Written by Holly Fleming
On the 26th of February, 2020, I failed my driving test. Annoying more than anything. There was something brewing in the air then, and a few weeks later, my instructor urged me to book the very next available test date and time for my resit. I booked a date in late March, in an area I was unfamiliar with, and was nervous as all hell. Luckily, I ended up not having to worry about this test because it was meant to take place on the day that lockdown would begin.
Along with the chance to (hopefully) pass my driving test, I also lost the chance to graduate from university with all of my friends and classmates, which in turn impacted the availability of jobs for myself and my peers. As COVID-19 took hold of the world, we all kept our distance from one another, eager to keep each other safe from illness.
Months of little exposure to anyone who wasn’t my partner or immediate family battered my social skills. A friend of mine worked in a shop nearby – if I visited her on shift, we’d, for lack of a better phrase, word vomit at each other. Spit stories about what we’d been up to rapidly, barely taking in our own words, never mind each other’s. Once I ran into some friends at a different shop (we all know that grocery shops were the best of outings in 2020) and we shared some nice small talk about what we’d been up to and how we were.
Five minutes of small talk. Mid-pandemic, at the height of isolation, this was enough to leave me shaking for a long time after. I don’t even know why. I don’t look back on our chat and regret what I said, and neither person said anything to upset or anger me. When we went our separate ways we were exchanging the traditional but meaningless “yeah, we’ll do something together soon!”.
I’d become far more socially inept than I ever was, and I was starting to panic about life post-COVID. I started wondering if I’d started eating like an animal because the only person to see me eat for months was my partner, and we’re just far too comfortable around each other to care about how we look while eating.
The idea of losing social skills seemed to me to have no upsides, no benefits. What will new people think of me? What will old friends I haven’t seen in months think of me when I’m stumbling over words and forgetting the points of my stories halfway through telling them?
It was all doom and gloom until I snapped myself to attention one day and realised I was being extremely rude to someone. A man had made a joke to me, and in response I said nothing, turned around in my chair, and went back to what I was doing.
The joke was a bad one. Problematic and offensive at worst, and plain unfunny at best. A pre-pandemic me would have responded to this with a short, far too polite laugh as she felt her soul crumble just a little, playing complicit to something so absolutely against her beliefs. But a post-pandemic me’s social skills have been completely SHATTERED and now she has no time or patience for this kind of bullsh*t.
I am not a confrontational person, which explains the little laugh I’d normally give in this situation. Never because I find the quip funny, but because I want to move the hell past it. Hours after, I’d replay the moment in my head and imagine myself speaking up and out and having a backbone, telling whoever that their joke is shitty and not funny. But that isn’t in me – it’s not me.
The laugh was an armour, deflecting away possible showdowns. A form of defence that gave a little piece of me away to someone who didn’t deserve it, who would then believe that I was aligned with them.
Strong women don’t suffer fools and aren’t afraid of the silence that they allow after bad jokes. This was always something I wanted to emulate but I am plain and simply too awkward to make a scene. Of all the things that would push me to denying unfunny pricks a little part of me, I never thought it would be a world shattering pandemic. Through the last year, I never considered that I could come to appreciate lockdowns to any extent.
Long days in lockdown were some of the hardest I’ve ever faced. I was depressed, anxious, lonely, bored, and spent a lot of my time actively worrying about the consequences of being jobless much longer. It was a difficult thing for me and countless other people, many of whom had it objectively worse than me. Now that we’re moving past restrictions and towards some facet of normality, I’m looking forward to all of our lives evolving into something better than the lives we had before March 2020.
There are opportunities to grow that have slipped through my fingers during the pandemic, and there are parts of me I’ve lost and might never recover. But there’s a new me hiding beneath all of the overthinking and anxiety. A little unafraid thing. Something that is steadfast and sure and unwilling to lose any other part of me. Something that holds all of me together and makes me feel powerful. These little victories will always be victories.