How to Survive a Pandemic When You Live Alone
Who’s drawn the shortest straw when it comes to lockdown? Parents? Students? The elderly? The pandemic has allowed more time for the traditional British hobby of wondering if those people across the street are having a better time than us. But one demographic group has received relatively little attention: the middle-aged person who lives alone.
Who’d have sympathy for us, in our child-free palaces of quiet, where no one cares if we don’t wash the dishes and the only dirty underpants on the floor are our own? In normal times you could say we’re a privileged lot. But in March 2020 we realised that what had been our freedom was about to become our isolation. The United Nations considers solitary confinement for over fifteen days to be torture, and we were looking at, what, three months? Before we even knew how much longer this would last, we involuntary hermits asked ourselves — would we survive this?
In that moment of panic, before the curses and consolations of solo lockdown became clear, I decided to do something about it. I formed a club.
The United Nations considers solitary confinement for over fifteen days to be torture, and we were looking at, what, three months?
It started as a shout-out on social media: Who amongst my friends, and their friends, lived alone and was feeling similarly apprehensive? Would anyone be interested in getting together for a group video chat (maybe via this ‘Zoom’ app I’d heard about) to discuss what we could do to help ourselves and each other to navigate whatever lay ahead?
The fifty or so people who responded, and joined the Facebook group I hastily set up, were largely freelancers in arts or entertainment. That’s partly the nature of my echo chamber (I’m a writer, TV producer and comedian) but perhaps arty freelancers are also the most likely demographic to need a support group. To start with, none of this gaggle of actors, writers and comedians has found a live-in life partner due to our thrillingly chaotic work lives. (At least that’s what we tell ourselves.) Then in pandemic times, we’re more likely to be unemployed, without the safety net of furlough. We’re attention-loving narcissists, suddenly starved of an audience. And we’re over-thinkers, who if left alone too long will become certain that everyone we’ve ever met is convening illegal indoor gatherings for the sole purpose of discussing how much they hate us, and that we’ll never find work, love or sex ever again. Thank goodness one member of the group is a school headteacher. She serves as a constant reminder that being in work during a pandemic can be harder.
We had an inaugural virtual meetup, attended by about 20 people, most of whom have been core members of the group ever since. As my original Facebook post had been shared beyond my circle, few of us knew each other. It was the first time any of us had used Zoom, so of course we all talked over each other and no-one was ever on mute except by mistake. I grandly called it an AGM, which was supposed to be a joke but now, nearly a year on, it looks prophetic. The agenda constituted one question: What can we do to make solo lockdown bearable? One three-hour, chaotic, boozy chat later we had an unachievably ambitious list of planned activities (live-stream disco aerobics, anyone?) and a single rule: Nothing is obligatory.
Then came those oddly busy early days of lockdown one. We were all frantically booking supermarket deliveries, fashioning masks from old socks, finding new bits of wall to stare at. So my group’s bucket list of complicated pursuits remained un-pursued — except one. The simplest, most necessary thing, that continues to this day: Twice a week we gather on Zoom to talk about how we’re doing, to discuss everything from Tiger King to Tolstoy, to play games, to chew over the latest news stories, and generally just to make each other laugh like we’re in a pub and things are still normal.
So since 25 March 2020, a dozen people who began as strangers have met every Wednesday evening and Sunday morning, and have helped each other cope. To keep things interesting each meetup has a theme, involving us in some agit-prop fancy dress, cooking challenges and spontaneous works of what you might call “Zoom art”. Themes have ranged from the obvious (Summer, Christmas), to vague (On Ice, Bring a Thing), to cosy (Crumble, Knitwear), to saucy (Boudoir, Innuendo), to topical (Four Seasons Total Landscaping), to challenging (Minor Biblical Characters), to downright bizarre (Foreshortened American Tourists). We’ve recreated paintings, gone on “holiday” together in virtual Venice, and assembled a discordant orchestra of kazoos, tambourines and slide whistles. This week we had our 85th meetup. On 21 March we’ll have our 100th.
Looking at the themes and screengrabs on the Facebook page is a journey through the seasons. You see Easter, Halloween, Christmas, and everyone’s birthdays; people changing hair colours, growing and shaving beards, cutting and regretting fringes; DIY home improvements and a proliferation of houseplants in our living rooms; major news events such as the election of Joe Biden and the vaccine breakthroughs. It makes for a pandemic diary of sorts. I often wonder how all this looks to the thirty or so members of the Facebook group who never come to the meetups: the lurkers. Virtual hangouts aren’t for everyone, but I hope those people have stayed in the group because seeing the photos and the in-jokes still creates a sense of community.
On Zoom, you often have to let the joke go. This has been particularly tough for the comedians.
The mood shifts wildly from silly to supportive, from despairing to excitable, enabled by the disjointed nature of video conferencing. We’ve had to learn you can’t control where the conversation goes. Sometimes that brilliant witticism you just made gets muted by someone saying they’ve been losing hope this week. You have to let the joke go. This has been particularly tough for the comedians.
You’d think there’d be enormous sexual tension. This is a group of people who are by definition single and by circumstance celibate. In the early days I privately speculated about who in the group might get it on. My money was on the glamorous cellist and the raffish divorced playwright. (If Richard Curtis is interested in the film rights, I’m open to co-writing). But soon I think we all reached a tacit understanding that any liaisons would risk complicating the dynamics of our fledgling support network, which was becoming precious to us. Anyone who became physically intimate would be a bubble, might end up moving in together and would thus no longer qualify for the group. I flatter myself that everyone is consciously choosing membership of my club over the abundant sex-bubble offers they’re all getting. Sure sex is good but have you ever rushed to your kitchen cupboards on a Wednesday night to see who has the most out-of-date herbs?
We’re aware of our privileges as single-occupancy dwellers. We don’t have it as bad as people in abusive relationships, single parents, carers or isolated older people. But everyone in the group has had moments of difficulty: mental health crises, financial hardship, supporting family members through severe Covid-19. My dad died of cancer in October, and in my grief I was grateful to have this source of distraction and comfort. We’ve become surprisingly good at long-distance emotional support. Amongst the high jinks and the witty repartee, there’s an acknowledgement of each other’s sadness and anxiety, sometimes overt, but more often unspoken, conveyed in a gesture, a collective silence over our laptops, a digital hug.
Along with countless virtual book groups, workout clubs, and quiz nights all around the country, our meetups have been more than just something to do. They’ve given us a sense of purpose and belonging — the water-cooler camaraderie that work colleagues used to provide. And for those of us in solitary confinement, there’s something else: The club is the equivalent of a partner, roomie, or cellmate. They hear the trivial details of our day, laugh at our jokes and bear witness to our lives. They remind us, in our isolation, that we still exist.