Articles

Loneliness in the Time of COVID-19

by Patricia L. Morin, MA, LCSW

Loneliness

“If you are finding yourself struggling with loneliness, you’re not alone. And yet you are alone. So very alone.”
—Anonymous

“Language… has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.”
—Paul Tillich

This imposed social isolation, often termed solitude, is not simply a lack of contact with people. It’s ironic when I hear the word solitude and think of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, a self-imposed exile from man, but a place that would have portals to other experiences to enhance Superman’s knowledge of … well, life, the universe, and everything.

So, when do we step over the threshold from solitude to loneliness?

When we feel loneliness.

Loneliness can occur for so many reasons, socially, physically, and emotionally: separation of friends and loved ones, temporarily or permanently; being asked to leave a social circle or group; being physically handicapped and not feeling accepted; going through postpartum depression; and especially after surviving a divorce. When a person is so filled with rage or resentment or any feeling to the extreme, isolation can be the outcome.

But mandated to isolate, “station-in-place,” imprison ourselves, our homes becoming a jail cell, our government our jailers—all because of a murderous plague. How different is that than self-imposed isolation? Very!” You would shout loudly. I didn’t choose to isolate, I didn’t choose to change my life and job, and be incarcerated with my children and partner 24/7! I didn’t choose what is happening to my friends, town, county, state, etc. …

The existentialists, especially Sartre, believe that loneliness is part of the human condition. After all, we are born alone, walk through life (or stumble) alone, and die alone—no matter how many people touch our lives. Our desire to have meaning in life sometimes conflicts with the “nothingness” we fear is out there. Loneliness and the fear of nothingness go hand-in-hand.

And there is no better test for the “meaning in life” and “loneliness” than COVID-19.

According to a Time magazine story (“COVID-19 is Making America’s Loneliness Epidemic Even Worse,” by Annie Flanagan), a Social Pro survey of 1,228 people ages 18 to 75 predominantly living in English-speaking countries found that at least 20% of respondents from each age group polled were lonelier than usual as a result of coronavirus. Millennials were among the most likely age groups to feel lonely before COVID-19, research shows, and that’s no different now; 34% of millennials in the survey said they were “always or often” lonelier due to the pandemic.

Those feeling lonelier because of the pandemic

Always or Often (first line)
Sometimes (second line)
Never (third line)

Loneliness - chart

Gender wasn’t a predictor, either: about 25% of women and 30% of men said they felt coronavirus-related loneliness.

Nor does living situation necessarily dictate feeling. Caitrin Gladow, 41, has spent the last two months at home in New Orleans with her husband and three young kids—but she says she’s never felt more alone, according to the article. She says she has zero emotional energy for self-care. “Even in a house full of screaming children who I love more than anything, I find that I feel especially vulnerable,” Gladow says. She feels an unspoken pressure “to be the glue of the family, and I’m trying not to let them down, but in the process I’m crumbling.”

If you harbor loneliness, you are nursing it, and it can turn into depression. Depression, like loneliness, affects your thinking and how you feel, but also your behavior. When we reach that depth of loneliness, soul depth, what is real or what is imagined no longer matters. Darkness pervades our thoughts and actions, and loneliness eats away our resolve and resistance. We have “zero emotional energy for self-care,” but also for the care of others. Waking up in the morning is an extreme chore.

Many suffer a quiet, destructive loneliness that we cannot see or measure. If you feel this type of loneliness, you need to share your thoughts and feelings with someone close to you. Once it is shared, and someone touches you with understanding, and help, loneliness dissolves.


Fears About Reentering Our Lives (FAROL): A Psychotherapist Takes You Behind the Scenes

By Mary Anne Cohen, LCSW, BCD

Originally posted on PsychCentral

The cicada, an insect with large clear wings, hibernates underground for 17 years. It takes almost two decades for this insect to slowly crawl out of the earth, to live, to breathe, to mate. As the United States slowly lifts quarantine and lockdowns, we find ourselves burrowing out of our own cocoons in which we have hunkered down to once again emerge to the light of day. We identify with the cicada in that this quarantine has surely felt like a full 17 years! And — coincidentally — it is this very year of 2020 that the broods of cicadas are emerging in droves.

We emerge gradually, with trepidation, masks still looped over our ears to observe and investigate what this new terrain and new normal will look like. We learn that each region must achieve seven different metrics to become eligible for this “new normal” life. And we now refer to life as B.C. (Before Corona) and A.D. (After Disease).

Of course there are the obvious anticipated joys — seeing our family and friends, watching our children hopefully going back to school or camp, putting vacation plans back on the books again, and gleefully dining out and going to movies.

Yet, this sheltering at home has also made us ponder whether there have been unexpected silver linings in this quarantine — things we have learned about ourselves and our lives that we don’t want to lose. And so, we face F.A.R.O.L. — fears about reentering our lives — both personally and professionally.

Gloria: “Commuting from my home on Long Island to my Manhattan office to see patients has always been part of the fabric of my life as a psychotherapist. I really never questioned it but just dutifully caught the 8:18AM every morning. Quarantining at home has made me aware of how much I actually hate that commute. I just don’t want to do it anymore. I’ve decided to give up my Manhattan office but haven’t told my patients yet. I feel guilty that I’m betraying a commitment to be there for them, and it’s made me question my attachment issues! But shedding my commute now feels more important than honoring my commitment to show up in person.”

Janet: “Since I’ve been married, my husband has spent a great deal of time traveling for business in Europe. It has been a source of ongoing tension between us with my always begging him to cut down his traveling. It feels like I’ve had to raise our children pretty much all alone, and I have a great deal of resentment towards him. Now that he has been home during this COVID crisis, unable to travel, I’m not happy having him around all the time either! Although I’m getting what I said I wanted, it’s not doing the trick. I’m confused and questioning myself as to how much closeness and intimacy I really want. When we return to living our lives and Dave goes back to his business trips, I imagine my complaints about missing him will start up again, but now I’m confused about what I really want and need!”

Corinne: “I finally unbraided my corn-rows during lockdown for the first time in years. My hair is now an exuberant mess of curls and twists. Every day it looks different in its newfound freedom. But in a FaceTime session with my Mom, she told me I looked like a wild disheveled woman, and I better not go back to work looking like this hot mess. At this time, when so many people are suffering with so many losses and deaths, all I’m thinking about is how I dread having to return to the real world and spend so much time and money once again to make my hair ‘obey’ in the white world.”

Stacey: “I wouldn’t say I’m an alcoholic, but my lifestyle certainly involves finishing classes most nights at law school and heading to the bar with my friends for a couple of drinks. I would say that I’m basically a shy person, and I enjoy the ‘liquid courage’ of booze. Being home alone during this time has really reduced my drinking, and I feel better. But getting back to my real life after quarantine is going to lead me back to my drinking routine. I haven’t figured out how to handle that, but I have some concerns. The solitude with no pressure to socialize has been kind of a relief for me.”

Gail: “My mother died in a nursing home from the coronavirus in April. I’ve been feeling like I’m living in a protective time warp — at home, with my husband, and our two young adult kids. They are caring for me and we are nestling together. I’m afraid when we are no longer having to quarantine and everybody goes back to work or school, I’m going to feel abandoned and the impact of my mother’s death will come tumbling down on top of me. I’m dreading that moment. I wish we could just stay on pause until I feel I’m ready for everyone to get going again.”

Marjorie: “My biggest fear about reentry is that everyone will see that I’m the poster child for having gained that dreaded COVID-15 pounds. I’m ashamed that my anxiety caused my binge eating to kick into high gear during this time. While other people were flattening the curve, I was fattening my curves! I wish the lockdown would continue for another few months, so I could start working on getting my eating back on track.”

Other fears of returning to our lives include issues of safety: How long should we continue to be wary and observant of social distancing? Should we just continue working remotely until a vaccine is available before going back to work? Will there be another wave of the virus after this one dies down? Financial issues also abound — will I still have my job and my same salary? And psychotherapists worry whether their patients will tire of remote sessions and decide to leave therapy, whether insurance will continue to pay for remote sessions, and whether, upon returning to our offices, we are liable if a patient sues us claiming they caught the virus from us.

There is FOMO (fear of missing out) and now I’ve coined the term FAROL (fears about reentering our lives). Farol in Spanish means a lantern that illuminates. We therapists work with our clients to instill hope that this pandemic will pass, to strengthen their coping skills and self-care, and to find ways to make personal meaning during this time of lockdown and beyond. As we emerge from the threat and pain of this pandemic, we co-create with our patients an illuminating lantern to shine the way toward post traumatic growth and resilience. We ask how they envision what that growth would look like for them.

My stepson Sean tells me, “When this is over, I want to import into my life the things I’ve discovered during lockdown that are making me happy — like family dinners and reading to the kids before bed.

“Yes!” I add. “And then let’s export the things that haven’t been working — like rushing around all the time.”

Sean and I laughingly agree that we will be entering the import-export business when all this is over.

Albert Camus reminds us, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” And Bette Midler evokes hope as sings The Rose, “Just remember in the winter, far beneath the bitter snows/ Lies the seed, that with the sun’s love in the spring becomes the rose.”

I think also of the words of T.S. Eliot which seem so comforting at this time, “Teach me to care. Teach me not to care. Teach me to be still.”

As we psychotherapists face reentering our lives, there will also be the loss of the wild, weird, and wonderful connections that have happened with patients on virtual reality.

I am on a Zoom session with Sandra. She invites me into her Red Tent — an enclosed space she has created for herself in her bedroom by draping sheets over a make-shift scaffolding. I feel like I’m climbing into a children’s fort. Pink light suffuses Sandra’s face as the red sheets reflect the light from her window. She explains how she needed a private space away from her husband and daughter where she could draw, think, and write “bad poetry.”

As she shows me her drawings, I see a shadow crossing my line of vision. I am now doing sessions from my country house and see that a deer has wandered into my garden and has begun to eat my peonies. I explain to Sandra why I must excuse myself for a minute. I shriek loudly at the deer to get out of my garden, and finally it slowly ambles away back into the forest. I yell after it, “Thank you!” and come back to the session.

Sandra is laughing wholeheartedly, “I’ve never heard you scream before,” Sandra says. “You’re so loud! But also hearing you thank the deer for leaving absolutely made my day!”

We agree this special silver lining never would have happened during a normal Brooklyn session.

Mary Anne Cohen is Director of The New York Center for Eating Disorders. Her third book Treating the Eating Disorder Self: A Comprehensive Model for the Social Work Therapist was recently published by The National Association of Social Work Press. You can visit Mary Anne at emotionaleating.org.