It’s been six months since I’ve been held or touched by another human.
At the start of the year, I moved out of London. Seven years in the city had scraped at my bones. I wanted more community, more quiet, more space. The move meant I could live by myself, closer to nature. I’d chosen Stroud. I knew one person there, but otherwise moving was a blank canvas for a new beginning.
Like all of us, I had hopes for the year. I landed in my new flat in March and found myself in isolation.
The world changed and I was in a new place. I threw myself into volunteering. I’m good in crisis. I’ve had practice. It’s part of how I like to identify — strong, resilient, capable. But the weeks stretched on, and that surge of energy was unsustainable. It crept into burnout.
There were days in lockdown when I felt like I was dissolving. That I might disappear. There was that Groundhog Day surrealness, waking up to blue April sky, sunlight slatted through bedroom blinds, a sheen of unreality, day after day. Waking up to disorientation and dread, time distorted.
Is this really happening?
There were moments when I couldn’t feel the edges of myself.
I’d wake up some mornings exhausted and break into raw sobbing at the strange enormity of it all.
There were those message in a bottle tendernesses. Calls, emails, I sent to people I loved in different times of my life, different places and received in turn. I hope you’re okay. I hope you’re safe. I hope you and your loved ones are well. A wish, a protection spell we tried to wrap around each other in the face of the unknown. How our strange new world called us to reach out as we stayed in.
When you live by yourself, it’s a kind of solipsism. The New Age crowd like to tell you, you create your own reality. When you live by yourself and work by yourself remotely, it’s doubly true. What you do, what you don’t do shapes your mind, your body, your days. That can be freedom or a millstone.
I found comfort in routine. Yoga. Meditate. Journal. Go outside. Write. Cook. Read. The endless hoovering. Laundry to be done. Dishes to be washed. My world shrank to the domestic, to battles against dust and hairballs, a life in yoga pants and no bra, and getting up still to work every day.
The silence of lockdown became an exhausting digital roar. When I opened social media, it felt like a wasp nest my chest, buzzing with anxiety. I unfollowed everyone on Facebook.
The overwhelm came with a cutting away. I had little energy, little headspace to spare.
Which relationships were feeding me? Who and what did I want to interact with? What’s important to me?
My physical world had become small. No car, no driving licence, plans thwarted by lockdown, the radius of my life stretched as far as I could walk.
My friends were in London, in scattered towns hours away, in different countries, the distance between feeling much the same. There was no-one near to share a bubble with and in a new place, it felt like too much of a vulnerability to ask to strangers, who I did not know, who might not be able to meet me in that.
I’d go out to the woods, my hands trailing through the velvety brush of new leaves, the rough edges of stacked rock walls, moss, trees. I’d trade distance smiling hellos with dog walkers. Sometimes the dogs would break loose, dart to me, tails wagging, jumping up to be petted.
Day after day I’d go. I watched the slow shift of the season, how the wildflowers blossomed in the meadow, the leaves unfurl. I’d take my shoes off, feet in the earth. Breathe in the smell of the trees and rain. You are real, this is real, you are alive. Feel the ground, feel the earth holding you.
In the 1960s, an American primatologist called Harry Harlow tried to measure love. He separated baby rhesus monkeys from their mothers to investigate a hypothesis — that monkeys needed not just food, but maternal love and physical affection.
He put the babies with a wire mother with a nipple and a bottle for food and a cloth mother, soft, touchable, made for holding that had no food.
When they frightened the monkeys, they ran to the cloth mother. They spent more time with the cloth mother. There are heart wrenching videos of tiny monkeys opening a door just to look at cloth mother through a window.
In the absence of people, I made my own cloth mother. I burrowed into bed, and stacked the pillows around me, one pressing against my back, curled around another against my belly.
I’d sit with a blanket wrapped around me, swaddled, holding myself, right hand on my left ribcage, palm against my heart, left arm over the top, left fingertips cupping the curve of my right shoulder. Feel your heart beat. Breathe.
I took my comfort from screens, went for careful walks with people spaced two metres apart.
There is you and me and the space between us and if I touch you, if you touch me, I know myself, and I know you. How do you touch me? How does that change me? How does that show me who I am? Where do I end? Where do you begin?
“Don’t we touch each other just to prove we are still here?”
– On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
In Romania in the 1980s and 1990s, there were thousands of babies in overcrowded orphanages who suffered from neglect. They weren’t held, soothed, touched, given care and attention. The neglect changed the shape of their brains, an imprint that marked the rest of their lives. The children are adults now and most are carrying the legacy of that neglect — social and emotional challenges, long term mental health issues.
Harry Harlow did another experiment in his exploration of connection and love. He put monkeys in steel chambers for three months, six months, twelve months, without any contact from other animals and humans.
He reported that “the effects of six months of total social isolation were so devastating and debilitating that we had assumed initially that twelve months of isolation would not produce any additional decrement. This assumption proved to be false; twelve months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially.”
We are and we are not monkeys. Most of us are not completely alone, although it might feel that way on some days. Most of us are not in steel boxes, but if this time has confirmed anything for me, it’s that prison and isolation is inhumane.
We are wired for connection.
We need each other.
In May, my friend sent me a photo of a book she was reading.
Highlighted in blue was “After a disaster, everyone fucks.”
I get that. I get the people who just met someone and decided to do lockdown together. Who got back together with an ex. I get the reaching out for closeness and comfort. I read about secret raves in London. My friend tells me about covid parties in Berlin. I get the desire to spit death in the eye. I understand the defiance and the rebellion even though it’s not my choice.
For me, it’s more about intimacy.
There’s a line from an Ilya Kaminsky poem:
“Soaping together — that
is sacred to me. Washing mouths together.
You can fuck
anyone — but with whom can you sit in water?”
I rattle around my flat to a flickering carousel of memory. Things I’ve not thought of in years surface in the silence. When I was 24, I volunteered in southern Tanzania, with all my white saviour wanna save the world naivety.
I spent six months in a village as part of a health education programme. There was no running water, no electricity, no phone network. We’d wash with buckets from the river or have cold showers in the town hostels.
When the programme ended, my boyfriend, a Peace Corp volunteer turned up at my village on a motorbike to take me away. I swung on the back with my bag, hair streaming in the wind, and we tore down the road to a lodge a few kilometres away that felt like a different world.
We’d rented a cabin, with a log fire, a bed with soft white sheets and an immense bath tub, the first I’d seen since I’d arrived in the country. He lit the fire, carried me to the bath and we sank into water, the heat seeping into us and held each other.
In the morning, we walked through gardens, pine and eucalyptus heavy in the air. Under the gold morning sun, the lake was a green mirror, covered in water lilies, pink and white. He wrapped his arms around my waist and I leaned into him, held by him and that warmth and beauty.
I remember evenings curled up with lovers, reading to each other in candlelit rooms, my head on their shoulder, legs tangled, feeling the vibration of the words rumble in their chest, eyes closed, soft, loved, safe. Friends over for dinner, sitting on the countertop talking as we cook, leaning in for a hug.
Lacing my arm with a friend’s as we walk down the street. The friend who holds you and holds you through tears and crisis, their body wrapped around yours whispering to yours, reminding you to breathe. I love you, you’re okay, I’m not going anywhere.
Dancing with someone, being joyfully swung into a lift, a spin, the sense making mystery of moving together. The gentle sweetness when a semi stranger tucks a label back into your shirt, when someone brushes a strand of hair from your face, or an eyelash from your cheek and holds it out for you to blow.
What does intimacy mean now? What is safety? What is closeness when our intimacy could make each other sick? Who do you let close to you? Who do you trust? Who do you let into your world?
My skin hunger eats me. I want to hold my friends. I want to be held by people I love, and yet the idea of that tenderness feels scalding.
After too many months alone, I have become brittle and strange and touch might shatter me. I will fall apart. It’s not that I want to hold anyone. I want to be held by someone I love who can hold me through that with softness.
Back in the spring, I remember conversations with friends. “When this is over…When things get back to normal…”
I kept holding onto milestones. Bargaining. When we get an antibody test, when we get a vaccine. Or maybe I get it and then I’m fine. Immunity and done.
Trying to make sense out of uncertainty, grasping to the idea we can control this, slam the lid on Pandora’s box, tame the beast, slay the monster.
Back to normal.
None of these have come to pass. The antibody tests aren’t consistent and reliable enough to know. A vaccine is a long way off and long-term immunity remains a question mark. We live with unknowns and uncertainty. I know things are going to be hard for a long time.
I watch birthdays flicker by on Facebook. Plans cancelled. Events, festivals, and holidays evaporate. We all have our griefs to carry through this, some small, some large.
I know I’m luckier than many. I’ve not been sick, lost a parent or a loved one. I’m not shielding. I’ve not lost my job. I’m not a single parent waking up each day to look after my kids in this vast unknown with shut schools. I’m not the social care worker hands red raw from washing, lips cracked from wearing masks, going back on shift after her father’s funeral. I’m not caring for a partner with cancer, shuttling back and forth to the hospice, the fear wrapped around my heart.
I think these times ask of us a sensitivity, empathy and kindness when we talk to others of how their world might be, a recognition of what their losses, their challenges may be. We all have our different experiences with this.
Some people seem to be doing just fine. Others of us are finding it hard. There are days when I’m in tears. You might be lucky enough to be more resilient, or more resourced than somebody else, that these strange days haven’t impacted you as hard as others yet.
That might come up in different ways. If you’re fortunate enough to have something, you probably don’t realise what it’s like to be without it. How it could be a foundation stone for your life you take for granted.
If you’ve been healthy all your life, it’s hard to imagine the heart-breaking exhaustion of being chronically ill. If you’ve been financially secure, it can be difficult to really understand the grinding despair of being poor.
It might be in your relationships, if you’ve got a close family, a partner, a strong network of friends, people close to you, weekly family calls, siblings to pop around and visit, emotional and practical support you can lean on. Not everybody has this.
It could be your physical space. If you have a house, with a garden and dog, that’s a different experience to living in a flat share in London with near strangers, to being homeless.
It might be your ability to access mental health support. I got a therapist back in April when this all kicked off, who I’m grateful and lucky to have. I know too well that’s not available for all.
There are many more.
This is wealth we perhaps don’t recognise. I’m not judging anyone for what they have. I mean to say, poverty of any kind is crushing and that gets crystallised in crisis.
We’re living in a time of what psychologist Pauline Boss calls ambiguous loss. She came up with it in the 1970s to describe a kind of unresolved grief.
It’s for a loss that isn’t clean, doesn’t have a finality. I feel like it’s woven into the loss of a future we imagined, the normal we won’t get back and the uncertainty that stretches out in front of us.
How do we live now?
We all have our own risk calculation based our understanding, our own situation, where we live. It’s been easy to see that become charged. For us to blame each other, judge each other for our choices. In the UK, the lack of clarity from the government has not helped.
Here’s what I understand. 80% of cases are mild, but 20% are not. It’s not binary, it’s not, you could be hospitalised and die or, you could not notice you have it and be fine.
There are the covid chronically ill, the long termers who have been through weeks of exhaustion stretching into months of strange symptoms, honeycombed from the virus, brain fog, heart, liver, kidney problems. It’s happened to the young and healthy as well as the older and more characterised at risk.
Which is to say, I know this is serious. I do not take it lightly.
I wear a mask. I’ve spent most of the past six months inside. I’m in my 30s, I’m healthy, no pre-existing conditions. I live somewhere with a lower transmission rate than the rest of the country. I live by myself. I work at home by myself. My circle of respiratory contacts, the people I share the same air with is very small. I’m aware of my privilege that my work and life allows me that.
On paper I’m low risk, but I tend towards caution. Much of that has not been for myself. It’s been the care I felt I owed to others, who might have to carry the consequences of my choices.
As lockdown eased, not much in my life changed. It might have been different if I was somewhere else where I’d been there longer and was more settled.
I see friends going on holiday and travelling. Going to the gym. Instagram shots of groups, couples out camping. People date. I cycle along the canal past the brewery where people are chatting, laughing, drinking at their assigned tables. On Saturdays the market bustles, some masked, some not, some better at social distancing than others.
I’m on a call with a work friend in LA, who describes how the world seems to have split into “the house people” and “the outside people”. They’re saving the economy, we’re saving healthcare, he jokes.
There’s been the stutter stop of this year. All of my new beginnings frozen. The liminal in between ness of moving stretching out. I feel caught between lives and I’m moving beyond being a house person now. Moving back into relationship with the world.
We’re on the edge of the end of summer. I miss the world we had, even though I know we will not get it back. The winter is coming and I need something to hold me through. I need to find my way in this different world, find myself in this new place.
Life goes on.
Last week, a friend of a friend I’d reached out to nearby called me up. Hey, do you want to go for lunch? She picked me up and we ate at a café, the first time either of us had eaten out since March. We talk and laugh and hatch plans for the autumn for art and beauty.
A friend in London encourages me to come down and I may brave the train, mask on and go. I get an invite for a grief ritual to share our losses. An email lands in my inbox, new driving tests to reopen. Compromise and risk. My world may get a little bigger again soon.
I write. I make art.
One way or another, I keep reaching out my hands.
Title from Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.