.

Is it all the way healthy, though?

We’ll discuss that in my next post.

For now, tell me what you’re doing to stay busy. How has your routine changed? What new practices have you taken up?

Stay safe. Stay healthy.

COVID-19: The Biggest Villain

So, what’s going on in the world? Anything fun happening? Any big plans over the next few weeks?

Oh, right, I forgot. COVID-19. It’s here, and it’s absolutely messing with life as we know it.

COVID-19 is the big villain in the room, and we’re all dealing with it in our own ways. Some of us have been laid off or put on furlough or forced into situations where hours have been drastically reduced, others of us work in healthcare and are on the frontlines of the outbreak every day (thank you, thank you, thank you). Parents of school-aged children have been thrust into the role of teacher, sometimes while also trying to fulfill their regular work responsibilities, except from at home. Others are trying to figure out how to care for elderly family members without potentially exposing them to the virus. And then there are those who are stuck at home alone, without anyone else to physically share their time with. 

None of these circumstances are easy (let’s face it, they all kind of suck out loud), and many of us are dealing with a few of them at once.  All while being trapped at home, with nowhere to go, nothing to do, and the power of the almighty couch staring us down and sapping every bit of our energy.

Interesting how it’s harder to find inspiration when you seemingly have more time on your hands, isn’t it?

Even tasks that seem like they’re going to be distracting ending up becoming perversions of themselves and end up more depressing than anything else.

Take, for example, my trip to Costco yesterday. I was excited to go. Really. It had been a few weeks since my last trip to the store, and I was just excited to get in the car, go for a drive, and look upon faces both new (fellow brave shoppers) and familiar (those Costco employees you manage to see every time you walk in the store).

Well, it didn’t take long for the trip to wear on me. First, driving out there, I noticed a distinct lack of cars on the road. Sure, I saw some, but enough. Not nearly enough. I wanted more.

Let’s be honest, I would’ve been okay with a traffic jam.

There also weren’t many cars in the shopping center parking lots I passed. With all business other than those deemed essential ordered to close, well, Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts had some traffic, but every other store I saw? Not so much.

Then I got to Costco. First, I pumped gas; for the first time ever, I was directed to a particular pump—one that had just been sanitized. I mean, good on Costco; every time a car pulled away, a member of their team would run over, sanitize the station, and then allow the next car to pull up.

I was glad to see it, but still…another reminder of how different the world is right now.

Then, walking into Costo, well, I guess lines are so long first thing in the morning, they created an extensive labyrinth just to get in the door, much like you’d see while waiting in queue for a ride at DisneyWorld. I started by picking up my freshly sanitized cart (thank you again), and then walking past the entrance and around the side of the building, turning here, and then there, and then there again, and then wrapping around this and that, before showing my card at the door and heading on in.

Again, all of this is a good thing, but wow, it’s so different than normal.

Once inside, some fellow customers were in masks, and others were speed shopping at an insane pace. There were no lines of people waiting for samples. Shoppers weren’t bumping into each other as they moved up and down the aisles. It was plainly obvious that people just didn’t want to be in there.

It wasn’t a wanted, desired errand for anyone. It was a chore.

I especially didn’t want to be around anyone elderly. I didn’t even want to know that they were out, that they were risking themselves potentially coming into contact with the virus, so as I passed anyone who appeared to be older, I held my breath.

Let me repeat that: As I walked past anyone who appeared to be older, I held my breath. That’s how scared I was of potentially infecting someone: Even though I had no symptoms and was showing no sign of having contracted the virus, every time I entered the vicinity of an elder, I held my breath for fear of breathing on them.

What the fuck, anxiety?

Pretty quickly, I became one of the people who wanted to get out of the store as quickly as possible. I had left the house searching for a bit of normal, but once there I realized I was experiencing one of the most far-from-normal experience I’ve ever had.

But maybe that’s the point. Maybe our normal right now is…abnormal. We’re all battling situations that make us nervous, anxious, and uncomfortable. Half the time we don’t know which way is up or what responsibility we should take on next. Juggling priorities has become an Olympic sport (one that you now have until 2021 to train for). And yet many of us are still beating ourselves up because even though we’re just a few weeks into quarantine, we haven’t yet perfected our new normal. We haven’t pinned down the new essentials, the new schedule, and we’re scrambling to fulfill all the different responsibilities that are now crammed into the day.

When it gets too much, when anxiety starts to win, just remember to stop and breathe. Stop. And. Breathe. You are one person. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t even have to be close to perfect. Just try your best. Give each day your all and each moment in each day its own attention. All those responsibilities that are bearing down on you? You can handle them, not at all once, but one at a time. And if you stumble and fall, if you don’t get everything accomplished that you wanted to…so what. Fuck it. You’re going to be home tomorrow anyway, right?

2020 is shaping up to be the most challenging year many of us will ever experience. Take a second to realize that, to understand what it means, and to give yourself a break.

Stop. And. Breathe.