Greta Garbo famously said … “I want to be alone”. Actually, she was later recorded as saying that was a misquote. Her actual statement was, “I want to be let alone”. But let’s not ruin a great story with the truth.
Some of us like a bit of solitary time. Some of us absolutely hate it. Looming on the horizon is the fact that the current COVID-19 crisis is probably going to cause alone time whether you’re a fan or not. Rapidly coming to light is not just our innate human fear of illness or a lack of toilet paper. There is a genuine sense of panic at the prospect of self-quarantine and social isolation. To a point where counselling lines are taking a high volume of calls on the subject.
Greta it appears was not the norm.
In generations past we tended to live in bigger families. Mum, dad, an army of children and maybe the odd grandparent thrown in. Meal times were large, noisy affairs around extended tables and older brothers or sisters looked after the smaller ones if the load was simply too much for the adults. Entertainment was somewhat self generated with backyard cricket, board games and scheduled television watching hours as a family once the ‘idiot box’ hit our lounge rooms. Times have changed. 2020 modern Australia now sees a prevalent adult population living alone. Yes, there are still extended families, couples with various numbers of children, flatmates and/or considerable numbers who cohabit as a twosome. Yet – with an ageing population, people choosing the single life and/or with relationships that have ended many, many of us live alone.
Looming viral catastrophe has made clear that work hours with colleagues, time in shopping centres, attending sporting events, theatrical events and festivals along with dining out are an essential part of maintaining a solo existence. These daily interactions with others thread into an essential tapestry that staves off loneliness and isolation. Good old Coronavirus has come along to test just how well we might do without those taken for granted hours with our fellow humans.
It is a given that some people hate being alone and others crave extended time out. I am very much in the latter category and am rather happy to spend extended periods of time on my Pat Malone. (I do not actually classify myself as totally alone as I have three small, demanding fur children. Companion animal numbers have soared in recent years as people like myself opt for fur people as housemates). I am an only child which I think gears me somewhat towards these solitary life choices. I was not really allowed many playmates as a kid. Outside of school hours I was pretty much self sufficient. My childhood was one of reading, playing instruments and inventing games for myself. I was not allowed pets (which I resented) so I spent endless hours mugging the neighbour’s cat and chatting to it. I wrote poetry and made up story books and danced terrible ballets alone in my room. In hindsight I was a weird little creature, but children adapt to whatever circumstance they are given.
Science has proven that complete isolation is not just unhealthy. It can send you bonkers in a remarkably short space of time. In 2008, clinical psychologist Ian Robbins recreated a famous experiment undertaken years beforehand by Donald Hebb. Six volunteers were isolated for 48 hours in sound-proofed rooms in a former nuclear bunker. There was complete silence with no opportunity for any sensory stimulation. The volunteers rapidly suffered anxiety, extreme emotions, paranoia and significant deterioration in their mental functioning. They also hallucinated. Their visions included a heap of 5000 empty oyster shells, a snake, zebras, tiny cars, the room taking off, mosquitoes and fighter planes buzzing overhead. (www.bbc.com)
In studies of subjects who have undertaken long periods of solitude – be it self inflicted such as a solo maritime voyage or due to involuntary isolation with military capture or similar – the level of coping and mental deterioration seems intrinsically linked to the subject’s ability to keep their mind stimulated. The creation of mental tasks and distraction stops the spiral illustrated in the experiment outlined above. In the absence of an actual companion with whom to interact, some survivors of utter solitude have created fictional companions from inanimate objects. Think ‘Wilson’ to Tom Hanks in “Castaway”. (Speaking of COVID-19. Get well soon Tom). Where that may seem an act of madness on the surface .. it is rather a mechanism to maintain a semblance of sanity.
So the question is, why are so many of us freaked that we may have to self isolate for (optimistically) only 14 days? It’s not just because we might run low on Sorbent or drink all the white wine in the first week by accident. I suspect a factor may be that we have lost the skill to self entertain and self care. Humans are a social animal, and in evolutionary terms separation from the pack means vulnerability. I had a lot of practice at being on my own as a child (that poor cat); resulting in adult me being fractionally antisocial. I adore seeing people I care about. Then I love racing back home to my bunker with its three resident pooches. In truth, I’m much better as a single than as a couple. There is of course the glaring fact that the other half of my extended ‘couple’ phase was an unpleasant human. Which has engendered even greater enjoyment of being solo once more.
Amongst the fear and uncertainly of the coming weeks, looking after those we care about will be paramount. Not being face to face with other people won’t necessarily mean loneliness if that becomes our lot for a while. It’ll just be more of a challenge for some than others.
If you have a friend or family member who you know hates being alone, call them for a quality chat. Text them. Messenger them. Have a scheduled group text with your posse watching a favourite telly show from your individual homes each night. Science has proven a busy mind is a much healthier mind. We all have stuff we’ve meant to get around to but haven’t had time. That time is being forced upon us by the looks of it. Around the house jobs, cleaning out cupboards, that mystery pile of mending in the corner, books we’ve never got around to reading yet, DVD’s we’ve meant to watch or really want to watch again, emails we’ve meant to write, things of interest we’ve meant to research. For many working from home will fill quite a lot of time. If practical, perhaps get ahead with some work things to buy some more recreational time when this is over. Make some nice plans of stuff you want to do with your chosen people when the world rights itself again.
Maybe the world or your job won’t be exactly the same for a bit after the COVID-19 epic. Perhaps it’s destined to be rather a sh*t show. Perhaps it will be mysteriously improved in some respects. It is what it is.
Writer Thomas Carlyle said that isolation may very often be the “sum of total wretchedness”. Instead of wretchedness, let’s have a crack at being there for one another even if it’s from behind individual doors. Surrounded by adversity, the Italians have been singing from their balconies. History will doubtless record this world event as an epic disaster. Mass fatalities and economic mess are now unavoidable and that weighs very heavily on us all. Conversely, this may also be an unprecedented opportunity for self discovery and creating bonds that may never have come into being otherwise.
I’ll be chatting to my three Pomeranians like a demented old bat, eating cheese and praying that the gin lasts longer than any lock down. Stay safe and look after your tribe. xx
How extreme isolation warps the mind