“I get really anxious. I feel like I can’t breathe.”
That’s how Tatiana Bloom, a substance abuse counselor in New York, describes the prospect of being social in the pandemic. She’s an immunocompromised Black woman, hyperaware of medical redlining, so you might assume her anxieties stem from potentially infectious in-person interactions. However, she’s describing what happens to her when the phone rings.
“I turn my phone off a lot,” she says, chuckling softly. Sometimes it takes her “three to five business days” to get back to her friends and family. “I don’t want anyone to think I don’t care about them,” she says. “Right now, we’re just having a hard time even checking on ourselves.”
There have been numerous articles and studies citing the negative effects of solitude and loneliness created by the forced isolation of the pandemic. Bloom is describing something else, a strange phenomenon in the air, as many of us are choosing to further isolate ourselves.
Daily life is paving a path of mundanity and simplicity, juxtaposed with the complex and startling reality of an election year, mass illness and death, and civil unrest. We’ve wrung out the wet towel of conversation. Between our own minimal routines and world events, there’s equally so little and so much to discuss, and either prospect seems emotionally draining.
“We’re experiencing a collective trauma,” Bloom says. “It becomes exhausting to talk about, especially because, for the most part, we’re all having a very similar experience.”
At first, seven months ago, when the doors to the world shut in a harsh unison and Zoom, FaceTime, and Skype replaced face-to-face gatherings, we called and texted our friends and families in attempts to feel proximity. We had a lot to talk about. Many of us lost jobs and spent countless hours on the phone with unemployment offices. Others tried to make home offices in living rooms strewn with toddlers' toys. People we knew got sick. Speculating what a new normal might look like turned us into a high school debate team, although as conditions changed daily, any answer was as good as any other. Meanwhile, we tried our best not to contemplate the hollowness of living life virtually.
But alas, it caught up to us. The callousness of illness and solitude grew impenetrable. By May or June, a widespread lack of interest in communicating seemed to encompass us. Our calls were sent to voicemail, texts were left unanswered, family Zoom calls were avoided. “How are you?” started to sting, the only real answer being “bad,” so we tried our best to get entirely away from it. We leaned further into our four walls, growing more reluctant to leave.
“It’s hard to stare at your mirrored image in other people during a time like this,” says Sam Panepinto, a teacher in New York City. “At first, my friends and I were checking in with each other way more often, especially those who were far away. But once we finished catching up with each other, there was just nothing new anymore.”
It has been an emotionally taxing year, a domino effect of tragedy, a large scramble down the hill as boulders chase us, exhausting our social thresholds and capabilities. To break back into the social world feels daunting because the emotional labor we spend giving ourselves to others has become a sacred resource.
“We’re going through a lot, and so our capacity to deal with other people on top of what we’re already dealing with seems too intense,” says Brooke Harrison, a clinical psychologist in New York. “It’s become not just about physical safety but emotional safety as well.”
In quarantine, it’s easy to consider that Sartre was right, that hell really is other people. But there’s also the opportunity for camaraderie and solace in our mutual struggle. We are social animals in newfound territory, navigating large-scale trauma. If we give ourselves the room to adjust, to hide — to isolate — then once we understand how we might move forward, we’ll be able to meet each other where we need to be met. Eventually, even with everything having changed, we might find some things remained the same, like our unwavering need for other people.
“We’re not conditioned for this,” Harrison says. “But we’re all going through it.” And we’ll come out of it, too.
Liana DeMasi is a writer and filmmaker based in New York City.