Ettinger: Social Stamina? What Social Stamina?

By Eve Ettinger

April 4, 2021

As we start to recover from the pandemic, people have to rebuild social stamina.

The other day, my brother and sister-in-law were in town, and we went on a few outings—stopping for breakfast takeout, picking up something or other at a store, and finally going on a short walk in the woods before we headed back to my house. They were on a road trip and were soon on their way to their next destination, but I was spent.

Three different stops and a long morning with them present had utterly drained my social stamina. I’m not used to this, being around people, being outside in the world. After they left, I took a long nap and didn’t want to speak to anyone for the next day and a half. 

I’ve been living at this place out in the country for the last year. It’s my first time living alone in a standalone house, without upstairs neighbors making comforting routine noises overhead or someone sitting on a shared porch to smoke and talk on their phone.

If I don’t leave my house or teach, I can go the whole day without using my voice other than to talk to my dog. This isn’t my first adventure in isolation—between my homeschooled childhood and time in the Peace Corps, I am extremely good at being alone, whether or not I like it. And so I’ve adapted to this long year of shutdown, this extended exercise in being limited in my exposure to other human bodies in shared spaces. 

Struggling With Social Stamina

A few months ago, a lover and I met up after quarantining and she and I went to her car—and I had a panic attack. Nothing was wrong, nothing had happened that was triggering for me, but I felt all over again like I had felt newly after my divorce, when I wanted to kiss and sleep with new partners but found my body shutting down and panicking at closeness.

I wasn’t used to the intimacy offered, and I needed time to adjust. It was understandable at the time—a marriage full of traumatic intimacy and then a year without sexual touch following that—but this repeat visit to that panicked body reaction so many years later was upsetting. I was surprised, I didn’t want to take it slowly, but I physically could not handle the intimacy after almost a year without someone sharing my space, my bed, or my breath. The pandemic isolation had rendered me incapable of relaxing in close space with a lover, and that was frustrating. 

I am good at patience, but it’s not natural to me. I can be patient with everyone but not with myself. When there’s a strong emotional response that I can’t control, I find myself upset, frustrated. When I had that panic attack, I went into a spiral: I was angry that I was back in this challenging emotional space, I was disappointed in my inability to adjust to someone’s presence quickly, and I was scared that I had disappointed this person I really liked. But the reality was in my face: I had to take it slow, and I was the only person upset by my reaction. 

The extroverts are champing at the bit to get back out there this summer once vaccinations are more widely available. I, too, am excited to be around friends and hug people and go dancing or whatever is exciting and safe at that point. But I also know that I’m an introvert, and I will probably need to ease my way back into any semblance of a pre-COVID social life. You might, too. 

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Hardening Off Seedlings Before Transplant

Every spring I start seeds for my garden indoors in trays. The brassicas come up first, and then the tomatoes, and then the herbs. The peppers are slow starters this year, but slowly but surely my little seed trays are filling up with thickening clusters of leaves and stems. They’re still really fragile, though—it’s been cold this week, and I know if I tried putting them outside, they’d be dead overnight. I have to introduce them to the elements slowly, gradually.

When it’s a little warmer, I’ll put them out in the sun on a mild day to expose them to the wind and the direct light. They’ll need a week, or maybe more, of this treatment before I can put them in the ground (hopefully after the last frost has come and gone) if I want to be confident that they’ll make it to grow to maturity this summer.

This process is called hardening off, and it’s making sure that the environment the plants are put in is never too overwhelming for their ability to withstand the exposure and thrive in the conditions into which they’re placed. 

Adjusting to Exposure

Like my plants, we’re going to need to take time to rebuild our social stamina. Maybe not every introvert who’s lived alone the last year is going to have a panic attack when they go to kiss someone new, but I think patience with ourselves will be vital.

We’ve been sheltering in place, we’ve been exposed to a limited number of personalities and situations over the last year compared to what we might have been doing pre-covid. We’ll need to take it easy as we add back new routines, new people, new places.

I’m going to have to plan my exposures to people around the reality that my body will get overwhelmed easily, and that’s okay. It’s not difficult to cope with if I am realistic about my limitations and what I can handle. I’m not ready to withstand a hot summer’s day or a hard frost, but maybe a clear day with a light breeze will be a good place to start.

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