Is it just me or is this lockdown harder than the one before? Am I the only one who goes to call a friend and struggles for a moment to remember one?
We wait for the vaccine, while headlines that Brazil’s variant may be immune slap us across the chops. Most of us are locked away, dealing with a life pretty far from the one we’d been living. Shouldn’t we be talking more about loneliness? After all, it has been proven to lower your immune system – and when you’re experiencing it, it can feel like you’ve hit a catastrophic brick wall. I have taken dealing with my own loneliness seriously – this time around, I will not leave my house, barefoot and sobbing, like I did in the first lockdown.
The problem of loneliness persists, even though I’m not physically alone. I have two children – but while my teenager spends almost every moment in contact with his friends, my seven-year-old only has me. I am expected to be her teacher, her friend, her co-dog handler... and on call at all times for pressing questions, such as: “Would you rather have a cake for a nose, or Kit Kats for fingers?”
When I get impatient or cross with her, I am immediately filled with guilt and remorse because the poor child is stuck with me. I have no business letting my dull adult problems (bill stress/work stress/ “what is that damp patch on the wall and why is it getting bigger?” stress) make me grumpy with her.
My loneliness takes the form of not having my friends, neighbours and family troop in and out of my house every day like they used to. Not having another adult to share the load. Not having the excitement of getting the kids ready to have a day of fun with people we like and love, and no friendly strangers.
I used to have a work life that introduced me to friendly strangers every day.
I need new people. They energise me. I get very excited about making new friends. The exuberant, talkative five-year-old in me never left. In pubs I’m known to wander off from my group and natter to another. I grew up in a flat full of endless guests. There was no drawbridge to my parents’ house, it was always open to visitors. My dad would invite everyone to dinner, from the nice lady who worked at the post office to the double glazing salesman who didn’t get a sale but got a delicious plateful of stuffed aubergine and rice instead.
I shared a room with my brother until we were teenagers, then I shared one with my grandma until I left for university. I had roommates in my first and second year of university. In my third year, finally, I had a room to myself which I would fill to the brim after closing time with whoever I’d met in the pub.
So how can we make connections in lockdown that nourish the soul as they did in the old life? I have taken action on “friendships pending”. These are people who I have met a couple of times perhaps, liked enormously and always just relied on seeing them next time our paths crossed, which they always did, up until now.
In lockdown I’ve written to some of these people on Twitter and have ended up exchanging phone calls, had FaceTime glasses of wine and cups of tea, which have been a delight. I’ve also been sending and receiving postcards and letters. Now that the likelihood that we’ll bump into each other in a bar or through mutual friends has gone, short, sweet handwritten notes replace the intimacy of the little huddles and natters that I so miss.
My mind has wandered to people in my past, old friends I’d lost touch with but never forgot as life sent us twirling in opposite directions. I got in touch with a woman I hadn’t spoken to since I was eleven. What I remember from our time at primary school was that though she was my friend, I watched her being bullied and I didn’t do anything to help her. What can I say? It was a jungle out there.
My friend joined our school in the last year before we left for high school. She was from the countryside, terrifically clever and utterly ill-equipped to survive in a huge classroom of London kids who’d known each other since the first day of school. I’ve always felt rotten about what she went through. We lost touch, until last week when we had a Zoom call, after I tracked her down on Twitter. We talked about school and what happened and why. I liked her enormously when I was 10 and, as I haven’t fundamentally changed as a person since then, I like her at 47 too and am looking forward to our next Zoom chat.
Connecting with people is the antidote to loneliness and there are no prizes for pretending you are coping when you’re not.
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