A new normal?

“ ‘The new normal’…We can’t even say the word ‘abnormal’…it reminds us of what came before. Better to forget what once was normal…”

Zadie Smith (pre-Covid times)

And so, it’s another change of seasons and as the blossoms come out of their hiding place, we too, are coming out of our covid-imposed lockdown. Pub gardens are now heaving, shops are getting busy and any outside space around a restaurant has been reappropriated into al fresco dining. 

During a local walk the other day, as I wandered past these busy spaces, I felt a niggling sense of anxiety. I have walked these normally deserted streets numerous times over the past few months and now to see them alive buzzing with activity is unnerving. Doubts and fears begin to creep in. Would I be ok with being close to others again? Will there be another lockdown in future? How would it be to start socialising with lots of other people? How does my own return to normal look like? Do I even want to return?  My mind begins to ache with personal interrogation. I exhaust myself, lost in a mental maze of my own making. 

And no wonder there could mixed feelings around our so-called “return to normal”. We have had to adapt so much over the past year.  As writer Hadley Freeman wrote back in September 2020, “The weeks slip past, and we keep optimistically making plans and then pragmatically breaking them, undoing the stitches as fast as we sew them, trying to go forward, but somehow standing still.” I wonder what it will be like to make plans in actual biro instead of tentative pencil. We’ve had the rug pulled out from underneath us so many times.

Let’s us not forget, the virus (and its variants) still exists, and is ravaging different parts of the World right now. We have comfort in our vaccines and social distancing, but there is still great uncertainty as to what the future may hold. And we need to be conscious of this. As psychoanalyst Ana De Staal recently said, “it isn’t possible to treat a burn while it’s still burning”. Despite appearances, we are still in the midst of a storm.

The ever-insightful therapist, Esther Perel says that we’ve experienced “a sense of ambiguous loss where things are gone but still there” and explains that this complex kind of loss prevents the full process of mourning. I sense we’ve been stuck in the shock phase of loss and trauma, and maybe only now as we enter this new phase, can we begin to really experience the loss of what we had before and what is there now. For me there will of course be losses but also importantly there will be some gains to recognise and build upon. 

Much as the lockdowns have been tough in many ways, there has been a few silver linings. Anxiety around making personal decisions was almost eradicated, as Government restrictions made the choices for us. The pressure to live “normal” lives took a long holiday. 

For some of us lucky ones, the past year has been an opportunity to experience a new way of living. Understandably we may feel great reluctancy to give that up and return to how our lives used to be. And I say why should we go back to how things were and more importantly how can we? The World has changed. We have changed. The time before cannot be recreated. As Shakespeare wrote “What’s done cannot be undone”.

We now face a real opportunity. To hold fast to some of the positive changes we’ve developed over the past year. To put first and foremost how we want things to be in our lives. To emphasise more of what we value and cherish. We need to be careful with ourselves as we emerge from lockdown. What we’ve been through has undoubtably changed us. Baby steps is the phrase which comes to my mind. We’ll wobble our way through, like a toddler finding their feet, getting used to this new terra firma, but we will find our way, nonetheless. 

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