The poet Charles Bukowski once said “Isolation is a gift. Everything else is just a test of your endurance.”
Bukowski aside, living alone is a weird trip, man.
A friend asked the other day, “What’s the difference between solitude and loneliness?” I had to think about it. Opportunity, choice? Solitude is something you choose, whereas loneliness is something thrust upon you.
Is that the correct answer?
Even before COVID’s enforced isolation, a lot of people lived on their own. Some by choice, others by happenstance.
I’ve lived with other people — partner, kid, sister, roommates, parents — for most of my life, but these days I find myself on my own.
If you type “living alone” into Google, up pops a list of advice-type articles about how to cope. The advice, aimed at women primarily, involves things like security systems, deadbolts and getting to know your neighbours. The advice for men is more along the lines of how to make a cool, swinging bachelor pad on a budget.
Man, woman or non-binary, the single life has always presented challenges. But the pandemic has added layers of complexity that folks didn’t see coming.
Touch deprivation is a big one. Like other social animals, people need touch to calm themselves, cement social relations and simply to feel human.
The long-term repercussions of the touchy-feely famine are still unclear. But as a Guardian article asserts, the effects are probably not good.
“The need for touch exists below the horizon of consciousness,” Eleanor Morgan writes. “Before birth, when the amniotic fluid in the womb swirls around us and the foetal nervous system can distinguish our own body from our mother’s, our entire concept of self is rooted in touch.”
Suggestions for those starved of human contact range from useful to sad to grimly funny. Advice like putting a five-kilogram bag of flour on your chest and rolling around on the floor or resurrecting your ancient teddy bear and giving it a squeeze.
While you’re rolling around on the floor with a big bag of flour, you’re not alone. Well, perhaps you are in the literal sense, but at least there are plenty of other floury wretches also wrestling with the same issues.
Even before the pandemic reduced us all to such a state, periods of sustained solitude took some getting used to.
After years of active parenting, when children head off to university and silence descends it can take a while to figure out what to do with yourself. All the usual patterns and rhythms shift. When you don’t have to cook dinner for anyone or do laundry, or really do anything that you don’t feel like doing, it’s kind of fun at first. Eat popcorn for dinner in your bathrobe! Watch so many Bridgerton episodes that you fall over sideways!
But after the initial Bacchanalia period is over, time can start to feel unmoored. Is this it for the foreseeable future? What does a life lived alone really do to humans?
The obvious answer is that it depends on the human. Some people take to it with ease, while others struggle. I’ve gone back and forth. There are days when coming home to a silent empty apartment feels like the greatest luxury in the world, and there are times when it starts to feel like a premature burial. Sepulchral is the right word.
In normal times, there were basic things you could do to mitigate the feelings of being cut off from society. Join a club, go to a show, take up a hobby. But these aren’t normal times, and even the most reclusive introverts are probably feeling the strain of almost a year of limited human contact.
Wherever you go, there you are: in the kitchen, the dining room, hiding in a closet. When it’s just you and four walls, some curious habits emerge.
I now sing to myself all day, not showtunes or pop songs, but weird little ditties that I make up on the spot. Mostly they’re about whatever it is I’m doing at the moment, but there are a few ongoing standards. One goes, “I farted, it waassssss amazing, super-duper farty times.” And repeat. Not Rodgers and Hammerstein, but it does the job of filling up the silence and is somehow oddly comforting.
I’m sure others have their own foibles, the stuff that one only does when one is alone. The same friend who asked the alone/solitude question also said, “How many times can one person masturbate?” And I’m not sure I want to know the answer.
Whatever your choice, pervy or pure, distraction is easy enough to come by. There’s the entire internet, Netflix, approximately one billion TV channels, Zoom parties, your phone and whatever is happening outside of the window. What are the crazy neighbours up to now?
But after all that, when the dust settles, finally it’s just you. Then what?
First, I would say that whatever you do, do not stare fixedly into the bathroom mirror until your reflection asks, “Who the hell is that?” This kind of dissociation is a distinctly strange experience and not one I would recommend.
A few other points. But to be clear, these are only small remedies. At best, they can only forestall the crushing anxiety that a lot of people are feeling at the moment, as we attempt to follow the rules. The longer it goes on, the more devastating it can be for people living alone. That’s just the truth.
Get used to silence. Anyone who grew up with a big, noisy family knows what it means to live in chaos, but the opposite takes some getting used to as well. You start to notice things. The clicks and pops of the apartment, settling like an old dog at night. The kick and whoosh of the furnace. The sounds of birds and other creatures, busy leading their own lives. The flickers that drilled a hole in the deck coming and going in companionable flurries. There is a symphony in silence.
Make friends with animals. I have been coaxing the crows that used to divebomb me into friendship with food in recent months. Now they float past, wings almost brushing the top of my head. It’s still a little freaky but distinctly less violent. For the touch-deprived, pets can be a godsend, a way to calm anxieties and stimulate stress relief in the brain. If you don’t have a dog or a cat or even an iguana, now is the time to get one.
Get fixing. When stuff goes wrong, breaks and falls apart, you have to learn to fix it yourself. When the pilot light went out on the hot water tank, I had to figure out how to relight it without blowing myself to kingdom come. And I’m still here, so that’s something.
Take “interior” journeys. Travel is off the table for the time being, but more insular interior journeys are still available. Circling the park gets pretty tired, but there are other trips one can take. Bust out the CBD, magic mushrooms or deep dives into books and art, whatever offers an escape route out of your own thoughts.
In some ways, living by yourself is easier than living with other people. There is no one to eat the last cupcake, hog the remote or stink up the bathroom: you can do all that stuff on your own. But there comes a point when it begins to pall. In all honesty, sometimes I simply get tired of myself.
But before going full Prufrock and envisioning “a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” let’s pause for a moment.
When the time comes to gather together again — in sprawling dinner parties, concerts and swimming pools thronged with others — I know the part of me that’s held silently still in these long months of uncertainty and fear will unclench with the first giant bear hug I receive.
I’m looking forward to the return of noisy, irksome humans in all of their bodily glory.
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