The Trauma of Returning to the Work Place

Anil chews on the stub of the pen with which he is writing as he reviews the email from his boss: Since all employees at the healthcare start-up he works for have been vaccinated, the corporate bigwigs have decided that a return to the office can safely be ordered.

Re-entry date: May 1

Feeling a rising tide of panic rush upward through his spinal cord and into his brain, Anil can’t stop the thoughts going around and around in his brain like the bullocks they used in his father’s village to turn the water wheel. “I won’t be able to spend time with baby Arya anymore. How will my wife manage without my help?” (To read Anil’s story, go to the prior article, Here )

He snaps the computer lid shut on the offending email and paces in his office, gnawing on his bottom lip. He looks down at his feet and notices that a new layer of fat like a sausage roll covers his midsection, and spills over the haldi-stained gray sweatpants he is wearing.

“What about the ten pounds (or more) I packed on since I was last around my co-workers . . . will I even fit into my pants?”

Anil draws in a deep breath and tries valiantly to tuck in his belly. “Do I even know how to be around people anymore if we’re not on Zoom?”

An electronic beep rouses him from his musings. Baby Arya sets off an ear-splitting wail just as his wife’s low and tired voice transmits through the intercom, “I’m out of diapers for the baby. Can you go grab some from the store?”

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Two hours later, driving to the convenience store at the corner, past the greasy bus station with its choking smell of exhaust, Anil switches on the radio.

“Next on KGO,” says radio host Ron Elmer, “we talk to psychologist and professor at Adelphi University in New York, Dr. Sharon Richmond about returning to the office post-Covid-lockdown.”

“I think a lot of people are in the exact same boat of feeling really anxious about change.” Dr. Sharon says. “I invite people to think back a year ago and remember how anxiety-provoking it was to even make these changes that we’re now used to. And now we’re thinking about how weird it’s going to be going back to what we used to think was normal.”

The show host’s voice interrupts, high and nasal. “So doc, are you saying it’s a common experience to have anxiety about re-engaging?”

“Yes,” says Dr. Sharon, a quiet note of authority in her voice. “Anytime you experience a traumatic event, your return to the everyday world after healing is called re-entry,” says Dr. Sharon. “While some can shift from an extraordinary situation with moderate ease, there will be many who experience re-entry trauma—where the adjustment to the new normal causes anxiety, insecurity, depression and perhaps even re-traumatization.”

Anil flips the indicator light to signal the right-hand turn into the parking lot for a row of motley shops and drinking places. The sky framing the graffiti-encrusted walls of The Grocery Outlet is split by a mantle of cloud the color of burnished metal and in admiring the changing colors of the landscape—the sky lit with vivid pinks and purples—Anil grows calm. The dingy and ill-lighted street, the faded grey of his overused sweat pants, the dirty white of his oversized T-shirt, the bleached arc of the sky, it all recedes behind him.

He collects his grocery bag and turns off the radio just as the host is concluding the show with this upbeat message, “So, there you have it, folks. We all need to be able to just be patient with ourselves and each other to adjust. But we’re all going to get through it.”

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Pooja Rajaram crouches in front of her fully stocked refrigerator, examining the takeaway boxes of Hakka noodles, fried chicken, pork dumplings, soups, and steamed sea bass in banana leaf. The house phone shrieks, startling her and saving her from making bad food choices. Again.

“I was just thinking,” she says to her mom minutes later, pressing the phone so hard to her ear it hurts, “that at the beginning of 2020, I finally thought I would recover from my anorexia.” She pictures her progress in beating the disease that has plagued her for fifteen years and mentally checks off the milestones she’s completed. I started seeing a nutritionist and a therapist. I began doing yoga, working as an analyst for a health care company, barista-ing at a coffee shop. That meant little time for overexercising and undereating.

“Then the pandemic happened and threw a huge wrench in my recovery,” she continues, making a small fragile noise as if choking on something small and fluffy. “The rationing of food, the loss of a regimented schedule. It all happened so quickly. It was the perfect ground for unhealthy coping mechanisms to start sucking me in.”

“I understand,” her mom tuts in sympathy. “I was reading an article that said, when the world feels out of control, people want to have control over something. Often, it’s what you put in your mouth.”

Pooja is only half listening as a loud ping alerts her to an incoming email from her boss.

“Since everybody is now vaccinated, yadda yadda.

Re-entry date: May 1, 2021.”

Pooja bumps a fist into the air and mouths a silent ‘Yes’. She can’t wait to return to work.

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