What loneliness taught me during the pandemic

Vivian Dang shares her learnings from the past year of struggling with the pressures of balancing her mental health and personal safety with the safety of those closest to her.

I recently read a New Yorker article from writer Jill Lepore who posed the question, “In the age of quarantine, does one disease produce another?”

Loneliness is a pandemic that has emerged in all parts of the world. Japan recently became the second country after Britain to appoint a “loneliness minister,” due to rising pandemic suicides. 

Despite the serious impacts of loneliness, there’s also a sense of shame and hesitation I’d notice when I wanted to verbalize how lonely I felt. 

Check-ins with friends would result in frustrations over evolving restrictions. While we touched upon topics of grief, it often felt like we were diverting our feelings for the sake of empathy or comparison—“I’m grateful that I can pay my bills,” or “I  still have a full-time job, so I can’t complain,” and so forth. 

Loneliness and having access to basic needs like housing, income, food and social/familial relations aren’t mutually exclusive.

I have access to all of these things, and I still feel lonely. 

Photo credit: Jefferson Palomique on Pexels

Loneliness isn’t monolithic

At its basic level, loneliness is defined as “a conscious, cognitive feeling of estrangement or social separation from meaningful others,” according to British historian Fay Bound Alberti.

Professor of psychiatric epidemiology, Karestan Koenen, points out an interesting dichotomy in the context of the pandemic – there’s a shared feeling of isolation that unifies us, but we all feel incredibly alone. 

Although we have these shared experiences,” Koenen says, “because we’re deprived of so many [other] ways we would connect with people around us, it feels isolating.” 

Being single and living alone was incredibly difficult at a time when uncertainty meant seeking comfort in an empty apartment. In place of another human presence, the only sounds I heard daily were the annoying hum from my refrigerator and the songs from my Spotify playlist.

I’d often feel a stab of jealousy knowing my friends had partners, roommates, or a family they lived with. Living alone had its luxuries, but I often felt disconnected from my friends. 

Photo credit: Dương Nhân on Pexels

“I’m pretty good – considering,” they’d tell me anytime I’d check in on them. This led me to hold the assumption that everyone was doing just fine and I was the only one struggling with my loneliness. At times, I felt too embarrassed and ashamed, and would completely ignore the desire to text them or jump on a FaceTime call. 

I realized how wrong I was when one of my married friends recently admitted how lonely and isolated she felt. “I know I don’t live alone and have a partner,” she texted me, “but I think I broke down maybe two or three times since the start of the pandemic”. 

Regardless of our marital status or living arrangements, the pandemic has created a state of loneliness that is deeply felt among all of us, a notion that writer Jill Lepore further expands upon: “You can live alone without being lonely, and you can be lonely without living alone, but the two are closely tied together, which makes lockdowns, sheltering in place, that much harder to bear.” 

This past fall, I felt like I reverted back to my pre-pandemic self, when being single and living alone was something that I was still getting used to. Just as I’d figured out ways to combat my loneliness, the pandemic hit and the loneliness re-emerged. It became compounded by increased isolation and the anxiety that my social decisions could, quite frankly, result in life or death. 

See also: Grieving the lives we had before COVID-19

Living alone during the pandemic

I never thought that I’d have to prioritize my interpersonal relationships. The ongoing pandemic forced me to create an uncomfortable hierarchy among social and familial relations, when B.C. restrictions tightened in November from a “safe six” to a “safe two”. This meant eliminating monthly visits to see my family.

My anxiety and depression worsened immensely when I was then placed in the awkward position to choose only two friends that I’d continue to see – one friend who’s pregnant and works from home; another friend who’s an essential worker. 

Then there’s me. I work with people living with HIV/AIDS and a variety of complex social and medical issues. Between the three of us, we’re all vulnerable and entirely capable of contracting and spreading COVID-19 to each other. 

The increasing concern and responsibility I felt in keeping my pregnant friend safe resulted in sacrifices that I willingly chose to continue seeing her. When one positive COVID-19 case was identified at work, I chose to work from home for a few weeks, despite struggling mentally with my remote office.

Photo credit: Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash

I often felt like I was stuck between prioritizing my mental health, adhering to provincial restrictions, and the added responsibility of being extra cautious and safe to avoid compromising my pregnant friend.

As Jim Nobel, a lecturer at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH), points out, “We’re lonely now not because someone might not like us, or we might get rejected…We’re lonely because we’re forced to take very specific actions in response to a common enemy.”

Learning to enforce boundaries 

When the feeling of loneliness emerged in December, I felt even lonelier. 

As the weeks progressed, the warmth of the holiday season that I excitedly anticipated in previous years, worsened my depression. I battled feeling guilty for choosing myself over my family, even though I had valid reasons.

My parents would constantly text and call me about coming home because they missed me, but I grew increasingly frustrated when they continuously disrespected my boundaries. I’d tell them repeatedly that current provincial restrictions prevented me from seeing them. It would also infringe upon my ability to see my safe bubble, who I continue to rely on for social connection.

I used work as a coping mechanism to distract me from how shitty I felt. Over the holidays, I requested one vacation day and continued to plough through all the stress, exhaustion, and anxiety I felt, since starting my job in September.

In my head, I planned to work up the courage to request mental health days. But the anticipation of the actual conversation made me anxious and I dreaded it for weeks, until my burnout and exhaustion gave me away. 

A random phone call with my manager in early January resulted in a frank conversation where I told him how I’d been struggling for the last month. 

Photo credit: Jessica Ticozzelli on Pexels

I began taking Fridays off and noticed the small difference it made in my mental health. Having an extra day allowed me to properly rest and enjoy the weekend, instead of rushing to get my chores and errands done with only half of Sunday to recuperate before doing it all over again.

Now, I’m learning to recognize my default habits and figure out healthier ways to cope with my anxiety and depression. 

See also: Millennial burnout in quarantine and the mindful way forward with Juno Kim

Moving towards self-compassion

Self-compassion is something that I constantly struggle with. 

I think back to my first Cold Tea Collective article about the importance of allowing myself to grieve rather than fall under the trap of “comparative suffering,” a process in which we rank our suffering and use it to deny or give ourselves permission to feel. 

It reminds me to constantly exhibit self-compassion and validate my emotions—be it grief or loneliness—anytime my anxiety and depression trivializes it. 

Being single and living alone has been tough during the pandemic, but it also taught me that loneliness begets loneliness. The more lonely I feel, the less inclined I am to reach out to people. I’m trying to break that cycle.

Long before the pandemic happened, the troubling concerns of loneliness were being addressed by writer Olga Khazan—in 2017. COVID-19 may have exacerbated feelings of loneliness, but the loneliness epidemic was already an ongoing health issue four years ago. 

In the same way that hunger takes care of our physical body, psychologist John Cacioppo, notes that “Loneliness takes care of your social body, which you also need to survive and prosper. We’re a social species.”

Right now, loneliness is felt deeply by everyone in the world. 

As humans, we rely on social interactions to survive—involuntary isolation and restrictive social bubbles isn’t normal, making this pandemic so much harder and at times, unbearable to live through. 

So instead of withdrawing or feeling ashamed of my loneliness, I’m going to make a proactive effort to reach out to my friends more often.

It’s the most important thing I can do right now to assuage my loneliness.

See also: How I found silver linings in the chaos of 2020

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