In October of last year, I had a stem-cell transplant that, because it completely kills off the immune system, necessitated three months of isolation after I left the hospital. I could have visitors, as long as they were healthy, but couldn’t be in public places.
It was actually kind of pleasant, once I was past the sickly, vomity stage. Introverts are, of course, quite good at staying home, so the enforced solitude was restful. No decisions about which invitations to accept and which to refuse. No worrying about hurting feelings. No accidentally overextending myself. The answer to everything was, “Sorry, I can’t.” And I didn’t.
Instead I read and wrote. Binge-watched. Slept. Took short walks in my quiet neighborhood. Goofed around on social media. Sometimes friends visited and watched movies with me, brought me food.
Nevertheless, by the time February rolled around, I was good and ready to get out of the house. I yearned to travel. I was looking forward to the drawing class I’d enrolled in. I itched to return to the volunteer activities I found rewarding. I would have to be careful—my immune system was (and still is) rebuilding—but I could rejoin society.
On February 18, I was released from my bubble.
Now, less than a month later, thanks to COVID-19, I’m back in it.
Believe me when I tell you that even for an introvert there is such a thing as too much social distancing. I'm antsy as hell. Fighting depression. Finding less pleasure in things I’ve enjoyed in the past. Rethinking how I do solitude.
We have no idea how long the situation in which we find ourselves will last. The social distancing we're practicing now may make my three months of isolation look like just a warm-up. What's an interesting novelty today may turn out to be a long, difficult slog. We just don't know.
But now that you’re all in your own bubbles, I’m here to urge you all to enjoy socially endorsed (for once) social distancing for a bit, but then push against your nature to make sure that you can handle it for the long haul. Especially those of you who live alone. (I can’t tell you how fortunate I’ve felt this past year to have had my husband of 29 years looking after me and keeping me company.) There is such a thing as too much solitude, and that’s when loneliness happens. That's when even introverts can start getting weird.
Here are some of my plans going forward: My writing group, which has been an essential connection for me for years, will meet via videoconferencing. I am rethinking FaceTime, which I’ve avoided because I don’t like looking at myself on a computer. (Or at all these days; being sick does nothing for one’s appearance.) But I’ve always said I much prefer face-to-face to a disembodied voice on the telephone; it’s time to put my mug where my mouth is.
An introverted friend sent me a long, chatty email yesterday because, she wrote, in these days of social distancing, “I’m recognizing that leaning into my introverted nature probably isn’t the healthiest thing, so I’m thinking maybe at least some email correspondence is in order.”Once upon a time, pre-Facebook, I used to carry on long, deep, email conversations with friends. I miss those days. Pre-internet, I was big on writing letters. I’m thinking about reviving that too. It’s like having a friend show up in your mailbox.
And yes, of course, social media. It's coming into its own with this situation--although you can overdose on that. My new rule these days is that I look at Facebook only until I see something that annoys me or makes me feel bad in some way. These days I'm lasting about two minutes at a time. I can't tell you how much better I feel now that I'm not wallowing in the opinions and random thoughts of everyone I've ever met. Not to mention the anxiety produced by the endless feed of bad news. (I don't spend any time on Twitter. To me that's just a bunch of people all yelling at once.)
And while this has nothing to do with social distancing, remember that exercising and eating right are as important for mental health as physical health. Don't couch-potato out completely. Get out of the house for a walk or hike as often as you can. As spring descends on Texas, I've been out doing yard work and gardening.
And, getting out of our own heads for a moment, here’s something else to consider: Social distancing might be easy for introverts (for the moment), but we mustn’t forget that it’s more difficult for the extroverts in our lives. Regular readers of this blog know that I have no truck with extrovert bashing or introvert superiority—we are different and neither is better. Needing people is no better or worse than needing solitude.
I’ve seen a couple of Facebook posts from extroverted friends reminding people that for them, lack of social contact is stressful. They need people to talk things through with. Left alone too long, they lose focus, get sluggish and depressed. We all have needs. Social contact is theirs.
So please remember that we’re all in this together. Help your extroverted friends out however you can. Extra check-ins. FaceTime. Video conferences with family or your friend group. (I just got off one and it was delightful.) Meet up in an open-air space and chat from six feet apart, if necessary.
While you do what’s necessary to keep your body healthy, remember to keep your mind, mood, and relationships healthy too. We might be in this for the long haul.
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