I have a paralyzing fear of isolation and loneliness, this was my worst nightmare.
Back in March, on day two of our lockdown in New York City, and after several days of anxiety attacks and feelings of panicking, I wrote about how the impending lengthy (at the time, open-ended) quarantine and social isolation was forcing me to face my worst fears; fears of loneliness and social isolation. Here is a piece I wrote that night about how frightened I felt and how it was comforting to know it was an experience the entire world was sharing together at the same time:
On March 24, 2019, I was in Cartagena, Colombia. I stepped off a cruise ship and strolled around the Old City with a crowd of tourists, buying souvenirs from locals, eyeing emeralds with my relatives, sitting in a pew with natives at the cathedral. I had rarely felt less alone.
Exactly one year later, that city is on lockdown;
And so is Brussels, and Rome, and Honolulu, and Las Vegas. All other places I’ve been. And so was I, at home in New York. I never felt more alone.
But that’s also the thing that is most comforting about this – it’s the first time in most of our lifetimes, we are sharing a harrowing experience together as a species. The whole world is effected. We all have the same enemy.
This pandemic and the social distancing we have had to endure to save the lives of those at greatest risk, has unearthed a yingyang of feelings around one of my greatest fears – isolation and loneliness. It has both exacerbated it, but also relieved it.
These past couple of weeks, I’ve been waking up each morning wondering if this was all a bad dream. If my anxiety was playing tricks on me. I am isolated – separated from the things that ease that fear – for an undetermined amount of time. I’ve been obsessively refreshing Twitter, feeling pangs of anxiety and confusion at any suggestion from officials that this situation might lead me to be forced to stay inside, disallowing me at least the right to see my partner, if nothing else, and have at least a few hours a week where I’m not crippled by loneliness. I hear stories about people in quarantine in Europe – a woman who stepped outside her house to find out what the tapping on her roof was, only to be shooed back in by police. People being fined on the street in Austria and Spain, just for walking a few blocks to see a friend.
For a while now, I’ve managed my loneliness by going back and forth between my home to my partner’s apartment. That freedom to move is something I dearly miss, and something I’ve long feared, a fear that was considered irrational a month ago, would be taken away, because it was a huge factor in fighting my crippling fear of isolation.
And a fear it is.
In college, I worked at my school radio station and unlike most of my friends, I didn’t live on campus. I drove everyday from New York City to Long Island. Oftentimes, I’d hang around campus after class to wait for traffic to die down, but on Fridays the campus was different. The last class let out at 3 p.m. and the campus cleared out; the parking lots were quiet, so quiet that you could hear the clock in the quad tick.
I would often have nightmares about being stuck at the radio station after our news program ended at 5 p.m. on Fridays – alone. I’d be stuck there for an indefinite amount of time, the only person keeping the station running, by myself in a quiet building. I’d look out the window to see if anybody was out there, anyone driving by, but no one was there. I was alone. I would often wake up covered in sweat.
I don’t know exactly when it started. My earliest memory of being afraid of isolation, when I was ten years old, and I would dread nighttime because it meant my parents would go to sleep and I’d be alone. It was ok if I could fall asleep, and up until that point, I have no problem going to sleep at the same time as my parents, but suddenly I couldn’t fall asleep at 10:30 p.m. after the weather segment of the 10 o’clock news. Suddenly I was awake for 30 more minutes, then 45, then an hour. Before I knew it, it was 11:30 p..m., and I was staring at the ceiling in the quiet of my room.
For a time, maybe a year or so, I slept on the couch because it was closer to my parents bedroom than my bedroom. For a time I made my mother stay up with me until I fell asleep. It created strain in my parents’ marriage. One night I ran into my parents bedroom crying because I had woken up in my bedroom alone. My dad must have carried me in there.
The fears were irrational. My bedroom was in the back of the house, so I felt isolated from where everyone else was – where the cars drove by and people walked by. I thought my parents would abandon me while I slept – they would pack up the house and move out leaving me behind. If i slept on the couch, it meant they couldn’t get out of the house without passing me and making a noise that would waken me. That was my tortured logic.
Eventually, I found my way back into my bedroom; puberty helped. But as I got older, the nights got longer. I would walk around the house looking for lights in neighbors’ windows, seeing who was awake. I knew some of my neighbors nightly routines. The man who lived across the street would watch TV in his front room until 1 a.m. Another neighbor would always turned the bathroom light on at 12:15 a.m., probably to brush his teeth before bed I assumed.
I would count how many windows were illuminated, a sign someone was awake. If I saw no lights on in any windows, anxiety would set in. I was alone.
The nights were long. One o’clock meant it would be another four hours before my father would get up for work. Four hours alone! It seems so weird now that I once had panic attacks about the nighttime being too long and nowadays I often wish it were longer.
I became obsessed with CBS News Up To The Minute, an overnight news show that aired on CBS from 3 to 6 a.m. It was the only thing on that wasn’t informercials. Sharyl Attkisson became my best friend. Her daily updates of the OJ Simpson case and the Oslo Accords helped ease my loneliness until I dozed off to sleep.
When I was 14, my aunt took me along to a business trip to Italy. For one night, we had to sleep in separate hotel rooms, but I wouldn’t let her leave. I even called home crying that I wanted to go home. I actually thought my aunt would abandon me in a foreign country. I actually had convinced myself of that.
Which brings us to college and the nightmares about being stuck in the radio station. I felt it even long after. When I worked for PBS on Long Island, I often let the fear of being stuck at the office past five o’clock, when everyone else would have gone home, get in the way of my work. I would have a meltdown whenever a live taping went awry because it increased the chance I’d have to “fix it in post” – TV lingo for staying after filming and editing it to make it look like the mess up didn’t happen – editing alone.
People often ask why I cannot put down my phone, because I feel lonely if I do. These past few weeks, I’ve thought about how lucky we are that this pandemic and these lockdowns are happening in a time of the internet.
But it’s also a reminder to me of how important physical presence is. It was Marilyn Monroe who allegedly said: “It’s often just enough to be with someone. I don’t need to touch them. Not even talk. A feeling passes between you both. You’re not alone.”
FaceTime, Skype and Zoom are good in that you can see and hear someone you miss, but nothing beats the physical presence of someone, especially someone you love. Nothing can fully replicate that. I fear losing that and losing it for an extended period of time.
If you had asked me before this year my nightmare scenarios, I would list a few things; being on a plane with no landing gear is one; trapped in an elevator with no cell service is another, but certainly on that list would be “a lockdown where I can’t leave the house or see my partner or my friends for an indefinite amount of time.” I have a feeling people would have laughed at me, that such a thing isn’t possible in the Untied States.
But here we are.
And so here I am, facing my nightmare. I’m lucky though. I’m not home alone, my parents are here; my aunt and uncle are upstairs in their apartment, my neighbors are within view and I have a big backyard and a lot of food. But I’m incomplete. I’m still isolated. The human contact that keeps my fears of isolation and loneliness away have been taken from me. Worse yet, it had to be, because it might kill me.
And yet as much as this experience is testing the limits of my phobias, in some ironic way, it helps in knowing that it isn’t an isolating experience. I was in New York on September 11th and during Hurricane Sandy, and in both occasions, I wished I was somewhere else – anywhere else. I remember wishing I was in Australia during 9/11, far, far away. Boy, the weather in California was nice during Hurricane Sandy.
Well this is different. Colombia, Italy, Belgium, Hawaii are all experiencing it too. We can’t experience it together, in the same room, but we are all experiencing it. There is some comfort in that.
It reminds me of Independence Day, when humanity is forced to unite to save its planet from aliens. This is similar, though obviously not as dire. All the anxiety and stress and economic and financial pain, we’re all feeling it.
Somehow one of the loneliest experiences of my life, is the one experience I have in common with everyone else. And perhaps at the end of this, when the danger passes, we can experience that together, in person. And I would have faced one of my worst fears, and won.