How A Pandemic Highlighted Our Collective Loneliness

A GLOBAL YEARNING FOR CONNECTION

 

Long before there was a pandemic with the spread of COVID-19, there was a decades-long epidemic of loneliness taking hold of America. Robert Putnam’s groundbreaking book Bowling Alone was the first to document the dissolution of our social fabric in the latter half of the 20th century, increasingly alienating us from our friends and neighbors. A January 2020 survey revealed that 3 out of 5 Americans identify as lonely, “left out, poorly understood, and lacking companionship”—and the meteoric rise of social media, gig-work, and the side hustle economy has only helped to normalize isolation. Depression and anxiety have been rising for years, and some believe they’re directly tied to our toxic economy.

Before this pandemic, I was already lonely, and I can bet that many of you were too. As a child of sexual and violent trauma with a history of major depression, I have difficulty forming long-term bonds and trusting others. I live in America, where the work/life balance is tilted extensively toward burnout. I’ve been in survival mode for the better part of the past three years, scrambling to make ends meet in high-stakes Los Angeles working between 3-6 jobs at once. I worked 16-hour shifts without overtime, sold prized possessions, worked only for tips, and got sick more times than I can count. All the while I was almost always alone—in a car, office, bar, or restaurant—with only enough energy to make it home and pass out once I made it through the doorway. I stayed in touch with loved ones through the chasm of my phone screen, but I felt desperately and painfully lonely. I’ve had a few run-ins with suicidal ideations during bouts of extreme isolation from depression, but always came through because of the real-life human bodies that came to my side. I could maintain my will to live because of them.

They too spent too much time on their phones and not enough face-to face with other people. They found it hard to be truly vulnerable, and yearned for a simpler life, a community. The loneliness they felt seemed incurable. They felt just like me. Then the coronavirus came.

Phil Eastman

Arranging meetups with friends was always work too. Even with all my efforts, it was often pretty damn difficult to get friends to just stand the fuck still and get together. Whenever we would manage to see each other, usually after weeks or months of text exchanges, they would immediately open up about the relentless exhaustion and isolation they also felt in their everyday lives. They too spent too much time on their phones and not enough face-to face with other people. They found it hard to be truly vulnerable, and yearned for a simpler life, a community. The loneliness they felt seemed incurable. They felt just like me.

Then the coronavirus came.

Within a week’s time I lost all of my work as a freelance photographer, the economy tanked, my move to NYC was halted, and access to any human was shifted to the computer or phone screen. I’ve wept over a cereal bowl, laughed uncontrollably at Internet memes, read books out loud to calm my nerves, and yearned more deeply for human contact than ever before. The sensation of a kiss, a hug, fingers through my hair, or the voices of my friends sharing conversations over dinner are things I dream about now. Every. Single. Night. 

Loneliness is truly shit, especially for our health. We are hard-wired for human touch, and the absence of it damages the mind and the body.  Loneliness is felt in the same regions of the brain as physical pain. We develop the need for touch as babies, where the attention from our parents helps us regulate the stress hormone cortisol, as well as serotonin and oxytocin. This is why something as simple as a firm hug from a friend can do wonders to your mood.

As much as I crave the presence of others; human touch is now synonymous with disease.

Phil Eastman

And now, suddenly, we are alone as a globe, fortressed in our homes, fearful of a virus we still don’t know much about. We cannot touch any person or surface or even our own faces. We can’t go outside and mingle with the world as we once did. Too dangerous. No one is quite sure how to handle the mental health response to this jarring shift, and there’s already concerns about a rise in suicides due to forced isolation during the pandemic.

And as much as I crave the presence of others; human touch is now synonymous with disease. I see the way people avoid each other when buying groceries or getting some air outside the confines of their homes. An already tentative trust in one another has been tarnished, and it will need communal effort to heal it.

But a weird organic reaction has resulted from us all being sent to our rooms by this virus. Artists, musicians, actors, and poets are live streaming. This morning I watched James Blake cover Don McClean’s “Vincent” on his home piano and I wept like I was at church. I watched a Parisian poet recite Whitman in French and did not understand a word of it and again wept. Friends are organizing virtual “wine dates” and families are gathering for online dinners. Suddenly, it feels like the absence of access to one another is reinforcing just how greatly we need one another—for survival, health, and just general fucking mental balance.

There’s going to be a reckoning of our value systems the longer this pandemic lasts, and it will be intertwined with how we spend our money, how we work, the economy we choose, and how we prioritize human health. We actually have the space and time to simply be with ourselves right now, as a globe, all at once. We may never get another chance like this again.

Phil Eastman

If you’re like me, you may have felt anxious, scared, inspired, horny, despondent, motivated, worried, or angry today—or all in the span of about an hour. There’s nobody to call to get tips on their previous pandemic methods, no Buzzfeed “How To Be Productive While At Home for 3 Months” list, and we’ve got a government that until about a week ago said all of this was a “hoax.” It’s okay to feel a bit batshit.

There’s going to be a reckoning of our value systems the longer this pandemic lasts, and it will be intertwined with how we spend our money, how we work, the economy we choose, and how we prioritize human health. We actually have the space and time to simply be with ourselves right now, as a globe, all at once. We may never get another chance like this again. 

So we must ask ourselves: Do we want the world we were living in before this virus arrived? Do we feel it was healthy? Did any of us secretly wish something would force the world to stop so we could re-envision a society that cares more genuinely about each other? To care more about life

We cannot touch right now, but we can reach out. We can listen; we can share. We can be there for one another like never before, making connections, softening loneliness, healing together. We can rebuild the damage that separation and isolation has done to us well before this virus arrived. It’s a long road ahead, but I hope we continue to walk it together. Our survival depends upon it.

LET'S TALK: are you longing for emotional and physical connection? do you ever feel lonely?

8 Comments

WHAT READERS ARE SAYING ABOUT THIS ARTICLE

  1. I think all of this is making me realize how I’m really yearning for companionship. I’ve been working on myself a lot for the past few years and maybe have felt held back/scared about actually starting to date but I’m realizing that connection and time spent with others and getting to know others is so sacred. It’s difficult when I’m yearning for a deep connection but can’t really meet people – on apps things feel so superficial and all of my old “go-tos” have already moved on. It’s a weird feeling–I’m not sure I would call it loneliness but moreso craving companionship.

    4 likes
    1. Thank you so much for sharing this! I hosted several online events last week where I asked this question: what has this experience made you realize about what you’re ready to call into your life? I was SHOCKED at how many people answered a relationship, a partner and/or love. One person shared exactly what you said.. that this experience has showed them that they are craving companionship above anything else. <3

  2. Thank you SO much Phil for sharing your story. This resonates with me on every single level. I feel like I have been social distancing for the last 4 years. I too have suffered from anxiety and depression stemmed from fear and loneliness for years now. The loneliness is my dark hallway. I have been working hard on pulling myself out of the dark and making decent progress until a virus hurled me right back into the hallway. I never realized until now how much I took physical contact for granted. Although things are grim, I do find peace in the fact that after this passes I will appreciate everything moment I have with friends and family. I honestly can’t wait to hug someone.

    5 likes
  3. What’s weird is that sometimes I am longing for emotional and physical connection, but not always from the person I am with. I find myself literally building a different life in my mind. Why am I here? How did this happen? I’m getting old. I’m running out of eggs. Are other people thinking this way? Will it stop? I am a part of this too. But I’m tired of waiting for someone to ask me to marry him. Is this a normal part of reflecting while I have little else to do? What will happen after this? I don’t know where I’m supposed to be. I’m not sure how I should be spending my time. How long is too long? What the fuck is happening?!

    3 likes
    1. For different reasons, I VERY MUCH FEEL THESE THOUGHTS. I think all of this is bringing up questions that have been dormant within us for a long time. Or perhaps questions that we’ve maybe been avoiding, that we’re now forced to address? I don’t know. I find comfort in that most days. Or at least today.

      3 likes

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