How to Be Alone All the Time during a Pandemic

Staying busy isn't the only answer.

Photo via Getty Images/Eugenio Marongiu

Usually around this time, I’d be running late for work. I’d be running, literally, across the street in front of a car who beeps, and pausing for a second to glare at the driver I can’t quite see through the windshield, then continuing on to catch the bus just as the last straggler steps up to swipe their pass. I’d be tapping my Charlie card against the plastic reader, then wedging my bag between my feet and wrapping my hand around a pole above and below someone else’s. I’d be rolling my eyes every time a passenger yells “back door” unnecessarily aggressively, and chuckling to myself as the driver stalls at each stop to say, “I am not moving this bus until you all get behind the yellow line,” yet continues to let new riders on every time.

But lately, all that has changed. This morning, I woke up an hour later than normal, got ready (I use this term extremely loosely) without hurry, and padded into the kitchen to make coffee, all without bumping into a single soul along the way. And then I logged onto work from home five minutes early. It was a relaxing start to the day. So why do I kind of miss my hectic commute?

During these first couple of weeks of social isolation, I’ve realized I’ve accidentally grown quite fond of the cast of characters I start my workday with. The lady in a pencil skirt and sneakers who acts as the diplomat of the bus, directing people to move in so that others can board. The old man who uses his walker to pace in place in front of Kenmore. The bus drivers who wait as I dig my card out of the bottom of my bag. As an introvert, the act of being around people without having to spend energy interacting with them is one of the nicest parts of living in a city.

And I suspect I’m not alone in this feeling. Particularly for Bostonians—people who have chosen to live in a city, who hold closely onto our reps for honking loud and long, and not striking up conversation with strangers in the grocery store, but feel most at home when packed into sports stadiums and onto MBTA vehicles—being suddenly alone all the time is unsettling. The inertia of always going has made this sudden halt all the more whiplash-inducing.

Jacqueline Olds, a psychiatrist, associate professor at Harvard Medical School, and author of the book The Lonely American, confirms my hunch. “I think the social isolation is getting to a lot of people,” she says. “I’m encouraging most people to contact those they care about through video because without any social contact they can get much too anxious and depressed. But when they do start initiating video chats with the people they like best, they start to feel much more centered and relaxed.”

Trust me, I’m FaceTiming my face off. I’m baking, I’m taking walks, I’m applying face masks, I’m spending time with my social distancing companions. I’m not actually spending less time on my phone whatsoever but please, we’re in a pandemic, I’m taking this one step at a time.

Another way to pleasingly pass these lonely hours is through “flow” activities—“those things you like to do so much that you don’t notice the passage of time,” explains Olds. “For some this might mean reading, for some painting, for some sewing, for others cooking. Or for the lovers of exercise, it might mean running or biking.”

These are things we should do to ward off unraveling completely and falling into patterns of depression, or worse, spending too much time using WebMD to confirm that we have COVID-19 despite having none of the symptoms. Still, says Olds, “If you’re alone for long periods of time not seeing others, it can feel surrealistic and very anxiety producing.”

Though she says introverts may be more equipped for this period of being alone all the time (brag), ultimately, “even practice at being alone can get old when you don’t have much choice in the matter.” And surely, none of us chose this. For those of us who live alone, or are sick with the virus and in true quarantine, this experience can feel even more isolating.

But there is another pastime that all of us fortunate enough to be social distancing can tap into: being bored. Despite what all this time alone with your thoughts may have led you to believe, being bored doesn’t mean you’re a boring person. Actually, says Olds, “it’s very typical to feel a bit bored by being alone so much of the time. Unless you’re very disciplined about doing all your activities, you start to feel stir crazy and like a prisoner in your own home.” In between eating dry cereal out of the box and shoving another article in front of our faces, letting ourselves grow bored may be one of the few breaks we get from the helplessness of what’s going on outside our doors. Embracing the boredom— “or at least learning to tolerate it better,” as Olds puts it—can also beget creativity and help us learn about our own thoughts and feelings.

And in the midst of all the strange ways our thoughts may be spiraling, Olds brings up one sentiment that’s worth dwelling on: “We should all be reminding ourselves that this period of privation is something we’re doing with everyone else so we can save lives. In that sense, we’re not alone but more joined with everyone else than usual.”

Some sweet day in the future, I’ll be crossing the street again, glaring at yet another faceless driver who almost hits me even though I’m in a crosswalk. Until then, we’re all part of a different kind of commute. We’re staying inside, taking care of ourselves, being a friend from a distance, maybe learning how to cross stitch, maybe figuring out time travel (I can think of a few things I’d like to go back and stop from happening), and hopefully finding the time to get a little bored along the way. We’re all doing our separate, slightly cozier routines, but we’re doing it to save each other, which is probably the best part of having to be alone all the time.