Can You Be Addicted To Isolation?
Theoretically, we want our freedom back… But are we really ready to trade in the comfort and safety of quarantine? A former extrovert explains.
It’s 5am on a Sunday morning when I truly take in my surroundings. I’m on a makeshift dance floor in the basement of a Hackney kebab shop, with a roomful of strangers and the one friend who’s happy to take any evening as far into the night as me. She looks terrible. I can only assume I look the same, after eight hours of frantic drinking and dancing. Once again, a night that started relatively civilised, a meal at a bougie new restaurant, has descended into chaos.
Reckless nights out like this were staples of my life BC (Before Covid): the parties, the afterparties, the after-afterparties, topped off with brunch and further escapades with another set of friends the next day. A night in and, more importantly, alone seemed dull. Tragic, even. As a consequence, I’ve never been skilled in the art of being by myself. It makes me feel on edge, nervous. I can’t even lie in bed with my own thoughts. Instead, I have to rely on podcasts – the thoughts and voices of others, if you will – to send me off to sleep. What, then, is the worst thing that could happen to someone like me? Lockdown.
And so, on March 23, there it was at last… solitude. If felt as though the lights on my life had been turned off. My diary emptied. My ‘night-out friends’ disappeared. For the first time ever, it was just me and the four walls of my flat.
Those first few weeks were what can only be described as actively painful – like a splitting headache that no amount of painkillers could dull. Gone was the thrill of being wanted by others. Gone was the dizzying anticipation of how far I could push a casual drink to the extremes. Life felt… flat. It felt: terrifying. Because, for the first time in as long as I could remember, I was alone with my own thoughts.
I’m not good with a lot of headspace. Time to think has never appealed to me, largely because thinking tips into the obsessive, which tips into a lot of negative self-talk. It’s always been this way. I’m an overthinker. I will hash out memories of the smallest events that happened weeks – sometimes even months – ago. I worry about interactions that nobody else has even noticed, sending them spinning around and around in my mind, as though they’re on a 40°C wash. It is endless and it is exhausting.
Most of all, I flee from introspection because I’m not sure how much I like me. And yet, despite losing a year of valuable carpe diem time, as we near the beginning of full social reintegration, the thought of returning to my previous life fills me with dread. What’s changed? A lot, is the answer.
I’ve never been skilled in the art of being by myself.
In lockdown, the noise stopped. I felt calmer, grounded, like an untethered balloon that has gradually and gracefully drifted back down to earth. Without a crowd to perform for, I felt enlivened. With new socialising restrictions imposed upon me – seeing one close friend for an hour’s walk every day – I was able to truly connect with them, without the pressure of things unravelling into something wild and spontaneous. It felt much easier to leave a Zoom gathering than it ever did a party, resulting in far fewer hangovers and crushing moments of regret. In my happy isolation, there is no pressure to look good or be interesting, I can just be.
The discovery of a new contentment with solitude can be a very good thing. It can add an important dimension of depth, meaningfulness, and fulfilment to your life,’ says psychologist Bella De Paulo, the go-to expert on solitude, having lived her entire life as single. Psychologist Dr Pauline Rennie-Peyton agrees. ‘People have started accepting themselves as they are. The important questions are: ‘Who am I? What makes me feel good? What [clothes] do I feel comfortable in?’ It’s about establishing your own identity, not the crowd identity of who people think you are.’
I’m not by myself (ironically) in experiencing the joy of solitude. Francesca Spector, author of Alonement (out now), had no capacity for introspection until a break-up, aged 27, left her living alone. ‘At 17, I took the Myers Briggs personality test and it told me I was an extrovert,’ says Spector. ‘It made sense because I loved being around people, so I moved away from any sort of quiet time.’ Spector curated an excessively busy life and no one ever told her it was a problem. Spector only managed to embrace alone time – coining the term ‘alonement’ for the positive experience of it – when she reached a breaking point of exhaustion from filling every evening with nights out or bad dates.
It felt much easier to leave a Zoom gathering than it ever did a party!
Here’s the problem: I worry that in rejoining the social world, I will lose my new sense of self. Will I revert to using my social life to complete me? For many of us, crippling FOMO has been replaced by a creeping FOGO (AKA the fear of going out). ‘There’s a relearning that will need to happen,’ says writer Eleanor Morgan, who has also spent the pandemic living alone. ‘I’m finding that it takes me a while to get back into the rhythm of conversation and remember social cues.’ She believes that a dent has been made in her, and many of her friends’, social confidence. The thought of having to navigate group dynamics again leaves her uneasy.
But psychologist Dr Abigael San, who specialises in mental health and addictions, warns about a new reliance on isolation. ‘It can be used as an escape and avoidance of underlying issues that need confronting,’ she says. ‘There has been a removal of situations that brought discomfort, from deciding what to wear, to making small talk in a sandwich shop. But you will have to face these everyday interactions again one day.’ (San explains that finding relief in quarantine is called negative reinforcement.)
As messages start to roll in about summer plans, group holidays and week-long hedonistic blow outs, my palms begin to sweat and my neck stiffens. I feel anxious that I’ll slip back into my tornado of self-destructive excess. Dr Pauline Rennie-Peyton reminds me that when lockdown is finally over, we all have a choice. ‘Do you want to go back to behaving the way you were before, or do you want some more balance in your life?’ she says. ‘It doesn’t have to be one or the other.’ If you’ve built up a better, more accepting relationship with yourself, she recommends not going back onto an autopilot of ‘yes’.
If someone asks: “Would you like to go to XYZ?” the answer is: “I don’t know, let me think about it.” Just because you used to go out drinking a lot with your mates, doesn’t mean you have to jet off to Ibiza for a week as soon as travel restrictions are lifted. Life doesn’t have to be lived at such a ridiculously fast pace,’ adds Rennie-Peyton.
Dr San adds: ‘If you’re feeling anxious, ease back in with a few small social gatherings and build up from there to avoid feeling overwhelmed. It’s about not doing anything too big, too quickly.’
It takes me a while to get back into the rhythm of conversation and remember social cues.
Olivia Laing, author of Lonely City, agrees. ‘We are likely to find social contact and crowds quite alarming, at the same time as longing for them,’ says Laing. ‘Spending time alone but among others could be a really good way of easing back in – art galleries are a perfect way to do that.’ It’s never easy to get the balance right between socialising and inward quiet time, but if you have learned to appreciate it, Laing suggests making sure you get it. ‘Schedule it in your diary so that your days don’t fill up completely with post-lockdown fun.’
I’m hopeful I can swap my addiction to social isolation for social moderation. I aspire to emerge from my cocoon a truly balanced butterfly, introducing the person I’ve become over the past year to my old hedonistic self. Who knows, I might even turn into one of those mysterious, sophisticated women who go out for dinner alone, with just a good book for company. But I do wonder, as the world opens up and light comes flooding back in, if the sheer messy, sprawling joy of tequila-fuelled spontaneity with friends and friendly strangers will prove impossible to resist.
This article appeared in the May issue of ELLE UK.