I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be alone.
I’m a writer in my mid-40s who is neither partnered nor has children, so alone is my modus operandi. It is my way of existing in the world (my preferred way, I should add; I quite enjoy my life), and has been for quite some time.
This has put me at a peculiar advantage during the last three weeks (or three centuries, depending on how you’ve experienced time since March), as many of the increasing restrictions being placed on New York City were already in place in my daily life. I’ve been working from home for nearly a decade; after 15 years in media, I’ve grown accustomed to facing financial instability, and a market that is unreliable; and I live alone, so social distancing is the norm when I’m inside.
In other words, I didn’t have to change much.
In truth, barring the anxiety we’re all bearing for our loved ones, and those on the front lines, perhaps the biggest shift in my pandemic life thus far has been the sometimes-wild experience of having the world suddenly arrive at a place I’ve been living in for so long. All at once, I’m watching people publicly grapple with many of the aspects of life I’ve long considered normal but sometimes have a tough time articulating.
To be single and without children after a certain age is to largely disappear off the cultural map, and I’ve spent the last few years struggling with how best to approach one of the unexpected challenges of my life: the need to create a language around my experiences so that others can understand.
In fact, the devastating isolation I’ve sometimes experienced has almost always been the result of not being understood; of people not believing me when I say I’m happy.
It has been somewhat shocking, then, to open Instagram and see a type of language emerge: to find posts about color-coded guidelines created to let people know what sort of alone you are (red, supplies are needed; yellow; isolated at home). To watch my Twitter feed fill with people advising their followers to check in with friends and loved ones. To tune into Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s increasingly therapeutic news conferences, and listen to him talk about the difficulties of isolation and how to manage it. To abruptly begin hearing from friends daily who are newly coping with isolation.
It has felt like a tidal wave rushing out to greet me and then carry me away with everyone else. Instead of being alone at sea I am suddenly just another member of a global experience. I am normal.
The shift has been dizzying. In January, I underwent a breast biopsy that required anesthesia (and thus someone to come get me). I arrived at the hospital having neglected to tell anyone I was having the procedure.
This wasn’t out of pride. I’d simply forgot. When you are used to answering most of your own questions on a daily basis — what will I wear; what do I want to eat; when do I want to leave — the asking muscle gets awfully weak.
In the examining room, I scoffed when the nurse kindly told me most people bring someone because they want emotional support. It wasn’t until an hour later, when I was trapped between the two metals panels of an imaging machine — so tightly that I cried out more than once — and being told not to move as they squeezed my left breast tighter and tighter, that I realized my mistake. I did need someone. Badly.
For a few very long moments, the only person I wanted was my mother. It was a realization that took my breath away, not only because my mother died nearly three years ago, but also because even when she was alive I did not crave her presence.
But of all the people in our lives, our mothers are the ones who are required to show up for us, unconditionally and unasked. The tests results came back fine, but I spent the next weeks wondering if I’d somehow become a person who was too good at being alone, and how one went about fixing that.
And now suddenly, I don’t have to. The language of this pandemic is the language of isolation. In her book “The Lonely City,” Olivia Laing writes, “so much of the pain of loneliness is to do with concealment, with feeling compelled to hide vulnerability, to tuck ugliness away, to cover up scars as if they are literally repulsive.” These days, as we are forced to conceal ourselves, we are at the same time required to conceal nothing else.
Even so, I was unprepared for the cacophony of regular voices that entered my world.
Shortly after Governor Cuomo asked us to stay home, I woke up with symptoms consistent with coronavirus (like so many, I didn’t qualify for testing). The daily calls I was already getting turned into twice daily ones. To be outside marriage and motherhood is to be outside most of the rituals available to women, but suddenly I’d been thrust into the epicenter of new ones.
I’m fine now, but the check-ins remain. All of us suddenly worried we’ll lose each other in the space that’s been enforced between us; sending out sounding pings to make sure everyone is still where they’re supposed to be.
Even in the midst of this shared nightmare, there is something strangely gratifying about the situation. Visibility is as much a celebration as it is a blueprint: Now that I can see versions of myself everywhere, I’m increasingly aware of all the ways I’ve not just managed, but thrived.
The invisible being made visible has been one of the rare, overdue upsides of this moment. This pandemic hasn’t merely revealed the deep fault lines in this country when it comes to wealth and security gaps.
It has thrown into the spotlight the legions of workers we depend on daily and who largely toil for rock-bottom wages: grocery store workers; food delivery people; child care workers; schoolteachers, many of whom are now attempting to home school their own children while running online classes for their students. Health care workers on the front lines. Those normally relegated to the sidelines have taken center stage.
And yet, in some ways too, the old divides remain. Every parent I know is currently at home struggling to manage home schooling and child care duties along with their jobs, and no doubt looking at my solitude with the same gaze I have felt in the past when I’ve decided I wanted to take a trip and just up and left. Just as I increasingly scroll through photos of families able to hold one another with covetous eyes.
The wave that has carried us all into some form of isolation has carried me a bit further. How long, for instance, will it be until I feel the touch of another human being again? There is such a thing called skin hunger; we know that skin-to-skin contact raises our oxytocin levels, the hormone connected to well-being and happiness.
Without it we become more vulnerable to things like stress and depression. My fridge is currently full of more food than it has ever held, but I’ve begun to wonder what happens when I go hungry for touch.
I’ve seen people discuss how after this we will become a society afraid to connect in real life, but already I’m fantasizing about leaving my building and running through my Upper West Side neighborhood, arms open to every and any encounter.
It’s a harsh reminder that true connection requires movement. I wrote an entire book on the exhilarations and challenges of being alone, and have been thinking anew how the story I was really telling was one about movement to determine the outlines of my life as best one can.
And now here I sit. By myself. In a top-floor studio, unable to see anyone (we are all quickly learning that Zooms can’t compete with the real thing) or go anywhere. The spinster aunt in the attic is an image that has dogged single women for time out of mind, and after a lifetime defying it, I’ve suddenly been thrust into the role. (Albeit one that includes daily FaceTiming with all the children who know me as “auntie.”)
The difference now is that my sole consolation, as therapist Cuomo pointed out the other day, is the same as is it for everyone else: We are all up here together. Our heart firmly on sleeves (and windows and Instagram stories). No shame (except on those still determined to go out). No translation necessary. We’re all speaking the same language now.
Glynnis MacNicol is the author of the memoir “No One Tells You This.”