In September I told a friend, who is six, I had moved to a flat to live all on my own. He stared at me with undisclosed wonder and/or horror – it was hard to tell which. I imagined the appeal of living alone, without parental supervision, to a child: eat whatever you want, watch TV all day, dress yourself in top-to-toe Marvel merch. Instead, he asked: “Won’t you miss people?”
I have long seen the appeal of living alone, though the dream has shifted over the years from the early, childhood vision in which I imagined I would eat Mini Rolls for breakfast. As a teenager, I was more influenced by Carrie Bradshaw than Cadbury’s, and so I pictured myself living alone in a city apartment and writing for a magazine. (This has proved to be relatively accurate, though the reality features fewer crop-tops and suitors.) More recently, the desire was driven in equal parts by desperation to escape flatmates and their cleaning rotas, and a conceited idea of my own self-sufficiency.
Both have come undone. It turns out having someone with whom to argue over whether to turn on the heating at least means having someone with whom to split the bill. My emotional resilience is stripped back, my suspension has gone; I can tolerate fewer bumps without being overturned. As a result, my once considerable capacity for darkness and untied endings is replaced by the need to know exactly what I am getting, and for it to be buoyant enough to hold me up: I am reduced to watching grown adults stuffing their faces with watermelon on Taskmaster and listening to other grown adults guffawing over vulgar stories on Sh**ged Married Annoyed.
Freedom to choose does not feel so much like freedom when you have no other choice, when there is no one to question your decision to eat pizza three nights in a row, or to end the impasse of flicking through Netflix. What I imagined to be the ultimate liberation often feels more like solitary confinement.
Pre-pandemic, I would have answered my six-year-old friend that, no, I won’t miss people. I would have told him that I was an introvert, and that I needed recovery time from socialising, which I invariably found draining; that there was nothing quite like the anticipation of a whole day to myself, and no sweeter joy than an unexpected night in thanks to cancelled plans. I enjoyed my contrarian solo cinema trips and relished my ability to cook single portions; to solve the Tetris puzzle of what to make with the other half of that pepper.
Now I realise that I’m not particularly introverted; I was simply exhausted. My 2019 diary contains just eight blank pages (by contrast, my 2020 diary is a sea of ecru). Being busy 16 hours a day, seven days a week, makes grabbed-at moments of respite seem like a lifeline, but there is a difference between the urgent need for sleep and actual human flourishing. For the latter, I need people: for energy, for feedback, for validation, to feel real. I now understand a little better why the First World War was followed by the Roaring Twenties; I can honestly say, for the first time in my life, that I long to go to a club and to feel strangers’ sweaty limbs against my own. I enjoy time alone only as a counterbalance to fierce, frenetic companionship.
There is a midway between the extremes of isolation and exhaustion, of course, where I might find my level. Much has been written during this pandemic of its order-shifting potential, its role as a great re-router of history. Certainly, it has and will change the world of work. But hopes for a more interventionist state, an abandonment of the rhetoric of austerity, and a greater understanding of the peril of ceaseless human expansion into the natural world have grown quieter. Entrenched habits are not easily moved, even by a crisis as grave as this.
I know that, at the first opportunity, I will throw myself back into the ink-filled world of a full diary. That I will soon forget what the pandemic has shown me about appreciating moments of human intimacy. And that the subsequent exhaustion will lead me to forget that, really, I am not made for a solitary life. I can only hope that some well-meaning friend will wave this page in my face when that time comes.
This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control