The Plague-Ground – Do you suffer from Friend Fatigue?

If Zoom Fatigue is what happens when you spend too much time with other people (often strangers) on the screen, what do you call spending even a little time with real friends you haven’t seen in months?

Oddly tiring. But in a strange, not-until-COVID kind of way.

I found this out last week when Jean and I did something we hadn’t done in months and used to do all the time: we went for a meal with friends.

We’d planned to be in Toronto for work last Thursday and Friday, so we invited ourselves over for a lunch and two dinners with three couples we’ve known for decades and missed a lot. They’re as lucky in where they live as we are in having a cottage to flee to (now called a Sanctuary Home by the real estate agents). All of them have back yards to lock down and eat out in. Of the three couples, only one has been to a restaurant since March, and that of course was outside on the patio. So their back yards have been re-purposed. They all plan to install propane heaters so they can keep eating outside when the leaves start to fall.

All three of these gatherings were wonderful.

The food was delicious. Practising all those New York Times recipes during the spring baking phase of lockdown has led to perfection in the summer.

But what was said was even more nourishing than what was eaten: on one level, we talked about what old friends talk about the world over when they haven’t seen each other in half a year: our kids, our health, our work, our plans for the next year, the roiling perfidy of Donald Trump. The only thing missing was our plans for travel. Better not to go there. One couple’s son got married last month, both virtually and really, and we saw the pictures of the small crowd dancing 10 feet apart in the giant warehouse. The husband in another couple proudly showed off his art studio where, at 79, he is more prolific and creative than ever.

There was something different this time, though.

One part for sure was a sense of relief, of how lucky we are to be alive and not on ventilators.

Most of us are in the high-risk group that being in our late 60s and 70s exposes us to. And how especially lucky to have won the genetic and geographic lotteries by being Canadians and not Americans or Brits or citizens of most other countries on earth.

But there was another feeling, a competing one that fought for time in my heart and mind:

That feeling was fear.

Not just the low-level anxiety we all feel about will our luck hold. The first six months from March until now weren’t as bad as I’d certainly feared. But what about the next six months from now until next February? The days are getting shorter and colder now. What fresh hell awaits us? And will we be as lucky and well-prepared?

I was reminded of my own huge anxiety back in March when I wrote about A Moment of Despair. The sense that we’re all going to die from some unknown shape-shifting threat has fallen away in the face of reality. But I suspect it lingers still in many of us. One of our dinner friends said that one day last month he was sitting at his computer and, after ploughing through his news feed, he began to quietly weep. There was no inciting reason other than just how unknown the future is, which can be scarier than the monster we know.

One thing the pandemic has changed is our attitudes (or at least my attitude) to things like this. My friend wasn’t confessing this. He wasn’t looking for pity. He was just talking about his day. He worked. He wept. He stopped. He carried on.

That’s actually a lovely by-product of the pandemic. Grown men cry and discuss it the way they used to talk about their golf game.

But the oddest by-product of our immersion back into our former world, filled with people and meals and celebrations, was how exhausted I felt afterwards.

I wasn’t tired during these meals. We all felt both relaxed and animated, the way you do when a normal occasion becomes a special one because it doesn’t happen as often now. Like your first haircut after lockdown. Who knew it could feel so special? Besides, I’m an extrovert; I feed off the energy of other people.

But I was absolutely beat in the hours after these gatherings. All I could do was sleep, not just on Thursday and Friday night, but a good part of the next day too.

What’s that all about?

My sense is our attention spans have been so shot full of holes by the pandemic and its dislocations that any encounter lasting longer than a couple of hours – even ones we crave and are nourished by – makes us feel like we do after a two-hour Zoom meeting.

Our dearest friends may not be that tiny green light atop our computer screens.

But they may create the same effect.

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12 replies
  1. Avatar
    Louise says:

    Bob you have caught the dilemma square on the nose: socializing in person requires all of our attention. Yes we feel energized by the company of others and yet, and yet the art of communication is exhausting too when one is out of practice.
    When you walk the Camino and then get in a car or a bus to go a few klm it is an exhausting experience. When you cycle for hours a day on a expeditionary ride, stopping and walking or driving brings on an exhaustion so deep! Not entertaining for six months then having friends to dine al fresco: so up beat and so exhausting (remembering the garnish, the timing of each course, proportions, table manners). You can go home now, 9:30!
    Will this become a lost art – like handwriting, or talking on the phone or banking in person?

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Cornelia says:

    You are so right Bob. I notice it particularly in the content of my emails…. and in myself for that matter. My Daily email box used to be full of jokes, news about wonderful online events, opera, theatre, concerts. No longer. I get only one or two amusing emails per week plus your always thought provoking letters. No news about wonderful events. Fearful news from friends where there are fires and hurricanes and goodness knows what else. Unpredictability is scary and with our closest neighbour in such turmoil it’s really just all too darn much. That’s exhausting.

    Reply
  3. Avatar
    Charmaine Jones says:

    Linda and I call it “re-entry” phenomenon. We experienced it when coming off “the land” of the MichiganWomen’s Music Fesitval, after a week of women’s energy, music, creativity, and nature. And also after Odyssey 2000, during which we were cycling every day for a year, in 54 countries. Coming home, we had a hard time planning, remembering appointments, and everything seemed quite tiring. What I am noticing now, I don’t have enough time! Strangely, I don’t have enough time to keep up with calling/emailing friends. I think of them often, but I am not connecting. It was much easier when they would come and visit for several days, or we could get together for dinner/coffee. As an introvert, I can get so busy in my own little life, while I think of friends, it takes energy to pick up the phone and reach out! Is anyone else experiencing this?

    Reply
  4. Avatar
    Terry Dingle says:

    Bob,
    Mental exhaustion because I think we are having meaningful conversations with another couple about the important aspects of life not the pre Covid dinner or cocktail party diet of gossip or material one up manship❗️🤔 Have a meaningful fall .Best, Terry

    Reply
  5. Avatar
    Maggie Bras says:

    Bob – I get it. I’ve been isolated in our bubble of 3 for over 6 months, and I think I’ve lost the art of speaking out loud. The thought of holding onto a conversation for more than 10 minutes has me running for the hills, or my closet.

    I fear all those kids and teachers heading back to school will feel the same exhaustion you so beautifully shared with us in today’s post. Thank you. – Maggie –

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  6. Avatar
    Jenny says:

    I hear ya Bob. Recently we have also begun to reconnect in person with our closest friends and family, and each visit, enjoyable as it is, leaves us exhausted. I think there are several factors: one is that we have to plan so carefully now, as both hosts and guests, including negotiating issues such as what the protocols are for entering homes to use the bathroom.

    Then the bigger issue is that we seem to find ourselves talking of the pandemic, in detail. Everyone wants to know how others are coping, how their kids are coping, what about their aging parents, what’s happening in their workplaces, all that. On our own, my husband and I don’t need to talk about it much as we sorted most of it out months ago and we just carry on; we no longer obsessively consume news and seek out information, because we’ve kinda got this down, and day to day, our lives are moving along nicely. But to spend a few hours going over everything, hearing the challenges facing people we care about, thinking about it and above all wondering when we might get to do this again, given both the coming colder weather, and the reality that this is far from over, it’s not only tiring, it’s overwhelming all over again.

    Plus, Labour Day. For us, like many people including those decades past their schooldays, it’s still a line in the sand, maybe more so than any other date on the calendar. Summer’s over, it’s time to get serious, hunker back down, get things done, no more lazy days in the sunshine. As a concept, that’s exhausting too.

    Jenny

    Reply
    • Bob Ramsay
      Bob Ramsay says:

      Jenny — I hear you about the pandemic. Even turning on the news these past two weeks, it’s all (and I mean all) been about going back to school.
      And now that summer has officially left us (and brutally up here where it’s now cold and rainy and dreary), we can forward to the bleak midwinter.
      At least we won;’t be craving barbeque dinners in the back yard with friends! Cheers and thanks for writing. Bob

      Reply
  7. Avatar
    J.E.K. says:

    Dear Bob, you hit (yet another) nail on the head. A new, chronic low-grade exhaustion, from spending most of my working day in front of a screen, from the adjustment to a new way of living, and from pondering so many unknowns, leaves me little energy to connect with people. The dramatic diminution of my capacity for interaction, even with closest friends, has me worrying that my relational muscles are atrophying. When we no longer need to isolate, will i be able to return to my previous life as a social creature?

    Reply
    • Bob Ramsay
      Bob Ramsay says:

      You and I both face the same big issue, of being forced to let our social muscles atrophy. But maybe it’s not all bad to be less social.
      It certainly costs less! Cheers and thanks for connecting on this. Bob

      Reply

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