Loud: Introversion and Loneliness in a Pandemic That Won’t Shut Up
As the world is blighted by Coronavirus, the real pandemic has yet to come — the one of mental health. More specifically, loneliness, an affliction that won’t just hit the elderly.
When I started my undergraduate degree in the autumn of 2016, many said “uni will be the best years of your life.” They talked of how easy it was to make friends. I suppose that privilege comes with living as an extrovert in a world that was designed for extroverts in mind. Not so much the introvert. The pressure to make friends at university was intimidating to no end. However, now doing my postgraduate, I am bit more content. Pressure-free. A course that was designed to be online even before the world was caught in the vice of the Coronavirus pandemic, ventilators and local / national lockdowns.
One often archetypally links the term loneliness with the elderly, not young people (18–30). However, loneliness is common and even more so since the pandemic. Recently, a friend and colleague of mine sent me a Guardian article entitled ‘Please check in on your introvert friends. We might not be doing as well as you think’ by columnist Arwa Mahdawi. “A new study suggests introverts are experiencing more loneliness and anxiety than extroverts due to the pandemic” it starts. “As I’ve found myself, it turns out there is such a thing as too much time at home” the piece’s subtitle continues.
At the start of the UK lockdown in March 2020, I was in my element, but now I think there can be such thing as “too much time at home.” And being around people that are so different to you is its own form of isolation. That whilst you are around others, the lack of common ground with even housemates or relatives can be its own form of loneliness, leaving you in your own head. In my family, I have always been the square peg trying to fit into the round hole, (never any doubt there) but the pandemic has simply exasperated this notion.
I was taken in with the idea that lockdown and the pandemic was supposed to play to my introverted strengths, and to a degree it has. But even for this introvert, there is such thing as “enough is enough.” And as Mahdawi says, “We could stay at home without feeling like losers” — not feeling that we were supposed to be out socialsing as per the pre-pandemic norm, like the omnivert / extroverted rest. We could stay at home without judgement. Most people are not having a good time at the moment, extroverts included. This isn’t a competition but for people who were already to some degree “socially distancing” before this pandemic, there is a lot to think about here indeed.
My life still hasn’t changed all that much and I’m still enjoying not having to hug people. Yet, having all this time to think is overwhelming. “Just because we’re quiet, it doesn’t mean all is well” ends Mahdawi, and she’s right.
Not so long ago, another friend and colleague sent me an article on loneliness entitled ‘Where loneliness can lead’ — subtitled: ‘Hannah Arendt enjoyed her solitude, but she believed that loneliness could make people susceptible to totalitarianism’ — written by Samantha Rose Hill. A more matter-of-fact article that will leave readers feeling cold, but, thinking. It’s the last two paragraphs that I found most interesting. “Solitude requires being alone, whereas loneliness is felt most sharply in the company of others” Hill writes. “Just as much as we rely upon the public world of appearances for recognition, we need the private realm of solitude to be alone with ourselves and think.”
What makes lockdown a bit more tricky than the typical introversion before the pandemic, is that you are alone with other people. Solituide is ‘a room of one’s own’, to quote Virginia Woolf — loneliness can be a room full of lots of people and still have the capacity to feel lonely because there’s no energy that connects those people. No synergy; no common ground; no shared ideology. And with the increasing development of online conferencing (Zoom, MS Teams, WebEx) driving communities away from the physical world (kind of), what steps will be made to bring people back together? That while numbers of people have died from COVID-related complications during this pandemic, the worse pandemic is yet to come. The one of mental health, where we are surely to see a spike in suicide, due to more mentally-ill people because of Coronavirus and the related connotations (incl. economic / poverty), as well as those experiencing loneliness. That while before the pandemic suicide rates were alarming, pertinently for men under fifty, it will only get worse once this virus is over, amidst the pandemic of racism and systemic inequality too. Much alike microaggressions and the “drip drip” of racism, loneliness can also be a part of the biological weathering and it can kill, just as lethally, albeit more subtley than the sword or bullet — because nobody will ever see the murderer.
Now, watching society fall apart, I am seeing how loud the world is. Is there some privilege in being an introvert and having the ability to choose to disengage from what is happening? With lots of introverts also fitting into the box of HSP (Highly Sensitive Person), it makes me wonder what introversion will look like post-COVID. As institutions vie to become more anti-racist, will there be a similar push in this looming (even worse) mental health crisis, that will usher these same institutions to become more inclusive on grounds of introverted / extroverted personalities, neurodiversity, and mental health?
The loudness of the world finds me in my bedroom too, and it shows how much I took for granted, introverted or no — the parks, the streets, the community. Even if I didn’t always engage, I had the freedom to. The COVID measures on bars and restaurants also force me to think about the introvert-friendly places I had collected over the years. At university, I took Ella Wheeler Wilcox to restaurants, along with Allen Ginsberg and Langston Hughes. I had assignments to write and ‘Solitude’ is still a poem I read today.
Since lockdown, I have found new places where nobody tries to talk me, where I can read in the land of enjambment, AB rhyme schemes and metaphors — where EWW can take me on a tour of how individuals fit into the world … contrasting conditions, inner turmoil and societal violence (where there is no death by sword or bullet). I watched social gatherings under Boris’ Rule of Six, but Ella and I have a different sort of gathering in mind.
Many thought 2020 would be the ‘Year of the Introvert’, being told to stay at home and do nothing — read, work, watch Netflix and so on— but “too much of a good thing” does exist. Nobody saw the pandemic coming (sort of) and how the blight of physical distancing would impact the mental wellbeing of so many. And how clapping for the NHS would be as divisive as it was unifying. One would think that lockdown would be an early Christmas present, for me, in a manner of speaking (regardless of the circumstances). However, the cancellations of community events and the effect on small businesses, as well as one of my favourite places (the cinema) has had a large impact.
Extroverts are desperate to connect, and I expect some introverts are too (albeit, with evident reservations). Throw in the implimentation of face coverings, it makes it hard to read facial expressions. Especially for those with neurological conditions already such as autism. What’s that like? What about Black people in face coverings, a racial group who were already thought of as intimidating by society? Just look the police data. Before Coronavirus, Black people were stopped and searched disproportionately, and it spiked in lockdown. With the added face coverings, is there now a spike in suspicion because now you can’t read our faces? Society is now at a crossroads. On one road we have all the intersections of Black Lives Matter — from historic racism with lack of institutional memory of colonialism and the slave trade, to the modern day — with racial disparities in education, finance, COVID / healthcare, prisons and the rest — to the looming mental health crisis and a loneliness pandemic. That second one was already on people’s minds long before Coronavirus. Home-based work environments now take us deeper into this pandemic, where many are no longer working face-to-face. For lots of people, that could be a respite (especially those with disabilities). For others, that workplace interaction may have been their only interaction with people, as they may not have been in any social groups.
Introversion and solituide in a pandemic where we have had lockdown measures, all within a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement… it’s a lot to contend with. Especially when we look at introversion within the intersections of race, ethnicity and culture, and the connotations that come with that. I do like being an introvert but the pandemic has left me with a lot of thinking, and more could be done to combat loneliness in young people. And if that work is being done by professionals that know and I’m not seeing it, I would love to know where. The incoming/arrived mental health pandemic will claim lives and you will not see them hooked up to a ventilator.