Michelle Kim/Daily.

So there I was, shaking in my tracks, plotting every step just to grab myself another Coke.

Okay, if I go behind that table to my right, I won’t be seen by too many people. No, I can’t step over there, my heels will sink into the grass and then I’ll trip and fall in front of everyone. Okay, I’ll just walk in the middle area. No, ugh, there’s a crowd of people there now.

What was I doing? Since when did I care so much about being seen?

I’d always been an extrovert. I used to love being the center of attention. I’d always felt comfortable around people, and as a vocalist and instrumentalist, it’s something I’d gotten used to at a young age. I constantly craved the spotlight on me on stage when I performed, as well as the uproar of applause at the end. But the summer after the pandemic I found myself at every grad party tugging at my clothes, nervously sweating around my childhood family friends, looking forward to finally leaving the venue. 

I was hoping these feelings would go away once I moved back to Ann Arbor, but they didn’t. 

Just walking around campus, I felt as though every single student was staring at me, judging my every move — the way I walked, the way I dressed, the way I styled my hair, everything. Even picking up my order from Chipotle felt like a daunting task that I needed to hype myself up for. 

In early September, I gave a presentation at a mass meeting for an organization I’d been part of since freshman year. I knew the information I was presenting like the back of my hand, but as soon as I started speaking I suddenly felt the whole room spinning while my legs felt like noodles, barely being able to support my weight. I struggled to maintain eye contact with the audience and I kept tripping over my words. 

Why was it so difficult for me to make eye contact with everyone? People could definitely see how sweaty I was. That was the worst first impression I could have given people, who would ever want to see or hear from me now?

One night I was on a FaceTime call with a friend, explaining to her these newfound feelings I was experiencing. 

“I don’t know, I’ve never felt this way before. Like, why am I so scared to be in front of people? I was so sweaty at that grad party over the summer and I felt like I was going to pass out while giving the presentation at our mass meeting.”

“You know, those are some pretty common symptoms of social anxiety.”

I froze.

“No way. Not a chance.”

“I’m not saying you have social anxiety, but you haven’t been outside or to any large get-togethers in almost two years.”

So I guess that’s when it hit me. I didn’t register that I was sheltered at home for almost two years during the COVID-19 pandemic. The only contact I had with people outside of my household was over Zoom and FaceTime, and thanking the cashier at Meijer. It wasn’t until after my family and I were fully vaccinated that I started socializing with large groups of people again. 

Am I never going to be what I used to be? How can I start all over again?

That same friend uses the term “social battery,” which I’ve never paid attention to — granted due to the fact I’d never felt like I had a “social battery” that could be drained. My friend always says “my social battery is draining,” for example, when we hang out for a couple of hours on end. I started thinking about the term “social battery” a lot more after that conversation, and it feels like I’ve now acquired one. I feel that before I hang out with people I need to take some time for myself, either by taking a walk around campus or listening to music alone. I have to “charge” my “social battery.”

As I navigate my life as a third-year college student, I still find myself quivering with fear at the thought of walking to class, feeling like all eyes are on me casting judgement. However, knowing that my body and brain survived (and are still surviving) and are recovering from a global pandemic, I think I can cut myself some slack. Many of us have had dramatic shifts in the way we now act in public after being unable to see each other for almost two years, so it’s only fair that it’s going to take time to recover. I was lucky to have trusted friends and family that would listen to me and help me understand this new version of myself better. With the help and support of one another, there’s a high probability that I can go back to the way I used to be, and “recharging” a lot less. And maybe if I don’t go back to the way I once was, with an undrainable “social battery,” at least I now understand this new version of myself a lot better.

***If you are experiencing symptoms of social anxiety, or need a safe place to talk, please refer to this article on mental health resources on campus. Many of these resources are cost-free for all U-M students.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

MiC Columnist Smarani Komanduri can be reached at smaranik@umich.edu.