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I'm Alone in a Pandemic, and Running Out of Ways to Distract Myself

There's a loneliness epidemic as well as a global pandemic. Savoring the time you spend alone is worth it.

by Gretchen Brown
December 3, 2020 | Living
colorful thought bubbles surround the column name, Ask Me Instead.

Dear Ask Me Instead,

How do I cope with feelings of loneliness and isolation when lockdowns are in place, and I live alone?

It seems like my friends, who are all partnered and living together, don't reach out and check in on me as much as I do them, and I'm running out of ways to distract myself from the day-to-day struggles of always being in my apartment, alone, with no end in sight!

Any tips on how to enjoy my own company?

Dear Alone and Lonely in Lockdown,

I have lived completely alone for five years, and during that time my mood has cycled constantly between early 2000s feminist dancing with a hairbrush "I'm an independent woman!" and "I'm so alone, oh no no no no no no no no no no no no."

So I completely understand where you're coming from.

First, some data: Most folks under 35 (65 percent!!!!) are living without a partner right now, and that number is only rising. Many of those folks also live alone.

I'm not sharing this to say your problem is small. I'm sharing this to let you know you are truly not going through this alone, even if it feels that way. 

When you take an unprecedented public health crisis and combine it with an unprecedented number of young folks living alone, you get a loneliness epidemic.

A lot of the advice people typically give about enjoying your own company feels irrelevant right now, too. Take myself out to dinner? That's irresponsible, Sharon! We're in a pandemic!

But I think the spirit of some of that advice is what's applicable in these times. When people say cliches like "take yourself out to dinner," what they really mean is "be intentional about the time you spend alone, just like you would with time spent with others."

I don't know about you, but that's advice I could use. Because when I'm alone, one of the easiest things for me to do is zone out, and not in a good way.

Like one minute I could be sitting on the couch and scrolling through my phone after dinner, and the next minute it's 1 a.m. and I've been sitting in the dark for hours.

When you live alone, there's no one to constantly remind you that you're a human and not an internet zombie. Screen time isn't always bad, but zoning out until you're practically unconscious has to be. It's this state I find myself in more frequently than actual boredom when I'm alone.

To fight against this tendency, you have to be intentional with your time, all the time. Maybe that means making yourself a calendar for the weeknights and weekends, scheduling solo events like you would have with friends.

Like, at 6 p.m. you'll bundle up for a walk to look at the Christmas lights in your neighborhood. You'll come back and take the time to cook your favorite meal, and then have a movie night, maybe a double feature! 

I think the most important thing here is realizing that savoring your time with yourself, like you savor the time you spend with friends or a partner, is worth it. That helps make it less mundane.

There have been a lot of videos on TikTok lately about acting like the "main character" and "romanticizing your own life" and while those ideas could probably be easily brushed away as teenage idealism, I think there's merit to them. 

loneliness pandemic isolation pbs health
Credit: Ded Pixto // Adobe

When I treat my alone time like I'm just waiting around for the next person to interact with, I'm treating myself AT BEST like a special guest appearance. That's no way to live!

Remember at the beginning of the pandemic, when everyone was baking and doing puzzles and learning new hobbies as a coping mechanism? Well, I'm going to suggest you find a hobby, but not in that offhanded way people often do. 

I have been learning ukulele and guitar over the past six months, despite having no natural musical ability, and let me tell you, it does a lot for my sense of purpose. 

Back in May, I interviewed someone about this, Brooke Bryan, a professor of writing and applied liberal arts at Antioch College. She told me that haptic engagement, the kind of experience you get from physically working with an object, can put us in this fulfilling "flow" state where time falls away.

This isn't like zoning out on your phone. It's a practice that really engages all your senses. It's such a fulfilling way to spend time alone, one that leaves you feeling good, not empty and lonely.

That's not because I'm actually getting good at playing an instrument (I'm not). It's because having a goal to focus on is actually very fulfilling. 

You don't have to constantly be doing exciting things with the people you love for your life to mean something. Fully inhabit your own self.

What I don't recommend is cutting yourself off from the people in your own life in pursuit of this.

You say your friends don't reach out to you as much as you reach out to them. I used to struggle with this a lot with my partnered friends, because I (falsely) believed that it meant they "weren't real friends" or they didn't really care about me. 

But I'd encourage you to keep reaching out to the friends in your life as frequently as you do. There are a bunch of reasons why they probably appreciate it, including that it's always really nice to hear a friend is thinking about you. 

This friendship dynamic isn't lopsided, it just might be the dynamic you're both used to at this point. Or, they may not enjoy texting, and don't need as much contact with friends as you do.

You don't know, so there's no need to make up a reason in your mind. Just continue be there for them.

For me, focusing on other people, rather than ruminating on my loneliness, actually makes me happier. That's true whether or not they're physically with me. Sending my friends packages in the mail is just as fun as ordering something online for myself. 

It feels good to focus on them, and not my own face on Zoom.

Have a life dilemma?

Email Ask Me Instead at [email protected] or send us a note using this form. All submissions are anonymous.

For more good advice, visit the Ask Me Instead collection.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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