I wasn’t on my own by choice. As 2020 turned into 2021 I was recovering from coronavirus, sitting alone on my sofa and watching light from fireworks ricochet off the building opposite mine. The noise reverberated around my living room, drowning out the documentary about Laurel Canyon I was watching purely for its archive footage of Joni Mitchell, and my thoughts. As it faded, something else took my attention away from my first ever solo New Year's Eve: a loud and intensifying rustling coming from my under-sink cabinet.
12.08am, my phone read. The first day of January of a new year on which people the world over had heaped so many hopes that it could only disappoint. Starting it with a mouse problem really would be a stretch too far, a portent that I was not prepared to acknowledge. I shouted "No!" at the cabinet door, barricaded it with a heavy box of printer paper and went to bed.
"COME HERE!!!!!" I wanted to shout to someone, anyone. I needed another person to bear witness to this, a metaphor for everything that has happened, that is happening, which I wasn’t quite able to unpack. I could have called; nobody would have come. I tried to text a few friends. Describing and distilling the event into a two-line message made it lose meaning. I deleted the words, letter by letter, and put my phone down. What would it mean on that surreal, uncertain night for this vignette of my life to go unshared with anyone?
Prior to the pandemic, the number of one-person households containing single adults who, like me, live alone was rising. As we enter our third lockdown in less than a year, while I appreciate the stupid privilege of having my own safe space at a time when so many do not, I am glad that there has been so much focus on the mental health of people living through the daily unfolding of history without anyone to talk to in person.
First time around, there were predictions that this crisis would bolster communities and bring us all closer together but as new waves of infection have been stoked by new strains of the virus, dictating what freedoms we can and can’t have, that doesn’t quite ring true. These days, most of my interactions with others take place behind transparent but firm barriers: the glass screen of my laptop, my phone. It’s no surprise that The Mental Health Foundation has warned that the viral pandemic could be fuelling another epidemic: loneliness. After lockdown 1.0 they found that almost a quarter of UK adults felt lonely because of coronavirus, that almost half of young people between 18 and 24 were experiencing loneliness and that those feelings more than doubled as that lockdown progressed.
Throughout 2020, isolation became normal for me; living alone and working alone, unable to see my family and many of my friends. At first I was lonely. I cried a lot – that’s when I started to overdo it on Joni and began to resemble Emma Thompson in Love Actually breaking down as "Both Sides Now" plays. But in December, when I contracted the virus for what I’m almost certain was the second time, I started reading about the psychology of isolation.
Being on your own can be discombobulating. I didn’t die, I’m on the mend now and I have a home I can afford but, in so many ways, testing positive for COVID-19 days before Christmas after almost a year of not really being able to see the people I love was one of the most confounding things I’ve ever been through. Yet rather than embrace the exhaustion, as I lay in the dark and felt my body fighting against infection, aching all over, I became determined to get something from the experience.
These challenging moments are the ones you grow from, so self-help books tell you. So I wanted to try. I thought of Julian of Norwich, a medieval anchorite (religious recluse) who chose to be sealed into a cell in order to get closer to God. What a life! Those, like Julian, who embrace seclusion for spiritual or creative reasons remain unusual. Solitude is stigmatised – we call people who like it "loners" – which is why it remains a punishment.
Writers, thinkers and creatives isolate in order to produce work of value, in order to reach a higher intellectual plane; in many ways we put more pressure on what we do when we are alone than when we are in company. Let’s not forget the intense promises of productivity – writing novels, learning languages – that were made when the pandemic first hit. That’s the strange thing about isolation. In schools and prisons it is used as a punishment for bad behaviour. And yet, today, it has become venerated in the loosely spiritual culture of wellness.
I know people who, before coronavirus came along and forced us all to stay at home, quieting our social lives, spent more money than I can condone to sit in silence in Wiltshire on a retreat or travelled to South Asia to meditate for a week in order to escape the supposed "chaos" of their doltishly privileged urban lives.
Yet in Japan there is a phenomenon called hikikomori which concerns psychologists and politicians alike. It describes the thousands of young people (some of whom are depressed) sequestering themselves away, sometimes for years. This is generally described as a retreat from the outside world as a reaction to its pressures and stresses; chosen isolation because what is happening externally is triggering and troubling.
There is a difference between choosing to isolate yourself from the world for a short period of time, isolating because you’re struggling, and what so many of us are experiencing now: enforced isolation. There is a difference between choosing seclusion because you want to reflect and restore yourself to factory settings, entering into it because you’re suffering and being told you don’t have a choice.
In her isolation Julian of Norwich wrote Revelations of Divine Love. From bed on New Year’s Day, I googled quotes and remembered that she had written "all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well." It sounds profound but I wondered what it really meant for me.
As the sun rose a few days later, I was drinking coffee, looking out of the window at my balcony and contemplating spending a third lockdown living on my own. A mouse ran past. Sleepily, I told myself I had imagined it. To confirm its existence, it ran back towards the window and squeezed itself between two huddled plant pots containing the remains of vegetables I had grown during the first lockdown. Still I convinced myself I was imagining it. That I had also imagined the New Year’s Eve rustling.
What was I supposed to learn from this? Where was the spiritual growth? I decided, as a precaution, to call a pest control company. "I think I’ve seen a mouse," I said to the guy who answered, "and there has been some very loud rustling in my cupboard." He laughed. "Okay, you’re in the denial phase. Hold on. We can send someone tomorrow."
There is no shame in experiencing loneliness right now, in finding the news of a third lockdown troubling, or fearing the endless stretch of yet more of your own company. There are some things you can’t do alone, that you just need another person to help with, to advise and reassure you on. We aren’t supposed to do everything by ourselves.
If you are struggling with loneliness which is impacting your mental health, please reach out to your GP or contact Mind.