The pandemic is abating, the world is slowly opening up, and for almost everyone this is great news. But for hermits, introverts, highly sensitive persons, and molluscoid types like me, the news is mixed. Yes, it\’s good to be able to buy a loaf of bread at the store without putting my life at risk. And it\’s good to know that I could, if I wanted to, have a professional cut the hair that, in the words of the musical, has grown \”down to here, down to there, down to where it stops by itself.\”
But for those who identify at least in part with oysters, clams, and mussels, the quarantine brought definite advantages. As everything became forbidden, a delicious freedom invaded our lives. It was lovely to wake up day after day, month after month, without commitments to clutter our mental horizon. It was a relief to be spared the responsibility of making decisions about social obligations. Pascal said, \”All men\’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.\” Now we had permission to do just that.
But not everything was rosy in my pandemic retreat. After a while, the shell inside which I huddled began to feel constricting. I was brought up to believe that intelligent people are never bored (\”Think!\” my father would advise whenever I complained that there was nothing to do). Nevertheless, there was a limit to the amount of entertainment available within the walls of my cranium. What Jung called \”the circumambulation of the self\” was starting to make me queasy.
Even more distressing, I noticed that, during the rare in-person conversations in which I engaged, I was losing the ability to respond quickly to what was coming out of other people\’s mouths. Words escaped me at hitherto unseen rates. I would get tangled in the thickets of a relative clause and be unable to find my way out again.
I needed outside stimulation. I longed to feel the wayward breezes of other people\’s ideas. My mental gears groaned for the oil of human contact. Inside my clamshell, my legs were cramping; my chest was tightening; I was stifling. I had all the symptoms of claustrophobia.
Of course, my shell was not a prison cell. Within reason, I was allowed a certain amount of freedom. Well-masked and distanced, I could walk the icy roads with a friend. I could make brief excursions to the grocery store. I could even get in the car and head for the wide open spaces. But as the pandemic wore on, I became reluctant to do any of these things. Rather than fetch that loaf of bread, I would make do with the ancient tortilla discovered at the bottom of the freezer. It was too much effort to make myself heard and understood from behind my double masks, so I took fewer walks with friends. And I avoided car trips except when compelled by an urgent need that Amazon could not fulfill.
Along with claustrophobia, I also had agoraphobia.
So now, as gates fly open and the peoples rejoice, all I feel is conflict. Caught between the desire to burst out of my clamshell, and fear of the outside world, I am an apprehensive, undecided, spineless mollusc.
I know what you\’re supposed to do about phobias: you desensitize yourself gradually. If you\’re scared of spiders, you start by looking at pictures of them. Then you observe a live one at a distance. Gradually you get closer and closer, until you turn into one of those people who trap spiders under a glass and deposit them outdoors, murmuring endearments. Following that model, and now that the weather is easing, I should lengthen my walks, take longer drives, maybe actually go somewhere I want to go (but where?).
It will take time and effort to get rid of my fears, but it will be worth it, I tell myself–that is, unless the dreaded variants take off and I have to scuttle back into my clamshell. My emotional life is starting to resemble the game of whack-a-mole: claustrophobia, agoraphobia, and now, the mother of all phobias: the fear of uncertainty. But I\’ll probably just have to learn to live with that one.