What's wrong with us? With more and more vaccines administered, and society opening up as a result, one would think we'd be embracing the good news with the same unbridled joy and fervor of those who celebrated the end of World War II.*
Alas, many don't seem "cautiously optimistic." In fact, a lot of us are unsure at best.
There's a name for that gnawing sense of unease, as we begin to see that light at the end of the COVID tunnel. It's called "Cave Syndrome."
It's the dread sparked by the thought of returning to the ways of "before," following a year of hyper-consciousness – and despite being vaccinated and continuing to wear our masks and keep our distances.
If you're suffering from "Cave Syndrome," take comfort. You are not alone. Far from it.
A February study by the American Psychological Association found 49% of Americans – almost half of us! – "feel uneasy about adjusting to in-person interactions once the pandemic ends."
Things like going to the office, eating out, attending movies and theatre, having lunch with friends – things we used to love – continue to cause discomfort, dread, or sometimes fear, even as those activities become safer and safer.
In that same survey, 46% of respondents say they "do not feel comfortable returning to their pre-pandemic way of life."
Meaning, they've had enough of working outside the home, going to the gym, squeezing into nightclubs.
But the true shocker, according to the study, is this: adults who received COVID-19 vaccines gave the same answers as those who had not been vaccinated!
Old habits die hard. So do old mindsets.
As we begin to climb out of our collective caves, the logical "next question" is: "Who are we now? What is our life now?"
Because after a year in lockdown – of avoiding others, of being germ-phobic to the nth degree, of finding novel ways to accomplish even once-mundane tasks of real life – there’s no question that most of us are not who we were way back in the now-innocent days of pre-March 2020!
I've now had both shots, and am waiting out the last few days before I am considered officially, completely vaccinated.
As I emerge next week from my cave, I'm interested to learn, "who am I now?"
Because, while I certainly miss the "lifestyle of before," the idea of returning to "before" sometimes seems beyond me. Often in the most ridiculous of ways.
Will I be a near-germ-phobic, almost-agoraphobic, borderline-hypochondriac homebody forever? (I never liked crowds or the "Hollywood kiss," but I would love to hug vaccinated old friends and co-workers again! I'd like to endure allergies without immediately wondering "Is this...?!")
Will I ever manage to get in the shower before 12 noon again? (It has gotten slightly easier, since Biden became President, to tear myself away from the news in the morning – but a pre-noon bath is still "pie in the sky" for now.)
Will I ever manage just one trip from apartment to car, without having to return for my mask? (Oh, wait, go back again for sanitizer – ok now let's go – oh, shit, just as soon as I run back upstairs one more time and fetch my damned car keys!)
Will Laurence's question "What do you want to watch on TV tonight?" ever stop filling me with existential dread? (It's slightly better now that my awards-season duties are fulfilled, but still!)
Will I ever be able to hand my cellphone to someone without immediately and visibly cringing? (Or will I ever be able to hand my cellphone to someone else, period?)
Will I ever want to act on stage again, with an audience all breathing in my direction? (God, I hope so, I miss the theatre more than almost anything!)
Will I ever learn to act with a sheet of plexiglass between my scene partner and myself? (I certainly learned long ago how to work with actors who were just as plastic and who had the same depth!)
Some things I know for sure:
I will continue to effusively gush "Thank you!" to workers at grocery stores, restaurants, and gas stations.
I will continue to work and lobby for a livable minimum wage and universal healthcare!
I will continue to speak out when I see people putting others at risk by not wearing a mask or keeping their distance.
I will get together with (vaccinated) friends for cocktails, food, and laughs! Every weekend!
I will – slowly but surely – get back inside a cinema, the theatre, the coffee house, and – eventually – an elevator!
But first, I'm getting on a jet (gulp!) next month and flying home to my family in Indiana, after over 20 months away, for a much-delayed reunion with my parents, nieces and nephews, and some good friends.
I'm not looking forward to the crowded flight – stuffing myself into airplanes or subway cars gave me germophobic heeby-jeebies long before any of us had ever heard of COVID-19 or worried about where our next roll of toilet paper was coming from!
But I am dying to see my family. I've worried about them every day for over a year.
So I'll keep reminding myself of the words of Dr. Marybeth Sexton, an infectious disease specialist at Emory University School of Medicine, whenever I feel my own Cave Syndrome bubbling to the surface:
"Two weeks after your second dose ... the risk of being hospitalized or dying [of COVID] is almost zero."
Ironically, I'm not concerned about catching anything during my upcoming trip.
But now, I apparently have to worry about the chance of transmitting some California variant to the few family members who refuse the vaccine!
And I guess I still need to worry about the possibility of verbally kicking the ass(es) of mask-refusing jerk(s) while in Indiana.
That's one thing that will definitely never change, no matter how long I'm outside my cave!
So tell me, who are YOU now?
*This piece does not address the small percentage of Americans who believe this nightmare was all a hoax. They continue to live in a world of denial. Idiots.