As of this week, I’ll have been living entirely solo for two months. As someone who, prior to the pandemic, never had a week go by without seeing friends for dinner, catching a movie, or meeting a date for drinks, it feels like an anniversary of sorts – something to be celebrated.
Except that it’s been hard – as it has for many and maybe particularly those who are single or live alone and have gone a while without so much as a hug or a handshake. I even find myself missing being sandwiched between sweaty bodies on the TTC.
The city may be reopening, but new cases of COVID-19 are still appearing, and social distancing measures are still in effect. So while I could head to a friend’s distanced hang-out at the park, I’d rather not take my chances. Even if I did, there’s still a separation in the moment and an absence in the day-to-day.
Thanks to modern technology, we’ve got access to family and friends through phone calls and video conferencing. And while that might not be the same as in-person interaction, it does scratch the itch. But while being alone does not necessarily lend itself to loneliness – just as being in a crowd does not necessarily equate to company – for many, a certain anxiety has begun to grow. And with no end in sight to the pandemic, it’s gnawing at the psyche.
“A lot of people are complaining about loneliness when, actually, what they’re talking about is anxiety or boredom,” explains Ami Rokach, a psychology professor at York University. “Missing human contact is not necessarily loneliness, just like missing sweets is not necessarily hunger.”
There is, after all, a difference between choosing to be alone and having no choice but to be alone, and the unease lives in the latter. Still, for many feeling a growing discomfort at the thought of spending more time in solitude, loneliness is a likely story.
“It’s a universal phenomenon,” says Rokach. “I don’t call it a feeling but a subjective experience, because it involves both emotional and cognitive elements. Each of us experiences it differently depending on the situation, our history and our personality. Loneliness is, in fact, a good thing, because it serves as an alarm system, the same way pain is a good thing. Consider when a herd of deer is running, and there is one that is lagging behind. He will usually become lunch for the waiting lions. So loneliness is geared to say, ‘hey, you’re getting away from the group, which your life depends on.’ So these feelings are not unusual; we are wired to live in a community.”
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a stigma associated with experiencing loneliness or even simply choosing to be alone when, say, going to the movies or out for dinner. We live in a culture that rewards social interaction, and the more public, the better.
“That stigma says if I’m alone, that means no one wants to be with me, and if no one wants to be with me, that’s because I’m not lovable,” explains Rokach. “And that makes me a loser. It’s why millions of people are experiencing it but not talking about it.”
But now, because the entire world is in lockdown and so many are spending time on their own away from their loved ones, the stigma is disappearing, and more are connecting and discussing their mental health than before.
“This is because, now when I talk about it, it doesn’t reflect on me as a person,” says Rokach. “It reflects on the virus, which we can blame and talk about our loneliness out in the open. Some people who were lonely before will now come out and be potentially less lonely. So it all comes down to the way we structure and re-frame the situation.”
For Eya Donald Greenland, who has lived alone since her husband died in 2008, it’s a way of life. She left Toronto a year ago, and bought a rural home specifically so she could live in relative isolation, which she thrives on.
“I’m 78 kilometres away, own 5.63 acres of land, rarely leave the property and can go for days without speaking to a soul,” says Greenland. “Living alone in an urban setting, it’s very easy to distract oneself from problems, both external and internal. I never had to look within unless I particularly wanted to. In my new rural life, all my shortcomings are writ large, and no one gets to see them but me. I laugh, now, at the urban conceit I brought with me. I’ve had to face my shortcomings head on and deal with them.”
In a city like Toronto, there’s always access to whatever you might need, whether it’s a handyman or late-night takeout.
For Greenland, there was also access to distractions, including friends, family and her community. But in the countryside, she’s been able to access her self and achieve personal growth like never before.
“My advice to people finding themselves alone during a pandemic is to challenge themselves to live a bigger life, in small increments,” she says. “Living a bigger life doesn’t mean spending more money. It means pushing yourself out of your comfort zone by doing much more with much less. We talk about wanting work-life balance, but it makes us uncomfortable when it is dumped in our lap. I used to snicker at meditation as practised by prosperous North Americans, but when I’m lying in bed at night and the immensity of my aloneness comes over me, I do deep breathing to slow down my racing brain and I’m humbled at how well it works.”
The key is focusing on the fact that you are enough. By stripping away the influence of others and appreciating the silence, even if just for this period of time, you’ll be pushed to reckon with and place more value on your own desires, dislikes and goals.
In order to reach this state, try taking a break from social media, or feeling a constant pressure to connect with others to fill the gap. Instead, choose to live in the gap, find new hobbies and make plans for the future.
And remember that being alone means you can be messy, you can walk around pantless, you can take up space. And hopefully take this new approach to life into the future.
For Greenland, it’s been a kind of rebirth.
“I always liked myself as a person and a friend; I’m generous, persistent, hardworking and reliable,” she says. “But I now realize I just love myself, with all my failings and conceits. This last year has been my dress rehearsal for the pandemic, and it’s a real pleasure to be self-isolating in my own excellent company.”