After years of living with others, Lucia was excited to finally have a place to herself.
The photographer had recently moved back to Italy from New York. She enjoyed spending time on long, meandering walks with her camera, and going out for food with friends.
But within a couple of months Milan, where she lived, had become the epicentre of Europe’s coronavirus outbreak. She and millions of other Italians were ordered into lockdown, told to stay home unless absolutely necessary.
The first few weeks were the hardest, as the monotony of days isolated in her apartment took its toll. But now more than a month on, Lucia is adjusting to being alone. She still misses her freedom and physical contact with others, but feels fortunate that she and her loved ones are healthy, when so many across her country have died.
“Sometimes I get worried about the future, about how life will be after this ends,” she says. “I wonder if there will ever be a real life outside our homes.”
Almost 4,000 miles away, the only human faces Aparna sees now belong to security guards.
The 26-year-old lives alone in her mother’s old apartment in Gurgaon, near Delhi.
Twice a day she leaves to walk her dogs, Jules and Yogi, as the guards keep watch over her complex’s locked gates. Aparna has only ventured beyond them once.
There are millions more stories like this around the world. As governments scramble to contain the deadly Covid-19 pandemic by restricting public life, many living alone have had to accept that they might not spend time with anyone else for a long time.
I know because I’m among them.
Weeks into the UK lockdown, my ordinary life in London goes on but it looks and feels different. Trips to the office have become a rarity. I feel lucky to have a cat for company and the ability to go outside for walks when others can’t, but it’s hard not knowing when I’ll next see my close friends or family, who live hundreds of miles away.
These days the same screens that host our work meetings carry the burden of our social lives too. With the exception of conversations over the telecom or chance encounters with neighbours by the bins, all of my human contact is now online.
With so many other people across the world living by themselves through this strange experience, I decided to try to find expert advice and others self-isolating alone.
That’s how I found Lucia, Aparna and Angie: three women continents apart, going through the same.
Angie, from Maine, has lived by herself for four years. Getting her own space became an important part of her growth and healing after a divorce. But as the US became gripped by coronavirus and local restrictions hit, the downfalls of her living situation became apparent.
A couple of weeks ago, when Angie was laid-off from work, she was left to deal with it alone. “In normal circumstances, if you were to lose your job, you’d be met with a hug by a family member or invited over by a friend for cheering up,” she says.
There is plenty of research to suggest our social relationships can be as important to our physical health as our mental one. Research links pervasive loneliness to higher mortality rates and other health complications.
Professor Naomi Eisenberger is a social psychologist at UCLA known for her research on how the brain behaves when it experiences social rejection and disconnect.
She says our current situation, with billions of people cut-off from their normal lives, is unprecedented. She stresses the importance of people living alone trying to stay connected with those we care about.
“One of the things I’ve heard from people is that it’s interesting that now you start realising who you actually feel close to, because it doesn’t matter who lives near you or who is easy to get to,” she says.
Her research group is also trying to looking into whether the virtual communication we are all currently filling our schedules with is enough to feel truly connected.
Professor Stephanie Cacioppo, an expert in behavioural neuroscience and psychiatry at the University of Chicago, is also full of practical tips for those living alone. She and her late husband were known for their pioneering research that draws a distinction between being alone and feeling lonely.
She says adjusting our mindset and expectations is key to avoiding feelings of loneliness. This means accepting events are beyond our control and knowing that being away from the people and things we love is only temporary.
“Right now you live alone. And right now you have no choice. So you can either scream all day long or make the most of it,” Dr Cacioppo says.
For Angie, this has meant reconnecting with her art. She’s started posting daily illustrations – which we have used throughout this feature – as a way to share her emotions and perspective on living alone through the pandemic.
Her nameless, faceless character is seen living out quiet and relatable personal moments. “When I start to feel alone, I imagine other people like me, feeling the same emotions or doing the same things in that very moment all around the world,” she says. “It helps me feel grounded and connected.”
Another practical task to try and stay grounded, Dr Cacioppo suggests, is keeping a journal of your emotions during isolation: making note of the things that make you feel happy or accomplished throughout the day.
“People have done studies showing that self-compassion or a gratitude towards others, but also towards yourself, can really improve the well-being and happiness level,” she says. These acts of kindness don’t need to be time-consuming or expensive, she explains. “Everyone has their own things that are really good for self-care.”
Both experts I spoke to stressed the importance of building routine into our days in self-isolation, explaining that regular social contact can help regulate us in all kinds of ways, down to our sleeping and eating patterns.
Dr Cacioppo advises people to plan life only in the short-term, even one or two days ahead. “We have all lost control of our reality. We had schedules, we had activities planned,” she says. “We could just see the schedule of next week and we knew exactly what we would do and now it’s a little bit different.”
Trying to set three manageable goals per day, she suggests, can help instil a feeling of accomplishment. “Then you can go to bed more peaceful because you know that you have a structure and something to do – a purpose – for tomorrow,” Dr Cacioppo says.
This importance of feeling a part of something larger is something that comes up time and time again. In California, another woman has created an online movement achieving just that.
On 30 March writer Olivia Gatwood posted a photograph of herself on Instagram captioned: “Self-portrait of a lady in quarantine.”
Soon dozens, then hundreds, of other women around the world have sent her their own.
Gatwood has now decided to curate an Instagram account featuring these images, Girls of Isolation, connecting women across the globe within this strange, shared but disparate reality we now are living.
Aparna was one of those who submitted a self-portrait. The lockdown prompted her to pick up her camera for the first time in more than a year and she has been documenting her life under the pandemic since.
When asked what advice she would give others, she had a simple message: “Listen to yourself and be kind to yourself, you can finally take the time to do nothing/everything/anything without guilt or compromise.”
Dr Cacioppo says one positive that may come from the unrelenting tragedy of the outbreak is that, as nations and as people, we could end up feeling more connected than ever before.
It’s a sentiment Aparna agrees with. “This situation reminds us how vulnerable we are and more importantly how equally vulnerable,” she says.
“It’s become easier than ever before to relate to other human beings across the world and that’s something both essential and beautiful to recognise, even in trying times such as these.”
All artwork and photographs are copyright.
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