The Introverts Are Not Okay

If forced proximity has you drained, you’re not alone. On a typical weekday morning a year ago, my husband would wake before dawn to try to get ahead of the morning commute, my son would sneak in a few minutes of Minecraft before hastily getting ready for school, and my daughter would be finishing homework at the breakfast table while lobbying for a ride to avoid the dreaded school bus.

My alarm would have been set to an uncomfortably early hour in order to facilitate all of this activity, and I would have slurped my coffee while also feeding the dog and signing a permission slip and texting my neighbor about the soccer carpool.

But then, once the dog was walked and my husband went off to work and the kids were off to school, I would sit down to my second cup of coffee in absolute, blissful silence.

I’m a writer, and I’ve been working at home for years now. This time last year, I had that home/workspace all to myself during my working hours. Even the inevitable household tasks that infiltrated my writing time could be done while also teasing out the threads of an essay idea in my head. Time spent taking a walk or preparing my lunch was also time that I was untangling a plot problem in my novel. I could sit down and read a story in the New Yorker and then leap up to find a notebook to scribble down the thoughts it inspired, without any interruption along the way.

In other words, in those halcyon pre-pandemic days, I had what my husband and I refer to as “brain time.” And now? Some days I struggle to find even a 20-minute stretch of time alone with my thoughts.

When the pandemic upended all of our lives, my life changed the least — from the outside, at least. My husband went from commuting two to three hours a day and spending his days in a shiny office building surrounded by colleagues to working from home and commuting downstairs to the kitchen for lunch. My kids went from full days at middle and high school and a calendar of extracurricular activities and sleepovers to virtual school and severely curtailed social lives. As for me, I had been at home before, and I was at home now. Big deal, right?

The thing is that this whole pandemic quarantine situation has illustrated to me just how much of an introvert I truly am. And while I am quite content to stay home, it turns out that my home has other people in it. All the time.

My day is filled with small, quotidian interactions that slowly, inexorably drain my battery. What do we have for breakfast? What about for lunch? What are we having for dinner? Are you done with that glass? Have you seen my blue socks? Has the Wi-Fi been acting weird for you? Did you get the email from my school? Has anyone taken the dog out? Is this cat puke? Can you untangle this necklace? Can you fix my headphones? When are you going to the grocery store? Have you seen my favorite mask? Are these plums ripe yet? What are we having for dinner?

I am the kind of introvert who craves connection and is filled up and sustained by deep, meaningful conversation. I love when my husband and I can spend a half-hour in the early morning talking about a podcast we both listened to or hashing out a work issue one of us is facing. I love taking walks with my son and hearing about the latest recipe he wants to try or his most recent history obsession. I love running errands with my daughter and sharing musical discoveries or speculating on the future careers of her friends. But those moments of real connection feel rare these days, despite the fact that we’re on top of each other all day, every day (a paradox that Andrew Knott addresses eloquently in this essay).

But these same family members whom I love dearly and with whom I crave connection are, on a day-to-day basis, driving me up the freaking wall.

It’s not their fault. And it’s not the fault of any of these small interactions, these trivial tasks that interrupt my day and my train of thought, over and over. In each case, I think to myself, this isn’t such a big deal. Of course I can fix the necklace, check the Wi-Fi, clean up the cat puke. Each individual ask is not too much to ask. But they add up. Each pebble disturbs the surface of the water more and more until my mind is churning and finding stillness seems impossible.

So, what’s an introvert to do? For me, the first step is just to notice how I’m feeling. Yes, I’m feeling drained. A lot of us waste a lot of energy telling the world and ourselves that we’re fine because we think we’re supposed to be. But no one is fine right now. It has taken me a long time to learn to get comfortable with discomfort. Yep, it sucks right now. And a lot of that is outside of my control. So, what can I do to manage my discomfort in the meantime?

First of all, I try not to take it out on the innocent victims who happen to be quarantined with me. As best I can, if I’m frazzled from not getting enough time to recharge, I try not to take out my irritation on my husband and children. Secondly, I find stillness where I can, as intentionally as I can. Every morning, I close the door of my small office and do yoga, including meditation. I take walks alone, weather permitting. I give myself permission to set boundaries: “I need some unbroken work time this afternoon, so if you need anything, ask Dad.”

And I remind myself that this won’t last forever. Someday, perhaps soon, perhaps not, my children will return to their school buildings and my husband will return to his shiny office. I will once again sip a cup of coffee in my silent kitchen and allow my working mind all the runway it needs to gather speed and lift off.

And as the sunlight wanes, my well of quiet sufficiently restored, I’ll be waiting eagerly at the door for them to come home.

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