Living alone is pure bliss until something goes wrong. I found out the hard way last summer when I couldn’t get out of bed because a seismic wave of shooting pain clenched my lower back. Although I’ve dealt with occasional back pain over the years — usually when I’ve been under extreme amounts of stress — this recent incident was debilitating.
Fifteen minutes passed before I attempted to get up again. I was able to stand upright, but the pain was still intense. At the time, I was an uninsured temp who couldn’t afford to take a day off, so I hobbled to the bathroom and started to get ready for work. When I tried to bend over or down, the slightest movement made me feel like my spine would snap. After I returned to the bedroom, I slowly rolled onto the bed and onto my back. I looked like an insect struggling to upright itself as I lifted my legs toward the ceiling and wriggled into my pants. When I bent down to tie my shoelaces, I cowered in pain before slowly walking uphill toward the subway station.
I barely made it through the first part of the workday before I told my manager I needed to go home. William, my on-again, off-again boyfriend, texted me later that day. When I told him what had happened, he dropped everything he was doing, drove from his home in New Hampshire to my place in Massachusetts, and he took care of me.
In the past, the combination of cold and hot treatment with a heating pad and lidocaine patch along with a muscle relaxer would clear things up within 24 hours, but this back pain was relentless. It lasted a few days before I finally recovered. In the days that followed, I wondered what would’ve happened to me if William hadn’t been there to provide physical assistance like helping me in and out of my bed, making me meals, or simply comforting me by telling me dumb jokes or rubbing my back.
I’ve found myself having those same thoughts during my solitude in the COVID-19 lockdown. Last week during a Zoom call, a friend noticed the slight cough I had. It was a symptom I’d tried to ignore along with my sore throat. A couple of days later, I experienced migraine-like headaches and fatigue. I chalked it up to having a minor cold or allergies. Perhaps it was the result of being cooped up indoors most of the day and living in a high-rise building with multiple tenants. Maybe I felt under the weather because I was going to bed later than usual, or because of too much screen time from work, video chats, and mindlessly searching the web.
Like many people who live in urban areas, I don’t have a car. This makes it impossible to go through the nearest coronavirus drive-through testing location in my state. There is only one place that I know of — a Boston community health center — that had the foresight to convert a shed into a walk-through testing facility for people without a vehicle. Unfortunately, the facility is located outside of my city and would require me to take the subway or an Uber, which would defeat the purpose of physical distancing and put others at risk. Receiving a 10-minute swab that would enable me to receive results within a few days is out of my reach, so I’ll never know if I actually have the virus. However, as a precautionary measure, I’ve quarantined myself and continue to remain home.
As someone who is living through COVID-19 alone, I’ve thought about the lack of support or easy access to resources and the struggles I’ve faced to do simple things such as getting groceries. I’ve tried to buy things online to increase my physical distancing, but online grocery delivery services in my area are out of stock and overbooked. If it’s difficult for someone like me who is able-bodied, resourceful, and in fairly good health, it’s probably even more difficult for senior citizens who live alone, people with disabilities or chronic illness, and single mothers, especially those with small children.
Due to the infectious nature of the virus, Massachusetts has ordered out-of-state visitors to self-quarantine for 14 days, which means William can’t swoop in and save me. He lives out of state with older family members and there’s too much at risk.
If I were married with children or had roommates, I’d probably reach my tipping point, but when you’re alone, the potential stress and irritation that comes from being cooped up all day with the people you love doesn’t seem so bad. For those of us who live alone, there are no long hugs and kisses good night. There is mostly silence.
It’s been almost one month since William and I have held hands. His hands are large and meaty, and when our fingers interlock, I complain that his knuckles are too big. I’ll loosen his grip for a while, and then I’ll take his hand again until the discomfort returns. We’ll do this for hours on end. Video chats aren’t his thing, so we talk daily, text, and email. But none of those modes of communication are enough. They can’t replace the warmth, comfort, and tenderness that comes from physical contact and human touch.
COVID-19 has made me reckon with living alone like never before. My friends and I joke about living in our future Golden Girls commune when we’re old, but at the young age of 41, I sometimes wonder what would happen if I had a real emergency. I’ve watched a few macabre documentaries about people who die alone at home, so I’ve learned to leave the chain on my door unhooked, so it’s easier for someone to come in and resuscitate me.