The Joys and Dangers of Self-Isolating

Meditations from a lifelong practitioner

anna dorn
anna dorn
Mar 25 · 5 min read
A photo of a woman inside a purplish marble floating in the sky.
A photo of a woman inside a purplish marble floating in the sky.
Photo: Donald Iain Smith/Getty Images

It’s very weird when the government mandates your guiltiest pleasure: to stay at home, alone.

In 2017, Hamja Ahsan published Shy Radicals to take a stand against “extrovert supremacist culture.” And it’s true: our world celebrates extroversion. Successful people put themselves out there, network, and charm. They go to events and shake hands. They make connections. They’re popular.

Events are cancelled. Parties are cancelled. Human touch is cancelled.

Now, amidst a nationwide quarantine, the tune has changed. It’s been changing, with the world moving online, but coronavirus has pushed it to a new level. Events are cancelled. Parties are cancelled. Human touch is cancelled. People are encouraged to stay home and “self-isolate,” the introvert’s lifestyle.

I’m typically ashamed and embarrassed by my isolationist tendencies. I tend to think I’d be happier if I socialized more. Humans are social creatures, and there is a sort of energy and peace of mind one gets from being out — even if it takes some of us a bit of a push to there. But now, I don’t have to push myself to go to that concert or reading or birthday party. I’m not allowed. My book tour will probably be cancelled, which I should be upset about, but honestly I was dreading it. My lifestyle doesn’t change in a quarantine. I already live on my devices. And I haven’t set foot in an office since 2014.

My dad tried to mansplain social distancing to me, which I found very… rich. I’ve been avoiding people my entire life. I am the master; he is the student. Extroverts are always writing books about how to have confidence, make friends and influence people or whatever. But that’s not so helpful when we have to stay at home for the indefinite future. Now it’s my turn to dole out wisdom.

Have you ever watched the light dance on your wall or filmed yourself dancing alone to Azealia Banks?

I live to spend an entire day in my bedroom. Reading, eating, sleeping. Press repeat. When you don’t leave your room for over 24 hours, time and space collapse. Societal voices — the ones telling you to be thinner and make more money — start to quiet. You get closer, somehow, to truth. To your real self. To who you really are.

Like every other bitch with a pulse, I devoured Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation — which is just about a hot, angry woman who quits her job and sleeps for a year. And now, with scientists and doctors encouraging us to stay home, it feels more relevant than ever. Early in the book, the unnamed narrator describes the pain of leaving her home to get her prescriptions: “I was like a baby being born — the air hurt, the light hurt, the details of the world seemed garish and hostile.” That’s exactly how the outside world always feels to me: oppressive.

The narrator isolates herself and turns to the magical powers of sleep for a cure:

I similarly stan sleep as the ultimate form of self-isolation. Those few seconds before you lose consciousness are, to me, better than an orgasm. Better than any meal or drug. Growing less attached to life is, to me, a noble goal. Reality could always be stranger. And who doesn’t want to disappear, only to reappear in a different form?

And don’t forget: You can always hang out with people in your dreams.

Sleep is also an excellent creative tool. I’ve plotted entire novels and essays in my sleep. Usually, I forget them when I wake. But sometimes I remember. Sometimes they aren’t that good, but sometimes I publish them. I get the best ideas just before I fall asleep. And when I first wake up, my brain fires on all cylinders. I Tweet (and delete) like a thousand things. My brain generates ideas as mechanically as my heart beats in my chest.

As author Patricia Highsmith wrote, “My imagination functions much better when I don’t have to speak to people.”

But there is, of course, some danger in rejecting outside voices. Being alone can warp your perspective. If you spend a lot of time on social media, the demons can — and will — take hold. Just as avoiding society can quiet the voices telling you to be thinner and prettier and richer, social media can give those voices a megaphone. If you’re going to self-isolate, it’s important to have actual conversations with people. Talk on the phone or FaceTime with your friends. Ask them how they’re doing. Listen to their problems and get a sense of perspective. Novels are also great for gaining perspective and avoiding the darker places your mind can go. If you’re feeling restless, make a Pinterest board for your future stylist or real estate agent, filled with images of things you could never realistically afford. Make playlists and share them with your friends. Do yoga on your rug and release tension from your body. Meditate.

Go on a walk somewhere with trees and leave your phone at home. See where your mind goes.

And remember: Self-isolating doesn’t mean you have to stay inside.

Pretty much every genius in history was a fan of taking walks alone. Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, Henry David Thoreau, George Orwell, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Vladimir Nabokov are just a few. “There is something about the pace of walking and the pace of thinking that goes together,” Geoff Nicholson wrote in The Lost Art of Walking. Go on a walk somewhere with trees and leave your phone at home. See where your mind goes.

And after some time in nature, you’ll appreciate your bedroom even more.

Of course, I don’t mean to downplay a serious situation. The United States just doesn’t allow its economy to tank out of the goodness of its heart. The threat of COVID-19 is no joke, nothing to make light of. Lots of people will die and doctors are having to make horrible choices. Shit is dark. But I also see a silver lining.

The world needs to change. The pandemic will force the U.S. to confront its public health crisis, our homelessness crisis, our general infrastructural chaos. Prisoners are being set free. The Atlantic declared: “The Trump Presidency Is Over.” The environment is getting a much-needed break. I read that the lockdown may save more lives by preventing pollution than by preventing infection.

Last week, I spoke to a friend who works in public health who said that post-pandemic, “the world will never look the same.” I hope he’s right. Maybe wide-scale change can only come when enough people have the time to sit and think about whether what we had was all that great to begin with.