Regaining normalcy post pandemic?
February 28, 2021 11:00 PM   Subscribe

My partner, child, and I been strictly social distancing, working remotely and seeing literally nobody except for a few distanced walks with friends in the summer since the pandemic began. Nothing in life interests me anymore. Once this is over, how do I get my love of living back?

I feel like I’ve lost all social skills and interests in leisure activities, food, and aesthetics, and now I have a nihilistic view of life, questioning the value of almost everything. That’s not the normal me.

I’m not depressed, just isolated, and tired from working and parenting full time with no real free time or social outlets.

Assuming the end of this pandemic is in sight, I’m looking for tips on how to adjust as life slowly becomes normal. Does it happen organically? Are there special efforts I should make? Is it ok to feel this way now as long as I readjust when things get better?
posted by redlines to Human Relations (19 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
For most people "fake it 'til you make it" is probably the answer. Once it's reasonably safe to do so, you force yourself to go out and do some things that you remember enjoying and chances are you'll have a good time and want to do things.

In the meantime, if there are any online socialization activities that interest you, perhaps give those a try. If it doesn't work for you, that's fine, but maybe it will help between now and summer.

It does sound like you're suffering from mild depression, but it's probably situational. It's a pretty normal response to the kind of isolation a lot of us have been dealing with.
posted by wierdo at 11:39 PM on February 28, 2021 [6 favorites]

“Once this is over, how do I get my love of living back?”

I don’t mean this to sound trite or unfeeling to how miserable things are right now (and have been for so long), but I think the key lies in your framing.

You can’t be fully present if you’re wishing things were different; if you’re waiting for a future moment to start thinking new thoughts or feeling better feelings.

You clearly want to do this, as evidenced by the existence of this AskMe, so perhaps the next baby step toward the goal is to recognise these opportunities to reframe the thought?

What could replace ‘once this is over’? Can you strike it entirely? Notice how that subtly shifts the way you feel. Recognise that you’ve made some small headway toward a new thought and feeling, in the present moment. That’s some good progress already.

This may seem insignificant, but it’s not nothing. These small moments will accumulate and reinforce each other, with minimal effort on your part. Loving life is in each one of them.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:52 PM on February 28, 2021 [21 favorites]

Could you add an occasional masked walk with a friend back into your calendar? It might help you get back into the groove. I saw something today where a person said she and her wife make a point of carving out time for each other to have time alone, to exercise or whatever. If you don’t want to walk with a friend, how about calling some old friends? Push yourself to engage a bit and you might feel it come back. Also, get outside in the sun when you can.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:52 PM on February 28, 2021 [3 favorites]

Your last three questions are framed as if anyone alive today has ever been through something like this before and might have one quick tip or hack for living through and emerging out the other side of a devastating global pandemic.

Does it happen "organically"? Who knows? We will probably always now have to live with Covid 19 in some way or other, even if the pandemic is one day "over", the virus isn't going away. The people who died will still have died. The disruption to the economy and normal family life will still have happened and be causing repercussions. If by "organically" you mean seamlessly merging back into an identical version of how things were before, I don't think that will happen.

Are there special efforts I should make?
Is it ok to feel this way now as long as I readjust when things get better?

I'm reading these questions as a deep and painful confusion about your own feelings, your own sense of personal agency in the face of global catastrophe, fear about "failing", fear that you might "get back to normal" and still feel the way you currently feel, fear that nothing will ever feel normal again, and so how will I be able to carry on?

Maybe find out more about those fears. Imagine, say, wherever you live achieves herd immunity and everyone can meet and socialise and congregate and go to work and you start seeing people again-- and you still feel this way. Is it actually that idea that is scary? Do you feel like with the pandemic still ongoing you sort of have a weird kind of safety, because life is out of your control, so it's ok to be only half alive? What would it mean if you did return to a feeling of full agency and freedom and you still felt only half alive? How can it be that life can seem worth living when terrible things happen? What if somehow shit gets even worse, how will I be able to cope? What actually, when you think about it, is a meaningful life?

I know therapy suggestions are ten a penny on this site, but these kinds of fears are really really worthwhile talking to a professional about.

My take is that it will be harmful for all of us if we act like nothing has happened and we all desperately try to put a smile on and go "back to normal" as soon as possible without reckoning with the change in our lives and the damage done to our communities at micro and macro levels.

Imagine you yourself had been very ill and taken over a year to recover, and you were left with a life-limiting condition that changes the very structure of your family life, while your social support system was taken away from you and you were still responsible for being a parent and making money- which is essentially what has happened, even though you weren't actually ill. You'd think it was worth doing some work with a professional to come to terms with this brutal reality and the change from what your life used to be like, right?

So it's great that you want to engage with it, and I'd say don't wait until the "end" of the pandemic- for one thing there may not be a clearly defined "end", and for another you deserve to be as happy as you can be right now. We're not guaranteed any kind of tomorrow even at the best of times, so please invest in your life and happiness now!
posted by Balthamos at 1:11 AM on March 1, 2021 [18 favorites]

I’m not depressed

Gently, and I say this as someone who has struggled with depression since puberty, and has encountered its many forms in friends and family, it sure as heck sounds like depression. But that’s okay, because as you clearly know, in these circumstances the people who aren’t having a hard time are the outliers. It makes sense that you’re feeling the way you do.

If you have the resources you can start working on this regardless of when the effects of the pandemic have receded. You can absolutely talk to a doctor about this, apparently everyone and their dog is dealing with anxiety or depression right now, and you might benefit greatly from some temporary medication to help boost you for now, or find out about resources you can utilize like teletherapy or groups to connect with and talk about these kinds of things on a less anonymous level.

If where you live has very crappy weather right now, can you invest in some equipment to make being outside more pleasant? Think, thermoses of hot chocolate with your family in a park, or good waterproof boots during drizzly morning walks. Maybe some good wearable lights so you can take night time strolls safely. This is something I need to work on myself. I’m going to get some good waterproof boots and a coat with a waterproof hood for rainy Seattle March and make myself get out of the house.

It’s never wrong to feel bad or depressed, it’s just how you feel. Of course if you can stop feeling that way it’s a good thing, but you’re framing it like a value judgement that you are, which isn’t helpful. You feel nihilistic and unable to access joy right now. There are lots of things to try to help bring your mood back, but some of them are hard or outrageously expensive or socially unacceptable to access right now, and everybody is different. So if you can make special effort for yourself, start doing it now. If you can’t, know that you are absolutely not alone, that very few people are managing well, and that being self aware as you are is already a big step in the right direction.
posted by Mizu at 1:30 AM on March 1, 2021 [16 favorites]

I do think that some of the answer to this is that yes, it will come back, it will take time and you shouldn't panic if it doesn't happen right way, because it's initially going to be hard to eg. go to a busy restaurant and feel relaxed. But give it time, go step by step, and the flower will start to unfurl and bloom again.

I feel as if going out and doing interesting things, meeting people, are things that fill my mental tank. I'm feeling a little drab and lifeless right now because my tank hasn't been refilled for so long and just has the same old sludgy stuff circulating around in it. Or rather it only gets tiny, occasional dribbles from a short walk with a friend or a meal with my bubble partner. Once normal life starts to resume, that inflow will pick up again, and the very act of doing social things will give me the energy and interest to do more things. I feel like there are whole sections of my brain that have just gone to sleep right now, and will come out of hibernation once they're needed again.

(I mean, I say that... I have long covid so unfortunately in my case I actually am in the life-limiting condition situation that Balthamos outlines, and the end of lockdown is probably not going to mean the end of my life being limited. But it sounds like you're not in that position).

In the meantime, why are you not going on socially-distanced walks with friends now? Unless you're in a very serious hotspot and local regulations prohibit it, wrap up warm and get the hell out there and fill your tank a little with some fresh social contact. Stir up the sludge in the tank, start gently reawakening the social part of your brain a little, get some new stuff flowing into your life.
posted by penguin pie at 5:02 AM on March 1, 2021 [5 favorites]

We are all globally in a situation we've never encountered before. I have lost count of how many people have told me that they also cringe watching TV from the before times because people are standing and talking so close. That's such a neutral thing, but our brains and expectations have already changed so much!

I figure there will be a whole sub specialty in mental health services for reintegration syndrome a few months to a year from now. If I find myself struggling once it's ok to be out and about again, I'll avail myself of some therapy.

Right now, there's no sense dwelling on what difficulties tomorrow might bring. Try to keep coping the best you can today, go on walks again, and just know that things will be different than they are right now.
posted by phunniemee at 5:18 AM on March 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

Hey, first of all if you want, here's a big, working-parent-in-the-pandemic hug for you. It's as long as you want and if you need to scream into my shoulder please do! My gosh it's been hard, hasn't it? No wonder you're feeling low.

I also want to gently invite you to probe your statement that you're not depressed. I think there are a lot of people feeling the way you do, but I think there are many many more who have come through this hard time and are genuinely excited and energised by the news that (certainly where I live) restrictions are starting to relax. I do think that you might need to have a really honest moment and, even if you don't want to label it as depression, be honest that this is something worth speaking to a professional about.

You wrote this, and I want it to have it's own paragraph:

Nothing in life interests me anymore.

Really sit with that for a sec. Feeling like that, is exactly how depression feels, to me. And it's not normal, and you deserve to have help with it.


Here's what I think you should do. First of all, if your kid still isn't sleeping, see if you can make a plan to do something about that. See a sleep consultant, or both of you take a week off work to do some soft sleep training (me and my partner did this and it was life changing, message me if you want me to tell you how we went about it). When I saw a therapist for PND, she told me that sleep has to come first - no-one can do anything properly without sleep, let alone heal from depression.

Then, talk to someone about how you're feeling. I suggest a therapist who will do some "person-centred" work with you, not CBT. I peeped at some of your past questions and I think that there are a few conversations you could start with around co-parenting, resentment, and that's before you get into you by yourself and how you feel about life.

You really deserve this. Message me if you want to talk more about any of this, I am or have been in so many of the same boats as you (both working, parenting a toddler through the entire lockdown, toddler was a horrifically bad sleeper for the first 18 months), and I'm here for you.
posted by greenish at 5:30 AM on March 1, 2021 [6 favorites]

One of the most useful things I saw at the start of lockdown said:

"You are going to be living the lifestyle of someone with depression, so don't be surprised if you start feeling depressed"

In other words, yes, it's OK to feel this way. Be kind to yourself and take it gradually, have a routine that gets you outside and increase it progressively as weather and restrictions lift. Thought follows action follows thought ad infinitum. Actions are easier to control and modify.

As a parent, one thing that keeps me even is remembering that there are little people watching me, and that helps me try to be the best version of "me under horrible and prolonged stress", without denying the reality of it.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 6:32 AM on March 1, 2021 [8 favorites]

I'm sorry you're going through this. What makes it especially frustrating is that a lot of people saw this coming, and yet still nothing was done.

That said, it sounds like you're being pretty strict about lockdown, and you could probably loosen up a bit without substantially increasing your risk of exposure. My family has still been able to do a lot of fun things this past year, even if we did most of them by ourselves. I taught my daughter to play tennis over the summer, and to ice skate on a pond a few weeks ago, because you don't need to interact with other people for that. She got a new bike for Christmas. Just last week, we went sledding, just at a time of day when nobody else was at the hill. There are plenty of fun activities you can do with just the three of you.

It's also a lot safer than you might think to go out around other people, provided you wear masks and stay socially distant. (And since many - most? - places require masks to enter and are marked for six feet of distance, that's not hard to do.) I've never stopped going to the supermarket, I did most of my Christmas shopping in person, and I get takeout all the time. I even flew in September. Back in November, as everyone was getting depressed about cancelling Thanksgiving, the New York Times (yes, the king of liberal media) published a story that small social gatherings were not a significant source of exposure. It doesn't just have to be the three of you.

All this is to say that the way to regain interest in leisure activities is to start doing them again. Now, I'm not saying to go out and play 11-on-11 tackle football (although the NFL and NCAA did that, and there were no verified transmissions from game play all season). But like, yes, go for walks. Go to the grocery store. Get takeout from a fast food place with a drive-through window. There are any number of hobbies you could take up - things like playing a musical instrument or crafting don't require much, if any, social interaction, and, at least in my own personal experience, playing guitar makes me feel a lot better. (My wife might disagree.)

And also, yes, therapy. You might think you're not depressed, but abrupt mood shifts to where you start saying things like "I have a nihilistic view of life, questioning the value of almost everything" are definitely a symptom. I'm the kind of person who sees the value of therapy even for people who are "normal", so if you're feeling different than usual, you would almost certainly benefit from talking to a therapist. Also note that it's possible to have mental health problems without a big red letter diagnosis, so even if you're not DSM Depressed, you're still obviously feeling down.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:08 AM on March 1, 2021 [4 favorites]

Nothing in life interests me anymore.
I’m not depressed, just isolated, and tired

What you describe is depression, a natural response to a difficult period of time and to not being able to engage in normal healthy social activities. The phrase chemical imbalance is overused to the point of meaninglessness, but depression is a physical illness where your brain is not able to keep serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins at healthy levels. This causes a number of physical, mental, and emotional symptoms. Tiredness and lack of interest are real symptoms of depression.

Your doctor can prescribe an anti-depressant; they are useful and effective medications that may help.

My state just advanced to the next tier, and I am eligible for the vaccine as of Weds, though getting an appt. will take time. That has certainly lifted my spirits. In the US, your turn is coming up in the next several months.

Other things that help - Vit. D, exercise, sunshine, being outdoors in nature, good nutrition, maybe magnesium, playing with a dog or cat, funny movies, music.

Illnesses that affect the mind are still treated differently, still get some weird side-eye, but depression as a response to a year of full-time parenting with limited resources like friends and indoor activities, isolation, fear, worry, that crazed election, and not being able to engage in healthy living, is a predictable and normal response.

Every parent who has done an adequate or better job this past year deserves an award. 🏆 You are doing a fantastic job, you have every reason to be exhausted and out of fuel. If you know anyone who can safely take care of things for a day or 2, go to a hotel, take long baths, drink wine, eat chocolate, watch silly movies. You need and deserve a rest. You'll be okay; you've shown that you are amazing and have so many resources. You just have to get to the finish line.
posted by theora55 at 7:57 AM on March 1, 2021 [3 favorites]

Does it happen organically? Are there special efforts I should make? Is it ok to feel this way now as long as I readjust when things get better?

I'm not a parent (*pours one out for all of you*) but I can offer my perspective as someone whose 2021 so far has included: a critical error by a mechanic that became evident when our car engine died at 75mph on a busy highway and easily could have killed us, having our home sewer line fail while I was working something like 16 days straight in a mindless fog, then going on a brief vacation only to have my partner fall while skiing and concuss himself badly enough to totally wipe out his short term memory for several harrowing hours of the same three conversations on repeat in an urgent care facility. Which is to say: ho boy, do I feel nihilism in my bones lately.

And I say that not to at all play calamity bingo, but to contextualize the following anecdote: I am also in a COVID vaccine trial. Two weeks ago I tested my own antibodies after dose one and came up negative and was like oh great, of course I'm in the placebo group, everything is terrible per usual. And then one week ago I got shot #2 and surprise!, I had fever and joint pain for 24 hours and am now trying to suddenly come to grips with the fact that I'm immunized. But it's been a week and I still feel more numb than excited, if that makes sense. I've been trying to project positivity about it to others because a) I'm lucky to be in this trial and b) getting vaccinated is a really good thing.

I think it's okay to readjust gradually. Humans adapt to their surroundings, and I'm sure it'll be a gradual transition for me. I made a haircut appointment for next week (+14d from shot 2), and I'm not so much looking forward to it as I am feeling a kind of pre-relief that there's an end date for this annoyingly mullet-esque grow out I've got going on. I'll probably try to keep introducing a "new" (for COVID-times) experience every two weeks or so. The lengthening days in March and April usually do good things for my mental health this time each year, so I hope this year will be the same. I may still be nihilistic, but hopefully it'll be more of a cheerful nihilism.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:55 AM on March 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

I have been extremely locked down through most of the pandemic as well and felt these exact things many times, only to be totally shocked by what a mood boost it is to just go for a drive or take a walk outside. I'm guessing since you note summer as a moment when you got out for distanced walks you are in a cold climate? If so, your feelings seem pretty understandable to me. You're the most stuck inside that you have ever been and will probably ever be, and you've got a year of pent up exhaustion making it even harder this time around. At least the first time around last winter it was unfamiliar. Now it's just dull. Even without clinical depression, it's not hard to end up down in the dumps when you are isolated, cold, seeing less sun, moving less, and doing mostly work and very little play. Of course you are nihilistic right now - life kind of sucks at the moment.

I suggest you think back on how you felt during and around the time of your summer walks - I'm guessing better than this - and remember the current stretch will pass. It also may help you to see if you can move more, even if it's just a little. We recently got an exercise bike which has really helped - I was shocked to realize how much my limited movement was tanking my mood and energy. I can do the most leisurely 20 minutes on that thing and I'll feel less sluggish and sleep better. Also seconding the suggestion for vitamin d - it isn't a miracle cure but if you haven't been taking it, you may find that you feel just slightly less crappy in a week or so once you start. Hang in there!
posted by amycup at 9:02 AM on March 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm not seeing anyone else use this word, but look: if you've been that totally alone, with that little support, you have experienced trauma.

If it had been a malevolent person, and not a mindless virus, that kept you from seeing literally anyone else for that long, you probably wouldn't hesitate to call it trauma. Well, the fact that it's a virus doesn't change how it affected you.

You might want to minimize what you've gone through on the basis that everyone else has gone through it to. But everyone else hasn't. Even people who've isolated in good faith have mostly formed pods, had more contact with friends, or at least gone shopping in person. The minority who have been as fully and literally alone as your household are also traumatized by the experience, from what I see among my own friends and acquaintances.

After a traumatic experience — or, frankly, in the middle of an ongoing one — it is absolutely normal to feel the way you feel. It's not okay that you have to go through it, and you shouldn't just have to accept it, but there's nothing wrong with you for reacting the way you are. There are things that can help. One of them is talking about it, to trusted friends or to a support group or therapist. Another is being gentle with yourself and resisting the urge to blame yourself. You aren't weak, this isn't your fault, and you didn't do anything to deserve it.

So yes, you should make a special effort — but an especially kind, gentle one: don't beat yourself up if you can't just pull yourself back up right away. And it's ok to feel this way in the sense that there's nothing wrong for you, but don't let that convince you to settle for feeling this way or avoid help.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:02 AM on March 1, 2021 [8 favorites]

We have been through twelve months, and counting, of trauma. Some of that trauma has been deliberately inflicted, which is technically torture.

Most people will need to do recovery work. It does not make you weak or bad to plan for that to be necessary. All the individuals in your family, plus your marriage unit and your family unit, will also need to do recovery work. You as parents will need to do recovery parenting (which nobody actually knows how to do yet!). I think you will struggle if you frame this as having a single "normal" - we will be phasing through "new normals" weekly and monthly for a long while, and nothing is ever going to feel exactly like it did before. Forty years from now we're still going to be observing the consequences of what we've been through.

The good news, I think, is that
a) you're not going to be alone in that work
b) I think we will have access to excellent communication from social and psychological scientists about how to do at least some of this work
c) some of the actually-safe reopening process will inherently be a source of relief EVEN if it is tinged with anxiety, particularly for parents who have had to be absolutely everything to their children for a year, which is literally impossible.
d) this will be an opportunity to reconsider your values and what you want out of life in a good way

However, I fear people are under-planning for what most people do when a crisis has passed: fall the fuck apart. I think we have a Real Bad couple of years coming up next on deck, where people's bodies and minds finally give under the weight of all this long-term stress once the original danger has passed.

So even though you may not know what your family's recovery work is going to look like exactly, I think it's safe to start talking (as adults and also as the whole family) about it so you don't fall in the trap of Not Talking About It. It will be helpful for all three of you to talk about not being okay sometimes, and make an agreement that nobody is expected to seem okay if they're not, and develop shared language about anxiety and asking for/offering support.

You don't say what age group your child is in, but maybe a good place to start would be a family read of an age-appropriate book about anxiety, to start building that vocabulary. If your child is very young, you might also find something you and your partner can read for adults as well.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:08 AM on March 1, 2021 [6 favorites]

As part of the "fake it til you make it" school of thought, perhaps you can make decisions/ do things under the guise of doing it for your child that are also beneficial to the parents. For instance, make a commitment to explore local parks and playgrounds on a regular basis, or set up a family routine to visit the farmers market.

If you haven't already, you may want to think about your future child care options. Because some day soon you will be able to expand your child's village....and you will be able to take a break.

I think it also may help to have something to look forward to on a specific date. Maybe it's a visit to someone or someplace.
posted by oceano at 9:31 AM on March 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

This may have been said above, but for a DSM diagnosis of depression, you must have one of the two primary symptoms: depressed mood (which you say you don't have) and anhedonia, which is a loss of joy, pleasure, interest and the ability to enjoy things you used to.

A lot of people with anhedonia don't recognize that they're depressed, so it's helpful to consider that possibility. And if it fits, then a lot of the same advice applies - therapy, meditation, self-CBT (David Burns is always good). It's such a depressing, traumatizing time. It's not surprising we need extra self love right now.
posted by namesarehard at 1:12 PM on March 1, 2021

Do you mind a question? I wonder why you all haven't gotten together with other folks since last summer. I live in a place where it's almost become like a virtue to be really locked down. I know some folks have real concerns about specific health issues, and I'm not suggesting going mask-less to a rave, but I also think that a walk outside while wearing a mask is generally regarded as low risk in many places. (For example, very few if any Covid transmissions were associated with the widespread outdoors George Floyd protests across the US last summer; generally folks were masked up.) Did you all make a specific decision not to do that anymore? Or did it just happen?
posted by bluedaisy at 2:18 PM on March 1, 2021 [3 favorites]

I don't mean to minimize the trauma and stress at all, but I really think enjoyment will come back with practice. The first time I saw a (distanced, outdoor) friend IRL after several months, I felt so weird, even though we've been friends for over a decade and were talking on video calls once a week. The second time, I was back in the swing of it.
posted by ferret branca at 8:59 PM on March 2, 2021

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