Looking ahead

Photo of Merve Ozedmir

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Yesterday, I went to the movies — perhaps for the first time in more than a year. Sitting on a designated seat, a carefully measured 6 feet away from a total stranger, I suddenly found myself filled with an incomprehensible sense of euphoria.

It seems silly that a simple visit to the movie theater would bring me such joy, but I doubt that I’m alone. After a year of masks, social distancing and isolation, many of us have come to appreciate the everyday activities we used to take for granted. Many things that used to be “normal” now give us immense amounts of joy.

But for some of us, that joy is accompanied by anxiety, and it proves challenging to return to our relatively worry-free lives. I often wonder if I even remember what “normal” feels like anymore.

Being high-risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms, and as a person with an always-cautious, sometimes even paranoid personality, I spent the pandemic more worried, secluded and careful than your average young adult. I quickly adjusted to life at home and refused to meet anyone in person until we all got vaccinated; aside from the few people I lived with, everyone was a potential disease vector.

I was lucky enough to be able to stay home — I accepted my reality and never got bored. But now, as vaccination rates increase in the United States and we approach the brink of the normalcy I had so long forgotten, I find myself struggling with social interactions more than ever.

A dinner invitation from a friend immediately raises red flags in my mind. If I’m brave enough to accept and go, I spend all night on the edge of my seat, uselessly reminding myself every second that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccinated individuals can now safely meet. I feel like I have forgotten how to act with groups of people and I feel more self-conscious in crowds than ever before.

My newfound social anxiety is a direct result of the pandemic, but it’s not the only result. After a year of fearing human contact, I think I may have finally lost my ability to trust others, which is now a crucial element of going back to “normal.”

The latest CDC guidance allows fully vaccinated individuals to go mask-free, with only a few exceptions. Now is the time when we have to trust the members of our community more than ever, but after a year of seeing how people deal with this highly infectious and life-threatening pathogen, I’m quite hesitant to put my trust anywhere.

The last year has shown me that even though humanity is at a level of global communication, technology and science that is more advanced than ever before, we still fail to unite in times of crisis. It’s disappointing that even the simplest measures to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, such as wearing masks, were faced with backlash and resistance, further polarizing our already-divided society. As COVID-deniers and neglectful public leaders ignored and disrespected the cries for help from our health workers and scientists, it was the vulnerable populations and patients at hospitals filled to overcapacity who paid the price.

So as the masking requirements change, I can’t help but ask myself: How do I know people won’t exploit this change? How do I trust others to be responsible now, when I didn’t trust them before?

All these worries have become a natural part of my everyday life as I navigate through the rules of living post-vaccination. But despite all difficulties, slowly returning to normal has been wonderful. Breathing in fresh air without a mask during my walks, enjoying nice meals at restaurants, seeing a film at the theater and everything else I get to do while vaccinated gives me a sense of excitement I forgot existed.

But once again, I’m among the lucky ones. As I enjoy my “new normal” in the United States, my parents are still living with curfews and partial lockdowns in Turkey, a country that, according to the CDC, is currently considered “Level 3: High Risk.” This sharp contrast is a constant reminder of my privilege, the fact that the CDC guidelines are only possible because of the high vaccination rate of the United States and all the experts who made this vaccine a reality.

Soon, I will board my plane to Turkey and go back to a life of masks, isolation and fear. I know I will be comfortable in the safety of my home, but I also know that I will yearn for the taste of the freedom and normalcy I found in Berkeley during the last couple of weeks. Because no matter how stressful the “back to normal” process gets, I am grateful that there still is a normal to return to.

Contact Merve Ozdemir at [email protected].