After the first of the Covid lockdowns ended, so did my long-term relationship, and I became one of the many young people who moved back in with their parents. Not to be dramatic, but I think the past 18 months have been some of the loneliest of my entire life.
Going through a break-up is hard, going through a pandemic is harder and going through both of them at the same time is its own special type of pain, even if the break-up was one of those tidy, amicable affairs.
I returned to the tiny, rural village I grew up in and hadn’t lived in full-time since I was about 19 years old. It’s been an immense privilege to be able to come home and take stock, but it’s also been difficult. While the country went in and out of lockdowns and special measures, I went for walks alone in vast expanses of countryside. When things were opening up again, I watched my friends go back to a vague sense of normality from the comfort of my parents’ sofa, waiting for the next episode of Midsomer Murders to begin.
I’m very comfortable being alone and I like being by myself. I like walking by myself and thinking about things. I like eating alone in restaurants and people-watching, overhearing snippets of conversations that I probably shouldn’t be hearing. I like taking myself out for the day and getting coffee and working my way through bookshops, all that twee, wholesome stuff that makes you feel like a main character in a terribly clichéd novel. But something that now feels very obvious but I’ve only realised over the last year or so is that being alone and being lonely are two very different things.
While loneliness is something we often think about in relation to older people, it turns out that the younger generations are more prone to feeling lonely. A YouGov survey undertaken just before the global pandemic in 2019 found that 88 per cent of young people aged 18-24 said they experienced loneliness to some degree, with 7 per cent of those saying they feel lonely all the time.
It feels wrong and embarrassing, in a way, to talk about feeling lonely. I have lots of wonderful friends, who know that I’ve been struggling and are only a phone call or message away if I need them (and often I do). But there are often stretches of time where I just don’t want to reach out to anyone and I know that it’s bad and kind of a self-fulfilling failure that will only push me deeper into the lonely pit, but sometimes when you’re in it, it feels better to, ironically, be alone there.
Social media has always been something of a crutch for me. It’s become a big part of my life and work but I think there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors about it when it comes down to how connected it can make you feel. I’ve met several of my close friends on social media, a lot of them from the hellsite that is Twitter. These are friends I now know in real life, friends I have dinner with. But I think scrolling through Twitter and Instagram and seeing the particular parts of life that people choose to put out – and I’m certainly guilty of this too – which are usually just the good parts, doesn’t help if you’re already feeling like you’ve been left behind in certain ways.
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I think there’s an intimacy you have with a partner when you’re in a relationship, where you share most of the parts of your life, even the really boring and mundane things. When you live together, you share the minutiae of your day, you share the house chores, cooking dinner and washing clothes. I don’t think my loneliness necessarily is the same as that of when you’re single, because I’m not particularly craving being back in a relationship, but there are some things that, by their nature, just don’t happen for you if you’re single.
I don’t know if I want a partner again for the sake of having a partner, but I do know that I miss things like sharing a bed with someone else, or those silly, meaningless conversations you have before you fall asleep.
I’m hopefully moving back to the city in the next few months and starting some exciting new work projects, which I’m hoping will keep me busy. I also hope that being geographically closer to a lot of my friends will help do some of the heavy lifting when it comes down to not feeling as lonely. But I am also anxious.
With this pandemic, a lot of us have been rolling with the punches and I wonder what will happen when we get the chance to really think about what we’ve been through over the past 18 months. It does feel like there is a sort of collective grief that has been going round, a kinetic energy that needs an outlet.
For me, certainly, I feel like I’m still in need of time to process some of the things that have happened, that I’ve kind of kept on a shelf for “when this is all over”, but it seems more and more likely that there won’t really be an “over”, there will just be a “to be continued”.
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