what it means to pandemic, solo

This is the Sunday 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

This is a newsletter about people enduring the pandemic alone. I have read hundreds of articles, actually hundreds, on parents’ difficulties during the pandemic, which feels appropriate: it is really fucking hard to be a parent right now. But within the American experience in particular, nuclear families and their experiences are privileged. I don’t mean that in the “they have more money” sort of way (although sometimes, even often times, they do) — more in the “they take center stage” sort of way.

The nuclear family has become the primary unit of thinking when it comes to the way society is organized. It is the optimized path towards home ownership and financial independence, “preferred,” when it comes to everything from adoption and custody to hiring practices. But living with other people can be hard for any number of reasons, and the nuclear family is no more or less natural than the extended, intergenerational family, or cooperative child rearing practices, or just living by yourself.

This piece is not meant to obviate the difficulties all sorts of other people are enduring the pandemic. It is not intended devalue any other experiences. It is just meant to say: struggle and joy takes on so many forms, and some of them are easier to see from the outside than others. Empathy requires understanding and embracing as much.

I received so many incredible responses to this prompt that I’ve divided the piece into two. Subscribe now and come back later this week for more. Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity, and some names have been changed so people can speak freely.

Claire, 31, Medical Student, Small Town in the Mid-Atlantic

I live alone with my pets (cat, fish, snail), plants and sourdough starter.  I've been living alone for about a year and prior to this I've always had anywhere from 1 to 11 roommates.  I hit a breaking point during my first year of med school with regards to sharing space and privacy/kitchen messes and got my own apartment even though I really can't afford it. 

I love living alone and — more than ever — think it's worth cutting back on other parts of my budget so that I can afford to have my own place.  At the beginning of the pandemic, I talked a lot with another friend who lives alone about how everybody around us was checking in on us, feeling sorry for us, and we were like, no, we feel sorry for y'all being crowded into a little apartment with your spouse/child/roommates and also having to negotiate pandemic safety with someone who might have different ideas of safety than you.

I like to daydream about living arrangements that would be more ideal: like if I lived in a duplex or an apartment building with friends across the hall, or if I had a partner who had their own apartment, or something like that that would give me the best of both worlds.  But so long as we are comparing some kind of binary of living completely alone vs. sharing space with other people 100% of the time — which is a real binary that describes how most people live — I would pick living alone, no question, even though I'm having a phenomenally good hair day today and is a good hair day really a good hair day if nobody is there to see it?

But I think that the worst part of all of this is that everyone has had to decide who in their life is important enough to spend time with.  I feel like I have a healthy number of friends in my town, but I'm not anybody's ride-or-die right now, and when it comes to pandemic friendships quality beats quantity.  For the first part of the pandemic I was 100% alone, and then sometime during the late summer I started hanging out with a small number of friends who I knew weren't being as careful as I would ideally like my pod to be. Sometime around Thanksgiving I cut off all in-person socializing again because it felt too irresponsible.  There hasn't really been a time where I could sit my friends down and be like, "listen, we need to make some rules about the risks that we're all going to take together" because it felt very clear to me that I needed them more than they needed me: if I cut them off, they still have their roommates and boyfriends, whereas if I leave their leaky pod then I don't have anybody I can see in person? 

But I love that literally nobody sees what I do with my days.  If I want to wear the same sweatpants for a week and not bathe — fine!  If I want to sing made up songs about the nephritic vs. nephrotic syndromes in a fake opera singer voice while I study — it's fine!  At one point when I was really isolated I was wearing a lot of costumey thrift store finds, like fake fur vests and rose gold sequin hot pants, usually paired with t shirts or scrubs or something because fuck it, why not, and the pandemic has really let me be my weirdest, most authentic, and sometimes most joyful self. 

Before all of this, I was already feeling a lot of "am I going to die alone" anxiety as a single, queer woman in my thirties.  All my anxiety and loneliness existed before the pandemic and the pandemic has just intensified those feelings, though in some way it's given me something convenient to blame those feelings on.  I'd probably still be single and a little lonely if there weren't a pandemic, but it's easy to just think I'm single and lonely because of a global crisis and not because of personal failings.

The intensity of my isolation has made me really re-think what I want out of life, especially as I plan to graduate from med school in a year and a half and have make some life-altering decisions about residency programs.  In the beginning of the pandemic, I started doing regular zoom calls with a very close group of friends I've had for a long time, and those weekly calls have been the biggest thing getting me through these times: close, reliable friendships are hard to come by in your 30s, and they're such a lifeline for single people.  My goal is to only apply for residency programs in areas where I already have at least one good local friend, even if it means not applying to programs that are otherwise prestigious/interesting/good fits.  I just don't want to take my friendships for granted anymore, and assume that I can move to a new city and some kind of a community will just quickly fall into place?

Hannah, 39, Florida, University Administration

Before now, I have only lived alone on two occasions in my life, each for only a year. When this year started, I was living with my then-boyfriend and realized before the pandemic started that I wasn't entirely happy. Then a friend of mine suddenly lost her fiance and shortly after that I read Untamed and those two things together made me really think about my mortality and whether or not I was really living the life I wanted.

I have always thought fondly of the times that I had lived alone and remembered them as fun times where I got to be completely in control of my life. I didn't have to consider anyone else's feelings about any choices I made in my home. Back in the good old days when I didn't have to put up my boyfriend's custom Star Wars art or find a way to artfully display his Funko Pop collection. And I could sit around watching TV all day without someone asking me what I want to do today (This, man! This is what I want to do today!) The freedom of not having a roommate that would judge you if you brought home the wrong kind of guy or came home too drunk from a night out with co-workers. And of course, not having a pushy, narcissistic mother around 24/7. So, for many of the last 12 years I have longed to be able to live alone.

When I got the offer for the job I have now, and I realized I could finally live alone and support myself, I felt so incredibly excited and nervous, and free! Finally free to explore whatever thing I chose to do with my time. If I want to spend an entire weekend doing cross-stitch or reading 10 books, or binging 7 seasons of Law & Order, there is no one to stop me! Of course, then you realize, there's no one to stop you from self-destructing either. Luckily, I've found a therapist here! I also looked at living alone as kind of a pipe dream because it had been so long since I made enough money to support myself (even with two Bachelor's degrees!). I would say that it wasn't so much that I wanted to live alone, as much as I wanted to know that I could.

I am too scared of COVID to start dating yet, because I am just too paranoid about sharing space with someone new. I am no longer able to work remotely, so I feel like the risk I put myself in just going to work is enough for me right now. The thing I didn't really expect was how much I miss being touched, and not even in a sexual way. I am not lonely, per se. I don't need someone around me all the time, but I miss just getting hugs from my sister, my niece, my friends, even my crazy mom. I miss being able to see my friends and hang out with them, and I hate that I can't go out and try to make new friends yet.

I've always kind of known that the world looks on single people a different kind of way. With pity, really. The other day I was talking to a co-worker about how my house was a mess after the holidays and how I like to keep it neat for my own sanity. She said "Do you live alone?" I said yes, and she said "Oh" in a very sad way. Then she told me that her house is never clean because she has three sons. I told her how my ex-boyfriend had a pile in the corner of our otherwise clean bedroom where he kept his CLEAN clothes rather than put them away. She jokingly asked if that was why I left him. Maybe?

I think especially now, when there's so little interaction, people feel kind of sorry for people who live alone. Or some people seem confused about why I don't just go out and date or meet new friends, because they don't take COVID as seriously as I do, so they see me as kind of an alarmist. But more and more people are coming to the realization that living alone doesn't mean that you're lonely. Living with someone and being unhappy is a much worse kind of loneliness than living alone.

I am going to be 40 in February and I honestly feel like my life is just beginning.

Anne, 27, Salt Lake City, Developer Relations Wrangler at a tech company, queer (agender/genderqueer & gay).

I moved to Salt Lake City in June. Moving here was well thought out: extended family nearby that would have some sort of moral obligation to care about me if I were to get seriously sick, a collection of various friends from different parts of my life in case something bad happened, cheaper to snag a nicer studio apartment to ride things out, access to nature to stay sane, and a trip I could make in a day.

I do and still feel it’s a privilege to be able to live alone, particularly now. Perhaps this comes from the perspective of being a part of a debt ridden generation struggling to get jobs and my own upbringing fighting for my own safe space away from my somewhat chaotic family. As a massive introvert, I genuinely have always enjoyed living alone and mainly had roommates for the last two years so I could get the best of both worlds: an affordable homebase to leave frequently. Having spent a few months with roommates who, only a few times, interpreted COVID best practices differently than me, I have never been more relieved to live alone. At the same time, I love community and, in the past, living alone gave me more energy to venture out into a more social world rather than wasting energy on small talk. Now though, there’s no venturing to be done and I can feel aspects of myself atrophying if I’m not careful. 

I hug trees–full on squeeze for at least five seconds HUG. The lack of physical contact is devastating, especially as someone who was nicknamed “the velcro baby” growing up due to my love of hugs. There’s also this looming sense that I’m royally screwed if I get seriously sick. I have a childhood friend who had a stroke related to COVID and their partner was able to get 911 there rapidly. I am essentially quarantining to prevent this from happening and to protect my community, but that deep fear is very real. I worry most that I’ll get sick, lose track of time, and not be able to tell  how bad I’m getting without a second opinion from someone who can physically see me. 

I haven’t stayed in one place this long since I was 18. I haven’t driven further than 2.5 hours away from my apartment and even that was just to go see a national forest nearby where I didn’t see anyone. It’s causing a blurring of myself to occur. I lose track of who I am in the monotony. I was in the shower the other day and genuinely couldn’t remember if I had washed my hair yet. I had to run my fingers through my hair to realize that I had because I had no recollection. These sort of little forgetful moments happen more than I care to admit, and I know it’s due to the stress and isolation. 

Finally, because I also have the privilege of working from home, there’s a mega “lack of bad day awareness.” I talk about this at work as when you work remotely and you have a bad day no one will know unless you’re vulnerable and brave enough to say something. This used to just be a phenomenon at work but now it cuts across my every waking moment. I’ve caught myself more than a few times isolating myself even more in my already isolated state and it takes a lot of effort to pull myself back from that. 

I see this time as an edge case of the soul. I had a sabbatical from work last year where I was able to fully immerse myself in who I was without work and now I feel like I’m having a forced sabbatical from other parts of my soul. Who am I when I’m not productive? How do I love people when I can’t see them?

Through all of this, I’m finding great hope in my expanding toolkit for connecting from afar with those that I love. As a part of the AIM generation, I’ve always been adept at this, but I can feel a sense of creativity in the task at hand. How do I stay sensitive to loving others deeply even when it might bring up deep pangs of longing? I’ve swapped physical nomading for emotional nomading and am finding it’s opening my soul up.

Now, I worry less about how this time could destroy a part of my soul and wonder more about how I’ll be able to learn from this time to love others better. So I scour the internet for clever quarantine cards (some of my favorites: #, #, #) to bring a smile, send personalized Cameo-like videos to loved ones from my hikes in the snow, create “lifechat starters” to encourage convos from afar, swap novel length messages to coworkers over Slack, wrangle biweekly “queerantine” calls with a group of queer friends, and call as much as my introverted soul can bear. All of this has helped me somehow learn how to re-create collective consciousness raising moments on my own with live music, meditation, writing, etc.

Normally, one would need to go to a big concert, a religious service, a conference, etc to get that heart in your chest “I’m connected to everyone” feeling yet I seem to have macgyvered my own pathway there from my studio apartment. Even at the edge of myself and in the midst of society fraying, connection found a way and this gives me hope. 

I have been able to embrace rest and boredom in a way I never have and want to see that integrated into my existence. Prior to this, I was already in the process of creating “little homes” on my nomading adventures in various spots across the country. More than anything, though, I truly hope this collective trauma wakes others up to the importance of community building especially when it’s messy, hard, and inconvenient. Trauma in my life taught me that everything can change in an instant, and my hope is that more people will carry that nugget of truth into our future. The key is letting yourself be changed and in discerning what needs to be done differently going forward: trauma informed vs trauma driven.

I worry the magic and momentum coming out of this period of suffering can be lost in our desperate desire to return to a normalcy that was a delusion anyway. Perhaps this shared trauma point can be used as a connection point, too — and I hope more people join in on doing the hard work, opting for messy humanity over virtual echo chambers. 

E, 51, Professor of Natural Resources in the Great Plains

I live alone in a small house. I was absolutely fine with it before: if being at home ever seemed oppressive, I could plan to go out and do things, either going out shopping or to the library or for a walk. I also had a lot of groups I was a part of — the AAUW, and a bell choir at church, and other responsibilities. Most of those groups have either gone virtual or temporarily disbanded. And virtual meetings over Zoom aren't a substitute for me of getting out of the house.

I did notice some Sunday evenings I would feel sad and at loose ends, I ascribed that to "oh the workweek is beginning" but it might also have been a loneliness thing? I just really miss the casual interactions. Someone who wrote an essay about being introvert in the pandemic noted that for a lot of us, the little interactions — like talking to someone working the counter at the bookstore, or chatting with the barista in the coffeeshop — were far more important to us than we realized, and wow, do I ever feel that right now. I miss talking with a student in the hall, and going to the quilt shop and hanging out and talking with people there. A woman I had only known online through Ravelry started up a Zoom knitting group where we can drop in and talk and knit, and it's been a lifesaver for me, and something that would probably not have occurred to any of us otherwise.

But the unpleasant interactions I have loom much larger. There was an incident a couple weeks ago where a neighbor's dog was aggressive towards me and she was very dismissive of my fear of dogs. Normally I'd get past that fast, because I'd mention it to a colleague or someone at church and they'd just go "well, she's a jerk, of course you'd be concerned about an unfamiliar dog.” But I don't have anyone to bounce thoughts off of so they loom larger and worse in my head.

We are not "all in this together." I have seen references, not blatant but still I picked up on it, that "the nuclear family you are part of is all you need and forget those other people.” While I've always felt a bit on the “outside looking in” in my life, it’s gotten worse. I've lost more than a few people during this time: people who died, but also some I just had to break contact with because of their attitudes about various things, especially the virus. I'm fearful that after the pandemic is over I won't be able to cobble a support net back together — that people will close down and not want to admit others.

I would like to keep some of the casual Zoom meetups with people that live far away, so we can "hang out" when it's not logistically possible to travel. I would like to find more local friends. More than anything, I want the bell choir I was in to start back up: I really enjoyed that and we were just starting to get good. But I also want to feel more free to just go and do things. Less tied to my job, less "you must get ALL your work done before you can have fun.” I didn't take advantages of opportunities to enjoy life in the past, and after a year locked in my house thinking about the people I loved who died — well, I've stared into that abyss enough.

I am considering whether I need to go back to counseling or not. I've had some pretty depressive episodes (I guess, I've never been diagnosed) during this where my house got messy and I couldn't bring myself to do stuff. But I'm not sure what exactly I'd work on? Accepting that I'm getting older and yes I will die some day, and I missed out on a lot of the possibilities I might have had, and just accepting that?

Cassie, 37, Gifts-buyer at Book People, Austin, Texas

Before the pandemic I loved living alone. And that has not changed one bit. Maybe it helps that I'm an only child? Do I wish I could have people over? Absolutely! I was watching the final season of Schitt's Creek live, as each episode was premiering, and I couldn't share that with anyone. But I really love and value living by myself. Every now and then I'll miss having a partner — I definitely always miss having someone else cook me food — but that's missing being in a relationship. Even if I had a boyfriend, I would want to live alone. 

There’s so much that I miss! I miss flirting with bartenders! I miss watching football at my friend's house. The last time I touched another human was a somewhat ill-advised birthday hug with a friend in late May. Literally, that was it. I haven't so much as brushed someone else's hand since then. The complete lack of human contact is ...depressing. 

But there’s nobody to get on my nerves, nobody to get sick of. I have so many friends who have vented about how stressful quarantine has been on their relationships. My best friend also lives alone, and we have discussed, more than once, how very happy and lucky we feel to be living alone right now. I've also been fortunate enough to keep my job and now I'm able to do it from home. I've always wanted to work from home, and do not take for granted that I am getting so much quality time with my very old dog in his last stage of life.

When this is all over, I’m definitely never taking a hug for granted again. I'd like to continue working from home one or two days a week. My friends and I have managed to maintain a standing Friday Game Night via Zoom, and it would be fun to keep that going in person. I would like to be healthier on the other side. I've been using quarantine as an excuse to eat poorly and drink with abandon. Self-medicating disguised as self-care. I feel like I'm finally snapping out of it and ready to take my health more seriously.

I've long felt like some people think that I'm sad or that I'm unfulfilled because I'm single. I love my life. I'm very happy — not about the state of our world country/world, but I am happy with the life I've carved out. Society tends to treat single people like they're incomplete. I am a whole-ass person. I'm not waiting to live my life for anyone.

Things I Read and Found Compelling This Week:

As always, if you know someone who’d enjoy this sort of thing in their inbox, please forward it their way. If you’re able, consider going to the paid version of the newsletter — one of the perks = weirdly fun/interesting/generative discussion threads, just for subscribers, every week, which are thus far still one of the good places on the internet.

If you are a contingent worker or un- or under-employed, just email and I’ll give you a free subscription, no questions asked. If you’d like to underwrite one of those subscriptions, you can donate one here.

You can find a shareable version online here. You can follow me on Twitter here, even though I’m currently avoiding it, and Instagram here. Feel free to comment below — and you can always reach me at annehelenpetersen@gmail.com.