I was ill for 12 days before I began to cough up blood. As I listened to the recorded voice at the end of the phone telling me to call 999 if I was struggling to breathe, my physical pain seemed more bearable than the feelings of withdrawal from my recent break-up.
In the hierarchy of misfortune during this unprecedented crisis, my lot ranks low on the scale of tragedy. Perspective is important, but it does not do away with personal pain. Thankfully, I have not lost a family member to the virus and so my emotional capacity is focussed on the loss that I have felt during this time – that of my relationship.
The year 2020 was set for change. Having wrestled with spells of anxiety for some time, I began the year with a seven-day silent meditation retreat. I had never meditated before, but I was willing to let go and embrace it. To my surprise, I left with a much clearer picture of what I wanted from my life. I quit my anxiety-inducing job the day I came back, cut a fringe and decided it was time for me to be single. My boyfriend agreed we needed some time apart and, after a remarkably mature discussion, we broke up.
Even though the decision was mutual, my world came to a standstill. A week later, the rest of the world followed suit. Preparing to take on single life, a global catastrophe struck, introducing the terms “social distancing” and “self-isolation” to our daily lexicon. Overnight, I lost all the distractions and social activities of “normal life” that I thought would carry me through the break-up.
After the end of a relationship, it is natural to feel lonely. But coincidence left me alone in my flat – my housemates gone and my family unable to visit – tackling the worsening symptoms of coronavirus alongside the pain of my break up on my own.
Everyone in my family was in lockdown with their respective partner, which highlighted the significant absence of my own significant other. Home had always been with my boyfriend and the separation was torture.
As I became bedbound by the virus, I couldn’t tell whether my chest was tightening from breathlessness and a persistent cough, or the sickening feeling of grief, longing and loneliness.
Days of delirium passed – I lost my sense of smell and taste and even started reloading the dishwasher with clean knives and forks in my state of confusion. In the depths of my sadness, I felt like an icecap melting into the abyss, with coronavirus staring at me in the face, shouting: “You’re all alone!”
For two weeks I oscillated between sobbing silently in the bath to staring in wonder at the daily progress of my blooming pink tulips. I reminded myself that if I could get through this pain, I would be stronger on the other side.
Finally, after a fortnight of symptoms, I recovered my physical strength and began to reflect on my “solitary confinement” with more clarity.
I discovered the fear of being alone was much greater than the reality. In fact, I have been surprised to find myself veering from periods of total devastation to moments of pure joy.
I realised that if I was still in my relationship, I would likely be idling away on the sofa watching another TV series, nervously anticipating when I could steal a moment’s eye contact or a squeeze of the thigh. Rather than sitting and craving physical intimacy in my coupled quarantine, I began learning to find companionship with myself.
I have been hula-hooping in Hampstead Heath (the ring creates a safe two-metre buffer zone), writing relentlessly and trying to meditate. Will I continue reading, dancing and practising daily yoga? Probably not. But I am persevering.
Waking up to video diaries and voice notes, corona-versions of songs and cartoons illustrating our universal state of hysteria, I have never felt more grateful for the support system I have – and, surprisingly, for once – technology. FaceTime fulfils the need for another’s physical company – all without the sniffing and slurping too.
It turns out “being home” doesn’t have to be with your family or with your partner, and I am learning to find home within myself. It seems to have taken a catastrophe to find out that being alone is enough. I am not only coming to terms with being by myself, I am learning the joy of truly being with myself – in quiet solitude.
Studying the blooming and subsequent wilting of my pink tulips as if they are my daily horoscope, I know that my mood will continue to ebb and flow. The highs will not endure but neither, more importantly, will the lows. Today I noticed how my body viscerally reacted when I picked up a box of Mars Bar ice creams to enjoy – I felt a quiver of excitement at the thought of having my taste buds back. Will they ever return?
Nobody knows what will happen over the next few months. Society may be changed forever or it may fall back into its old step as the memory of these weeks and months fade. All I can say is that my own gait has been altered. I am readying myself to walk on my own, not in isolation, but in independence.
When I did get through to 111, a lovely nurse called Anna answered and took delight at my name, “Did you know there’s a song with your name in it? ‘There’s a hole in my bucket, dear ‘Liza, dear ‘Liza’.”
I cleared my throat and said, “Yes, thank you…”
After a brief assessment, she confirmed I likely had the virus and advised I “simply sit with it” and “wait it out”. It seems I should heed the same advice for the emotional symptoms of my break-up. Time will mend the hole in my bucket.