SubscribeCurrent Magazine Cover
Woman laying on the floor in front of mountain view.
Illustration by Anuj Shrestha

On Being Lonely During the Pandemic

I was alone, and then I was really alone. Even so, as the pandemic drags on, I’m not sure I want to be around almost anyone.

My first apartment in Denver had double sliding glass doors that opened onto a small balcony. I don’t recall ever using the tiny outdoor space, but I do remember well the way the late afternoon sun baked two rectangular sections of carpet just inside those doors. At 22, I didn’t have enough furniture to fill even a 600-square-foot place, which was just as well since I didn’t have any friends or family to tuck into the armchairs that should’ve occupied that empty expanse of rug. I did have a bed my parents had given me for my cross-country move and a cut-rate couch from Furniture Row, but neither was inviting for a nap. Instead, I often chose to curl up on the sun-warmed floor and let the polyester fibers soak up the tears as I fell asleep.

I was alone a lot when I first moved to the Mile High City in early September 2001. I was hired at this magazine on September 10, and I was by myself, cruising north on I-25, when the job offer came in. My happy shriek had no audience. Less than 15 hours later, when four passenger planes flew into the dark annals of history on the day that would come to be known as simply 9/11, there was no one with me to watch the towers fall. That’s how it is when you’re on your own. Good news, bad news, banal news—it’s all blunted when you look around to find there’s no one to experience it with.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have anyone; I had followed a very nice man more than 1,400 miles from the suburbs of Atlanta to the Front Range. He was all I had, but the long hours he spent in medical school meant that, while we were here in this new city together, we were still often apart. I don’t think I ever told him how I’d sometimes wake up on the floor, disoriented that darkness had fallen, and wonder if I’d always feel so lonely.

As I write this, the calendar on my phone says it’s September 12, 2021. Twenty years have passed since I first learned what solitariness can do to a person. Living through the past 20-some months has been a brutal reminder.

I figured the day I came home from work to find that very nice man’s closet empty would be the loneliest I’d ever been. After more than 16 years of marriage and more than 22 years together, I imagined that day—February 10, 2019—would feel like those movie scenes where the main character stands in the middle of her house and there is no sound except for the soft ticking of an old grandfather clock. I wasn’t far off.

August 12, 2019, the day the divorce was finalized, was a loneliest-day contender, too, as was September 6, the date we sold our quirky little bungalow in Washington Park. October 4, November 16, November 30, December 25, February 2, 2020—they all delivered powerful forlornness for different reasons. Yet, it was a text from my still-protective, still-loving ex-husband on March 12, 2020, that made me realize no matter how removed I’d felt over the previous year, a tiny virulent life form was about to not only kill millions of people worldwide but also force a measure of isolation I hadn’t even imagined. “Hey Linz…. I don’t think my hospital (or any U.S. entity) is taking this [coronavirus] seriously enough. You may wanna consider telecommuting and stocking up for a short time indoors…. If this goes south, I’ll be living at the hospital…. Fingers crossed that our state government starts a general quarantine. We don’t have enough ventilators.”

When I was in high school, my dad once said that “we’re born alone, we live alone, and we die alone.” At the time, I didn’t know he was channeling Orson Welles or that he omitted the second half of the filmmaker’s famous quote from Someone to Love, but the line struck me. Although I’d been an acolyte of my dad’s misanthropy for 16 or 17 years by then, I’d never really connected the idea that generally disliking or distrusting other people ultimately could lead to feeling unaccompanied in this life.

I’ve always found my father’s outspoken disdain for humanity mostly contradictory to the way he interacts with those around him. His “Hey, pals” and “Look, Jacks,” delivered in a faint Manhattan brogue, were mostly reserved for inconsiderate drivers or drunken football game attendees who deserved the impending excoriation. Otherwise, he could’ve been mistaken for a philanthropist, in the truest sense of the word. He stopped on the side of the road to help an elderly couple with a flat tire; he gave $500 to a handyman who said he just couldn’t get his life on track; and he planned and helped pay for one last vacation for an old friend who was dying.

That is to say nothing of how, as a father, he has always exuded affection. When my brother and I were little kids, he got on the floor to play with us. He gave us ginger ale when our bellies hurt; coached our sports teams; invented games on beach vacations; and made our friends laugh. Now that we’re adults, he gives us advice about work, plays with my brother’s two kids, and still makes our friends laugh. Also, after nearly 46 years of marriage, he still loves our mom.

My dad educated us about typical and not-so-typical things as we grew up—including how to have a sixth sense for muggers, how to make almost any DIY project dangerous, and how to make English muffin pizzas in the toaster oven. He, along with my earnest, compassionate, and kind-spirited mother, explained that you should only buy things if you can afford to pay for them, that having experiences is always better than having things, and that there were no limits on what we could do if we worked hard enough. They also made it clear that there are certain people—sometimes family, more often friends—for whom you do anything, no questions asked.

It’s curious, then, that despite all this imparted wisdom and goodness, the most impactful thing my dad taught me, using plenty of compelling real-life examples, is that other people are almost always far less intelligent, far more inept, far less ambitious, and far more annoying than you imagine they could be. In short, my dad was a dispenser of cynical humor long before Twitter and Instagram made it cool to hate on people.

While his observations have been, with rare exceptions, spot-on, they are also a master class in how to foment loneliness—that is, if you let them guide whom you allow into your world, as I have in many ways. It should be said that my dad, despite his bluster about everyone being a “moron” or a “schmuck,” has far more friends than I do. Funny, loyal, generous, and imperfect, my dad has, it seems, been able to forgive the foibles and peccadillos of individual humans while saving his vitriol for humanity at large. Despite knowing that I, too, am flawed, I have been less successful in giving grace.

It’s not that I don’t like some, even many, people. There are some for whom I would do anything, no questions asked. It’s just that I’m selective about whom I’d spend more than, say, a half hour with. I don’t do well with those who don’t ask others about their lives and instead drone on about theirs. I can’t handle bravado or arrogance. Obliviousness, flightiness, and laziness are nonstarters. Even the mildest whiff of entitlement irritates me. The antiscience set gets on my very last nerve. The list goes on.

Walking
Illustration by Anuj Shrestha

But here’s the thing: When you’re predisposed to thinking that you’re going to dislike everyone, you often do, making it less likely that, as Welles continued, “only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.” It’s also far more crushing when any one of those very few people you’ve allowed into your life, and depended on to not feel alone, makes a decision that exposes the illusion, leaving you even more certain that relationships are simply constructs that temporarily obscure the fact that we are, indeed, alone.

Sometimes I would just walk. For miles. I’d escape my new place and the citywide stay-at-home order and wander through idyllic Denver neighborhoods. I tasted other people’s dinners in the air, listened to kids litigate the colors of sidewalk chalk, saw the abandoned yardwork someone left for another day. I could also feel the stares, hear the unasked questions as I once again ambled past my new neighbors’ front porches. Is that her again? Do you think she’s OK? Should we wave? Say hello?

They never did say hello. Not that I wanted them to, of course. I knew they wondered why I strolled past their bungalows and boxy scrapes night after night, by myself. Sometimes I wondered that, too.

Six months after we sold our house, when we were all told it was no longer safe to go out in public, I found myself in a 700-square-foot apartment on South Broadway. Like many people, I bought surgical masks, latex gloves, a Bluetooth-enabled thermometer, and loads of pantry staples. I told my family, all of whom live on the East Coast, to do the same. And like everyone else’s, my world shrunk.

A nook in my kitchen became my office. A weekly trip to Sprouts Farmers Market, just across the street, served as both entertainment and a stressor. After roughly eight Zoom happy hours, I, along with the rest of America, realized what a shitty replacement they were for the real thing. As weeks, and then months, passed and the anchors on the nightly news began explaining how people were forming “quaranteams” with neighbors and nearby family, my brain wormholed back to my first year in the Mile High City. As a longtime Denverite, I had friends, even a few close friends—but they all had significant others and families of their own to protect and isolate with. I could almost feel the fibers of that sun-warmed carpet pressing against my cheek again. This time I knew for sure I’d wake up alone, though, so I decided to walk instead.

Napping has its advantages: namely, unconsciousness. Walking gives one time to think. Letting your mind wander, especially post-divorce, is ugly business. It gets uglier still when you haven’t spoken to a person, face-to-face, in days. I’ve found the voice in your head will agree with everything you say, whether it’s true or not. You could’ve just gone to those happy hours he wanted you to go to. You could’ve tried harder to get to know his friends. You expect too much of people. You make things that are supposed to be fun miserable. You weren’t pleasant around his family. You are negative and cynical—a lot. You can be judgmental and stubborn and antagonistic for no reason. You did abandon intimacy. You gave up someone who loved you, who wanted you. Now you wake up alone, spend many days alone, eat dinner alone, watch TV alone, walk alone, go to bed alone—and probably deserve to.

I didn’t just think about the end of my marriage, though. As I walked past other people’s homes, where they too were hiding from a novel sickness, I pondered loneliness itself. Not just because I was lonely, but also because, strangely, so many other people were alone and lonely at the exact same time as me.

Loneliness is not a medical diagnosis, although maybe it should be. At times, it feels like it might kill you.

In the past 22 months, I’ve caught myself staring—at nothing—for 20 or 30 minutes before I can shake away the stupor. I often stand in my living room, looking around for something, anything, to do that’s not work. I talk to myself, and not like little reminders, but full-on conversations. I melted down one day not too long after the Boulder King Soopers shooting when I realized that if I were ever shot and killed in a random place, no one would know I had been there, because no one ever knows where I am. My financial adviser recently told me I needed to designate someone local as my medical power of attorney, and I teared up when I realized I didn’t have anyone. I have a recurring dream about being lost but no one comes to find me. In real life, my brain gets stuck on the fact that even when we’re allowed to travel to far-flung places again, I won’t have anyone to go with. I have middle-of-the-night arguments with myself where I disregard the realities of the pandemic and convince myself that the other side of the bed is empty and my social calendar is barren because I’m simply intolerable, much in the same way I’ve labeled so many others throughout my life.

The truth is, having too little contact with other people is antithetical to healthy human existence. An increased risk of premature mortality has long been linked to social isolation. In Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, coincidentally released in April 2020, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy explains the physiology. Chronic loneliness, Murthy writes, causes persistent stress, which increases inflammation that damages tissues and blood vessels, sometimes causing cardiovascular illness and death. It can also interfere with the immune system and sleep cycles and make conditions like high blood pressure and obesity more likely. It affects mental health and can lead to depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. For those who’ve experienced genuine feelings of detachment—and several surveys in Colorado and across the country suggest many people have since March 2020—it’s easy to see why the American prison system uses solitary confinement as one of its most extreme forms of punishment.

In moments when I can get out of my own head, I know how very lucky I am. The pandemic has delivered the suffering of separateness in varying and often unequal ways. People of color have lost loved ones in wildly disproportionate numbers. Those in long-term care facilities, often the elderly, were isolated from everyone for more than a year, in some cases, and often succumbed to the virus having not seen a family member’s face in far too long. Hospitals implemented rules disallowing visitors for any COVID-19-positive patients, meaning many millions died without being able to hold the hand of someone they loved as they drew their last labored breaths.

By comparison, my seclusion could seem quaint, even vacationlike to some. I’ve had people tell me my setup—that is, single, childless, and with a good job that allows me to work from home—is the holy grail of pandemic life. I get it, so I try not to talk about it. The insight imparted by online therapy sites suggests, however, that my relative good fortune doesn’t make my sadness any less valid or any less real. Ditto for anyone else who has found themselves taunted by the silence, beat down by the boredom, craving human touch, exhausted from the mental strain, and generally wishing there were someone with whom to experience the good news, the bad news, and the banal news. What my solitariness did make me wonder, though, was whether I possibly needed to—and actually could—re-evaluate my position as a staunch disliker of people.

Woman writing at her computer.
Illustration by Anuj Shrestha

For misanthropes, a global pandemic, despite the crushing tragedy, would seem to have an upside: social distancing. Although few likely used that phrase before March 2020, for many of us it’s more or less been a lifelong strategy. I’ve essentially spent my adult years avoiding any engagement that I didn’t absolutely want or need to attend. This includes block parties, professional networking functions, the neighbor’s kid’s graduation celebration, and a plus-one invite to a friend’s cousin’s wedding. Yet, during the first 10 months of staying at home, I was so desperate for interaction—to laugh at something other than a rerun of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives—I would’ve RSVP’d with enthusiasm to a baptism or even, dear god, a gender-reveal party. But then things changed: The vaccine was ready, and humanity quickly reminded me my dad had been right all along.

On March 23, 2021, the first dose of the Moderna vaccine activated my immune system against the virus. Ironically, it also inoculated me against the very reason one gets an immunization: the desire to be around others. I may have been a lifelong misanthrope, but I think I’ve always wanted to believe in the basic decency of humans. Somewhere deep in my brain, I had sequestered a small reservoir of optimism that people could be smart, rational, kind, unselfish, respectful, and loving. Faced with a global calamity, humans might, a voice in the recesses of my mind told me, step up.

(Read More: This Virus Isn’t The Problem—We Are)

I was wildly wrong. But it wasn’t (just) the faceless—maskless—masses who stole that sliver of idealism so many of us had been clinging to by refusing the vaccine. I felt most robbed by friends and family who surprised me with their beliefs and choices. These were people I had thought would not only want to protect their loved ones but also be willing to sacrifice personal preference for the greater good. I never imagined people I loved would be so indifferent to those who were more susceptible to the virus. I thought my family and friends would want us to all be able to be together again. I figured they’d hold each other to account when it came to getting vaccinated. I assumed they’d honor the efforts of all health care workers, but especially those of my ex-husband, who had indeed lived at the hospital and worked on a front-line intubation team putting coronavirus patients on those precious few ventilators.

He was not as surprised or angry or disheartened or embarrassed as I was when I told him about the people he once spent time with. It wasn’t that he had expected it from them—he hadn’t—but that, as a physician, he’d seen it over and over and over again. In the hospital, which had become an intense microcosm of the world around it, he’d become inured to a reality in which hypocrisy, illogicality, willful ignorance, and disregard for others was both obvious and pervasive. It was the first time since we met, as teenagers, that he seemed as disenchanted with people as I had always been. I did not feel vindicated; just very, very sad.

I will turn 43 on January 24. That’s old enough to know that we spend much of our lives creating illusions that relieve some of the suffering of being human. The illusion we are always busy. The illusion that our jobs are important. The illusion we are happy in our relationships. The illusion that we know what we’re doing with our lives. The illusion that we are who we wanted to be.

The illusion that we are not alone is no different, really. Except it’s more difficult to delude yourself when you’ve made dinner for one for 40 days in a row or a once-in-a-century pandemic changes the way we connect with the people who were once part of our daily lives but no longer are.

Maybe my dad was just being pragmatic when he shortchanged Welles’ quote. Maybe he already knew that love and friendship, because they can be ephemeral, are not powerful or reliable enough to obscure the inconvenient truths that we are alone and that no one else can truly change that. Still, as the pandemic wears on and 32 percent of Coloradans (and 39 percent of Americans) have yet to get fully vaccinated and research suggests that loneliness has become yet another public health problem, I wonder if it would be better for all of us who are lonely to consider that maybe Welles was being more instructive than fatalistic. Interpreted another way, Welles may have been trying to say that love and friendship, despite their impermanence, are the only things that matter because they are the only things that assuage loneliness. Maybe he was saying the illusion is worth it?

After the past two years, I’m not sure what to think. However, I do know this: I worry that it is becoming easier to be alone, to give up on the illusion, and to think it’s OK—even preferable—that even though I can now afford to have furniture, it’s rare anyone ever sits in it.

Sign Up For Our Newsletters

All things Colorado delivered straight to your inbox.

Sign Up