Can We Please Stop Rank-Ordering Quarantine Suffering?
Everyone’s pain is valid — especially during a pandemic
“My grandparents have only been able to hug each other for more than a year,” I overheard a woman lament with so much compassion. “They’re dying to hug the grandkids.”
“This is the second anniversary trip we’ve had to cancel because of Covid,” a wife grumbled to me after having to cancel their 25th-anniversary celebration.
“We’re used to traveling all the time,” a husband complained to me after raging about Dr. Fauci. He and his wife are retired and canceled five international trips while we waited for the vaccine. “We shouldn’t be locked up like prisoners, we should be out there fighting this thing!”
The pandemic has been hard on almost every last human being besides Bezos. Almost all seven billion of us taxpayers are longing for something. And the estrangement that families feel when separated from each other is tangible — the missed birthdays and holidays hurt. Watching your grandchildren and your nieces and nephews grow up in pictures hurts, their childhood racing by without getting to share in their milestones.
Do you know what else hurts? Not touching another human being for more than a year. At all. No one. No hugging. No holding hands, no absent-minded stroke of your back or draping your arm around their shoulder. No sex. No curling up together and settling in for the evening. No turning in and sleeping with your loved one who also loves you. And no way of knowing if the quarantine will ever end so you can at least start searching again.
Single people are suffering too. And they seem to be the only demographic not being widely lamented and supported as the pandemic rages on.
We don’t need to win the title for who’s suffering the most, we just want to be included with working parents, single parents, the elderly, and kinetic kids trying to stay in the same chair and Zoom all day.
Intimate relationships are not a panacea, of course your partner can drive you up the wall, but coupled people complaining to single people seem to miss the obvious — single people are suffering too. And we want to be included in the global compassion for the emotional and psychological havoc quarantine is wreaking on all of us.
But instead, we rank-order suffering. And single people aren’t even making the list. Even though we also miss our grandparents, parents, siblings, friends, grown children, and grandchildren. Many of us are also stressed about work and money and healthcare. Single people are also working parents, single parents, elderly, etc. We all represent our own Venn diagram.
In addition to struggling through the same quarantine shortages and stresses that everyone else is juggling, I can admit that I am sad, and I am jealous of coupled people. I don’t want to be. No good comes of jealousy. But I often wince when I see absentminded gestures of affection between people who love each other. A sharp flash of pain turns in my chest because it’s been so long since I touched someone like that, since anyone touched me like that. And I’m afraid I never will again.
So maybe I’m not the best place to complain that you and your husband haven’t been able to hug your adult children in however many months — at least you have each other. At least you can rest in each other’s arms and support and comfort each other’s pain and longing — all of which is valid and deeply human. But you know that single people miss their family and friends too, right? Many single people miss their adult children and are dying to hug their grandchildren too. Some of them haven’t even met their first grandchild. AND they have no intimate partner to cry with.
We should all be able to support each other regardless of what we’re longing for in our own private lives. But since everything is heightened right now we should try to be sensitive to each other’s circumstances. So maybe where you can, consider your audience before you complain. For example, I never complain to frazzled and overwhelmed working parents about how lonely I am in the quiet evenings. Both of our struggles are real. But I know how many of them would do terrible things just to luxuriate in the reprieve of one quiet evening. I do not complain about work stress to unemployed friends terrified they won’t find work before they lose everything and become homeless. I do not complain about the exorbitant cost of healthcare to friends who are already drowning in medical debt.
Ask yourself what you’re needing from the person you’re confiding in about your pandemic suffering. Maybe don’t complain about how annoying your boss is to someone who is desperately searching for work and panicked they won’t be able to pay their bills. Coupled people — maybe don’t complain to single people about some adorable pet peeve of your partner’s or gush about the flowers they got you just because. We single people who love you absolutely want to support you and celebrate with you but sometimes it’s harder than others. These days we are desperately trying to navigate this mild but chronic panic that “alone” is the new constant. What if it never ends?
Do you know what it’s like to sleep alone with a body pillow while the world burns around you for months on end? With no way of knowing if or when you’ll ever have another chance to meet someone? What if this is it? What if no one will ever reach for your hand across the dinner table again? What if no one will ever smile at you over a cup of coffee in the morning after wildly fucking each other all night?
Do you know what it’s like to curl up into no one and tell yourself everything is going to be ok? Many people do. These are open wounds for those of us longing for companionship, to build a happy life together but also to create a safe place where we can share in the stillness of all this existential dread. These are tough times. The seemingly endless dystopian parade of political corruption, police brutality, protests, forest fires, floods, and volatile economies makes it hard to read the news without wanting to hold someone’s hand while you brace yourself for the next crisis, the next young woman murdered by a man who “loved” her, the next images of innocent refugees being whipped by racists on horseback.
Sometimes it all hurts so much. Sometimes I feel feral, more vulnerable than just one more stem of chafed wheat alone in a field.
I am willing to wait for the right one but I’ll be honest. I daydream about companionship most nights as I’m pouring my second glass of wine. I imagine the ripe-peach sweetness of losing yourself in someone’s embrace. I imagine the deep sweet purposefulness of stroking your loved one’s hair when they curl up on you for comfort and familiarity. I imagine the simple pleasure of chopping vegetables together and unwinding with a loved one in the evenings after work, watching shows or reading together. I imagine low lights, wool socks and a warm fire.
Now, if we’re still rank-ordering suffering and sadness, know that I know how lucky I am to have a job that allows me the luxury of buying wine and Hulu and organic vegetables. I am physically safe and only somewhat worried about money. I’m ok. I’m in no immediate danger from domestic violence, police brutality, or political conflict. When my anxiety and depression don’t decimate my appetite I can eat and am well fed. When I get frustrated with work I can often just go for a walk or a run and burn off some stress. I have a great family and the most loving friendships a girl could ask for. I am deeply known and cared for by people I know and care for deeply.
But please, unless you know they feel this way too, don’t tell me or any other single person how lucky we are to be single just because you’re sick of being cooped up with your family and home-schooling your kids. I don’t want to be single and that stings in a way I’m sure you don’t intend, in a way that you would never inflict if you realized how much it hurt.
I feel guilty that despite all my blessings and creature comforts I still want a partner. I want us to be each other’s safe port in all these storms, the ones we will inevitably create for one another, and the ones that won’t stop coming.
But I want that for everyone. I don’t care how naive it sounds to say I want everyone who wants companionship to have that opportunity to build a beautiful life together.
I also want single parents to get the support they need, whether that’s with a partner or a stronger network. I want grandparents to be able to spend that fleeting precious time with their grandkids. I miss my grandparents all the time. I want us all to be able to visit our elderly loved ones. I want parents quarantined from their adult children to be able to reunite over family dinners and board games or whatever they love doing most.
In the meantime, please be gentle with each other. Please get vaccinated. And please stop competing for who is suffering the most or the worst. We’re all in this pandemic together.