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Living Alone During the Coronavirus Outbreak

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Halley Cornell - Blogs
By Halley CornellMental health advocate and writerApril 02, 2020

Every day I hear from friends who are struggling with their new homeschooling jobs, or who want nothing more than an hour to themselves away from kids’ hands and words. Or they’re making funny remarks about needing social distance from their suddenly ever-present husbands or roommates.

They have my love and sympathy – I know it’s all complicated and inescapable stuff right now. But if I’m being honest, they also have my envy. Alone here in my house on Day 21, and looking toward at least another month of isolation, I would love to squabble with a spouse, or get frustrated trying to teach someone something I don’t even really know. I would love to do anything with anyone. So long as it was together.

Last week, I didn’t sleep much. Every night I was awake by 4 a.m., churning through all the what-ifs. Over Zoom and Facebook and phone calls, I talked about these things with friends and family. Many of their anxieties match my own: overwhelming fears about things we can’t control – our families getting sick, our country and the world wrestling with interconnected economies and fates. In the face of all that, I try to swallow my fears about myself. They feel small and selfish. But the truth is my 4 a.m. what-ifs look like this: What if depression gets bad and I can’t help myself? What if I get sick here with no one to help me? What if I die here, all alone?

In normal times, I really like living alone. I like having the space and time to deal with my needs and moods. I like figuring things out for myself. I like eating whatever I’m in the mood for and staying up too late and turning the stereo up very loud. I like to roam around and sing silly made-up songs, or to practice the same song on guitar over and over and over until I can’t feel my fingers. After many years in a difficult live-in relationship, I especially love that I can be myself, free of judgment, and the only one who gets to call my choices weird is me.

After so many days in this empty house, though, those freedoms feel incomplete. It turns out that enjoying solitude relies on the other side of the coin: in-person contact. Enjoying the freedom of answering only to myself requires the opposite to be present as well – it requires the connection and exchange of being annoyed at my band during practice, or pinging ideas off my coworkers at the office, or hashing through writing work face-to-face with my friends.

Like the dark needs the light or the day needs the night, my solitude needs socializing to work right. I can’t make this untrue, and frankly, even as lonely as I am right now, I wouldn’t want to. There is everything right and human about needing connection and community, about wanting to embrace someone and to be embraced when you’re both afraid.

So there it is. I’m lonely, I’m scared, and I accept that these are natural. These things don’t make me weak or selfish, they just make me human and alive. This week, I’m trying to look forward from there (just a little bit, too far forward is a big pile of messy overwhelm right now). I’m asking myself – How can I take what I love about living alone, and translate it to a world of only remote interactions? What would it mean to be family, teacher, and companion to myself? I think maybe it’s this:

Be kind to yourself.

I know you are strong and capable. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need some gentleness and compassion right now, too. If you weren’t alone, if you were teaching your children, you wouldn’t expect good results from impatience and anger. Why would you expect those things to help you? There’s never been a better time than now to think about how you’d speak to a friend, and to try to use that same spirit when speaking to yourself.

Don’t try to do everything.

This is not the time to solve the world – or even yourself. You can find plenty of manageable, meaningful ways to contribute out there without building something from the ground up. And you are already adjusting to huge changes. You don’t also have to suddenly be a baker, or learn a new language. Those expectations would be high in normal times, and these are not normal times. Try to lower your expectations of yourself to take this strange new situation into account. Being less than exemplary won’t hurt you. For now, how about we all be okay with just being okay.

Allow your thoughts and feelings to come up.

The deceptively simple truth about thoughts and feelings is you don’t actually have to act on them. Understanding that helps you understand that you don’t have to try to keep them from surfacing, either. They can seem extra loud when you’re alone – especially when depressive thoughts creep in – but if you can listen, and let go of the ones that aren’t useful, you might find they help guide you to places of acceptance and resourcefulness and hope.

Say it out loud.

You’re scared. This sucks. You miss everyone. You miss tiny normal things. You miss your freedom. You miss not thinking about this. You’re afraid to get sick alone. You’re afraid when you wake up at night. Just say it. Your friends want to comfort you, and they want to empathize. And they need a place to say these kinds of things and have your empathy right back, too.

You can indulge some impulses.

This is not the time to be a perfectionist. It’s ok to find some comfort in food or the kind of tv that can drown out your brain. You’re doing hard work managing the stress of a new routine, changed expectations, and a more difficult-to-navigate world. If you lose a couple of brain cells to Love Island or gain a couple pounds to your pasta stock (and pasta tastes great with cheese), so be it.

But try to keep your head about it and be safe.

You know all those memes you’re seeing about day-drinking and the coffee-to-wine cycle? That doesn’t work for you. If a couple beers make weekly writing night feel less lonely right now, that’s ok. If every night is the beer and Twizzlers diet, things are getting really off-track, and you should reevaluate. Try to designate a night or two to indulge, and remember to nurture your body as best you can the rest of the time. Ask for help if you need to.

Have fun.

There’s nothing preventing you from turning the stereo up too loud at night, or roaming around singing silly songs. There’s actually nothing preventing you from doing those things online with friends, if you want to. DJ? Dance party? Online karaoke (does that exist)? Life wasn’t bland when you were living alone by choice. It doesn’t have to be now.

Accept invitations.

Ok, so remote hangouts are not a true replacement for in-person hangs. And they can sometimes make you feel a little more alone when they’re over. But you get to look at and laugh with and freak out with people you love and who love you, and you get to feel a little normalish and outside of your head for a minute, too.

Be creative if you can, but don’t punish yourself if you can’t.

Do you know what’s really hard right now? Thinking about anything not-the-virus. Do you know where creativity doesn’t tend to live? In places of fear and worry. If you can write that song or do that project, by all means, it will be a wonderful feeling to make something new. But if you can’t, it is completely understandable. Your brain is really busy trying to cope, and that’s not just ok, but necessary. You can revisit those ideas down the road.

Remember this is temporary.

One way or another, nothing lasts. It is one of the most wonderful and terrible truisms that we have: nothing stays the same, whether good or bad. In times like this, that truism can keep you sane, and keep all of us moving, thinking, imagining, and solving problems. Things will change -- they will change even during the course of this pandemic. You will adapt, you will find new resources, you will forge a new routine. The way you coped last week will not be the way you cope next week.

And while we don’t know what things will look like on the other side, when we finally get there, it’s useful to remember that all that change is a powerful source of hope and regeneration. Even our in-person relationships can change and deepen, in gratitude for how important they are.

Hey, when we get there, and your kids are back in school, and you’re no longer cooped up with your spouses and roommates, will you all come on over to my back deck and have a beer? Until then. Take good care of yourselves. Stay safe. Keep others safe. Here in my thoughts and hopes, we’re not really alone. 

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About the Author
Halley Cornell

Halley Cornell is a content strategist at WebMD who has worked in multiple healthcare settings advocating for holistic mental and physical health. She writes from a perspective of her personal experiences working to outsmart and overcome treatment-resistant depression and clinical anxiety.

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