"We bumped elbows as he was leaving. That is the sum total of physical contact I've had with any human being since March 4th."

Solo Pandemic, Part 2

This is the midweek edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing

Earlier this week, I published the first batch of stories of people going through the pandemic alone. You can read them here. I heard from a lot of people in similar situations, grateful to see something of their own experience reflected. But I also heard from a lot of people whose experiences are nothing like what was described, simply grateful for people talking about themselves and their struggles and joys in very human ways. I loved, for example, how Anne talked about the “blurring” of herself during isolation, an unrootedness in space and time that you don’t really realize is happening until you’re in the shower and can’t remember if you just washed your hair or not.

I hope these stories continue to provide some space to stretch out in your own identification. In the weeks and months to come, I’ll be collecting more from different vantage points. But for now, here’s another chance to visit what it feels to go through this period of everything-and-nothing-all-the-time by yourself.

Rey, 27, Graduate Student, Boston Area

I developed a strong and complex relationship with someone else's cat. I've reorganized my room so that it's more convenient for my rats to roam freely. I've become one of the key people in the lives of other people's animals — I helped a young husky with social anxiety by babysitting her when her owners were gone. I watched 3 euthanasia's for other people's pets. I regularly visit a cat at my local pet store because his perch is far away from the checkout counter. Most weeks I spend more time trying to communicate with animals than I spend talking to people.

For the first time in four years, people didn't make me uncomfortable by asking me if I was visiting family for the holidays. I'm estranged. My dad died. I don't live with friends or a partner, so I didn't have people to support me in my grief. My loved ones were too busy dealing with their own feelings around the pandemic to check in on me after my dad died. I still haven't really gotten over that. I get that people didn't have space for my emotions.

I quit testosterone. It was so much trouble to get the needles and hormones regularly, and I missed so many doses. I was tired of cycling on and off hormones. I might resume after the pandemic, or I might not. It's been freeing to wear a mask. People gender me less. When I do have to use public restrooms, no one else is in there, so I'm no longer afraid of getting called out for using the wrong bathroom. I stopped worrying about trying to pass as any particular gender, and started just wearing clothes that make me comfortable. The pandemic definitely doesn't erase my sense of nonbinary identity — it enhances it. I finally get to take a break from thinking about my gender.

Omar, 33, Tech Industry, San Francisco, California

I don't think I have ever spent this much time by myself as during 2020. In 2011 and 2013, I went through lockdowns in Egypt when the government imposed curfews during the Arab Spring, but I spent them with my family. There wasn't fear of going out and being worried that an invisible virus may infect you. 

I’ve realized that I have worked so much more than I have ever worked before. My social circle got so much smaller during the pandemic, as friends decided to isolate and the work related social gatherings ended. I have tried to spend more time during the weekends outdoors, but I have noticed that I haven't always had the energy or desire to go outside.

I’ve been seeing a therapist for the past three and a half years, and I think a lot of things that I have discussed with her are related to how I process different thoughts about work, feeling connected, and dealing with the idea of being an immigrant in the US. I can definitely say that since I started working from home in March 2020, my mental wellbeing took a big hit. I never recognized this before, but being alone for much longer periods allowed me to think of my life, work, family and relationships in different ways. While it's always good to be introspective, I think in my situation it led to an unhealthy obsession about work — and the difficulty of forming connections with other people during the pandemic. At one point, I told my therapist I could no longer think of a future where things go back to normal — when people can travel easily, when there’s no fear of interacting with other individuals — and that this was causing me a lot of anxiety and stress. I am still working with my therapist on how to deal with these thoughts. 

Back in May 2020, I was talking to one of my coworkers who was really struggling. She has two kids, and both she and her husband work, so they cannot take their kids to daycare. They are both Indian immigrants and don't have a green card yet, so they were very worried about reducing working hours or finding a flexible work arrangement that could impact their visa status. 

During the conversation, I was trying to offer support to my coworker and she was very receptive of it. She made a remark about how things must be so much easier for me since I am not married, don't have kids and live by myself. I felt devastated. Parents’ struggles are visible. You see someone’s kid crash a meeting or scream or cry because they want their parents to help them. My struggles are all hidden behind a facade of showing up to calls and putting on a smile during meetings.

I have seen coworkers request time off to handle a family situation or spend more time with their children. Whenever I attempted to do something similar, I always felt worried of being perceived that I am slacking off by coworkers or that I have fewer personal responsibilities so I should help more at work. So many of our norms and implicit rules in society are designed to support heterosexual families. Companies are increasing benefits to support struggling family members which is definitely the right thing to do: extending parental leaves, and offering flexible working arrangements for mothers returning back to work. This is all needed.

But what happens as more and more folks are single, live alone or don’t want to have kids? How do we cater for LGBTQ members of society that don’t subscribe to these norms? 

Martha, 76, Retired in Durham, North Carolina

I’m a founding member of an urban co-housing community. We (37 people) live in a 24-unit apartment in downtown Durham, a few blocks to Farmers Market, main library, cinema, stores, bars, restaurants, and parks. We built the building and moved in six years ago. I have known most of my coho neighbors for ten years, but we did not know each other before forming the community to build our “home.” There’s a wide variety of people and professions here, all committed to sharing our spaces, lives, and environmental concerns. We govern ourselves by consensus. 

I live by myself in an 870 square foot apartment, but I’m in a four story apartment building with 36 others. We have been very careful in the pandemic; we debated protocols at the beginning and review them often. We were stricter in the beginning but have figured how to loosen up and be together. Only last week did we have our first Covid positive member. We wear masks when outside our apartments in the building, but we have reconfigured many common spaces: we have Happy Hour in a cozy breezeway with heaters and warm clothing, and we still have our common meals on Sunday evenings, but meet only briefly to collect food and then eat on our own.

Personally, this arrangement has been a lifesaver: to be safe in my own and common spaces, to be able to have the odd chat with a neighbor. I am alone, but surrounded by and with easy access to friends and family. Also, if I get sick, there are people in the building to help with food and general care. I remember being very scared last spring — about getting sick, having to go to hospital, whom to call if I suddenly felt I needed to go. But we all decided to provide documents on how we wanted to be cared for, and what we were willing to do for neighbors. Filling out those plans helped. We also got thermometers and oximeters so we could monitor ourselves and report to a buddy. By summer that intense anxiety had gone.

I have lots of single female friends living in their own houses. My decision to move into co-housing is revealed every day in its brilliance — who knew what a difference it would make in an ‘unprecedented’ time?

Reginald, Bay Area, 50s, Political Organizer and Volunteer

I live by myself in a 2-bedroom, 2-bath condo. It's weird living in a place where the bathrooms outnumber me. My husband and I bought this place nearly 15 years ago. We lived here together until he died three years ago. I had to give up paid work to look after him during his last illness. After he died, I've been alone. 

Before I met my husband, I was used to living alone. Like any typical Gen X person, I grew up a latchkey kid home by myself for most of the day. I was in my late thirties and set in my ways when he and I first moved in together. After my husband died, concerned friends and family would ask me how I would cope by myself. I honestly believed I would be fine. Being alone was my default, after all. The time I had spent living with my husband was shorter than the time I had spent by myself before we got together. I've always been rather a loner, bookish and introverted, the kind of person who prefers takeout to eating at the restaurant. 

I was wrong. I finally understood what Sartre meant by absence "haunting" a place. My husband was, and remains, not here. His not being here fills up the condo, my heart, and all of time. 

Until COVID hit, at least I was getting out of the house. I saw old friends and even made new ones. I drove up to San Francisco a couple times a week for political organizing. I kept myself busy putting together phone banks and text banks for the Democratic primaries. I spent time in people's houses, Democratic party offices, and church basements, strategizing, cutting turf, training volunteers. I staffed tables at farmers' markets and commuter rail stations.

All of that changed so quickly it's dizzying even to think about. I went from being busy round the clock to ... having nothing to do. 

It felt like a weak echo of one day just after my husband died. The hospice workers had come and taken away his hospital bed, his oxygen tank, and his commode. The condo was put back to the way it was before we had all that equipment in it. It was a Thursday. I remember thinking: Thursday is a busy day. The home health care worker should be here any minute to give my husband a shave and a shower. I should be rushing around frantically making breakfast so my husband will have eaten before he comes. I should be changing the sheets on the hospital bed and getting the place ready for the housekeepers. How is it that I am sitting here with literally nothing to do? 

Since March 4, aside from fortnightly trips to the grocery store, I have left my condo three times. Each time, I have sat, socially distanced, masked, in someone else's front or back yard. Never more than three people total. I have had someone come by just once. A smoke alarm high on my ceiling began to chirp, and a friend with a long ladder stopped by, masked, for a few minutes so I could change it. We bumped elbows as he was leaving. That is the sum total of physical contact I've had with any human being since March 4.

I expected to miss my husband. I expected to be lonely. I didn't expect that loneliness to be exacerbated by physical and social isolation. Now that the elections are over, I am grateful to have housekeepers who come by every fortnight while I'm out getting groceries, because if I were to die here, at least they'd find my body within a couple weeks. Otherwise nobody would realize I was gone.  

Wondering how I'd have handled it if my husband were still alive is one of the worst aspects of the pandemic. During his six months in hospice, a home health care aide came by three times a week to give him a shave and a shower. The hospice nurse stopped by every day, and a social worker once a week. A hospice volunteer visited weekly, staying with him for a couple hours while I went to the grocery store and the pharmacy.

On the one hand I keep wondering how I would have managed if all this had to managed during the pandemic. How frightening to think of all those people coming in from outside, handling an ill man after having seen other patients! The risks would not have been worth it. On the other hand, how could I have kept him comfortable and looked after him by myself? The thought is frightening. Then I think that perhaps it's good I didn't have to face that dilemma; and then my heart breaks because it feels as though I'm glad he is dead. I'm not. I would have managed somehow; I'd not have had any other choice, and then I would have just felt so guilty that I wasn't able to keep him comfortable and safe by myself. 

Being at home by myself all the time means I think about this constantly. I feel lonely and bereaved, then I wonder how I would have looked after him without help from outside, then I feel guilty. 

I keep thinking about the time that a grocery clerk asked me: "Paper or plastic?" And I had to clear my throat a couple times before I could get the answer out. I hadn't said a word to anybody in so many days, my voice was out of practice. 

Some months ago I stopped putting out towels and mats in the guest bathroom. I'd change them out every two weeks and they'd be unused, just stale from having sat out there for so long. Why bother. Nobody is using that bathroom, I don't need to make more laundry for myself. 

I have to keep reminding myself that while I'm watching every penny, I still have a roof over my head. I know where my next meal is coming from. I can pay my health insurance. I have books. I have music. I have the Internet. I know how lucky I am compared to so many who have lost everything. I wish I could just be grateful for how lucky I am, and not have to remind myself of it all the time. I wish I didn't feel so guilty, both about my comparative good fortune and about not being grateful enough for it. I read 46 books last year. I got through 2020 without a single cold. 

A lot of people treat being single as some sort of exception. But for LGBTQ people, at least for LGBTQ people of my generation and older, that trajectory doesn't actually pertain. The studies around loneliness among LGBTQ elderly are out there. I knew about them, and now I'm part of that statistic. No surprises. 

After the pandemic, I'll meet some friends from time to time, perhaps. They like me well enough, but they all have partners and jobs and lives of their own. Even before the 'rona, I wasn't that important a part of their lives, and I don't see that changing. As for romantic partnerships, I'm no catch. I'm an aging, out-of-shape, unemployed gay man in a place where wealthy, fit gay men are the norm. I have no qualities that make me exceptional or noteworthy in any way. I have nothing to offer. So it's a good thing I've gotten used to being lonely now. I get through each day and assuming a normal lifespan of 78 years, I can expect things to go on like this for another 25 years or so. I can endure it. People have endured worse.

Izzy, Late 20s, STEM Graduate Student in the Rust Belt

My name is Izzy and my pronouns are they/them/theirs. Prior to the pandemic, I really liked living alone. I had lived alone for some time after college and knew that I needed my own space after leaving an unhealthy relationship. Living alone (in general) challenges me as a disabled person because I feel uncomfortable asking others for help and relying on people. Living alone now has really helped me to see the areas where I do need help, and has also enabled me to identify people in my life who don't see me as a burden and are willing to help me. It has also helped me see how I enrich others’ lives and understand that being disabled doesn’t make me a burden, it simply changes the things I have to offer.

As soon as the pandemic began, I got involved with local mutual aid and organizing. I also had a lot of trouble believing that it was okay for me to ask for mutual aid for myself. I am fortunate enough to have a stipend for my graduate program, so I don't have to worry as much about paying for things, but I do have to worry a lot about leaving my house for any and every reason — as we all should, really. My social network has implemented the bartering system, and I’ve been able to trade flour and baked goods for things like laundry. My friends and chosen family have been really wonderful in making sure that I have enough food and am eating — it’s really nice to have people check in on me every day and to reach out to others, especially as things continue to get more and more horrific and weird.

The worst part of living alone is less about being alone and more effects of being alone while everything else happens. The university and department and lab I work at pretend nothing has happened over the past year, and that working through a pandemic and societal unrest is completely sustainable. The general vibe is “now you have more time to be productive since you’re working from home!” All of it undermines work-life balance and gaslights already fragile graduate students. I have stopped volunteering for things that do not give back to me, especially because I was doing unpaid and unacknowledged DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) work for my department, lab, and university since arriving. I’ve felt incredibly hopeless, and didn’t know what the point was in working on a PhD that I felt like didn’t contribute to making the pandemic or society better — so I kept doing things that were unrelated to my PhD.

All of it made me feel extremely isolated — and because I live alone, I didn’t have a control person to balance these ideas against, apart from other grad students who felt similarly. It’s taken several months of support and therapy to come to a point where I can recognize that my work still matters and is valuable and contributes to the future I want to see in the world, no matter what it is. 

I feel like I’ve gotten to know myself a lot better during this time. I don’t feel as much of a need to pretend to be healthy or happy, because many people are going through really similar things. I’ve always hated small talk, I’ve gotten to connect at a much deeper level with people I care about and genuinely know how they feel about things. I’m more cognizant of how everyone experiences the world in a completely unique way, and I feel kind of silly to not realize it sooner. I’ve become a lot more in touch with my heritage and spirituality and have had the time to sit uninterrupted and process a lot of my trauma and history. I wouldn’t say it’s the best, but it is ultimately really important and good for me.

It’s really impossible to live alone in modern hypercapitalism and also do all the things that “need to get done” according to the same rules. And it’s very clear to me that individualism doesn’t work for abled people, and has never worked for disabled people. In order to make our society more equitable, we need to understand that we are nothing without everyone and without supporting everyone in whatever they might need, even if some people might not need the same things. $2000 stimulus checks are the bare minimum, but are still more than disabled people get — those who can get on disability.

I think we all need to sit down and think about what we need, and understand that there shouldn’t be shame in being unable to meet society’s expectations— we need to change the expectations.

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