Viral loneliness and why community matters, or Check in on your peeps

Last night was a rough night for me, as I found myself unable to sleep and in tears at 3 a.m.—as I found myself overwhelmed with feelings of loneliness. I can’t say that true loneliness is a feeling that I have much familiarity with. The only time that I have ever experienced anywhere near this type of loneliness was in the last years of my marriage. When it became clear that love alone would never be enough; that there was a fundamental disconnect in our union, which love and therapy would never repair.

In that case, I was not physically alone, but I was emotionally alone and in angst, and when it became too much, we ended our marriage and reconfigured ourselves to be dear friends and co-parents.

It was a painful stretch of years, as we deconstructed 20 years of our lives. But in the last five years, while I have remained unpartnered aside from the occasional fling or situation, the loneliness that took root in my soul during the last years of my marriage dissipated as I embarked upon the journey of rebuilding myself and my life at middle age.

Until COVID-19 shut down the world, I lived a life that was full. At times, it was too full, as I juggled the reality of co-parenting and traveling half the month for work. In recent months I was even seriously considering dating, as I realized that after five years I was ready to consider more than a fling and open to the possibility of settling down again—if the right person should appear.

Of course, being so busy, the timing never worked out, since finding a partner requires having time to spend with another person. Prior to the middle of March and shutting down my Boston office and then watching more than half the world shut down, time was a precious commodity that I never had enough of.

Now, I am 35 days into physical distancing and time is all I have. My days are nights and my nights are days. I am fortunate enough to still have a job, which has become even more intense as the reality settles in that my job is now to run an organization from my home. An organization that is physically based in another state and for which we need to move all of our programming to digital platforms to keep the staff employed and paid.

My work life is still full and then there is the reality of overseeing my daughter’s schooling via remote learning. Let me just say, if I had my way, schools would just call it a wrap and shut down for the remainder of the year. Remote learning isn’t home schooling, but it requires parental involvement—during the same hours that technically I am supposed to be working. Except now, I am the home IT person, lunch lady and overall support person. Thankfully this duty is shared with my co-parent, so we are both able to catch a break whenever the teen is at the other parent’s house. That said, it is a lot to manage.

All of this would probably be OK, if there were moments for gathering with friends, sharing a tea, a coffee or a glass of wine, along with a hug. But as we all know, we cannot see our friends and loved ones like that now—at least not safely. So we are carrying heavier loads than ever, as our homes have been transformed into offices, school rooms, rec centers and everything in between. It is a heavy burden whether partnered, single or somewhere in-between.

The absolute cruelty of this virus is that we must be cut off from our human connections at a time when connection is vital. While many of us are connecting via Zoom, FaceTime, social media or the old-fashioned phone, my own experience is that it all falls short. Those of us who are still working are spending untold hours meeting via Zoom, thus being “Zoomed out” has become a real thing. The paradox being that we miss our loved ones but we are overwhelmed, which increasingly leaves little time to connect, despite the fact that we are all just at home.

Yet the loneliness of being at home, day and night except for trips to the grocery store and a fresh air break, isn’t healthy. As time goes on, I do wonder about the impact on our collective mental health.

In the early weeks, I noticed a lot more reaching out, but as the new reality settles in, I find the check-in calls and messages are dwindling. I know that when I have reached out to others, if they aren’t one of my single friends, I feel like I am imposing. My fellow singles thank me for reaching out and, as a friend told me, “It makes me feel like I still matter.”

I consider myself to be a relatively emotionally healthy person and even I can feel this weighing on me, hence my late-night cry. In this moment, as we fight to stay physically healthy for ourselves and others, it is equally important to tend to our emotional and mental gardens.

American culture, with its roots in whiteness, has always focused on the individual, with kudos being given to those who are proficient in “rugged individualism.” It strikes me though that if we are to emerge from this pandemic alive and well, we will need to focus on the greater collective. That means for those with the bandwidth to spare, reach out to friends, even the ones you assume are fine and check in on them. No need for a two-hour call every time, but a simple text can make all the difference in the world. Especially if you know that someone might be struggling, either overwhelmed with having the entire family home or overwhelmed with the never-ending silence of physically being alone.

We also need to create space so people can be honest about how they are feeling on any given day. Right now, those who dare to share that they are struggling and are often seen as brave, but what if we all gave ourselves permission to admit that we are struggling? What if in this unprecedented time, we took off our carefully constructed masks and talked openly about what we are feeling? What if we gave voice to the fears that someone of us will only unpack late at night.

It may be months before we can see our friends and family but to know that others are grappling with this new reality—and that when possible, we can offer one another emotional mutual aid—would go a long way in creating a better way of being in this world.

This is something we can do aside from wearing our face coverings and practicing good hand hygiene—and along with social distancing and staying at home—so that we can continue to flatten the curve but not let each other fall flat with despair. Most of us cannot do anything else other than mask-up and wash and distance in order to combat this pandemic and the fallout that it will continue to bring—we cannot directly fight the virus. But we can cultivate deeper connections that provide support and acknowledgement for ourselves and others in our social circles and directly fight one of the viruses more ill effects.

As for me, most days are not bad. I have kick-started my home yoga practice as well as ramped up my spiritual practices. I am seeing my therapist (on a virtual basis, mind you). But the absence of adults in my life is hard at times. There are nights when I would give anything for a hug or to be cuddled or have my hand held. In the meantime, I have become proficient at wrapping myself up like a burrito—at least until the hot flashes start to kick in.


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2 thoughts on “Viral loneliness and why community matters, or Check in on your peeps”

  1. I so understand this loneliness. I miss my young grandsons’ hugs, and they miss mine for them. When we see each other at a social distance, we all say this. The lonely is real, despite many ways to text, talk or virtually connect. But my grandson and I found a new way to bridge the gap. We leave hugs for one another around the tree in front of his house. I sometimes lave a treat with the hug, but mostly I go by to hug the tree and let him know there’s a hug waiting for him. He goes to claim his hug by hugging the tree himself (usually hours later) and then leaves one for me. This is hard, this absence of connection with those we love and who love us. At the same time, being creative helps to ease the heartache of separation. Thanks for speaking truth to this.

  2. I’ve also encountered local black folks who are “self-entitled” in terms of honoring social distancing during the pandemic. You see everything from a clouded lens of rampant racism. (It’s too bad that it probably won’t work out with Rob Gould due to your stubbornness.)

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