Introducing the Brand New and Not Improved Post-Pandemic Me

I didn’t get better or become more productive during lockdown — and that’s OK.

I should’ve known that ordering post-pandemic jeans was a mistake.

Like a lot of Canadians, I spent the last 16 months at home, seeing only a select group of people consisting of my live-in partner, my roommate and a very, very limited number of friends. This was a huge departure from my pre-pandemic life: between being a full-time university student, my part-time jobs and social gatherings on weekends and evenings, it felt like I was only home was to sleep and shower. In a year, I went from the type of person who was always on my way somewhere to someone who only ever left her home for groceries.

(Related: Post-Pandemic: Coping With the Anxiety of a Changed World)

The pandemic changed my day-to-day priorities

Toronto, where I live, experienced what may be the world’s longest lockdown. In fact, at the time that I’m writing this, Ontario is the only place in all of North America where indoor dining still isn’t allowed. While the extended lockdowns felt isolating at first, I came to revel in the lack of outside judgement. It was both confining and freeing to have a screen between me and the world. No need to wear makeup to make my pores less visible. I abandoned pants with buttons for elastic waist bands. I even said goodbye to my bras for a little bit since, again, no one could see me.

I soon found joy in doing whatever I wanted to with my at-home appearance. If I felt like going full glam and wearing an Insta-worthy outfit, I could do just that. If I just wanted to wear the same shirt I slept in, there was no reason not to. Free from the judgement of the outside world, I was able to look like whatever I wanted to look like. I was actually able to pause and ask myself: Do I really want to wear mascara today or do I feel like I need mascara to feel socially accepted?

The freedom with my appearance began to seep into other parts of my life. Since the rest of the world was held at a selfie-length distance, I learned more about the type of person I am when I am not influenced by others. I took less of people’s BS, partly because it’s easier to “accidentally” leave a Zoom call than it is a face-to-face dinner, but also because I was more confident in what I wanted.

Lately, however, I’ve started to think about the post-pandemic world. As Canada’s COVID-19 case rates decline and vaccination rates skyrocket, it feels like we’re on the precipice of going back to at least some semblance of what our lives were like before March 2020 (though in most of the world outside of Canada, the U.S and parts of Europe are still grappling with the pandemic, as are unvaccinated folks like children who are still at risk).

(Related: The Importance of Making Memories During Pandemic Life)

My post-pandemic fears

So, with long-awaited patio drinks and park hangouts in mind, I ordered a new pair of jeans with the good intention of easing into hard, non-stretchy pants.

Reader, I did not ease into the pants. No, to my horror, they were about a size too small and refused to zip over my hips and stomach. Before, this experience would’ve led to a pang of embarrassment and a sigh as I folded up the jeans to ship them back for a larger size — something I’ve done on numerous occasions in the past, especially with brands where the sizing is unfamiliar to me.

Instead, I spiralled.

What started as a minor let-down about a highly anticipated purchase ended up bursting the protective bubble I had built. After a year and a half of hiding away from a society that privileges white, thin bodies (a body I didn’t have to begin with!) all that negativity and shame was returning along with event spaces, patios and plans.

The jeans made me realize I looked different from the last time a lot of people saw me IRL, which prompted a multi-day rumination on all the ways I did the pandemic “wrong” and all the things I should’ve done during that time.

(Related: How the Pandemic Helped Me Embrace Weight Gain and Intuitive Eating)

What the experts want you to know

Early in the pandemic, we were told that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantining during a plague outbreak. All over social media, it seemed like everyone was staying productive and busy — people were working on their screenplays, starting a new business, slogging their way through Crime and Punishment or getting really fit. Hell, Forbes even publicized the term “coronapreneur,” encouraging people to use lockdown as an opportunity to start a side hustle and maximize productivity.

While some people saw the pandemic as a form of time off, mental health experts caution against that mindset.

“It’s quite naive to think the pandemic experience would be anything like a staycation,” says Patricia Murray, the interim executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Nova Scotia Division. While a staycation’s activities (fun dinners, family time, catching up with friends) are usually anticipated far in advance, our lives were abruptly flipped upside down with little warning, she explains.

“There was nothing relaxing or restful about living through a global pandemic,” says Murray. “The first couple of weeks of lockdown may have felt like getting a bit of a break from the normal routine, but it would grow frustrating quite quickly.” Any “extra” time we had wasn’t going to be used on a side hustle — no one had the mental capacity for productivity as the trauma of living through a pandemic continued into 2021. Even for people like me who were lucky enough to have kept their jobs, have a great home office setup and have no children to homeschool, the unpredictability of the pandemic is exhausting.

My post-pandemic anxieties aren’t unique. Canadians’ mental health has been on a decline since the pandemic began. In 2019, 68 percent of Canadians reported having good or very good mental health. By July 2020, that number had dropped to 55 percent. Youth and non-white people were also more likely to report poor mental health.

“All of this considered, it is quite unrealistic that people should be expected to come out of the pandemic feeling refreshed, productive and ready to take on whatever the new reality will be,” says Murray. “You’ve just been through it. People should be gentle with themselves and allow themselves time to readjust.”

(Related: 8 Women Share the Impact the Pandemic Has Had on Their Mental Health)

Rethinking the post-pandemic me

The post-pandemic normal is going to creep up on us slowly; there is no Armistice Day that we can mark as the definitive last day of the pandemic. For me, every new post-pandemic “first” (first time going to a bar! First time seeing a certain friend! First time trying clothes on in a dressing room!) has prompted a mini-evaluation of the post-pandemic me. Who am I when I see my friends now? What do I want to wear to dinner nowadays?

These reassessments have prompted major reflections on how I want to go through the world now. While I’m more apprehensive around strangers and I don’t know how to make small talk anymore, I’ve also learned how to cut to the chase and just speak my mind when I need to.

I’ve started also focussing more on what I did accomplish during the pandemic. Sure, my jeans don’t fit. I didn’t write a novel like I had envisioned in March 2020. Nor did I work my way up to a 5K run. But I did survive a catastrophic world event, actively forged stronger bonds with friends and family and nurtured a part of me that knows exactly what I like and want and isn’t afraid to ask for it.

So, I’d like to introduce the post-lockdown me: she’s a little shier, a bit unfiltered and definitely needs to be eased into larger social gatherings, but she’s here and so excited to meet the post-pandemic world. Outfit TBD.

Next, here are five Olympic-worthy coping strategies for the pandemic.

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Originally Published in Best Health Canada