By Emily Erickson
I’ve always considered myself an equal mix of introvert and extrovert — feeling both comfortable and energized by social interactions, while needing adequate alone time to recharge after a gathering. Like a teeter-totter oscillating between social butterfly and loner, I’m just as likely to thrive in a people-packed pub filled with small talk, laughter and fiddle-tunes as I am spending an evening in my mood-lit living room getting paint all over my fingers.
Throughout the seasons of my life, my “sociality teeter-totter” has rooted itself on one side or the other, weighted down by circumstances. While working as a tour guide or bartender, my extroverted self thrived — spending hours of the day in an energetic buzz of human interaction. Night shifts were capped by sharing beers and war stories of the evening’s events with my coworkers, and days off included coffee shop chatter and grabbing lunch with friends. Alone time was merely sprinkled into the bounty of shared experiences, and my comfort lay in filling up daily life with consistent interactions.
Then, the shifting winds of self-employment and working from home pushed my teeter-totter back to the side of solitude, introspection and carefully parseled, intimate interactions. My introverted self took over, thriving in consuming books, taking long solo runs and enjoying weekly gatherings with a friend or two for easy and familiar conversation. Large events became something to be geared up for and recovered from, and time inside my own mind became precious and necessary.
In an unprecedented season, the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine brought gales of isolation to my teeter-totter, breaking my extroverted self off at the fulcrum. Large group gatherings were not only not an option, but irresponsible and in poor taste. My world shrunk into the walls of my home, and my extroversion faded into a memory of a former self.
Now, in trying to reenter the world as an introverted half, it’s as if the unwritten social rules I’ve always understood — and my role within those rules — have lost clarity. The smallest interactions are now both complex and taxing, and prompt unfamiliar questioning and self doubt.
Pre-quarantine, I could push my cart down a grocery aisle and my head would fill with recipes and excitement, reveling in the opportunity to stumble upon inspiration between the produce section and the bakery. I wouldn’t question a friendly hello or a passing greeting, and I’d leave feeling energized and connected to my community.
But today, this same trip produces white-knuckled grips and a mind racing with thoughts like, “Are they looking at me funny for wearing a mask?”; “Maybe I am overreacting and this is too much”; and, “But isn’t this what I’m supposed to do? Isn’t it what they’re supposed to do, too?”
I blow through the exit in a hurry, grocery bags filled with only the items on my list, and eager for the relief of my own space.
Strangers have turned from vessels of interesting stories and life insights into vessels of germs and the sum of unknowable choices — and every day brings the pressure of a new set of ethical dilemmas needing to be navigated with foresight, insight and grace.
Despite feeling more lost than ever, I find comfort in knowing it won’t always be this way, and social interaction won’t always be so complicated. With each bit of normalcy restored, I feel the pieces of my former self — the other half of my teeter-totter — slowly getting put back together. I look forward to the days when I can go into a restaurant and not consider anything but the type of food on my plate, and can dance in sweaty, joyful community with friends and strangers at a show.
So, for now, I’m taking baby steps into reintegration and allowing myself to celebrate all the little victories along the way. With a friendly hello here, and a to-go coffee there, I’ll be back on the playground in no time.
Emily Erickson is a freelance writer and bartender originally from Wisconsin, with a degree in sociology and an affinity for playing in the mountains.
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