Three days before the governor of my state issued his stay at home order, the 45-year-old man I’d been dating for a month told me he was self-isolating.
“But we saw each other yesterday!” I said. “We ate in a restaurant!”
He would have none of it. “Don’t try to use your logic on me,” he said.
I shivered. Amid a growing swell of Covid-19 cases and an imminent lockdown, I realized my lifelong nightmare of being alone was coming true.
I’m a 39-year-old divorcée living with my terrier, Artie, in Los Angeles. As someone with major depressive disorder, I rely on the company of others to draw me out of myself when my thoughts grow too dark. If not stopped, the depression spirals. I feel I’m not worth the breath I draw.
Breakups are a classic trigger, and confirm to my spinning brain that I’ll always be alone. Loneliness is its own form of pain, its own pre-existing condition.
I’ve been ashamed to admit my phobia of solitude. It suggests weakness and challenges our value of rugged individualism. It’s un-American.
In my 20s, well-intentioned friends told me I had to learn to be happy to be alone. I’d reply, “But isn’t life just more fun with two?” If a party wound down late at night, I’d enjoin fellow guests to curl into bed with me, just to cuddle. It reminded me of when, as kids, my siblings and I would climb into bed with our parents on Sunday mornings, something we still do when we visit as adults, trays of tea and toast and newspapers spread across our laps.
At 32, I recklessly married a man I was doomed to divorce. I’ve dated nearly constantly for the four years since we split.
When my nonsymptomatic new guy took to sheltering at home, I called him irrational. “We’re healthy! We’re youngish! We’ve already exchanged germs!” I unsuccessfully tried to talk him back. He often said life’s greatest value was human connection. The cold irony was eclipsed as the terror of being cut off from every human in my life slowly rose from deep inside me; I couldn’t logic my way out of it.
As soon as I hung up the phone, I picked up a pack of cigarettes. I chain-smoked and paced the sidewalk in front of my house in the rain on and off for two days.
On social media, a different threat confronted me: a mom on a worm-search with her toddlers; a couple planting peas and plucking weeds in tandem; contented introverts bingeing “Love Is Blind.” Physical distancing felt like the East Coast’s cuffing season — when desperate singles couple up to endure the winter’s long, cold nights — but without the promise of spring. If you didn’t secure a partner before coronavirus hit, you’re staring down weeks without snuggles or kisses “until further notice,” as the shuttered eateries and storefronts ominously posted.
“I have no one to hunker down with,” I texted my mom.
“I know, honey,” she said.
By day three, I hadn’t eaten and left my bed only to walk Artie.
Although it felt like I was moving through molasses, I knew it was time to deploy all available resources. So I FaceTimed with my therapist, upped my antidepressants, and reached out to family. I slapped a nicotine patch on my arm.
On day four, I walked Artie in the hills fresh with grass and sunflowers. Remembering Joan Didion’s protagonist in “Play It as It Lays,” who gets in her car daily for long drives to nowhere, I treated myself to a slow trip to the Starbucks drive-thru.
While listening to an NPR program on the radio, something miraculous happened. The story was about how social distancing and isolation can cause severe anxiety and depression, that this was to be expected. Here were experts espousing definitively that human connection is vital. After spending my entire life pegging myself as a freak, it turns out I’m not alone. Everyone needs love, touch and companionship.
I wanted to open the window and yell, “I knew it!” Of course I did know it, on some level, but I’d never heard it addressed to an audience of everyone.
I glanced over at the lacy nightgown I’d purchased for sleepovers with the guy I had been seeing. I wouldn’t need it anytime soon, but resisted the urge to throw it into the trash. Artie trotted over. I held him against my chest, nuzzled my nose into his fur.
I’m not in love in the time of Covid-19, but I laid a new tablecloth down, cut roses from my yard, and placed them in a vase atop it. For the first time in my life, I feel that this madly peopled world is all in it together. Though most of us can’t touch, we are all reaching out.
Sophie Sills writes and teaches in Los Angeles. She is completing a memoir about being born with a duty to love, traveling across Europe and back to fulfill it.