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  • Writer's pictureMary

A Comforting Kind of Sadness

About three or four months into the pandemic, I think people started to really learn a lot about themselves, and how much time we actually spend around others in our normal day to day lives. There's this idea, I think, that introverts spend all of their time by themselves, and most introverts I know would probably have described themselves as such. If you choose to be by yourself, then you are alone without any interaction from other people.

When the pandemic hit, and everyone was forced to stay inside, I don't think anyone really realized how much time they spent around other people, even the introverts who claimed to spend a lot of time by themselves. They hadn't banked on the baristas at Starbucks, the other shoppers at grocery stores, the neighbors they passed by on walks. They had forgotten that even when we're alone, we're not really alone. Even if we're not having heavy, deep, and real experiences with these people, they're still around.

Until the pandemic hit, I don't know if people really understood what it was like to be totally alone. I certainly hadn't.

If you haven't already watched Bo Burnham's Inside on Netflix, then boy do I have a recommendation for you. Bo Burnham is a comedian, thirty years old, and his comedy has a history of being musical, weird, and generally fairly honest about his experiences with life and anxiety. Inside was fully performed, recorded, and edited by Burnham in his house throughout the pandemic as he struggled with anxiety, isolation, and loneliness. And it hits home. It plays out like a black comedy; by the end, you're both laughing at his antics and lyrics and shaken from his raw, emotional moments of suffering. You're left staring at the screen, humming along to one of his songs that's now stuck in your head, and wondering how long it's been since you've seen another person.

I've watched it twice, and it only reinforced a lot of my recent musings on loneliness in general.

We'll start at the beginning. On March 15th, 2020, the world shut down for what people optimistically believed was going to be a two-or-so week quarantine, then everything would go back to normal.

((If you read any history textbook, it's curious how most pandemics are measured in years, not weeks or months))

And now, we'll get into the specifics: I, unlike most of my friends, am an extrovert.

I know. It's surprising.

Many of my introverted friends vocally described how much fun they were going to have in quarantine for two-weeks-wait-maybe-a-month-at-most. They were going to get so much energy from all of their time alone! They were going to read so many books! They could finally binge watch all of Friends! And then in a couple-of-months-definitely-not-a-whole-year, they would reemerge like a beautiful butterfly with so much banked introvert energy that they would be sustained for many weeks to come!

I am the token extrovert among most of my friends. I attract introverts. They like that I make decisions and have places to go and that I do all the talking. They can just follow along and have fun and not have to worry about the logistics, which I more often than not have already handled. And here's the thing: I don't mind being alone either. Two weeks inside was going to be fine. I had a novel to write and a guitar to practice, pictures to draw and games to play, movies to watch and books to read. I was ready to go.

When it became clear, though, that this was going to be much, much longer than two weeks, then I started to lose it a bit. I can handle two weeks alone. How was I going to deal with a whole year?

I think this wasn't quite the same for people who had jobs that could be done remotely. Mine was not one of them, so I no longer had a job to keep me busy throughout the day. I could do gig work, which I've always kind of hated, but my life was directionless. I was supposed to move in March. I was supposed to explore and try new things. I was twenty-three and more and more found myself full of anxiety about the future, and full of deep, crushing loneliness that I hadn't felt in a long time.

The thrill of having some kind of direction when I eventually did move was quickly replaced with that same loneliness. It seemed that in a pandemic, even moving to a new state can't fix that. Combine that with my inability to do video calls for a long period of time because of my restlessness, being cramped up in a house that was not my own with people I didn't really know, and it was a recipe for absolute isolation and depression.

In this truly terrible year, I've learned something about loneliness: it's gentle and it will consume you.

My parents have always told me that people want to help me when I'm struggling, they just have no idea that I'm struggling in the first place. Which is true, of course, I've developed an entire personality around seeming useful and competent, and looking like you're struggling does not have any place in that particular brand of neediness. But even beyond that, when I'm faced with those people who probably want to help me and get to know me, something else in me tells me that of course they don't really want any of those things.

The loneliness manifests. It squeezes my hand when no one is there to do it, holds me when I'm desperate for a hug. It whispers words to me, quiet in my ears.

"They don't understand you. You can't be yourself around them. Maybe they would if you talked to them more. But they don't have time for you. They were talking about how they have classes now. They're in a serious relationship. They have a family nearby that they visit often. And knew them a long time ago. If they wanted to get to know you, the real you, they would have tried already. You're always trying, and they don't ever respond. It's not meant to be. But it's not so bad being by yourself. You have lots of things to do by yourself anyways."

Loneliness is a kind of comforting sadness. It holds you in its soft, cloudy embrace and nuzzles itself close to you. It doesn't cling, but offers reminders, forgetfulness. It pours libations of pride down your throat until you're drunk and hiccupping on its essence and you have to hold it even tighter for stability. Then it leads you home, tucks you in, and whispers goodnight to you, awaiting tomorrow, when it reminds you again over coffee that you enjoy being alone, and that you have chosen to be here.

It's strange how the longer you're trapped in the cycle of loneliness, the harder it is to break out. You'd think the opposite, that the lonelier you are, the more likely you are to jump on an offer of friendship or opportunity to get out and about. But the more you let the loneliness touch your shoulder, the small of your back, like a gentle lover in the shadows of the evening, whispering its words to you, the more you find yourself holding back.

See, the more disappointment you receive from people, and the more times you are tossed back into loneliness' arms, the more likely you are to simply stay there in the first place. We are, after all, always drawn to the path of least resistance. Why open yourself to the opportunity of disappointment when you can skip the heartbreak and simply stay alone, isolated, inside? I've had moments where friends have invited me to join them at an event, and I've forced myself to say yes and go along, even though loneliness is sitting at the desk chair while I cry on my bed, telling me that I don't want to go out despite the fact that I'm crying on my bed because I'm so lonely and missing my friends. When given the choice, I've grown so accustomed to being alone that when I'm offered up the chance to leave the loneliness behind, it's so hard to finally break the cycle and haze of misery. The soft and gentle wisps of loneliness have grown into clouds that disrupt my vision, until everything I can see is shrouded in a filter of sadness, frustration, and heartbreak.

So where am I now? I don't know. Still lonely. Getting better. But still loneliness has become a sometimes-welcome-sometimes-not bed companion for me. It's easy to choose loneliness. It doesn't ask for much, just that you stay still. It's something that in the pandemic, I've grown so used to that sometimes I forget that my gaze is clouded over with heady perfumes and drinks that make me lose sight of friendship. More than anything, getting away from loneliness has become a hard choice and decision rather than just side effect of spending time with friends casually. It is no longer an option to just let loneliness come and go. It's always here now, waiting in my bedroom for me to step through the door after work. It haunts the hallways of my house. And when I'm least expecting it, it wraps its long arms around me and murmurs that it's's been a long day...

I don't think I even realized that I embraced this disembodied feeling, that my gaze was so clouded over with fear that I fervently ran into the arms of loneliness for its hazy comfort, until I had the opportunity to be away from it entirely.

About a week or so ago, I drove out to Indiana to see my older brother and one of my sisters. It was about a 10 and a half hour drive, by myself, in the quiet and unchanging midwestern landscape of corn, soybeans, and rows and rows of carefully planted trees flanking the highways. My brother lives in a little house by himself, cozy and comfortable, and my sister and I got to take up the little back room area. The house was too small, it seemed for how large my loneliness had grown. It couldn't enter the house at all.

The rooms were filled with planning, laughter, and teasing instead. Lightsaber fights and spiked coffee and music. Games and prayer and digging through old emotions and thoughts and memories. There was no space for loneliness anymore. And of course, at that point, what was there to be lonely about? Loneliness gripped me with its quiet reminders, reinforcing all of my beliefs that no one cared enough to know the real me. But for a few days, I was surrounded only by people who already knew the real me, and who embraced me for everything I was. There is no desperation for someone to spill my soul to. My siblings, especially these siblings, had already seen most of my soul bared to them.

Loneliness is a comforting kind of sadness, but it feeds off of you more than it gives to you. And without you to feed on, it grows smaller and smaller and smaller. I returned to Virginia to find it in my room, a wisp once again. I'm working on keeping it that way.

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Aug 04, 2021

Beautifully said, Mary. I've never thought about loneliness like that before, but I do think you have described it well. I hope it stays just a wisp in your life.

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