I find it a little magical that so many people are having articulate and vulnerable conversations during this pandemic. But there’s an ever-changing emotional climate to consider. We don’t always know how our off-hand sentences will make each other feel. This is what comes to mind when people randomly express their sympathies about the fact that I’m living alone right now. “OMG, I can’t imagine being all by myself,” they muse. “You must be so lonely. I don’t know how you do it.” (My standard reply: “Meh. I take it day by day.”)
Before I launch into a public screed against people bringing up my loneliness, I should point out that single people often got hefty portions of scrutiny pre-pandemic, too. There were classic questions about when we’d finally find someone. People openly interrogated whether we had “put ourselves out there enough,” and our desire for a compatible partnership was often reduced to being “too picky.” (Of course, coupled people faced scrutiny, too. There was pressure to get married and questions about kids. Basically, people always have opinions on your next step, no matter your relationship status.)
During the pandemic, however, when we’re reaching out to maintain our bonds and connections, it’s imperative that we think through our approach. Just as I wouldn’t assume spending every moment with your live-in partner is a treat (or disaster), I don’t love when someone says that my life circumstances are, well, unbearable. It’s really weird to have your everyday state of affairs framed as an insurmountable deficit.
After being alone for almost three months, I am, in fact, lonely. This isn’t newsworthy. Feeling lonely isn’t overwhelmingly fraught for me anymore; it’s a circumstance through which I have to navigate. Most days, it’s like being too short to reach a good book on a high shelf: immensely inconvenient but survivable. I’m open about how feeling lonely is part of living alone, but friends and family are healthy at the moment, so I’m more aware of my good fortune. Having someone suggest that loneliness is the central catastrophe of my life isn’t comforting for either party involved. I typically end up reassuring the well-meaning folks who simply “can’t imagine” how I’m “getting by.”
This insistence that I’m miserable also leaves me with a conundrum: If I tell you how lonely I am, do I discount some of the sweetness that comes with living alone right now? I don’t have to watch the people I love shirk social distancing measures (I trust they aren’t). I sleep in the center of my bed, walk around naked (or in one of my robes), and consume all my snacks (or wine) in one sitting without anyone judging me. No one smells me if I skip a shower (though I smell me, which isn’t ideal). I play the same song over and over without reproach, I sing loudly and off-key. I open my curtains way too early and burn scented candles all damn day. I can’t think of another time in my life when I’ve so unapologetically nourished myself. I might be Virginia Woolfe’s wildest dream.
But then, if I emphasize the ways that it’s great to be alone, does that undermine the moments when loneliness is overwhelming? I live with a constant concern that the new coronavirus will force me to grieve a loved one’s death in isolation. There’s a distinct bodily sensation that comes from having not been touched in almost three months. I worry that being alone this long will change me in irrevocable ways, or that I’ll be too afraid to reintroduce myself to the outside world. I don’t know how to cook for one, and sometimes my leftovers mock me. On bad days, there’s no shoulder on which to rest my head. I can’t just jump on the train and grift Costco provisions from the people who raised me. The cell phone light from my 3 A.M. anxiety-Googling doesn’t disturb anyone (except me). And random thought spirals? Whew. They go off like an alarm clock and blare for hours. It’s like listening to a Spotify playlist of only the songs you hate.
So, yes, I’m living alone during this pandemic, and sometimes it’s overwhelming. But when someone decides how unbearable my life is for me, I’m compelled to defend it. Why? Because it’s complicated, beautiful, terrifying, courageous, and boring. Most of all, it’s mine.
Not everyone feels this way. Some people purr like happy kittens when folks acknowledge the struggles involved in living alone. Others don’t flinch at the insistence that they’re lonely, but bristle when someone says, “I’m so jealous you’re alone.” It’s all relative, and it’s impossible to know how these things come across. So, my advice? Just ask people how they’re holding up right now. Let your loved ones tell you how they feel. Ask about the challenges (and triumphs), allow for the nuance and contradictions. Know that we’re all just trying to survive.