You stopped isolating. I didn’t. Here’s what I learned from my year alone

Illustration by Joanna Gorham

The ultimate villain is silence. Yes, of course, you want to avoid the virus. But the real enemy, the intimate foe, is a brutal, unrelenting silence. It is a silence born of solitude, a loneliness so vast and deep that no text, phone call, music, movie or TV show can do more than momentarily distract you from the cavernous dark.

Millions have suffered. Hundreds of thousands have died in this country alone. Next to that, my year has been a joyride, and I’m incredibly lucky to have been able to isolate. But isolate I have. For nearly a year now, I have not touched another human being or been inside a building other than my own home. The challenges of that isolation, although nothing compared to the ravages of the virus itself, have not been for the meek of heart.

I am, you see, a grocery washer. In this most bizarre period of American life, there is perhaps no better shorthand for someone who takes the maximum pre-cautions possible to avoid the virus. I’ve good reason to be wary, given a pre-existing heart condition, but the measures I’ve taken are no different than what everyone should have embraced. Since March 2020, when the world shut down, I’ve barely left my twelve-hundred-square-foot home in Westport. No shopping. No haircuts. No hugging my mom.

Some of us, you see, didn’t stop isolating when it got hard. We never returned to restaurants. We never held parties in the backyard or got together for Thanksgiving in the farcical belief that “everyone who’ll be there is careful.” We did these things out of fear. We did them because they were the right and smart things to do, and we watched for months while others stayed out in the world.

Admittedly, when the pandemic first struck, it was infuriating to see people act in ways that worsen the spread. Anger, though, is debilitating. It’s bad for body and soul.

It soon became obvious that sustaining any sort of outrage over anti-maskers and super-spreaders would be self-defeating. Out of self-preservation and sheer exhaustion, I built up a tolerance for seeing people do dumb things. Watching the local news, for instance. I can’t count the number of times they reported from some bar or restaurant with a room full of dudes happily munching away on chicken wings, licking saucy fingers, seemingly oblivious to the possibility of deadly pathogens swirling all around. At some point, after so many months of watching people behave that way, all I could muster was a mute, gaping wonder at the stupidity of it all.

Nor has that sort of foolishness been limited to strangers. I’ve had conversations with intelligent friends who ask about the wisdom of throwing a birthday party at their house. Do I think it’s okay?

No. No, I do not.

Emphatically, I do not think it’s “okay” to throw a birthday party in the middle of a global pandemic. The question, in fact, is insane. What, exactly, is the cost-benefit analysis of throwing a party in a plague? The benefit is that you get to see a few friends, drink a bit, and maybe eat a little slice of cake. The cost is that you could catch and spread a deadly illness. You could die, or leave someone you love gasping for oxygen, drowning inside their own body and dying alone in a hospital room. But I’m the weirdo for wanting to stay home?

It’s not like I don’t have longing or regret. The last thing I did before the world stopped was go to a friend’s wedding. We were still at the church, when news came about Spain and Italy going into lockdown, and I decided to skip the reception. Maybe I should have gone. My friend wanted me there. I feel bad to this day about letting him down. It also, as it turned out, was the last chance I’d have for a long, long time to be with people. Carrying those memories through the cold winter could have done a lot to keep me warm.

It’s striking, from the grocery washer perspective, to have people express surprise at my level of precaution. They ask if I’m a germaphobe, for instance. That’s a negative, Ghost Rider. A “-phobe” implies a phobia. In other words, an irrational fear. Avoiding a deadly disease is, on the contrary, quite rational. Irrational would be, say, hanging out at a birthday party while knowing that someone among the crowd and cocktails could be exhaling raw death into the air.

So, yes, for the sake of others, but mostly for myself, I wash the groceries delivered to my front porch—with profound gratitude for the delivery folks who help protect me. Yes, I’m uncomfortable talking to my next door neighbors, even masked from a supposedly safe distance. Masks are great, but they’re not magic. Six feet, ten feet, or whatever the experts say now, is terrific, but it’s not an impermeable bubble. These are recommended minimums that may or may not work, depending on lots of variables. I’ll err on the side of caution, thanks.

It’s been fascinating, in fact, to see people pretend like their half-hearted safety measures are a guarantee of wellness. Folks seem to use a kind of “plausible deniability” objection when talking about their precautions. It’s almost like they’re trying to negotiate with a virus, or arguing with it the way a child might squabble with a parent over bedtime. The “eating and drinking” exception, for instance. It is fundamentally bizarre to see people sitting in restaurants, munching on dinner, masks around their chin, as though the virus is bound by Sandwich Law, incapable of infecting anyone who’s enjoying a pastrami on rye.

My actions, on the other hand, have been guided by what might be called “The Larry Brown Theory.” The legendary basketball coach has a mantra: “Play the right way.” That is, make the best decision you can at the time you have to make it. Don’t do the flashy thing. Don’t do the brave or cool thing. To the best of your ability, do the smart thing. With luck, those good decisions will accrue into victory. That’s been my approach. I’ve simply tried to make the best choices possible. Should I go to the store when delivery is an option, for instance? Should I get a haircut? Should I date? Should I eat that barbecue that a friend dropped off without warming it first? In every case, the answer is an incredibly obvious “no.”

Those choices, however, have come with a cost. There’s been a price to pay for seeking safety.

First, of course, came fear. That’s not unusual. Pandemic-induced hypochondria has been a bear for a lot of us, with every tickle in the throat, sending shockwaves of anxiety through the body. The best remedy I’ve found—beyond a standard-issue panic attack—is simply reminding myself that I am, in fact, made of flesh. Sometimes I’ll be aware of my body and its functions. That’s inevitable, and catastrophizing every sneeze is a recipe for hair loss and heart palpitations.

Fear, though, is fleeting. The real burden has been solitude. This year of self-imposed solitary confinement has been nothing short of bone-crushing, forcing a continual self-reflection that has profoundly tested my soul. And, in some strange way, made it more resilient.

In solitude, there is nothing to take you out of yourself. There is only you, alone, day after day, season after season, with thoughts of everyone you’ve met, all the places you’ve been, and all you have ever done echoing in your head. I can not count the sleepless hours I’ve spent rehashing the past, endlessly running over every wrong done to me and the wrongs I did to others, wincing at every career opportunity fumbled, regretting every lost love and lamenting every heart I treated badly.

Illustration by Joanna Gorham

That pain is always there. Sometimes it’s sharp, stabbing at the cerebellum. Sometimes it feels like swimming in wet cement. All of it, every moment, has been written on my face in dark circles, lines and bags, and it’s no wonder that avoiding mirrors has become an essential aspect of my daily routine.

The only thought that’s kept me relatively sane is a bit of ancient Buddhist wisdom—reinforced, oddly enough, by Ross Perot’s running mate. Early in the pandemic, I saw someone on TV talking about Admiral James Stockdale, who ran with Perot during his quixotic third-party run in 1992. Stockdale, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, described how he stayed mentally strong during a torturous seven-and-a-half-year confinement in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.”

Contrary to what you might assume, Stockdale said, optimists didn’t fare especially well in captivity. An optimist might, for example, get excited about the possibility of release by Christmas. Then Christmas would come and go. Then Easter. Then Independence Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving and another Christmas would pass. Optimists might find themselves in a perpetual cycle of high hopes and disappointment. The people who thrived, or at least survived, said Stockdale, were those who kept faith in their own ability to withstand the ordeal, but didn’t dwell too long in the abstract.

For me, that’s meant an exercise in mindfulness. Throughout this brutal year, the most comforting thing has been to stay focused, as much as humanly possible, on the sensory experiences of the moment. “This food is delicious,” for instance, or “I’m grateful to have a bed with clean sheets.” Anything else, whether it’s getting lost in the past or doing too much fantasizing about a post-pandemic future, only leads to regret and desire.

That forced mindfulness, though, has become a weird sort of blessing. Almost despite myself, I’ve been left with a newfound sense of self-sufficiency. It simply doesn’t feel like I need external validation the way I once did. Maybe that feeling will fade once I return to the ordinary world. But maybe not. Something feels different now. There’s a new stillness inside me, as though an inessential part of my being has been burned away.

Not everything in my experience, of course, has been so detached and high-minded. A year alone gets pretty weird, and you’d better not take yourself too seriously. I’ve definitely indulged in some plain-old goofiness. Like when I grew out my right pinky nail for absolutely no reason. I also let a single hair grow from the bridge of my nose until it became long enough to enter my line of sight. I did this to see what I’d learn. What I learned, mostly, was not to do that. It’s super gross and weird.

There was plenty more, of course. Like a nonjudgmental indulgence of every OCD-like quirk, and developing an affectionate attachment to Alexa that rivaled how Tom Hanks felt about his volleyball in Castaway. Ridiculousness, too, is part of being in the moment.

Mindful or not, however, it’s impossible to completely avoid imagining the future. Nor should we. Post-pandemic life will come. As mass vaccinations become a reality and this horror ultimately subsides, all of us will have to take stock and readjust. That is a psychic reckoning with which we, as a society, have barely begun to grapple.

For some, of course, that reckoning means adjusting to the loss of a loved one or the long-term effects of this insidious disease. For anyone lucky enough to avoid a close brush with death, though, the readjustment will be far more subtle. Someday, Good Lord willing, I’ll see live music again. I’ll drink in bars with friends, fly on airplanes and visit new cities. How I’ll react to those situations after avoiding them so carefully is difficult to say. What will it be like to walk into a grocery store or restaurant? When will the nightmares about finding myself unmasked in a crowd finally come to an end? What about dating?

Someday, I hope to touch and hold another human being, feeling skin on skin, and I’ve absolutely no idea what lingering impacts a year alone might have on my ability to experience physical intimacy.

None of us knows. We can’t, not in the midst of so much danger and pain. Beaten down and bedraggled, we simply do not have the intellectual capacity to address the emotional demands of an uncertain future. Soon, though, we must. We will have to find ways to let each other heal. Just as importantly, we must give ourselves permission to do the same. We’ve all been in survival mode for a year. It’s been a psychic war. And, like any war, the deepest wounds are sometimes the ones you don’t see.

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