By Thursday I thought murderers were hiding in my recycling bins.
The Challenge: To avoid all human interaction for a week.
This included conversation, physical contact, and body language?—?No eye contact! Digital communication was allowed but limited. As an introvert, I was curious to see how easy (or difficult!) this would be.
My copywriting job allows me to work from home half the week, and my workaholic 26-year-old self-made millionaire boss would’ve hardly noticed had I neglected to come in the other half, despite my being one of just two employees working out of our office. I still asked, because I am A Good Employee. He didn’t mind.
I figured this experiment would be a breeze. My boyfriend was going out of town on a business trip and I would have time and the bed to myself. I resolved to throw myself passionately into projects I never had time to start before. I would read a book. Hell, I’d write a book! I would exercise every day. Twice a day!
Before my first day of solitary confinement had even begun, I was thinking of ways to Walden Pond myself. I vowed to plant a garden and live off the fruit of the land. I would turn this reclusive period into one of productivity. I bought a hundred (12) cans of beans and tuna to live off for the week, the vapid business of lunch now far beneath the New Me.
I bought a 1000-piece puzzle of Renaissance persuasion to work on for fun, since Netflix wouldn’t allow the same opportunity for self-reflection. I vowed to finish it that week.
Besides, I thought, I’d spent so much time working from home over the last year or two, I had developed a new level of comfort with solitariness. If I’d been straddling introversion before, I was fully living there now. I was basically Henry David Thoreau, sans idyllic surroundings.
Monday & Tuesday
The first couple of days are normal. I wake up, make coffee, feed and walk Yuma the chiweenie while listening to a true crime podcast, run, eat breakfast (today it’s refried beans in a warm tortilla).
Usually, I’d break up long periods of work by walking to the coffee shop or the gas station down the street for a treat. I’d nod, wave, or smile at the folks in my neighborhood. People in Texas are friendly. I’d force a conversation on Rajeet, the gas station attendant who I’d long ago resolved to make my friend after I saw him give his actual friend a free Four Loko.
But on Monday and Tuesday, I look at the ground as I walk. I wear headphones, listening to 911 calls on the “Sword and Scale” podcast.
One of my neighbors shares my dog-walking schedule. He’s a small Asian man with white dreads past his knees who wears a surgical mask. He has two French poodles?—?one black, one white?—?and walks them on a single leash that forks at the end, so the dogs trot in sync next to each other like a couple of fancy ersatz sled dogs. I call them Yin and Yang and their musher The Emperor.
I think The Emperor knows his face mask makes him look kinda weird, so he smiles (I can tell by his eyes) and waves enthusiastically at me and everyone else in the neighborhood. I like The Emperor.
But today, since eye contact is off limits, I turn my head and examine my shoe when I see him approach. I make sure he’s far gone by the time I look up.
Later, I feel pretty rotten about this. After I finish my work, I decide to Start My Novel. Instead, I eat beans and work on my puzzle and go to bed.
On Wednesday, I’m sick of tuna, beans and isolation. I’m glad I have eggs in the fridge. Thoreau probably ate eggs! I begin to wonder what beans have to do with Thoreau in the first place.
I wake up early to Start My Novel, but feel hollowness like a thirsty man holding an empty cup. I try to run, but my heart isn’t in it. I walk instead. I sit down to work and suddenly have trouble concentrating.
I stare out my window at passersby like some sort of caged animal, pining for a yellow RedBull from Rajeet’s. I haven’t showered in two days but it doesn’t really bother me. I begin having conversations with Yuma, who in turns looks blankly in my direction.
When mom calls I ask inane questions to keep the conversation going. “Do you know of any recipes that call for strictly tuna and beans?” is one.
I make sure The Emperor has made his rounds before I take Yuma out. I’m suddenly overly-conscious of the way my arms swing when I walk.
My back hurts from working on the puzzle at the kitchen table. At happy hour o’clock my group chat goes off. Everyone is getting together for beers. I stare angrily at my puzzle. Why would they make a puzzle where everyone’s wearing three slightly differing shades of pink? Who’s idea of fun is this anyway?
I shake my bean taco-ed fist at the skies. Later that evening, a gloom comes over me. I feel as though I’m running away from a crashing wave in slo-mo. I take to the couch with a bottle of wine and Netflix.
Thoreau would’ve chosen “Frasier” over some scummy pond anyway. I drink the whole bottle.
I wake up slightly depressed and hungover. Having abandoned all hope of Starting My Novel, I lay in bed for an hour, moving only to throw my phone across the room after several minutes of scrolling Instagram and Facebook. Everyone is having fun without me and I hate it.
Outside, I feel dread. Sure, I’ve been listening to an obscene amount of true crime podcasts, and my head is still reeling from the bottle of Cabernet. But these things have never made me feel paranoid before. I feel paranoid now. Didn’t Mike Boudet from “Sword and Scale” just say Vince Li?—?the dude who stabbed and ate a a 22-year-old on a Greyhound bus in 2008?—?is already walking free? What the hell, Canada? I walk faster, though Canada is 1,500 miles away.
The entire walk feels like a bad acid trip. The sun is shining, people are smiling, but a hollowness eats at me.
I’d escaped this wave of dread the day before, but today I can’t. It crushes me and drags me out to sea. The feeling passes, but slightly.
I recognize it as loneliness.
I want to call my boyfriend but can’t bear to break my self-imposed rules this late in the game. Besides, I don’t have anything but gloom to give him. I send him the goblin emoji. ????
I work all day. I write copy at a pace so slow I nearly put myself to sleep. Feeling too gnarly to exercise, I wonder if Rajeet misses me. I keep thinking about this picture of a lonely-looking starfish:
Friday & Saturday
By Friday morning, I’ve had it. I didn’t care that I hadn’t Started My Novel or finished that abhorrent puzzle or even given a single thought to that garden I’d vowed to plant.
I walk to the gas station and see that Rajeet isn’t working. There’s no way I’m going to crack for a non-Rajeet interaction and it’s still a few hours before Yin and Yang would trot their way past my house.
I crack a beer and sit on my front steps and wait. When The Emperor walks by, he smiles and waves. I smile and wave back.
I didn’t make it a full seven days, but I made it to six. I walk to the gas station, take a yellow Redbull up to Rajeet, certain he missed me enough to give it to me for free. No such luck, but I’ll break him one of these days.
I was certain a full week sans human interaction would be fine. I actually thought it would give me an opportunity to be Very Productive.
I only finished about 20% of my puzzle. I never Started My Novel. I’d abandoned all thought of a garden and worst of all, I’d grown resentful of “Walden.”
Guess I’m less of an introvert than I thought. (I didn’t do myself any favors by neglecting to stock my kitchen with anything besides beans and tuna or listening to true crime podcasts, admittedly.)
I wish I had more insights to offer on the significance of solitude in a digital world, but I don’t. Simply put: It sucked seeing people having fun when I couldn’t.
I realize the difference between being alone and being lonely: Privacy is relaxing. Loneliness feels like grief.
What science says
When we’re lonely we “become less concerned with interactions and more concerned with self-preservation,” Slate writer Jessica Olien wrote in a great essay about loneliness in 2013. “Loneliness triggers our basic, fight vs. flight survival mechanisms, and we stick to the periphery, away from people we do not know if we can trust.”
This makes sense. On Wednesday I’d begun to grow anxious in my neighborhood. By Thursday, I thought Vince Li The Greyhound Bus Cannibal was hiding in my recycling bin.
Researchers at the University of Chicago found that lonely people get less (and worse quality) sleep because they’re prone to “micro awakenings,” where “the brain is on alert for threats throughout the night, perhaps just as earlier humans would have needed to be when separated from their tribe.” By Thursday night I was waking up three or four times during the night. I missed my tribe!
Turns out, loneliness isn’t just a feeling?—?it’s deadly. Loneliness is twice as dangerous as obesity: Studies of the elderly found that those living in isolation without proper human interaction were twice as likely to die prematurely.
And it’s only getting worse! The amount of adults who reported feeling lonely has doubled since 1980. The internet isn’t helping. A 2013 study of Facebook users found that the amount of time you spend on the social network is inversely related to your level of happiness throughout the day. That’s because it seems like everyone is having more fun than you.
Humans are pack animals. We need each other. An idiot movie character once wisely scribbled something along the lines of “Happiness is only real when shared, and you aren’t eating strictly beans.”
I couldn’t agree more.