Fear of Suffering Alone

After separating from her husband and entering quarantine, Anne Liu Kellor faces her ongoing desire for a partner and the necessity of loving herself.

Anne Liu Kellor | Longreads | May 2020 | 9 minutes (2,136 words)

My ex and I used to watch the Doomsday Preppers reality show on the National Geographic channel together, and talk about how crazy those people were at the same time that we made mental notes about their good ideas. After watching enough episodes, we finally put together some basic earthquake supplies (the most likely disaster to hit us in the Pacific Northwest); we bought a rectangular plastic bin and filled it with freeze-dried foods, a first aid kit, hand-cranked radio, flashlight and extra batteries, extra clothes and shoes, our camping gear, some toilet paper, and a few random extras like playing cards and my expired pain meds from my cesarean (they could come in handy). We filled a couple jugs full of water and tried to remember to switch it out now and then. I put shoes under our beds (in case windows break, you need to be able to walk out of the house and not cut your feet), and continually reminded myself to get an extra pair of glasses (because without my vision, I’d be screwed and helpless). We would have gotten a very poor grade as preppers, but we did enough to feel a little better about our situation. And I knew that no matter what, we’d be in it together. That gave me comfort. I would not have to go through such a crisis alone.

Now, we are all going through a crisis, and I have been separated from my husband for five months. He moved out of our house on December 1st, a few months after we made the mutual decision to split. I have not once regretted this decision, which took many years of unease and heartache to finally reach, and I even started dating someone fairly quickly, enjoying my newfound freedom.

But now, we are going through a pandemic.

***

And while at first I was still seeing my boyfriend, considering him to be the “family” that I was “sheltering in place” with (as well as my son, who is with me half-time), over six weeks ago, when Washington State finally went into quarantine, we decided to take greater precautions. After all, it wasn’t just him, my son, and me. It was also — through my son — my husband, and his new girlfriend, and her two teen-aged kids, and whomever they were in contact with. And it was also my boyfriend’s roommate, and whomever she was dating, and whomever they lived with — and the chain goes on. It was easy to see how me choosing to still date my boyfriend was not just being in contact with “one more person” but a whole cluster of us who were now connected. So while I at first praised the silver lining of having established an exciting new relationship before this global tragedy hit (At least I’m newly in love! And we’ll have so much more time to get to know each other!), once I realized that we would not be seeing each other, this quickly shifted for me into a new level of pain.

I have been separated from my husband for four months. I have not once regretted this decision…But now, we are going through a pandemic.

Now, I am either with my 10-year-old son half the week during this pandemic, or I am alone. I am either trying to stay present, patient, and playful with him — trying to be a good, supportive mother — or, I am suddenly alone again, trying to settle back into gauging how I “really” feel about our upside-down world when I am not so busy taking care of another. Partly, I feel relief each time I am alone again. Relief to be able to return to my work without distractions. Relief to be able to take a long bath or lie on my bed and cry. Relief to be able to take ample time to breathe and feel all my feelings. Relief to journal quietly each morning and reach out to friends by phone.

But then another part of me feels my acute aloneness again. Alone, without a warm body to snuggle and hug. Alone, without another person to cook dinner with, process with, play games with. Alone without someone who is checking in on you regularly, someone you can fully count on to be there for you, someone who has made a vow to be with you during this time — in sickness and in health; for if you are sheltering in place with someone, you are pretty much accepting that if they get sick, you will too. It’s futile to try to separate germs while in the house; this virus is much too contagious.


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I am a person who loves her solitude, loves being alone, and who once spent seven consecutive years without a partner, and thus developed a backbone of intimacy with myself early in my 20s. So I scoffed at the suggestion from others that my quick “rebound” relationship after splitting with my husband was out of a fear of being alone; please, I said internally, I’ve felt emotionally alone in my marriage for years — it’s about time that I truly partner with someone! Plus I deserve to have some fun. I don’t want to sit around and wallow. I’ve processed and grieved this marriage enough. And I already know how to enjoy solitude. What I need to learn more of is to embrace my inner extrovert!

But my new boyfriend was the one who actually made me question my bluster. “Really?” he implored. “You’re not afraid of being alone?” I paused and it didn’t take long for me to concede, okay, yes, I’m not necessarily afraid of being alone, but I am afraid of suffering alone. Dying alone. Being alone is great when you are feeling empowered! But being alone sucks when you are depressed, anxious, worried, ill, or going through a quarantine and pandemic.

***

Right now, everyone is going through their own struggle. My boyfriend lost his job and my sister may soon too. So many of us have no idea when or if our self-employed businesses will ever go back to “normal.” My friends with steady jobs are trying to work full-time and parent and homeschool at the same time. And all of us are worried about our elderly parents. All of us are worried about there not being enough hospital beds and ventilators. All of us are feeling the collective fear of suffering or dying alone.

It’s enough to contemplate dying and make your peace with it on an existential/spiritual level. It’s another thing to imagine you or someone you love struggling to breathe and not having the basic equipment needed to ease your suffering. Not to mention not being able to be with your loved ones as you or they die. It’s heartbreaking and overwhelming as we watch the numbers rise and try to process the fact that this is happening in other places, will begin to happen where we are, or is happening already now. Making our peace with the fact that we are all going to die is no longer some abstract Buddhist meditation. It’s also the terror coupled with the outrage at the scale at which this will happen, is happening, but didn’t need to happen like this. It could have been better contained.

And meanwhile, so many of us go on with our daily lives, daily chatter on the Internet, daily first world problems now magnified by the pandemic, but nevertheless still first world problems compared to other people in other parts of our country and the world who have long lived with the fear of not having enough resources or proper medical care, who have long lived that much closer to the awareness of the precariousness of their stability and health.

My first world problem involves being alone, separated from my husband, and now separated from my new boyfriend, as well. My first world problems involve realizing that, however well I thought I was doing with this whole break-up/divorce, the pain is still there, here, newly surfaced because of a pandemic. And that pain is about wanting to be seen, held, cared for, unconditionally. That pain goes back deep to my childhood, to my parents, and their parents, and a whole chain of how we were parented and raised. That pain was here long before my husband broke my heart and kept breaking it. That pain was here long before I realized that my new boyfriend could not fill those gaps, that he had his own world of demons to contend with, and that I needed to keep learning how to be here for myself. Again. Solid. Steady. Compassionate. Offering myself soft, soothing words when I feel low: You are doing so well, honey. I see you, I love you. You are doing such a good job at handling all this stress. I’m proud of you. It’s okay if you are not perfect. It’s okay if you are needy. It’s okay to let this pain rise up again and feel it, yes, baby, feel it. Let it all come out and wash over you. The pain is still here, the pain has always been here. And you need to come back into contact with it periodically to be reminded of what you are still working with. But really, baby, really. You are doing such a good job.

I’m not necessarily afraid of being alone, but I am afraid of suffering alone. Dying alone.

Sometimes a dear friend or my boyfriend will offer me their own version of such kind, affirming words: witnessing me, honoring me. But the truth is, you can’t count on friends or new boyfriends in the same way you can a life partner. They are busy; they have their own lives and partners and kids and dogs to tend to. They are not checking in and tracking your daily ups and downs with the same intimate nature that someone who lives with or is wed to you ideally would. They may have the best of intentions, but no commitment has been made, no mutual promise to be THAT person for each other — and there are no years of practice at it either. And so. You must turn to yourself again. You must be this person for yourself. You must learn this lesson for yourself, over and over and over. Offering yourself and your young parts all the love you’ve ever sought and needed. Being here for yourself, now and always. Pandemic or otherwise. This again. This lesson I am continually learning. I can do this. And so can you.

***

One of the many things that I used to be fond of about my ex is how I felt he would be a good person to go through an apocalypse with: calm, even-keeled, and resourceful when it comes to country-living tasks like chopping wood, building fires, smoking meats, hauling heavy objects, or improvising with makeshift materials and tools. Also, he had a good sense of humor. And a certain equanimity and far-sighted seeing. He felt like comfort and security. And for many of us (especially those of us hanging on to relationships where other joys have long since departed), this kind of thing is what we are hanging onto. This in the face of the fear of suffering alone.

Of course, I would like to have another adult here with me, sheltering in place. Someone to strategize with. Someone to hold and snuggle. Someone to laugh and binge watch shows and otherwise enjoy the novelty and yes, even, unexpected joys of this time with — despite the backdrop of anxiety and heartache. No, I am not worried about growing bored; I’ve got plenty to keep myself stimulated with, whether it’s work or writing or chores or taking care of my child; I know I am rich in inner and outer resources. And yet, I know I will also never look upon my desire for a warm human adult body in the same way.

I both honor the very human necessity of this desire, and I see more clearly the underlying old patterns of learned pain. We are all going to die. And we all want to be witnessed along the way.

We are meant to be here for each other. And yet, I now realize there is no true perfection in union, no true forever, no happily ever after. For anyone. But there is our need, and this need is not needy. We can learn to be badass in our solitary resilience. And still we cannot escape this need.

We are human. We are wired for connection. We are mortal. We are weak.

And this is okay. All of this is okay.

I love you, dear one. At heart, that’s all I really want to say — to myself, or to my loved ones.

You are already so deeply loved. And yet you still crave more.

And all of this is okay.

* * *

Anne Liu Kellor is a Seattle-based writer, editor/coach, and teacher at the Hugo House. Her memoir manuscript, Heart Radical: A Search for Language, Love, and Belonging, was chosen as 1st runner-up by Cheryl Strayed in Kore Press’s 2018 contest, and her work appears in journals such as The Normal SchoolFourth Genre, and Vela Magazine.

Editor: Sari Botton