An end is in sight - not The End, that will take some time yet - but the beginning of an end; a loosening of restrictions, an increase in freedom.
We have looked forward to a return to some kind of normality for so long. But now, as it approaches, there's a faint edge to the anticipation, a shimmer of anxiety: How do we do it, this normal life we miss so much? How did we used to manage so many interactions, demands, engagements? The sheer volume of stuff we dealt with?
I've heard plenty of people admit that they are dreading emerging into full-throttle socialising again. That the last weeks have gradually stripped them of the habit of easy interaction; they have taken to avoiding acquaintances on their daily walks or deliberately cutting the chat short, because of no longer knowing what to say or how to behave. We're out of practise, and that is bothering us. The unfamiliar is always daunting.
I've been feeling distinctly iffy about re-adapting to a faster, busier pace. The thing is though, I know I can do it. I've been here before. Or somewhere very like here.
When I was treated for cancer, nearly five years ago now (yes, the five-year mark is blessedly near in sight…), the treatment period was almost exactly as long as this lockdown - eight gruelling weeks, followed by a couple more of bed-heavy convalescence.
By the end of it, I wasn't myself. I was barely even a version of myself. Very thin, very sore, very feeble, badly burned and very anxious; traumatised by what had happened to me, with as yet no time to process it, and deeply uncertain about how I would ever navigate a world beyond hospital and home again.
All the simple things I had been used to doing effortlessly - getting buses, going to shops, doing the football run, meeting people, ordering coffee and having pleasant chit-chat with the person who made it - seemed like mountains to climb, full of effort and second-guessing.
I was physically intimidated by loud noises, too many people, too much urgency. In my 10-week sequestration from life, I had lost the habit of handling it.
I didn't know how to 'do' life. I was used to people being gentle and patient with me, because I had been surrounded for so long by medical staff - the most astonishing professionals I have ever met - and my closest family and friends, all of whom knew to speak carefully and quietly, and not scare the many nervy horses that made up my post-treatment self. I was no longer equipped for the raw hustle and bustle of 'normal' life.
I well remember the first time I went into town on my own. I was meeting a friend for lunch near Stephen's Green. By the time I had walked from the Dawson Street bus stop to the restaurant, I was ready to cry. I couldn't handle the unaccustomed sharpness of everything.
The way the streets felt intimidatingly crowded, people rushing about their business, moving past me abruptly, treating me as no more than an impediment to their activity. I felt exposed and vulnerable and ill-equipped, like I was missing a vital layer of something between me and the world, the shock-absorbers that make societal interaction possible.
Then there was the first big social event I went to, maybe a month after re-engaging with normal life; a christening for a friend's daughter. I managed about an hour, then had to leave, exhausted, head pounding from the stress of it all.
I went home wondering, 'however did I do this? Stand around chatting to people in ever-shifting groups, about stuff that is interesting enough to not bore the pants off them, but not overly-intimate and intense?' It took a while to build that muscle back up. I was sort of stuck with either The Weather or 'isn't life unbearably painful and sad sometimes?' None of the in-between bits seemed accessible to me any more.
But, the good news is, I did build it back up. And fast. The adjustment period turned out to be swift. I relearned everything I had forgotten within a matter of weeks, and what was weird became normal again very quickly. Muscle memory kicked in, and I found my old self, waiting patiently for me to catch up with it. It's the same muscle memory that will be activated now for all of us.
The same adaptability that lets us take on strange new world orders in the first place, is what will save us in the return to 'normal'. At heart, we love normal. Familiarity is the comfort zone for most of us, and that's where we will all head, at speed, as soon as we can. We will shed our odd lockdown behaviours - avoiding people, not knowing how to conduct a conversation shouted over two metres, wondering what form of eye-contact is correct when passing a neighbour on the other side of the road - and revert to our usual selves.
We will also find the energy and strength to confront the next phase of this hard time. These past weeks, although dreary, have been a cocoon for nearly all of us, an enforced period of sequestration and idleness in which we had no choice but to watch, passive, while decisions were taken for us.
Once that ends, we will have to confront the reality of what the Covid crisis has done to our economy and society; the wreck - for many - of finances, businesses, plans, hopes, ways of life. Yes, that too is out there, waiting for us. And right now, it may well feel insurmountable. But experience tells me it isn't.
There will be a natural advantage this time - because we know what we all need. We will be gentle and considerate with each other, because we will all be coming from the same traumatised place. And, even though we will revert to our former selves, we will not be unchanged.
Trauma leaves a residue, a shifted perception. If we're lucky, it's one that leads to slightly greater compassion and kindness.
Health & Living