How I'm taking small steps to feel comfortable around people again post-pandemic
My anxiety has made it difficult to connect during COVID-19, but the solitude has taken its toll
This First Person article is the experience of Kealey Pringle, who lives in Saanichton, B.C., and has anxiety and health risk factors for COVID-19. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
"What does your fortune say?!" I enthusiastically ask my neighbour Jaime, barely able to stay in my chair.
"Look for good signs and you will find them," Jaime says.
"Oh, that's a good one!" I reply, but I know that all of them are good, because I made them.
I've set up a table and chair at the end of my driveway. I'm handing out homemade fortune cookies and dog treats to my neighbours walking down our rural Vancouver Island road.
The fortune cookies are a small gesture, but for me, they're a big deal. It's been difficult for me to connect with people during the pandemic, due in part to my anxiety. So as cases come down, I've been taking steps to re-enter the world outside my home.
In mid-March 2020, when I first stayed home from work due to COVID-19, I was convinced I was going to die. I tried to lower my risk of exposure to the virus. I rarely left the house. I didn't see anyone, including my boyfriend, for weeks.
My health — I have asthma, hypertension, primary thrombocytosis, a rare blood clotting disorder — and my age (I was 57 in March 2020) were always on my mind. But it was my overarching anxiety that drove me to be the most vigilant and cautious person I knew.
Thankfully, I have avoided contracting COVID-19, but the isolation and solitude have taken a toll. I've missed my friends and family. I've missed casual conversations over a cup of tea. I felt myself wanting to strike up conversations in the grocery aisle with strangers, instead of asking them to only walk in one direction.
Then, earlier this year, I did something quite impulsive. I offered to take part in The Recovery Sessions, a project of CBC Radio's White Coat, Black Art. They would help three people dealing with anxiety over COVID-19, and pair them with an expert to help guide them through their challenges. So I wrote to the show — and to my delight, I was selected.
I was paired with AnnMarie Churchill, a social worker from St. John's, N.L. Over the course of three weekly Zoom sessions, we would talk about how to start reconnecting with the outside world. AnnMarie was over 7,000 kilometres away from my home office in Saanichton, B.C., but a few minutes into our first meeting, I felt a connection.
As we talked, I realized that even though I felt anxious, it didn't mean it was healthy for me to avoid things I was uncomfortable with. I knew that seeing people in person would be good for me. So after our first meeting, I started to take some small steps to achieve this. I called them "baby steps."
One strategy is to do what's easiest first. I hadn't seen one of my dearest and oldest friends, Terry, for several months, and I knew she was having a birthday. So I invited her and her partner Craig over for dinner. I had refused many invitations to visit inside her house during the pandemic, and was worried I may have offended her, so it seemed even more important to do something really special to show how much I cared.
We shared a meal we could eat on our laps — not at the table — and enjoyed a bakery cake. I not only cracked open a bottle of champagne, but also a window, to calm my anxiety. After Terry and Craig left, I felt my heart had been recharged.
My next baby step was to reconnect with the Unitarian Church. I grew up in a Unitarian fellowship and had been active with the local church years ago, so it seemed like an easy thing to plug into. I joined their hiking group — something outside, so I would feel safe, but could still meet new people.
We met in the warmth of early afternoon sunshine. We climbed a small hill revealing an expansive view of the ocean and the neighbourhood below. We all fell into easy conversation, while enjoying the exercise and fresh air.
At the end of the walk, one woman said to me, "Oh! I didn't get a chance to talk to you today. I will next time!"
That was the icing on the cake for me. Her warmth made me feel so welcomed to come back.
And that's what led me to the end of our driveway on that chilly February morning. Many people in our neighbourhood walk past our home and most of them have dogs. So I gathered sticks and treats for the dogs and made fortune cookies for the humans. Into each cookie, I tucked a tiny handwritten fortune.
Everything is going to be OK.
You have been so brave.
The magic of new beginnings is in your future.
They are all messages that I think we need to hear right now — me included.
Connecting, and reconnecting, with people has given me joy that I was missing in my life. I hadn't realized just how important this was.
As I cautiously move into this next phase of the pandemic, I'm willing to take some small risks for the greater gain.
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