Out of lockdown, it’s only now that many of us are feeling the fallout – including Charlie Gowans-Eglinton...
During those long months of lockdown, loneliness was an inevitability. Certainly it was for me, and the millions like me who live alone, who didn’t share isolation with a partner, children or a flatmate. In those first few months, before I was allowed a bubble or even able to enjoy a distanced walk with a friend, loneliness was a constant lump in my throat that no amount of red wine could wash down, though Ocado knows I tried.
But now? It seems silly to feel lonely when there’s no Government mandate stopping me from seeing friends, cooking for six instead of one, and propping up the bar in my local pub as often as I like. The lockdowns are over – so the loneliness should be over too, right?
An impromptu midweek ‘quick one’ in the pub seemed like a fever dream during those months indoors, and when everything had to be pre-planned and pre-booked. But my go-to friend to prop up a bar with, and the only one who lives close enough that we share a local, had a baby in lockdown, and doesn’t have as much time for bar-propping as I do.
I have a long-standing annual date with a friend to spend a weekend in October walking around the stands at Frieze art fair in Regent’s Park, with plenty of stops to refuel (ourselves, in the cocktail bar). My ticket has arrived, but my date is currently living in Athens: she and her husband decided to make the most of remote working and relocate for a few months.
The pandemic put things into perspective for all of us. But some turned that into a big life change: relocating to a rural idyll, changing careers, having children. They did all of this in a vacuum. While shops were shuttered, offices were closed, and everything was on its head, we didn’t feel the fallout of those big changes – but now we’re beginning to.
Somewhere along the line, it stopped being Covid keeping us apart from our friends and started being us, our lives that no longer have as much space or time for each other. For me, the change of my two best mates both having babies was a biggie. While all we were allowed to do was walk, pushing a pram around the park was our only option anyway. It’s only now, when I could be doing all the things that we used to do together but they no longer can, that I’m really feeling the change. And instead of celebrating friends’ big milestones and adapting to changes gradually as they happened, staggered out across two years, they’re hitting me all at once.
Crisis winnowed our social lives, and we were forced to rank our friendships in order of importance. I only invested time in my primary friendships – and even then, it was mostly the friends who lived nearby or weren’t doing key work who I kept things up with. But we need a balanced ‘social biome’ with enough variety in our interactions to meet all of our needs – which means secondary and tertiary friendships too. Those are the ones most of us neglected, or were forced apart from –like the work wives who I shared a tea-break rant with every day. I resigned from my job just before the first lockdown and so it wasn’t really until offices reopened (my own a different one to that which we’d shared) that I realised how much I missed them.
For some, the pandemic provided an excuse to avoid conflict and slowly phase out old friends who they just didn’t have enough in common with any more. For others, ending certain friendships wasn’t a choice, but a by-product of the pandemic.
A woman I know used to meet up with two ex-colleagues every three months or so. They weren’t best mates, but they all enjoyed their catch-up dinners. But after a two-year break, picking up those threads again seems hard – they’ve lost the momentum of their friendship. One has moved cities, the second married, the third had a child – and they haven’t shared any of it. Perhaps their friendship had run its course – but perhaps, had they not been kept apart for so long, they’d still be in contact.
Before the pandemic began, I went out with friends a few nights a week at least, out for work events a few more and, in the last pre-Covid summer, I stretched my holiday allowance across a hen do, a wedding, three holidays abroad and two long weekends in the UK with different combinations of my closest friends. Even as things progress back towards ‘normal’, my own normal has changed. I’m out of the habit of socialising that much – and I realise now that I felt burnt out. Now, the thought of socialising so often is exhausting.
But here’s the thing: I can love keeping the world at bay and spending a Saturday night on the sofa, and I can also feel a bit lonely when I hear the crowds from the pub walking home beneath my window. FOMO seems worse than ever after the drunken promises that my friends and I made to each other over Zoom last year: that if we came out of this, we’d never spend another Saturday night home alone again.
Sadly, as socialising returns, so does the stigma around feeling lonely. It was only natural to be lonely when we were forced to be alone – but it feels embarrassing to admit to it now, when the pubs are packed and our Instagram feeds are full of parties and holidays. It feels like loneliness must be a reflection on us – that we’re not interesting or fun enough to have a packed calendar.
In reality, while some friendships can endure distance, time apart, even neglect, some simply can’t. We’re still navigating the social aftershocks of Covid, trying to mend what was broken, or make new friends to fill the newly empty spaces in our lives. And as we do that, feeling lonely is – once again – almost an inevitability. But at least this time the pubs are open.