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We Are All Alone Together

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I wake up in the darkness and reach over to pat my husband’s hand. Of course it isn’t there. He moved into our guest bedroom two and a half weeks ago when I got sick with coronavirus symptoms. After twenty years of sleeping next to him, a few weeks of illness are not enough to erase my body’s instinctual need to touch him. After hospitalization for pneumonia, I am convalescing at home and have not had a fever in over a week. I am tired, I deal with daily headaches, and I have lost close to ten pounds. The good news is I can take a deep breath, though my lungs sometimes ache in a way that is dull but alarming. I puff on an Albuterol inhaler every six hours for relief and take Tylenol for the headaches. I am recovering, and I feel lucky to be alive and that my family appears, from a distance, to be healthy.

The most surreal part of my experience is one shared with most human beings right now: the palpable sense of being alone. Even though I am in the same house as my husband and son, I cannot go near them. I cannot touch them or the things they might touch. I was instructed to self-quarantine at home for two weeks after leaving the hospital, and one week is over, but I’m not sure when, if ever, I’ll feel safe touching them. There’s so much guilt and fear around Covid-19, and I regularly talk to a number of other people suffering from fevers, aches, chills, and restricted breathing who are in the same predicament as me or on a similar trajectory.

One friend who was hospitalized and released about the same time is still getting daily fevers a week after release, and her daughter can only visit her room at home briefly and with a mask on. A neighbor and friend, an ER nurse, announced via Facebook that she has made the difficult decision to cease any kind of physical touch with family members when she comes home from work, in order to protect them. “I’m super depressed that I didn’t savor the tight squeezes and smooches I got last night before heading to bed,” she says. Her lament makes me cry and I would wager that the majority of human beings in the world feel this way, although perhaps not as acutely as health care workers do.

We are all, in one way or another, alone. Humans are social animals and there are so many people we love. Life and death in the United States hangs upon our collective decision to stay home, quarantine, and, for many, to cease physical interactions with those in our homes until this crisis is over.

Until two weeks ago, being single or living alone was an option that seemed rather ideal to me. You can keep an absurd variety of houseplants, host dinner parties any night of the week, read a book in its entirety in one sitting, stay out late, sleep in, day drink, and never have to watch an Avengers movie. Under normal conditions, living solo is an adult smorgasbord of enviable options. I’m not saying I regret my own choices, just that the grass on the other side was a beautiful and verdant green.

Now the world is upside down and, for many living solo, their lifestyle feels lonely and restricted, a punishment or even a torturous solitary existence. When it’s by choice, the decision to live alone and care for oneself is a form of freedom, but under a stay-at-home order, coupled with the very real possibility of exposure to the coronavirus, sickness, and death, the decision to live alone feels like a precarious and cruel accident, and this is difficult to bear.

For those in a solo quarantine right now, it’s easy to idealize the living situations of those with partners or roommates or families, and to feel uniquely cursed, but the way you react to this plight is also a choice. Whether we live alone or with others, humans need each other like plants need sunlight, and this is why Covid-19 has spread so successfully: It harnesses our basic human impulses to thrive. Now, more than ever, it is essential that we shelter in place and stay home, all alone, not just to protect ourselves but to shield others from sickness and death.

 

My friend Jill lives alone in Manhattan and we have texted or called every day since the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, especially after I got sick. Today, New York City reports over 1,900 deaths due to coronavirus symptoms and Jill is, realistically, terrified because she has an autoimmune disease. There are two confirmed cases of Covid-19 in her apartment building and the lobby has expansive metal surfaces that previously seemed elegant but now feel toxic. Our chats have become basic therapy for both of us and it’s a relief to puzzle out our daily problems together, rather than just complain about the government’s pathetic response to this crisis—although we do this, too.

Last week, she calls me to express her horror over a trip to Whole Foods where staff and customers ignore social distancing protocols and most do not wear masks. They only have some of the items she needs, but it depends upon the time of day and day of the week that she goes. At the beginning of the pandemic when panic-buying set in, the store limited each customer to just two bags of frozen food and there was hardly anything on the shelves to buy. She describes people in dirty plastic gloves touching products on the shelves and then putting them back and we discuss strategies for washing the groceries she purchases. 

She doesn’t have a working thermometer, and stores don’t have any, which worries me. Many of her neighbors have left the city for surrounding regions. The news is crippling; the proliferating and increasingly dire reality of NY hospitals struggling with inadequate supplies and life-saving ventilators, stories of nurses and doctors dying, makeshift hospitals on ships and in Central Park, it’s all too much. When there is nothing else to look forward to, these conversations are the high point of our day.

Earlier this week I check in with her and don’t hear back for a few hours and I start to worry. “I’m going to keep calling you until you answer,” I tell her voicemail. It turns out that she got sucked into a four-hour conversation with a veterinarian. “You don’t even have a pet,” I point out, and she explains she was considering fostering a kitten during the quarantine to pass the time and have some companionship, but there are no pets left to adopt in New York. I tell her to recall the smell of a litter box in an apartment, and she agrees that perhaps a kitten is not the best solution to her problems.

Another day, a homeless person tries to grab her arm while she is walking down the street. We talk about their extra desperate plight, since there are so few New Yorkers on the streets to give them money now, and few programs in place to protect them from the spreading sickness. This week Jill is wondering if she should go stay at a friend’s house in Westchester, whether it’s worth the risk to get there, just to be around other humans. I tell her it’s safer to stay put, but what do I know? Sometimes it can be better to be alone, but the threat of sickness is legitimate. You’re not only exposing yourself to these other people, but to everyone they’ve come into contact with in the past two weeks.

This is a weird time to be home, solo or with other people, and none of us have many choices over how we share physical space.

We talk a lot about what she should do if she gets sick. Is it just a matter of time until everyone in Manhattan gets ill? Who will take care of her? What hospital could she go to? What initially seemed like a great opportunity to live with complete freedom in the world’s most interesting city now feels like a death sentence, or at least a cruel punishment.

There are many of us living under quarantine with other people and this environment is also not ideal. Either we are sick and wracked with guilt that we may spread our germs and kill our families or we are filled with anxiety, terrified of getting sick. This is a weird time to be home, solo or with other people, and none of us have many choices over how we share physical space.

For those lucky enough to be healthy after two weeks of no contact with the outside world, you win the prize! I would like to remind you that at least you can express your love and care for those in your home—who have also been following the guidelines—through physical touch. You can hug, kiss, dance, and snuggle. You can exercise. You can pet your dogs and cats. For those who can’t, it’s heartbreaking and bizarre to be in the same space as those you love with the door closed, or keeping six feet away, or talking via text or Facetime despite being in the same house, and in many ways it can feel more lonely than living alone.

I point out that my friend is lucky to be healthy and to have a quiet space to herself, to read or meditate or listen to music or cook, and she recounts two different scenarios that make both of us feel much better about our own quarantine situations. 

She tells me about two different couples she knows who had been planning to separate and divorce, but they are stuck living together in lockdown, in tiny NY apartments with small children. In both cases, one of the spouses had been cheating on the other, and they had already agreed to split up. Can you imagine this kind relationship hell, all that tension and rage, while attempting to care for the physical and emotional needs of small children? In an apartment the size of a postage stamp? Suddenly, my experience with Covid-19 symptoms seems much less awful and my friend agrees that stories like these make her loneliness seem much more palatable.

 

Now that I am home from the hospital and recovering, I am mostly in the bedroom with the door closed, but at least I have my dog to snuggle. He is a great comfort to me. I occasionally come out, but only at a distance, and there is absolutely no physical contact with family members or the objects they touch.

This enforced distance in my home inspires a longing for my family that I don’t typically have, and the desire to hug, kiss, and snuggle them is overwhelming. I just want to rumple my son’s hair, a gesture he hates, but I can’t and I won’t. At night my husband puts our son to bed and I can wave goodnight to him, but no kiss or touch. It feels so inadequate to me, this long-distance parenting, but it’s the only way I can protect them and is proof of how much I care. This is what I tell my friend, living alone, who has shut down her dating profile, has not seen friends or family for two weeks, and is losing her mind. 

Until you are faced with a forced quarantine, you take physical contact, and its emotional impact on your body and psyche, for granted. I know that I have for a long time, typically running in and out of the house for work and social engagements, planting an occasional absent-minded kiss on the cheek of my husband or son on my way out, often feeling annoyed by their requests and demands. 

Even though I am mostly alone, I am thankful to be in the house with two homebodies who, unlike myself, can putter around happily all day long and not even want to leave our property. I also realize that our inter-family banter, our constant low-level bickering and making fun of each other, all the fart noises and the goofy insults, are comforting to me. 

We can still easily communicate even though we cannot touch, and I revel in my own laughter. These two are hilarious and wicked, and it warms my heart to hear my son’s laughter echoing up the stairs from Facetime calls with his friends or while watching dumb movies with my husband. In this way, my communication with my family is not that different from staying in touch with my friend in NY, and I realize that comfort comes from our authentic feeling of affection for one another, of being able to be ourselves and to have honest conversations without any sort of obligation or pretense.

My son and I attempt to hang out virtually and he creates a Roblox avatar for me so we can play together. We wander in and out of elevators, hide from zombies, and I’m so abysmal at it he tells me that I am beyond a noob. I walk into walls and cannot figure out even the most basic jumping maneuvers and we laugh and laugh and laugh until we cry. I get barfed on in an elevator, fall repeatedly into the ocean, but I am delighted at how funny my son thinks my pathetic performance is. Another day, he plays a practical joke on me by putting a fart app on his tablet and sneaking it under my door. The faux farting sound gets old pretty quickly, but his laughter does not.

Now that I am home from the hospital and it’s been over a week since my last fever, I am more confident that my husband and son will not get sick like I did. Perhaps they already had a minor case of coronavirus and one of them gave it to me? My doctor says we won’t know until we are able to test every single person for Covid-19 antibodies. Once 80 percent of our population has the antibodies and immunity, either through sickness or through a vaccine, our lives can go back to normal. These tests are coming next and will ideally be available to every single American—but who knows when?

In the meantime, I have started very occasionally coming downstairs, and my husband and son tell the same joke every single time. They look at me blankly and say, “Who are you again? Do you live here?” Or they point at me and say to one another, “Hey! Look who it is,” as if I have just stopped in to visit and they haven’t seen me in years. And then they laugh like idiots.

Each time, I roll my eyes or subtly flip my husband the bird when our son isn’t looking. What a bunch of assholes, I think. I could have died and they’re making fun of me. Yet deep down I’m smiling, too. I would much rather be stuck in a house for months with these jerks than someone I have to pretend to be nice to. I tell them they are FOOLZ and shoot them a dirty look. We cannot touch, but we can still make each other laugh. I love them so much I feel like my heart will explode.

Like many people right now, either because of sickness or living alone, I’m existing in between quarantine and togetherness, between physical proximity and digital communication. The guilt and fear around the spread of coronavirus is still palpable, but there is relief in phone calls and Zoom happy hours and watching private mini-concerts and Instagram stories and looking at home art projects through digital means.

For those who are alone in apartments and houses, who have made the responsible decision not to visit elderly parents or immune-compromised sisters or drinking buddies or lovers, it is a peculiar kind of torture we are enduring. Our lack of choice in the matter makes it feel much worse, but we still have options and being aware of them and reminding ourselves why we are alone can lessen the pain.

For everyone else suffering from symptoms behind closed doors and especially for those who work in health care or in hospitals, my heart goes out to you. I want to remind you that you are not alone, that hundreds of thousands of people are going through the same kinds of experiences, and we will get through this. Honesty is helpful, even though there is shame and stigma attached to sickness. For anyone whose occupation involves risking their lives and getting sick, please keep the rest of us informed of your experiences. Please share them with us via whatever social media channels are available to you, because the mainstream media is not telling enough of these day-to-day stories, and you are the real heroes in this war. Help us support you in any way that we can.

I’m home and I am tired, but I will continue to write and post and share articles. I will call, text, and video chat when I’m not napping. Like many of you, I am alone in my home and I haven’t been hugged in over two weeks. This is difficult, but so much better than being sick or worrying that I have gotten my family and friends sick as well.

In many ways this loneliness is a relief. In my home, I am grateful to not have to fake any sort of niceness or wellness or small talk. I’m relieved to be able to just be myself in this house and to rest and to keep a good distance, to be able to tell these humans to piss off when necessary and not have them hold a grudge against me, and to be able to call and check in with those I love. 

We are all alone together. I take comfort in this.

 

Header Photo: Jill Fannon

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