A Year Spent Surviving a Pandemic Alone

From panic attacks to feelings of detachment, prolonged solitude took its toll on a writer living alone through the COVID-19 crisis. How he coped—and how he hopes the year changes us
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I cried for the first time in 12 years this June. That same month, not two weeks earlier, I had a panic attack so intense I felt the room wobbling as I struggled to take full breaths. For the most part, I’ve been lucky this year in that neither I nor anyone I know has died from or fallen ill with COVID-19. And I’m fortunate that I continue to be able to financially support myself, keep food in the fridge, and maintain my apartment. But the pandemic has taken its toll in other ways. As someone who lives alone, the mental health effects of this year have been especially dramatic.

For the first five weeks of the spring lockdown, I saw only two people apart from the grocery store cashier—both were friends I convinced to go on a socially distanced walk with me around Hancock Park. Otherwise, for five weeks, all socialization and meaningful interaction was done through a screen.

I Zoomed with family in Israel the same way I Zoomed with friends who live a mile or two down the street. Therapy sessions were done via Zoom. I had first dates over Zoom and game nights with friends over Zoom. Of course, Zoom (or any video call) is a poor and awkward substitute for seeing anyone in person, but what other choice did we have?

As for the looser connections in my life—the baristas I used to see almost daily, the work connections I’d run into at events, the friends of friends I’d see at parties and in larger groups—they all disappeared. Entire orbits of my social world save my closest friends and family blew away. Life became very small and very quiet overnight.

At first, we didn’t expect this pandemic to last long. After all, how many of us have lived through a global pandemic before? We thought we’d pause life for a couple of weeks until the virus was under control, and things would go back to normal soon enough. So, I stayed at home figuring I could manage the time alone.

I binged TV shows (I highly recommend the Spanish series Foodie Love), read books (Kate Zambreno’s Drifts is a must for any fan of auto-fiction), wrote when I could (or had the assignments), and worked on some paintings. I stayed up on the news, watching in horror as New York City endured the brunt of the virus’s toll, and followed the economic headlines as millions lost their jobs.

Yet, most of what I was doing was coasting on autopilot. I shut off my brain and receded inward as I scrolled through my phone for hours or sat in front of my laptop closing tabs only to reopen the same sites moments later. I was soothing myself by disconnecting from my body and the world around me to float in a sort of mindless, digital half-space. But I felt guilty: for years I said that all I needed was a month alone and I would finish that project. You know, that project I was always talking about. Yet, here it was, laid unexpected at my feet, but I wasn’t being productive at all. I was passing days and weeks of hollow time.

For the first three months of the pandemic, I was fixated on this idea. That a piece of my early 30s (my most productive years!) was being both stolen from me and wasted by me. I should be writing a novel, or a screenplay, or producing a canvas a day, or getting a six-pack, or going out and meeting my future partner, or, or, or. But I wasn’t doing any of that. I was sitting alone in my own head for hours and hours a day, looping the same thoughts, beating myself up. And the isolation meant these thoughts were going unchecked. I’d talk with my therapist once a week, and friends a few times a week too, but the stress and anxiety were building. There was an added shame of complaining about something that seemed so trivial in the face of so much death and suffering. “Really sucks going through all of this alone,” I imagined I’d say. “I think it’s starting to mess with my head.” At least you’re healthy and working, they’d respond. Checkmate.

Soon, I was having panic attacks a few times a week. I tried to call or text someone when I was in the grips of it as a way to connect to someone and feel less alone. My therapist applauded this as a coping technique, but I worried I was burdening those closest to me who themselves were dealing with a pandemic and the problems it was causing in their lives. So, I started walking. I tried to walk every day and move my body instead of slipping into my phone. I couldn’t stand to look at my apartment anymore. I was being suffocated in my studio. I had to get out.

I started with short walks—around the neighborhood, 30 minutes at most. Something to get me into the sun and out of my head, focused on the world around me. The walks very quickly got longer, evolving into three-mile, five-mile, seven-mile meanders. By mid-April, I was walking 20 miles a day. The city was still so quiet at that point in the pandemic. And as I walked for five to six hours across the city, through neighborhoods I’d never explored before, I’d see all sorts of quirky, beautiful, hidden things.

One afternoon, on a street behind Los Angeles High School, a woman on a bike sped past me, stopped half a block away, pulled two brown bags from her pack, handed them to a couple in a tent tucked behind some bushes, then rode off. As I passed the couple, I saw they were eating a meal she had delivered them. People still cared—maybe more so than before.

The walks were helping ease my anxiety, but I was finding it harder and harder to stay present mentally. I felt foggy most days, and the isolation was feeding my propensity to retreat into my own head. By late April it was becoming overwhelming. My own apartment started to feel like an illusion—or just another screen I was looking at. My body felt disconnected from me. I would look down and stare at my arms like they were foreign objects—tools that I had some remote control over but that weren’t me. Everything was becoming the digital half-space of my phone. I needed out. I needed to reattach myself.

I called my parents and we discussed the risks of me staying with them in Orange County. It was a much-needed break, but it also felt strange going home to my parents as a man in his 30s. Even if for a week or two, it felt like I was retreating in defeat. But what else was I to do.

The mind flips from unbearable solitude back to contentedness and connectedness with shocking immediacy. As soon as I arrived at my parents’, the panic attacks completely disappeared. Soon, I felt normal again. The world of my apartment felt distant.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

When I returned to L.A. two weeks later, I was recharged. I resolved to now see people and connect with them in person a few times a week. Before, I had gone for long stretches alone, a week, even two at a time. But I needed human connection to stay sane. I was surprised to discover over these months that I’m an extrovert, but now I had to embrace it.

For most of May, I managed to see friends for masked walks, picnics, and front porch hangouts every two or three days. I even decided to see what dating in a pandemic would be like. I swiped through the apps and started talking with a few people. I had my first pandemic date at a park. We sat a picnic blanket-width apart and had beers.

As May turned into June, my plan was slowing down and I was seeing people maybe twice a week. What’s more, I noticed that seeing friends was giving me a sort of emotional whiplash: I’d be alone in my head for a few days, then spend a few hours with a friend, then go straight back to isolation for a few more days. It was the cold, dull pain of isolation punctuated by fleeting moments of excitement and connection and normalcy. I felt the shift most acutely on the rides home when the energy from spending time with someone was still ripe but had nowhere to go. It would swirl around and build up in my head, especially at night, and would reach a crescendo as I lay in bed in the dark. I would try to fall asleep before it would overflow, but sometimes I wouldn’t succeed.

One night, my mind started to drift into panic thinking that I’d be alone forever. That the pandemic was accelerating a societal shift into screen-mitigated isolation. That this is what life would increasingly be from now on. I was shit out of luck that I didn’t find a partner before the pandemic, but my fate was now sealed. And I could definitely say goodbye to human touch.

My heart started to race, and my throat tightened. It was getting harder and harder to take full breaths. Was this COVID or a panic attack? I opened my eyes and tried to slow my breathing. Instead, my head was spinning and the room itself was starting to shake. Was this finally it? Was my sanity finally unraveling, and I’d never come back?

I got out of bed and grabbed my phone. I texted a few friends, “Hey, are you awake?” and waited for a response. But, actually, I couldn’t wait. I couldn’t be alone in my apartment anymore. I got dressed and went outside to walk. Surely the fresh air would help, and moving around would put me back in my body. Instead, the empty streets felt menacing. It was still hard for me to breathe and no one had responded to my texts. I decided to reach out to a wider range of people. I needed to talk to someone. Eventually, an old friend from high school responded. I didn’t go into full detail that I was mid-panic attack (didn’t want to scare them), but we talked for a bit and I calmed down.

I was reaching a breaking point mentally and emotionally. I was waking up and spending the first two hours of my day on my phone, only to get up, eat junk for breakfast, and spend more time vacantly browsing the internet. Something had to change. This was no way to live.

My therapist recommended I start a self-care routine that included, among other things, daily human connection (even if that was just a phone call) and meditation. I had resisted meditation for a while before, suspicious of its benefits and believing that I wasn’t one of “those” people. Well, the joke was on me. It took a few days of meditating for the benefits to kick in, but the weeks that followed were deeply transformative. In addition to five to ten minutes of silent meditation first thing in the morning, I began listening to some of the guided meditations on the app I used. I would lay across my bed at night, pick a new meditation, and fall in. Maybe this newfound vulnerability coupled with exhaustion from the previous months put me in a fragile place, but it was during one of these meditations that I finally broke down and cried. Not a catharsis sort of cry (though, it did feel good), but more of a my-guard-has-been-lowered-so-far-that-I-can’t-control-this-emotion-any-longer sort of cry.

During this period, I also started shifting my view of time spent in quarantine. This moment in history (the first truly panhuman experience), this collective pause, now seemed like a gift. When would we ever again take a moment to stop modern life, forget the external pressures, and reflect on ourselves? I began to inspect everything in my life and ask myself if this is what I truly wanted. Was I writing what I wanted to write? Did I even want to write at all? Was I connecting with the people I cared about? Was there anything I wanted to change?

I started going on daily runs in lieu of long walks. I cleaned and rearranged my apartment, even bought some new furniture. I was enjoying taking care of myself and it felt good. I held steady like this for most of the summer. I still saw friends, but the pressure wasn’t as intense. I found I could take refuge in certain pieces of art that made me feel less alone—a line in a Clare Sestanovich short story; the way David Bowie scream-sings “I…I will be king” in Heroes; the pinks and reds in a Cy Twombly painting. There was opportunity for connection and profound emotion even when I was alone.

In September, my therapist graduated and left the student counseling center. I was prepared for the change to affect me, anticipating emotional fallout. I put myself back on the center’s waiting list for a new therapist, but, even so, by late September, I had stopped running and meditating. I was eating junk and sleeping poorly. I was slipping back into previous habits and feelings. I felt exhausted and unfocused all the time. It was affecting my work. I knew I had to get back into my routine, but I felt like I was drowning, paralyzed by stress. The smallest task felt impossible and would take 20 times longer than usual to complete.

In October, in the middle of that, I somehow started seeing someone, which helped stop the slide. She asked that I get a COVID test after our first date and before we started getting physical, and I obliged. We saw each other until November, ending things just as new COVID cases started to rise and Thanksgiving was closing in. I debated staying home alone for the holiday, but figured it would just be me and my parents, who I had been seeing every month or two anyway. To be safe, however, I got tested twice in the days before I went down to see them, and made sure they got tested too.

 

And now here we are, in the throes of a very bleak winter and a holiday season like none any of us has experienced before. Every trip to the supermarket feels like a game of Russian roulette. The constant wail of ambulance sirens, once little more than background noise, is a haunting reminder that we have become the world’s epicenter of this virus. So I am back at home, no doubt spending the final nights of 2020 alone, with maybe a few video calls on New Year’s Eve.

I think back to where I was last New Year’s: with a group of friends together in a cabin along the Oregon Coast. How distant that life feels now. How unimaginable. And though there is finally light at the end of this dark pandemic tunnel, I also wonder how our lives will be different after this. How our minds and relationships and career plans have been affected. How the city itself will change.

Part of me is grateful for the time spent refocusing myself and for whatever growth was possible during this difficult year. Part of me is angry at the colossal failure of our nation’s political and business leadership that has killed hundreds of thousands, and destroyed the lives of millions more. Do I, do we, go back to life as usual as soon as the vaccine is widely distributed? Is that even possible? I don’t know. But I hope not. As we enter this new world waiting for us on the other side of things, I hope all this suffering and isolation and fear has left us with more empathy for each other. That the lesson we’ve taken from this disaster is that a society of self-centered Individualism cannot solve collective problems. I hope that we’ve stripped whatever illusion remained that those in charge know best, and will always act in our best interest. But mostly, I just want to be in a crowded bar again, pressed up against strangers and friends alike, raising a glass to surviving this nightmare and being together again.


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