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How To Reenter Society: Journalist Imprisoned In Iran Shares Advice

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

By now, many people who spent the past year-and-a-half or so in isolation have emerged. People have gone to their first in-home visit, their first dinner out, even a party. If you're still adjusting, Jason Rezaian of The Washington Post has some advice. He's not an advice columnist, but this is a topic that he knows. In 2014, Iranian authorities arrested Rezaian, and he spent 18 months or so in prison, much of it in solitary confinement.

JASON REZAIAN: I put out a column early on in the pandemic essentially saying that I survived solitary; you're going to survive this. And then as we started to come back out of it over the last couple of months, I noticed that people were a little bit surprised about some of the feelings that they were having, the misgivings that they were having, the apprehensions of being around people again, things that they didn't expect about themselves. And so I figured it was a good time to revisit the subject because when I was released after those 544 days, as happy as I was, as excited as I was to join the world anew, it wasn't all perfect. And in those first few months, I thought maybe there was something wrong with me that I wasn't happier than I thought I was supposed to be. And I realized that this is a normal part of the human condition. When things change, even for the better, there's an inevitable period of adjustment.

INSKEEP: You write, no one is interested in your isolation story.

REZAIAN: (Laughter) I think that that's maybe a little bit unfair.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: But you wrote it. So what did you mean?

REZAIAN: Well, I just wanted to get that across that, look; this has been tough, weird, you know, different for everybody. Right? And there's nothing so extreme about your circumstances in your own house that's going to be that interesting to anybody else who spent that much time in their own house. So you know, don't overshare. I think it's better to empathize and to listen to people rather than to wallow in our own feelings of self-pity about missing out on a year of normal life because - guess what? - the whole world did.

INSKEEP: I was amazed that you even added, believe me, as if that had been your experience. Did people really get tired of hearing about your quite incredible story?

REZAIAN: I learned very quickly that, you know, even when people would ask me about what that experience was like and how hard it was, you know, after the first 90 seconds or so, their eyes start to wander and, you know, go down to their iPhones to check their Twitter feeds and all that. So you know, as much as we want to believe we're interested in other people's experiences, that's not always true. And so I always defer to sharing less than more as a default.

INSKEEP: In those 544 days, you must have had virtually no physical human contact.

REZAIAN: Very little - and to the extent that that I did, especially in the early weeks and months when much of the time was spent in solitary confinement or an interrogation room where I was being subjected to all sorts of psychological torture and the threats of physical violence, you know, you are retracting from the very idea of physical contact. You don't want to be touched because that could come with injury. And I think now that we are getting back to normal, I've noticed this in myself as I walk down the street and especially, you know, earlier in the pandemic when we had less of an idea about how contagious or how the virus traveled...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

REZAIAN: ...Sometimes I felt like, you know, Larry David on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," you know, trying to ignore or move around people to stay as far away from them as possible. And I think that, you know, when we get back into our offices at 100%, you're going to have that experience of, you know, not everybody wanting to be up close and personal with you.

INSKEEP: Even if you are ready or I am ready to shake hands or put a hand on somebody's shoulder, the other person might not be.

REZAIAN: Totally. Maybe this is a good time to keep your hands in your pockets for a couple of months (laughter).

INSKEEP: I want to circle back to your original point about things changing. I have noticed during this time of the pandemic, certain people have taken the occasion to leave their job, taken the occasion to retire, taken the occasion to move to a different city. But it sounds like you think that all of us change, whether we consciously, deliberately did something big like that or not. Do you think that we can embrace that and be better for it?

REZAIAN: I think the only way we'll be better for it is if we embrace it. And we have to do that collectively. It's going to be hard. But, you know, change is coming whether you like it or not. Right? And that's the most fundamental reality and truth of our lives. So I do think that there will be some good that comes out of it. I can't guess at what those things will be. But the ways that I've seen that, you know, restaurants, for example, have adapted to these occasions, and office culture has inevitably changed. None of it's going to go back to 100% like what it was before.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

REZAIAN: And I'm hoping that those changes are improvements.

INSKEEP: I'm hoping that restaurants keep their extra outdoor seating and that streets that were partially closed to make room for that stay closed and that maybe offices never totally fill again. That's all good with me.

REZAIAN: I'm with you 100%, Steve. And I think if we were to do a poll, you know, more than half of us would agree.

INSKEEP: Jason Rezaian of The Washington Post, always a pleasure talking with you.

REZAIAN: Likewise. Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.