Two weeks into the first semester of my sophomore year, I was standing in the middle of a remarkably bland room, made interesting only by the mass of underclassmen gathered in its center. Music faded in and out as a distant speaker lost its charge, its battery waning with my own.
Somehow, even amid that crowded room, I had developed the remarkable ability to feel lonely. I had hoped that this was only because it was my first party, because I hadn’t had the opportunity to make friends yet. But then the feeling returned in lecture halls. Then, at club meetings. And then a fourth time, in the thrush of students striding down Telegraph Avenue.
In each situation, I felt frozen in time: I was the only one left standing while the world went on around me. I was always the one on the outskirts, the one on the outside looking in.
Prior to the pandemic, my plan had been to spend the second semester of my senior year of high school living it up. I was going to roadtrip to Los Angeles, fly to Tokyo and ditch class for the very first time. I finally had friends who understood me and my needs and who didn’t drain my social battery. It had been my belief that entering college, living somewhere where I hoped I could be more than the straight-A student I had been throughout my upbringing, would bring a dramatic change to my life. Instead, a little virus called COVID-19 changed my plans.
After the initial stages of horror, anger, frustration and abject boredom, the isolation brought on by the pandemic led to an unexpected realization: My own presence could be enough for me. Finally, the world had stopped to settle with me. While that new piece of information helped me find satisfaction in my daily life, it also allowed me to burrow a little deeper into my cocoon.
Now that life is happening largely in person again, I’ve pulled back into the public space and found that that knowledge does little to comfort me.
Just before the pandemic, I was able to interpret social cues, engage in small talk and willingly participate in group activities. Now, a day of socialization requires a second day of solitary confinement to recharge my batteries. I have never been more concerned with my appearance or my ability to converse than I am now. In the particularly exposed environment of college life, something as trivial as the condition of my hair can become a source of panic. After months of hiding behind nondescript initials on a laptop screen, I fear that people who only knew me in that setting might be disappointed when they meet me in person and realize I’m not who they thought they knew. I cannot help but wonder what the crowd of people walking down the street, surrounding me at a party or hovering near me in a lecture hall thinks of me. The thought of ruining a first impression renders me completely unable to open my mouth and speak.
My friends were shocked to learn that I had been a shy, antisocial child — I guess I’m surprisingly good at disguising my anxiety. While I never forgot how to interact with people, the tension and fear underlying my every action seems to have intensified. I find myself going through every possible outcome of a conversation as if it’s a script, and my character is trying to convince my peers that I’m not an awkward person.
The expectation to make these four years of college the “best years of your life” and treat them as an opportunity to socialize, go to parties and go on dates lies at odds with how my own mind is wired toward social interaction. The very idea itself puts me back into the constant state of loneliness that had disappeared during the pandemic. My anxiety makes me feel like I’m looking through a glass pane — the outside world is warped and terrifying from the lens of my apartment. As much as I want to revel in my time in college, I’m scared of shattering the glass.
But now, as we approach the end of the semester, I’m realizing I’ve seen my most extroverted friends falter in the face of an interview. I’ve seen my most prepared classmates hesitate before speaking in discussion sections. I’ve seen uneasy pauses put an abrupt end to conversations between roommates and best friends. The most shocking revelation I’ve had in college has been that almost everyone I interact with shares some form of the same social anxiety.
After a 15-month long hiatus from life as we knew it, during which all of my public speaking skills and surely countless others abandoned me, so many of us are just doing our best to fit in. In truth, we are all just awkward, antisocial young adults faking our way through meetings and conversations until we reach a point where it no longer feels like work. Our generation will be forever marred by the pandemic, but perhaps we can find strength in feeling lonely together.