William absolutely loved getting COVID. His symptoms weren’t severe: lethargy and the loss of taste and smell. “My girlfriend somehow tested negative. She packed a bag and went to her parents’ house for like three weeks and it was amazing,” he said. “I had a great excuse to do nothing … It was the best. I feel guilty saying it. I just really love solitude. I ate Thanksgiving by myself. I binge-watched Boardwalk Empire on HBO. I got to set up the apartment the way I wanted. It was amazing. When I think about it, like you know how when you think back to a summer between grades when you were a kid or a vacation? Like, I want to catch it again on some level.”
It’s not like William is particularly proud of how much he’s loved his pandemic life. (He asked me to refer to him only by his middle name due to the sensitive nature of his job working with people who have substance-use disorder.) “I have COVID-love shame,” he said. “I don’t tell anybody about this … A lot of my dread is purely, for lack of a better word, selfish.” Pandemic life has been easy for him: He is in the business of conducting interventions, which are trickier on Zoom than they are in person — the interventionee can “just get up and leave the room” — but nevertheless, work has been mostly great. He got a promotion after the pandemic started. He’s in “the best shape of [his] life” because he’s been using “the extra time” lockdown has given him to ride his bike, box, and swim. “I’ve had explicit permission to just stay home and I have got my own self-sustaining ecosystem here … work, food, exercise, recreation,” he said. “I just feel so much more control of my experiences. I’m just dreading traffic, ‘meet me at the coffee shop at three,’ ‘I’m ten minutes late,’ baby showers, [gender] reveals. Like, I don’t want to do any of that fucking shit.”
The pandemic year has been hard for many, with all the sickness, death, layoffs, confinement, and isolation. But for a socially anxious and solitude-loving crew, it has been a sort of strange blessing. William is certainly not the only person who is worried about returning to a world of everyday in-person communication. According to a recent study by the American Psychological Association, many adults “feel uneasy about adjusting to in-person interactions once the pandemic ends.” (57 percent of Black adults, 51 percent of Asian adults, 50 percent of Hispanic adults, and 47 percent of white adults said they somewhat/strongly agree with that sentiment.)
“I’ve always been very self-conscious in public,” said Breanna Martins, a high-school art teacher and painter who lives in Boston. “I’m intersex, so I always felt like I got extra stares while I was out in public. I tried to compensate for that by being extra gregarious and outgoing.” It wasn’t until lockdown began that Martins realized she preferred a slower, less intensely social life. The pandemic turned out to be a boon for her art practice. “I’ve never been as productive as I was those first three months of quarantine,” she said. “I was able to segment off from the world and just focus on my art, creation without expectations and fear of other people critiquing it or seeing it because I knew there weren’t going to be any shows anytime soon.” 2020 was one of the best years of her life, Martins told me, and she feels guilty about that.
Arthur, who asked me to only refer to him by his first name, got sober in July 2019, and the world shutting down a few months later gave him space to figure out who he is without alcohol. When he was drinking, he always fancied himself an extrovert, using alcohol as social lubrication. His work involves a fair amount of wining and dining, which was really hard after he quit drinking but before the pandemic began. Being off the hook for those high-pressure social situations came as an immense relief. “One of the epiphanies I had was that I’m really an introvert,” he told me.
He’s used the extra time and solitude that the pandemic has given him for self-discovery. He’s learned that he loves to read, hike, and sit outside and daydream. The pandemic, he said, “has been like a cave for a hibernating bear.” Arthur doesn’t feel guilty about how much he’s enjoyed the last year. “I feel gratitude for it,” he said.
Not everybody who is dreading reopening had a really great year. For William Strecker, a 28-year-old who lives in Texas, the pandemic year allowed him to put his life on pause. After getting laid off from his job in March of last year, he moved from Austin to his parents’ house in the Dallas area. “It was the best-case scenario for me at the time,” he said. “I was kind of happy to get out of there, happy to get severance.” Moving back in with his parents has given him the opportunity to “build a new adult relationship with them.”
But his year of unemployment has been one of inertia. “I wanted to be a writer,” Strecker said, having studied English in college. “I was hoping that this would be an opportunity for me to kind of reevaluate things and start putting myself on a path [to the] career that I actually wanted to be doing. But I guess being in isolation all the time, I started drinking too much, maybe smoking too much, just kind of letting all of the bad habits that weren’t habits before COVID take over. Everything’s been kind of a blur.”
For Strecker, the prospect of having to play an active role in his life is scary. “I’m really worried whenever things open up again …” he trailed off. “I’ve spent six months just like in a void, in limbo. I’m not really confident what that will look like when things start to open up again … I don’t have a job lined up yet. And then I’m worried that some of my social skills have deteriorated a little bit with so much time being anti-social.”
Vinh Hoang, a 32-year-old attorney in San Diego, has a straightforward reason for not being excited about the country reopening: social anxiety. He moved back in with parents in 2020, and hasn’t really socialized with friends, as to not put them at risk. “The ability to be social in a public place with strangers, it’s kind of like a muscle I haven’t used for a year-plus,” Hoang said. “If someone asked me on a date or something, and said, ‘Hey let’s go to a brewery,’ I would definitely feel, not fear, but more anxiety. It feels like I’m rusty and out of practice because I definitely haven’t talked to anyone for a good length of time during quarantine.”
Whenever things go back to normal, Martins, the teacher, hopes that people don’t forget all that they learned over the past year. “We learned about what it means to have a home,” she said. “I think about all the people who started gardens or started baking or really leaned into things they were passionate about or found new passions. I know it’s Pollyannaish to say, but it worries me that people might lose that sense of what fulfills them.”