In this great article by The Gaurdian, Alexandra Jones looks into ‘My thoughts became poisonous’: the toll of lockdown when you live alone.
Long-term social isolation is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. What has the last year meant for those who don’t share their homes?
When the first headlines about coronavirus began to appear in January 2020, they had little impact on south Londoner TJ, 25. “It seems outrageous now, but I thought: ‘I’m young, I’m healthy, I’ll be fine.’” By the time the first lockdown was announced, his mindset had begun to shift. He’d been single “for ever” and his housemate was spending lockdown with her parents, but he felt that same batten-down-the-hatches optimism many did in the era of weekly clapping and Zoom quizzes. “But that first weekend, the silence of the house and all the hours to fill – I got this inkling… mentally, I don’t know where I’ll be at the end of this. Four weeks in, I was genuinely scared for my mental health, I wasn’t coping at all.”
TJ is one of an estimated 7.7 million people in the UK who lived alone for most or all of the last year. “It’s not a game of Top Trumps, it’s not like my anxiety is more profound,” he says. “But it is different when you’re experiencing it all on your own.” In November 2020 the Office for National Statistics released findings that showed acute loneliness had climbed to record levels, with 8% of adults (around 4.2 million people) feeling “always or often lonely”, and 16-29-year-olds twice as likely as the over-70s to experience loneliness in the pandemic. “You’d never think fear of missing out would exist when we’re all stuck at home,” TJ says. “But I’d be scrolling through Instagram, seeing friends with their boyfriends or housemates, and thinking: ‘I wish I had someone. I feel so alone.’”
It comes in waves – for two weeks I’ll be fine, then I’ll wake up one day and feel totally alone
Even those who had previously enjoyed living by themselves found the absence of company almost took on a physical quality. “It felt suffocating,” says Carl, 56, from Derbyshire. He has been single for five years and enjoyed the freedom and spontaneity it afforded him. He took voluntary redundancy from his IT job in June and while at first it was a welcome respite, the novelty of empty days started to wear off. “It comes in waves – for two weeks I’ll be fine, then I’ll wake up one day and feel totally alone.”
Losing the distraction of company has forced some people into deep self-reflection. Brenda , 71, found herself waking in the night. “I’m not the sort of person who thinks about dying, but I suddenly found myself wanting to clear my papers and get rid of clutter, as it wouldn’t be fair on my daughters if I passed. All the things I’d ignored by surrounding myself with others came to the front of my mind.”
This unsettled feeling was hard to shake even when there were chances to mingle. “What I found odd, having been very sociable before, was that you almost lose the art of it. A friend turned 70 last summer and her daughter threw a party; 15 people were allowed. I really looked forward to it but on the day I felt strange.” She had always liked living by herself, in a remote village in Scotland, but “total isolation from society is a different thing altogether”, she says, “As the year wore on I missed people terribly and fell into some real slumps.”
Long-term social isolation is known to carry an increased risk of mortality comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day – and lonely people are more likely to choose coping mechanisms that aren’t good for their health. TJ started drinking more. “It got to the point where I was thinking in bottles – ‘Would another bottle of wine make me feel better or worse?’ During the week it was OK, I was still working [as an editor for a magazine], so I’d talk to my colleagues, whom I love. But as soon as it got to 6pm Friday and I switched the laptop off, I was facing a weekend of nothing. I’d clean the flat, watch TV, listen to Donna Summer or lie on the sofa with my eyes closed trying to chill. But my thoughts were poisonous – stupid things like a row I’d had years before, or bad decisions I’d made – and the temptation to drink was always there.”
‘In normal times it would never have happened,’ Lauren says of her walking date in a cemetery with a polyamorous sex addict
As the months wore on, the discomfort of solitude forced some to prioritise their mental health in spite of stay-at-home orders. “I broke the rules a few times,” says Sarah, 29, who has lived alone for two years and been single since December 2019. She met friends outside, as well as in their homes. But it put a strain on her relationships. “Some friends said I was selfish and irresponsible. I could understand their anger, but those locked down in couples had no idea what it was like to spend 23 hours by yourself, staring at WhatsApp or Zoom.”
Carl visited an elderly family friend throughout the year to offer support. “I heard the deterioration in her voice, from being on her own so much, and I thought: ‘Sod this, I’m going to see her.’” But he found even this drew censure and he began to distance himself from acquaintances and even family. “I got sick of people being judgmental. All they did was look at their own situation… often sitting in a house with a partner and two kids.”
For some, the solitude and self-reflection did eventually prove a gift. After two months, TJ stopped drinking. “I woke up one morning and thought: ‘Right, no one’s coming to rescue me, I need to learn how to be on my own, with my own thoughts.’” That made him more resilient, he says. “I focused on small goals, ran my first 5K, learned to think just to the end of the day rather than worry about what might be happening a year from now.”
The initial pressure to find a partner also mellowed. “Don’t get me wrong, I miss going on a date and kissing someone, but I don’t necessarily need a relationship,” TJ says. “The way I see it, in the LGBT+ community, we’ve been repressed for a long time. And so those spaces to be free and to enjoy one another are super important.”
Lauren is in her early 30s, lives alone and had been single for three years when the pandemic hit. She had a similar epiphany: while she loved to meet new people, the pressure for each meeting to lead to something more serious had been making her miserable. Near the end of the first lockdown, she went on a walking date in a London cemetery with a polyamorous sex addict. “In normal times it would never have happened, because I was always after a monogamous relationship,” she says. Instead they continued to casually hook up all summer. It was fun and liberating, but she broke it off when new restrictions came in: “It was either that or bubbling-up with him and his two other girlfriends.”
For Carl, solitude has also proved productive. “It’s forced me to think carefully about what I want for my future. Before the pandemic I was a very live-for-the-moment person and some found me a bit aloof. But I know that’s not who I really am.” Now he’d like to be more open to a relationship. “It’d be nice to have someone to wake up next to or have a walk with, hold a hand, have a hug.”
Last March Brenda had been due to move in with her oldest daughter ahead of the birth of her second child. “We kept waiting to see what would happen, so of course I missed the birth and have never met my new grandchild.” She says it’s one of the most painful parts of the lockdown experience, but adds: “I really want to stay positive.” Last year, a close friend’s husband died. “He was very frightened of Covid. That’s not why he passed, but it did make me sad to think fear was such a big part of the last year of his life. It drove home the fact that I’m 71 and I don’t have those years to waste. That’s what I’m focusing on now. I’ve been walking by the sea, experiencing every bit of nature, just living as much as I can.