The black cloud never fails to rain on my parade. Shrouding and guiding my hesitant, shaky hands and beating chest, it starts to sink deep. Slowly sinking in, it taunts, “Are you sure you are not making a fool of yourself again?” Usually, it would work to dispel the cloud with some faltering rationale, but the boxes on the screen appear too jarring. I convince myself that everyone is just mocking how inarticulate my stutters are, how wonky my nose is, and how I do not deserve to be here in this call, at all.
Pressing the tempting red button and exiting the call, I run leaps and bounds inside my head – rehearsing and flagellating what I could have – no, should have said. I could have worded it differently, perhaps used a different inflexion, or maybe just not tried talking at all. I can practically imagine disappointed faces showing up in my brain over and over again. The cloud grows bigger and laughs at the ruminating spiral that encompasses me. Faltering words and a growing pulse, it derives pleasure from my fear of embarrassment.
I take a few breaths to focus on something around me, and my mind starts to gravitate towards the question, “How did I end up here?”
Everything felt fairly regular before the pandemic – the hesitance and rumination persisted, but they were not persistently spiral. I used to fuss over and stutter about my words, but those around me seemed to give nods of comprehension. Compassion made me fairly more relaxed about self-expression. Quickened heartbeats found ways to soothe themselves, ways to cope, without looming black clouds. Even when I worried about tone, pitch, words, and most of all, embarrassment, the thoughts stuck but got easily replaced. Perhaps it was the pace at which I was dealing with life.
This pace came to a halt when they announced the lockdown. Initially, it felt like a huge relief for a person like me who was avoidant of social interaction. Having to not interact with others and feel the every-day pangs of overthinking that came with this interaction felt freeing. However, shifting to online modes of communication – some that I thought I could handle due to the possibility of engineering replies and responses carefully, actually became a cause for more concern.
Text messaging fails to convey tone, and so, an “ok” seems scarier than an “okay”, and a full-stop feels like you are on a battlefield, being attacked by passive-aggressive weapons. I would spend hours agonizing over whether my friends actually did feel upset with me or that I was worrying once again. Extremely concerned, I would shoot them a, “Hey, are you upset with me?” daily, and then progressively feel more worried whether asking them over and over again annoyed them further. It felt like I was stuck in a loop. Worry about friends being annoyed, then try to message them, worry about annoying friends with messages to ask them if they were annoyed, and restlessly repeat!
The slumber that the world was in also projects this idea that you must be ever-available to reply every second throughout the day. This expectation often makes conversations more pressure-filled. It becomes energy-reducing to reply and guilt-inducing to not. Even having conversations with people on video calls was hard. Where there existed tone, there existed near to no non-verbal cues that could signal to me whether or not what I said made any sense. Zoom made me feel more seen than I wanted to, hyper-aware of what I looked like on-screen, and ever on guard to not end up doing anything embarrassing. In a lecture filled with a hundred people or so, it felt daunting to even speak up in class. I could picture professors thinking about how incompetent I was in my scrambled answers. The few times I did, the black cloud refused to leave me alone, insisting that I continued to embody embarrassment. Everything slowly became more and more draining, furthering alienation.
In such a circumstance, I wonder, am I the only one? It certainly does seem so when everyone else is seemingly coping fine. The promise of the world opening up again feels even more daunting now. Nagging me, yet again, the cloud says, “Haven’t you forgotten how to interact socially altogether? If everything opens up, you’ll just embarrass yourself further.”
The fear of going back into the world again, with my frazzled and anxious self feels very real. I wonder if being in the middle of a classroom with a hundred distracted kids would help me realize that no one is focusing on me, or if it would get too overwhelming to feel eyes on me. One is already scary, over-complicating what physical conversation takes for granted, but the other holds within its grasp the overwhelming nature of unpredictability and in-person embarrassment.
Oh, decisions, decisions.
Deeksha Puri is a first-year prospective psychology major at Ashoka University.
Picture Credits: Artwork on “Depression” by Ajgiel
We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).