Opinion

‘All alone by the telephone’ – Loneliness in the time of coronavirus

Illustration by Rosa Bonnin

Can you be lonely when continually surrounded by people? It is a question I have been asking myself a lot lately. I see so much on the news, or in Guardian opinion columns about how people are genuinely lonely because of coronavirus, because they have a bubble of one, or because they have been forced to isolate away from friends and family. But does all this make my loneliness any less genuine? I’m not yet sure.

I guess I should count myself lucky; if you looked at my uni life from a distance you would probably think I was. I have a large household – comprised completely of Freshers which one could argue is a definite advantage – and I think they are all genuinely lovely people. At least they seem like it with each other. By the laws of mathematics, you should easily be able to find close friends in such a large group, as after all, there are always people around to talk to.

But there is a strange difference between talking to people in the corridors, or on a late night when you all happen to be in the same room, and people genuinely seeing you. With the exception of one person –whom I bonded with over our shared loneliness– I don’t think I’ve ever really been seen by members of my household. I’ve certainly never been called up, checked upon, beckoned to the pub, or summoned to the study spaces. These things hurt, although they shouldn’t do – because it’s not a given that you will be friends with everyone or that everyone will like you – but shamefully, I often feel they cut right to the core.

Over Michaelmas I went through an extended period of blaming myself, entering into psychologically harmful behaviour, hating my personality, my identity, and all of the things which made me, well, me. I felt I must have been doing something wrong, because I always tried to talk to these people; I attended every pre-arranged pub trip, raced to every ring-of-fire. There were times when I genuinely felt I was making a connection, that I was genuinely fitting in, that I’d found my people…only to see on Instagram the next day that they had all gone out to brunch, without me. One time, everyone had boldly declared that it was bedtime (which seemed plausible because it was 3 am). Following suit, I had sacked in. The next morning I woke refreshed and revitalised, while they woke wretchedly hungover having continued the ‘sesh’ in another college. Part of me thought ‘well I wouldn’t have wanted to go anyway, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it’. That being said – it would’ve been nice to have been asked.

Not one member of my house checked up on me over Hilary – when we were all forced to stay home. I think I had solid contact from one Oxford person over those 16 weeks. Partially, it was my fault. I accept that; I needed to have been more proactive, to have texted first, but even that habit hardens when the responses you receive are as monotonous as they are monosyllabic. Yes, the zoom kept zooming; I just never received the join link.

Coming back in Trinity, I really thought things would get better. Summer term brought with it the promise of things reopening, the revival of the hobby and sport casualties of Michaelmas Term. I thought maybe my group would be there, because of the common interest, the shared training times. I was wrong. I’m not saying I don’t adore all those people – they are lovely and make training sessions super fun. But that’s just it: our friendship is circumstantial, it doesn’t yet go any deeper. The minute we leave the hall, the pitch, or the river, everyone goes back to their ‘friendship groups’.

‘Friendship groups’. I hate the phrase, the juvenility of it. The assumption that everyone will naturally group together, and it will all be fabby. I hate how Oxford seems so heavily structured around the need to find this group and find it quickly. Without a group you really are floundering, especially when you need one to organise your rooming ballot. Having had awful, painful, soul-crushing experiences with friendship groups in my secondary school, I had come to uni hoping I was done with them forever. Done with the anxiety of keeping up with the inside jokes, of feeling paranoid whenever group chats go quiet because you just know there is a separate one without you. Yet now everything in Oxford is telling me that without one, I cannot survive, and I cannot be happy.

I am lonely, but I am ashamed to be so. When I speak to people about it they tell me one of two things. The first hurts the most – that I just have to work harder, that I need to put in the effort. Why does that sting so sorely? Because I did nothing but put in the effort throughout my first weeks here. There was a girl in my subject, who I had noticed was a bit isolated because the ballot had screwed her over. I thought we were close – we spoke endlessly over the summer term, crying communally over the mountains of reading we would have to do – so I organised dinners, cocktail nights, walks, the works. We joined with some other girls to form a little set and things were lovely…yet we don’t speak anymore, and I wish I could tell you why.

To be honest, I don’t really speak to anyone in my subject group – they tell me it’s because we have nothing in common, because my whole class are all so similar and then there’s me. Living without both household and subject group, in a university system which is structured almost exclusively around these groupings, hurts. I hate myself, because it must be something about me. After all, everyone else manages.

All that said, hating yourself is unproductive, toxic, destroying. Especially when I am not to blame, or at least I am definitely not the only thing to blame.  

People keep saying we are living in ‘unprecedented times’. Yes, the phrase has been overused to the point of condescension and often feels like a cop out. Your uni experience has been screwed up? Well, we have been living in ‘unprecedented times’ if you didn’t already know.

However, there is some truth to it. Coronavirus has forced us into households, which are great if you gel with your people; then you’re flying, and nothing is really that different. You might complain a bit that the pubs are shut, or that there are fewer house parties; but your life, with regards to friendships, really isn’t that different.

It is catastrophic if things aren’t quite right. For the first weeks of uni (the time when all these social groupings are experimented with and formed) these were the people you saw. It really sent the message that your household was your chance, and if you didn’t like them or they didn’t like you… too bad honey.

Covid also brought with it the dreaded rule of six. People aren’t robots, and they don’t fit exactly into groups of six. Inevitably there are those who are always missed off and left in their rooms – simply because the numbers just do not fit. This is a bummer. If you have a big household, it forces a split right down the middle: people have to pick sides, prioritise one friend over another. Theoretically this could be fine, after all, it’s natural to be closer to certain people. However, what happens when you have the wrong idea about how close you are with someone? When they leave you, the shock is biting. Furthermore, while I am very lucky to have individual friends that I adore, all these friends have a group with which they socialise, and I take their numbers over six…

I guess what I hate most about all this grouping, which I feel has been really heightened because of coronavirus, is that it stops me appreciating all the things I do have. I do have great friends, even if I do not have a group. If I have to ballot alone this year – which is looking increasingly likely – they aren’t just going to leave me behind. Plus, I really hope the ballot will be a chance to meet new people, people who have been feeling just like me, but just didn’t have the means to express it. I will meet all those people sitting alone by the telephone, struggling to know who to call.

I guess that is why I wanted to write this, so people can know that these feelings – however intense – are the ‘new normal’. Uni has been screwed up. There might be some BNOCs in college who act like nothing has changed, or who constantly tell you how ‘lucky’ they are to have found friends amidst all this chaos; but I guarantee that deep down they are feeling something, some sense that everything is not quite right.

I do see a way out. I didn’t at the start of the year…but I am beginning to now.

Your life isn’t decided by who you are or who you know in your first weeks of university. Groupings will probably not remain so militantly fixed, especially when things start opening up fully again. This year has been so intense, people are going to need some kind of release.

Plus, without the rule of six you are free to confidently pull up a chair. What are they going to do?

They turn you away? Well they look like losers in a crowded pub.

They get up and leave? Well they look like losers in a crowded pub.

They talk to you? Well you’ve made the first step, who knows where it might lead?

I know it is hard to see a positive future right now because all the feelings of sadness and loneliness feel so real and permanent. For a long time, they have been the norm. But, I won’t let myself be defined by them, because I am stronger than that.

I have survived so much this year.

And if I feel nothing else, I feel pride.