“I want to be alone”.

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.

With all my friends in 1971

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.

With my ‘Wendy’ dolls .. happily going it alone aged 4

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.

Determinedly taking the neighbour’s cat hostage in 1980 so I had someone to tell about my day

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.

Clearly going wild at a backyard pool party for one

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

Please form a queue.

Well .. if one thing can be said for the first few months of 2020 .. they’ve been memorable. Not all of it negative and not all of it positive. We appear to be in an epoch of time that is continuously highlighting the various aspects of what it is to be human. Good, bad and downright mortifying.

We have had bushfires where Australians have covered themselves in glory. Great bravery saving people, animals and homes. Great generosity in monetary donations and an overflowing of goods purchased for those left stranded. Great people working night and day to search out injured wildlife and nurse the critters back to health. Great pride in Aussie community and spirit.

We have grieved the loss of a young woman and her three innocent children at the hands of a violent man. We’ve found our voices to clamour loudly at the plague that is domestic terrorism and have started pushing for change. Some people have shown their lack of humanity. Others have shown an outpouring of empathy and anger and stood up.

Now comes a third huge chapter in only the third month of this new decade. A pandemic.

No words necessary…

I sometimes ponder whether as a species, human beings are heading further down our abyss of selfish behaviour. Or whether access to modern media platforms just makes it more visible for us to analyse. Of course, we have been capable of pretty appalling standards since the dawn of our evolution as far as the history books reflect. Yet what we are experiencing right now is a glaring spotlight on what ails us as a society. When we require security guards standing over pallets of dunny rolls and you can’t buy a packet of pasta – things are getting grim. Yes, we are facing a state of temporary emergency. Yes, it’s unsettling. The question is – why can we not seem to follow simple instructions to manage the crisis. Research and the memories of our older citizens demonstrate we have managed it before.

Got the essentials but it wasn’t planned. I just always have a fridge full of booze and packaged crap.

My mother used to talk about rationing when she was a child of WW2. She was a chubby little thing who got a couple of extra coupons a week as a result. Odd government reasoning, but good for her. (Who would say no to extra emergency bacon and chocolate). My grandparents also kept chickens for eggs and grew veggies to supplement what could not be bought. They were reasonably well off for the era. Grandpa was part of the essential war effort at home, (having already seen active service in WW1). Australia was not as impacted as the U.K. where things were extra grim. Britain was blacked out and scraping together enough to get by. The Queen’s wedding gown was paid for with ration coupons. People were scared, had large slabs of their family perhaps never coming home or returning physically and mentally maimed. Society had no idea when it would end.

It is idealistic to believe it was all tickety-boo with everyone playing by the rules. Humans are human. There was inevitable theft, blackmarket selling, crime, assault and cruelty. However, one is compelled to ask just how the Sydney women going at each other over a huge trolley of toilet paper would fare with rationed coupons to supply their family’s needs. Forming orderly queues to receive those precious goods. Hoarding was not even a viable option.

This is a nation of plenty with enough stock for everyone. We are not inevitably facing down years of war with an uncertain future. The future does appear wonky for us as a virus threatens our usual order and routine. It’s not a pleasant sensation. It all feels decidedly spooky. We are worried about catching a very nasty illness, about hospitals coping and looming financial hurdles of interrupted work and economic mess. (Plus some dead set dodgy political planning and decisions that inspire zero confidence).

But quite frankly, our behaviour as a collective worries me more than COVID-19. At least it has the excuse of being a soulless virus that is simply running through an evolutionary process.

Woodgreen Greengrocer, North London 1945. http://www.iwn.org.uk

Rationing began in Britain in January 1940. Final rationing concluded in 1954. That is fourteen years of limited supplies, waiting your turn and daily hurdles. Each man, woman and child received a ration book of coupons. Fresh fruit and vegetables were not rationed but fluctuated as to availability. Rationed goods included sugar, meat, bacon, cheese, cereal, biscuits, eggs, milk. Soap was rationed in 1942 as was petrol. Clothing was also bought via the coupon system. Post war, bread was rationed in 1946 as supply chains were greatly interrupted. Rationing of clothing ended in 1950 with final meat rationing concluding in 1954. I see no mention of toilet paper in my researches, but I doubt three ply was readily available in bulk.

Although slightly less restrictive, Australia also worked on the same system.

Departmental History of Clothing and Food (Melbourne Victoria) 1942 – 1950.

Goods were rationed as to specific need. Children, expectant mums and invalids received extra coupons for eggs and milk. Neighbours often shared or exchanged coupons according to who really needed what.

I would like to offer here that I am an avid, modern consumer. I am not saintly. I mean … look at my fridge photo. I am used to living in a way where if I want something, I go to the shop and I have what I desire. Good grief. My dogs eat steak, chicken breast, premium veggies and various types of rice and a smattering of pasta. Plus some form of gold plated prescription kibble. The little buggers even regularly dine on tinned red salmon. This isn’t some superior diatribe on returning to simpler times.

I am more focussed on pondering why we are in a state of mass hysteria and FOMO. ‘F-O-M-O’. Fear. Of. Missing. Out.

We are being bombed by a determined virus. We are not being bombed by a terrifying military force. Quite frankly, Lord help us if we ever are. We’ll be sheltering in bog roll forts clutching bags of rice and litres of hand sanitiser.

‘Bunny’ happily oblivious that the tinned salmon may run low.

The outbreak of COVID-19 is a horrible event. Our comfortable day to day is under threat and politicians and media have made somewhat of a hash of it. Mixed messages and misinformation. Social media is a barrage of ‘this thing will kill you and we’re all gonna die’ interspersed with, ‘it’s a common cold and we should all still go to the footy’. ScoMo is merrily singing happy clappy tunes at a Hillsong Conference amongst a seething mass of religious humanity. Then BOOM. Hours later borders slam closed and self isolation really gets some traction. Kids are going to school, they’re not going to school, crowd gatherings are underway, then they’re cancelled, the dunny rolls are all gone and people are clobbering each other in supermarkets.

It might be a moment to reevaluate how we have responded to crises in our past. Britain was blacked out (covering all doors and windows along with low street lighting) from September 1st, 1939 to April 1945. In an attempt to make visibility poor for enemy bombers, people sat inside their homes at night with blacked out doors and windows, a radio to listen to and rationed food. Many of their loved ones were absent. Yes, it was a different time. Yet it was community doing what was necessary to see out a crisis.

They didn’t know how it all would end. We’re not all too sure right now either. That’s what defines a crisis.

Everything passes and this mess will too. If it doesn’t, then at least let’s try not to disgrace ourselves on the way out. Unlike some other nations mid COVID-19 battle .. we have plentiful food, modern comforts, in-home entertainment, means of easy communication and a solid history of getting our sh*t together.

To kick COVID-19’s arse FOMO has to go.

No comment on ScoMo.

In the meantime, as I am a casual employee in the entertainment and promotional sector I am in the same position as many others. Facing uncertainty. Writing my blog – starting out with a well stocked bar and an impressive stash of dog friendly cuisine.

Stay safe and share the loo paper. xx

What you need to know about rationing and the second world war

Hiding from ww2 bombs