Priya: “At first I thought it would be great….working from home, getting some quality ME time. It’s not great anymore. It’s depressing and scary”

Ansh: “I was always happy with my solitude, because it was up to me when to choose to be alone and for how long. Now I feel lonely… I’m not climbing the walls yet, but I’m getting there”

Aziz “I’m a social animal. I need my friends and family. I’m stuck here in Nagpur. I do see my teammates online and chat with friends but it’s not enough”

Leila: “I’m eating junk. I go hunting for stuff that’s really bad for me, and for a little while I feel I’m in control. Then the guilt hits me. I hate what I’m becoming. It’s not my fault, I’m just so lonely!”

Many of us can relate to the comments above, given that isolation and social distancing is here to stay a while, thanks to the COVID19 pandemic. Its social and emotional fallout is unfolding before our eyes and it will take scores of studies in the years to come to understand it’s socio-psychological impact. For now, it looks like we’ll be working from home, not attending or hosting any social events in the sense of how we used to and generally leading solitary lives. Gone are the days of large weddings, kids’ birthday parties, packed sports stadia, over crowded public transport and malls echoing with footfalls.

Loneliness is one of the most common terms I’m hearing from people, markedly more so from people between the ages of 15 to 45. Several people who are in their mid twenties to early thirties find themselves living alone. Some are in homes with at least one person for company. Those who can work with others online – teammates, patients, students fall in the category of work from home-ers. Then there are those who cannot work from home but are compelled to stay put as their workspaces are shut. Irrespective of why one is home or how one passes the time, people are becoming acutely aware of being alone, being lonely or experiencing loneliness.

How does one begin to describe the loneliness of being closeted in four walls? There is no one standard measurement of loneliness, just similar adjectives one can use to verbalise it. Several people I have spoken to lately describe it variously as feeling trapped, deprived, neglected, lost and isolated. Loneliness can result in other negative emotions: anxiety, fear, stress and depression.

A lonely person might feel lonely in a crowd, at an event, in an office or on a bus. One can be lonely even in a marriage or a relationship. This is soul deadening loneliness. Is there a lack of intimacy? Is there a feeling of being left out, of being unwanted, different, not accepted? Is there motivation to go out there and seek companionship and support? Or has the need been felt but the motivation and drive are low? Has there been a history of lack of success in previous attempts to find the right resources to combat loneliness?

Often people need to dig deep to get to the bottom of their misery. With or without professional support a person might be able to unravel the root causes of loneliness. Talking about situations that led to this perceived lack of social comfort might help in finding solutions. These are mindful exercises, not some one-size-fits-all solution that one can pick out of a hat. Correctly done, they can help lead a lonely person to a more peaceful, happier existence that changes the mindset so effectively that she/he is able to discard the cocoon and fly.

It is important to understand that loneliness is not an illness by itself. But feelings of loneliness can become excessive, all-consuming and interfere with daily living. If this happens, loneliness has moved from being a phase or incidental event to a chronic condition that can hamper one’s personal and working life.

In enforced isolation, one that is not of one’s choosing, like the current pandemic and social distancing-driven situation, socially adept people are more likely to suffer. Their comfort zones were meant to have two or more beings in them. Interactions ruled their lives. Not just the ones they were compelled to have, such as those necessitated by career needs and financial goals, but those they were drawn to like moths to a flame, like social situations, sports events, entertainment, religious gatherings, family dinners…..

To be suddenly deprived of the social situations that define us is akin to being dumped in a prison we did not deserve. The shock of realising that this isolation may last several months, that one’s work life may change radically and not include the buzz of the office, workplace, marketplace or commute, the feeling of being confined to a space, either alone, or with family or companions with whom one might not have the best of relationships…. and yet have to function, to be productive, to deliver with elan and grace!

So what can we do? “Learn to accept it”, is the homily one hears most often. Can one really, when every fibre of one’s being craves company, which represents the “old life”, the one that we were used to and took for granted a mere few months ago? Can we accept and adapt?

I see some people resign themselves to the situation and stop fighting it. And then start finding ways to make it more acceptable to themselves. A young man of 27 told me that once he’d accepted the isolation and resultant loneliness, he began to explore things he could do by himself. He watched cooking shows and began experimenting with cooking, achieving what he called modest success. He tried growing herbs and is happy with watching them thrive. He has had less success with trying to learn to play the guitar with an online teacher, but has rearranged his apartment and feels very satisfied with the result. He did not realise it at first but now finds he has a great deal of clarity of thought. He’s looking forward to travelling and meeting friends but is more comfortable about not doing it right away. 

Then again there are people who prefer to live alone and enjoy their solitude. They have built a life that helps create the ultimate, perfect comfort zone. Their space might be well appointed, stark, minimalistic, simple or elaborate; they have their companions handy – books, music, art, gadgets; they stock their space with their victuals of choice, a pet animal, plants…. They create a world that celebrates their solitude. They emerge from it out of need and go back into it at will. Theirs is the perfect world – for them! They don’t see their space as a prison or a trap. These are not lonely people, these are people who revel in their alone-ness.

I’m not trying to say that every lonely soul should learn to be happy alone. These are two distinct states of being and one cannot just replace the other. But lonely people need to unravel the source of loneliness and get creative about overcoming it. For sure, if there is anxiety and depression, those emotions need to be tackled to clear the decks for a happier existence. I’m saying it has been done, it can be done, but not until one wants it, and stops pitying oneself, comparing one’s life to others’ seemingly more socially successful, fulfilled lives.

Niloufer Ebrahim

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