Written by Jennifer Doohan
“Aren’t you the queen of social isolation?”
The local bike shop owner quipped as I left my steed with him for repair. I laughed, because arguably for the past couple of years I have been.
Living in a tiny Northern Italian village in the mountains is ideal in all the ways you would imagine; sunshine, sports and access to some of the best nature in the world. But what about the thing that people are scared to admit, especially in today’s constantly connected society…
There’s no test for loneliness, its effects don’t come all at once and they certainly aren’t reserved for the elderly. In Italy I was physically and culturally isolated without steady work. I found myself starting to envy people with their schedules and social lives and I had no one to really talk to about it. I feared if I said what was on my mind to people back home, they’d just think how ungrateful I was to be living in such a beautiful place. But the truth is there’s only so many mountain walks you can do alone.
I can’t remember recognising my own loneliness, never mind admitting it to other people. Its effects simply accumulated, and it became a theme of the chats I enjoyed with expat friends around the world: connections I had made and nurtured via social media.
I was in a relationship, but my partner didn’t speak my native language and I was learning his. So despite having a physical presence, someone to eat with and chat to everyday. A lot of the time I was by myself, relying on technology to make me feel connected to something other than my own thoughts. One of my partner’s nicknames for me became “social” because of of how much time I spent on my phone. Whether it was in my quest for work or to voice-note-talk with the few people that I could really open up to.
As a culture, we celebrate solitude. We scroll and admire selfies of adventurous souls in remote, mountainous places. And I say brava/o to those people! But in a way I feel this portrayal of solo glamourises it, making aloneness an almost aspirational state, when its effects – if sustained can take such a toll on our mental and physical health.
“Now I get it Jennifer, now I get how you felt there.” – A friend living alone in lockdown.
An expat friend, living in Italy for circa 20 years said something to me the other day that really surprised me. It surprised me because I’d had the same thought, one I supposed might come across as far too selfish to actually express to most people.
“I’ll be sorry when this is all over in a way, people have been in touch more and it’s been great! I’ve been really enjoying it.”
And here we are, at the silver lining! People are having Zoom parties, teachers are teaching, care homes are handing out tablets to combat loneliness, restaurants are holding interactive cooking classes on Instagram, and we are more motivated to exercise because all of a sudden live online classes are now the norm. Not to mention too, that organisations are finally realising that remote work, really can mean remote work. I’ve also been enjoying the benefits of increased social interaction via Zoom; I’ve spoken to old friends, participated in fitness classes, and even judged an Italian photo competition from Manchester.
Our collective lockdown, no matter the stage or severity has allowed us to feel the importance of connection. It is an essential ingredient for our health, giving us a place in the world, a way to share, express, bounce ideas around and just feel better! We might run to the mountains to escape the overwhelm on occasion and, okay – I admit, having that glass or cup of something with your friend digitally isn’t quite the same. But when this is all over I hope that our use of technology and newly developed habits to stay connected continue to some extent, because for a lot people this way of socialising is helping them to feel entirely more normal. I know for sure – had I had all of this whilst in Italy I would have felt so much better.