Coronavirus Support Bubbles Force Us To Face Who & What We Truly Miss

Photographed by Meg O'Donnell
I have always known that there is a distinct difference between being alone and being lonely but I’m not sure I ever understood it. I know that I understand it now. 
At first lockdown was more like solitary confinement than welcome solitude. I cried for what felt like no reason. I cried when I woke up, when I went to bed and in the socially distanced queue for the checkout in Tesco while I contemplated chicken dippers. But as the weeks became months, I noticed that I was not only embracing but enjoying the social silence. I spent my birthday (mostly) alone. I liked it. Like a Marie Kondo of the mind, I felt like I was standing outside my life, looking in. For the first time, I felt able to reorder and arrange it without distraction. 
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Having no children or urgent care responsibilities and continued gainful employment throughout the pandemic meant that the stupid privilege of being able to fill all this loose and unstructured time with introspection was not lost on me. For many people, I know, the experience has been the polar opposite. 
There is a COVID gender mental health gap. One third of women report that they have been hit hard by social isolation and lockdown loneliness. New research from economists Lisa Spantig and Ben Etheridge at the University of Essex has found that the decline in mental wellbeing has been twice as large for young women under the age of 30 as it has been for men. 

There is a COVID gender mental health gap. The decline in mental wellbeing has been twice as large for young women under the age of 30 as it has been for men. 

This, they say, is partly because women have drawn the short straw in that not only are we more likely to have lost work or seen our income fall, we’re more likely to be dealing with that while caring for children. But mostly it’s because we were more social before. Women, Spantig and Etheridge say, reported more close friends before the pandemic than our male counterparts and increased loneliness once lockdown began because we were used to seeing more people, to filling our days and our diaries because, from a young age, women are taught that our worth is directly proportional to being socially visible, to how many female friends we have and how much exciting, Instagrammable stuff we do with them. 
As a result, for many (particularly middle class) young women, being busy had become a sort of warped late capitalist status symbol. This ailment was so ubiquitous that there was actually a name for it: Rushing Woman’s Syndrome, coined by the Australian biochemist Dr Libby Weaver in 2014.
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"Between deadlines and financial responsibilities, school runs and household duties, caring for loved ones of all ages and intimate relationships, our lives can be demanding," Weaver wrote. "We’re often wound up, running ourselves ragged in a daily battle to get things done, feeling as though there’s so much to do, and yet never quite getting on top of things."
For too many women, daily life felt like a Sisyphean task. You’re ticking things off a never-ending list that replenishes itself with tasks as quickly as you can complete them. Lockdown, at least, took away the social obligations and overwhelming guilt of not wanting or being able to fulfil them. 
Friends of friends would DM me to tell me how "stressed" they were and how much they "missed socialising". I empathised but the very thought of having an overfull diary again made me not reply. Invites to Zoom quizzes came but I couldn’t accept them; I found the prospect of a Friday night in silence or with a vintage and very problematic episode of series two Sex and the City more enticing. Not to be all Eat Pray Love about it but once I got over the shock of being forced to sit with my own thoughts and feelings, I did turn into a very budget Liz Gilbert who would rather watch a programme about busy women rushing around in heels and drinking expensive cocktails than ever be one. 

If lockdown was a perversely welcome break from the tyranny of being busy, could its lifting give us an opportunity to prioritise what we actually need not to remain superficially visible in our friendship group but to feel genuinely supported and fulfilled? 

In the cold light of COVID-19 and the many ways that it has exposed the inequality and injustice of the world we live in, keeping up appearances socially feels empty and thoughtless. The stock of fostering meaningful connections with other people, on the other hand, has only risen.  
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If lockdown was a perversely welcome break from that tyranny of being busy, could its lifting, the relaxation of social distancing, the birth of "support bubbles" and the prospect of seeing people from outside our own households again give us an opportunity to prioritise who we actually want to see? To work out what we actually need not to remain superficially visible in our friendship group but to feel genuinely supported and fulfilled? 
Professor Robin Dunbar, who specialises in evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, thinks we are already doing this whether we realise it or not. Speaking to Refinery29 he said that our friendships are "decaying" at a higher rate than ever before, simply because bans on travel have meant that we are only able to physically see those who live in close proximity to us. 
Could this be a unique opportunity to refocus our energies, to value quality over quantity in our social lives? Psychotherapist Michelle Scott from The Recovery Centre says that, while painful, it could. She notes that while such difficult decision-making may be much harder after lockdown because "we have been in a period of prolonged stress and collective trauma," meaning that we are not necessarily at our best, we can find ways to make productive choices which are based not on social guilt but "on what we need or want for ourselves."  

Isolation has led to feelings of insecurity and even paranoia for some people. We have not had our usual means of receiving validation. Even the most level-headed and confident among us might feel more sensitive, prone to feel rejected or to compare ourselves to others.

Michelle Scott, PSYCHOTHERAPIST
That’s not to say it will be easy. "This period of isolation has led to feelings of insecurity and even paranoia for some people," Michelle explains. "We have not had our usual means of receiving validation or outlets for our feelings. This may mean that even the most level-headed and confident among us might feel more sensitive, prone to feel rejected or to compare ourselves to others."  
With everyone forced to scale back their social circle, Michelle adds that we might feel like we’re back at school and "be reminded of being back in the playground and not being picked for a game." Ultimately, though, she says "the best choices for long-term mental health are about being able to establish your boundaries clearly, firmly and with love."
We all feel fragile and we are all, in different ways, grieving for something whether it’s a relationship, a loved one, a job or our old lives. But we’ve stopped saying that we want to go back to "normal" because we know that everything is different now. So while there’s never, ever an excuse for being a dick, at the same time give yourself permission to choose carefully who you see and bring into your bubble; give yourself permission to say no to the relentless and thankless pursuit of being all things to all people. 

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