Which Way Is The Exit?


Which Way Is The Exit?Weeks ago, I responded “Going” to an in-person event, the first indoor event for me in well over a year. The time has come, I thought, to get out in the world and to see people again. Other than a day trip to Dollywood last September, our family has stayed put this past year. Armed with a vaccine and a mask, I assured myself, I could look forward with confidence to a relatively low-risk event after a full year of shunning society.

But this past weekend, days before the event will take place, I changed my response to “Can’t go.”

It’s not that I don’t want to go or can really put my finger on exactly why I suddenly got cold feet. I do my grocery shopping mostly in person. Surely, the risk of going to an indoor event with a small group of (mostly?) vaccinated people is lower than the risk of popping into Publix for sushi on Wednesday?

But every decision these days feels weighty, and even my own rules about what I will and won’t do don’t always make sense. When I got my first shot in early March, I felt elated. Well, if I’m being honest, I felt a lot of things all at once: joy, gratitude for the opportunity, sadness over the last year’s crisis, worry over both side and long-term effects, and, primarily, relief that there was at last an end in sight.

Finally, I would feel free to take my time at the grocery store and not frantically apply copious amounts of hand sanitizer when I got to my car. I could take my son to places again, go on playdates, have in-person game nights with my friends, see a movie, get a much-needed haircut. Two weeks after my second dose, I would be free.

Unfortunately, my anxiety didn’t get the memo.

A couple weeks ago, I balked at my husband’s suggestion that we go to a restaurant and eat the meal there. Eat in a restaurant? Like, with other people nearby and maskless? My heart practically raced at the thought. “I don’t know,” I said. “Can we… do that?”

I realize that not everyone has lived like me over the last year. And it might be easy for some people to read this and roll their eyes and tell me to get over it already. Take that first step. See the world again. But the thing about fear is that it’s not always so easily dismissed.

After 13+ months of largely avoiding in-person gatherings, keeping my distance in public, seeing friends over Zoom, and overanalyzing every decision and potential consequence, it’s not easy to resume normal life again, or some reasonable approximation of it. Despite encouraging stats about vaccine effectiveness and the little, reasonable voice in the back of my mind telling me that at some point, I will need to shift into “normal” mode again, I’m finding that hard to do these days.

For me, personally, anxiety has more to do with the decisions I make than any practical concerns or hard-and-fast rules about what is and isn’t okay. Habits are hard to break. And deciding how to live after sheltering in place — literally and mentally — since last spring is overwhelming.

There’s a light, but there’s no clear EXIT sign.

We did end up going to eat at a local Mexican place, opting for an outdoor table well apart from other diners. I saw a movie last weekend by myself, in a largely empty theater with my mask still on. And I’ve booked a trip to DisneyWorld for later this year. We’re also going on a weekend getaway with some friends (who are also vaccinated) this summer and taking another day trip to Dollywood soon. And we’re traveling with my in-laws in the coming weeks, too.

But these trips we’re taking somehow don’t feel as risky as, say, getting together with a group of people inside. There are still things that don’t feel safe to me, and it’s not always a cut-and-dried decision. I’ll don my MagicBand and drive to Orlando with a smile on my face and joy in my heart, but you couldn’t pay me money to get on a plane and travel across the country right now.

There may be a light at the end of the tunnel as we navigate the pandexit, but there’s no clear neon sign above the door showing us the way. As with all of the decisions over the past year, I’ll just have to take them as they come.

As I’m writing this, my husband and I have plans to meet up for brunch with some friends this morning. We’re picking up food from Cracker Barrel and bringing it to their place, where we’ll eat on their deck as we watch our kids play together for the first time since probably Friendsgiving 2019. I’m delighted and nervous.

It’s not easy, this stage. My decisions will feel right and wrong at the same time — they may even be right and wrong at the same time. But the only way forward is forward. And I’m ready. I think.