I felt unbelievably isolated, like so many who lived alone during the lockdown.
It’s time to reconsider how societies work,
In her 2009 book Bluets, poet and critic Maggie Nelson wrote, “For some time now, I have been trying to find dignity in my solitude,” They hit home when I read those words.
In recent years, I have been thinking a lot about isolation, as I myself have drifted into different types of loneliness, with the most extreme type, predictably, occurring in 2020.
Is it true that integrity can be found in that? Perhaps not, and perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult for us to speak about it or admit it.
People began talking about a corresponding “loneliness pandemic.” a few months after the Covid-19 outbreak. Pages emerged on NHS and Red Cross websites with suggestions about how to cope with the isolation forced on us by the global health crisis and the subsequent lockdown.
But even before this year, numerous studies reported that loneliness had reached dangerous and even life-threatening epidemic proportions, and Theresa May launched a “loneliness strategy.” for the UK government in 2018.
In winter and around Christmas, a time when charities and politicians frequently encourage festive revelers to think of the lonely and disadvantaged and reach out to them, such issues have often been especially heightened.
There is not much conversation about all of this, though, about what isolation really is, what it sounds like, or where it comes from.
It’s an affliction in these scenarios: remote, alien, and slightly terrifying that we meet at Christmas in the form of the aged, the newly widowed, the unloved, or the forgotten.
But it is incorrect to think of it as a kind of illness. The historian Fay Bound Alberti, who wrote a “biography” of the case, argues that this way of thinking means “that it comes from the outside, rather than being something that is a social problem.”
Loneliness, then, is partially created by the way we organize the world—and we need to seriously reconsider how we manage our public spaces, housing, and relationships in order to fix it. This involves challenging our dependency as units of social organization on unique types of relationships – the couple and the nuclear family.
In the summer of 2017, I first really thought about all of this.
I had just broken out of a 12-year relationship and had moved to Ireland to work on my PhD, the loneliest of all projects, not completely uninvolved.
I was now living alone after years of paired domesticity.
Of course, loneliness is not the same as loneliness-as Nelson puts it, “solitude is loneliness with a problem”-and some of it was okay: I read, I walked, I wrote, I went out and made new friends.
But my loneliness, combined with the rawness of my recent heartbreak, has often been an issue.
I would email friends and family members back home at such moments, filling my phone screen with three, four, five WhatsApp chats detailing their own issues: too much to do, not enough time or space for themselves, an abundance of people and stuff to take care of. The comparison often seemed utterly ridiculous and, above all, wasteful in our predicaments.
I always wondered if bolting my household on one of theirs would not make sense, redistributing some of my caregiving energy and letting them share some of the human companionship I always craved in exchange.
I suspect this “bolting on” was, while my vision had greater versatility, a kind of pre-Covid version of the “support bubble,” This year, “Household” took on an especially rigid sense, as we were required to spend almost all of our time in our homes and were heavily prohibited from mixing with others. This has made all of us look in new ways at the realities of our living conditions. Feminists have long pointed out that women disproportionately bear the responsibility of housework and childcare – and the lockdown has intensified this disparity.
For me, the shutdown means that I have to face an unrelenting and sometimes grueling isolation as someone who lives alone, and so I have returned to the alternative living arrangements that I pondered in 2017 with renewed seriousness.