My Loneliness Almost Broke Me
How loneliness pummeled me pre-pandemic and my hope for one lesson from COVID-19
The term "social isolation" yields almost 300 million Google results and there is no shortage of hits as they pertain to pandemic-induced loneliness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, loneliness is as deadly as obesity, physical inactivity and — shockingly — smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The chronically lonely are at an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart failure and stroke, and the links with heightened depression and anxiety are obvious.
I'm well acquainted with the mental health struggles of living a socially isolated life. Before the pandemic, loneliness almost broke me.
The tears ended eventually, but I was never not in a low-grade state of depression.
I experienced the devastating effects of chronic loneliness for five years before it became an international conversation.
When I moved four states away from my fiancé to accept my first teaching job, I understood Matt's reasons for not tagging along. His employment back home was secure (mine wasn't) and there were no real prospects for him in my new context.
Sheltering in Place Before the Pandemic
Suddenly, I ate most of my meals in my apartment alone, accompanied only by a Facebook feed or YouTube video. If schedules and time zones permitted, Matt and I would Zoom-chat over dinner. For me, sheltering in place — when I wasn't at work or running errands — became a way of life.
My new town had made several national Top 10 lists as a great place for families, with its vibrant arts scene and rushing rivers. It was quaint, quiet, beautiful and a far cry from my New York City upbringing. But it wouldn't take long to learn that a family of one was not what the lists had in mind.
I was a weed desperate to sprout among long-established roots, mowed over by the constant reminder of how difficult it is for a single, child-free woman to flourish in a town where life was organized around playdates and where strollers seemed to outnumber cars.
Most of my evenings and weekends were spent alone, filled with a silence that echoed between my ears, in my throat and deep into my chest.
Virtual dates with Matt rendered me "Zoom fatigued" years before the pandemic birthed the concept. I'm embarrassed to say that I cried myself to sleep nearly every night for the first year of my new life. The tears ended eventually, but I was never not in a low-grade state of depression.
I don't wish to seem ungrateful. I had health insurance, a retirement plan and a salary affording me a space large enough to host family and friends. But few of my New York connections expressed a desire to visit a town they hadn't heard of before I announced I was moving there.
My new colleagues were kind, but I understood the fine print: They had their own deeply rooted lives and I couldn't expect them to babysit me. Occasionally, we'd grab a drink or an early appetizer and briefly talk shop, but the boundary was drawn.
A Workaholic Desperate for Human Connection
In my first year to two of job-imposed isolation, I'd force myself to take deep breaths of gratitude. I'm not a workaholic, but I tried to become one, investing nearly every waking hour into teaching. But writing manuscripts and grading papers would prove a poor substitute for intimate human connection.
To pass the time, I also spent nearly every Saturday afternoon for two years at the liquor store, mixing and matching samples of fruity-flavored depressants. I thought that perhaps a key lime martini or four, alone on the couch in front of "Downton Abbey" would fill the void. Loneliness continued to throb between my temples, however.
I stopped self-medicating when the insomnia and migraines began, but I'd take my time at the grocery store, desperate to absorb the presence of complete strangers.
Sometimes, months would go by before Matt and I would get to see each other. "How's my baby?" he'd whisper into my neck after each stretch of absence. I'd feel his hands pressed against my back, haunted by the inevitable departure that would occur mere hours later.
I'd dread the silence that filled my home after he left. My life was organized around long-awaited hellos and profoundly dreaded goodbyes.
The lack of community I endured during this time became unsustainable. Less than one year before the pandemic took hold, I left my professional life and moved back to Matt. I'd always been on the fast track toward a career, but in the end, the need for intimate human connection outweighed the promise of professional opportunity.
The Health Crisis of Social Isolation
Fast forward to today: Springtime in the pandemic has come, with discussions resurfacing about how people are maintaining human connection. But social isolation remains a health crisis.
For us, life has balanced out. Matt and I are married and living just a few miles from his hometown in Michigan. We've now spent more time sheltering in place together than we ever imagined possible. I am grateful, but those five years of profound solitude and loneliness will never be lost on me.
Americans have a lot to learn by watching the way some other countries have handled mandates to shelter in place. If not for my relationship, I'm confident I would have left the country, in search of other cultures.
Chronic loneliness, as a debilitating — if not deadly — condition, will always be with us.
I think of how Italians came together to serenade each other from their balconies and rooftops during COVID-19, some of them falling in love. The way Parisians cheered to each other from their windows at the same time every night. The singer with cancer in Cape Town, South Africa, who treats her neighbors to concerts from her balcony. The New Zealand hotel that rewarded its quarantined guests with certificates, rounds of applause and desserts on special holidays for keeping themselves — and others — safe.
With continued diligence and a dose of luck, the pandemic will soon be a thing of the past. But chronic loneliness, as a debilitating — if not deadly — condition, will always be with us.
If anything good is to come from the pandemic, I hope it's that Americans discover a new way of relating to each other.