Cabin Fever: A Reading List for the Perpetually Isolated

How the pandemic made us confront what it means to be alone.

By Kara Devlin 

It was only a few weeks ago that I found out cabin fever — the restlessness, irritability, and loneliness that a person feels when confined to one place for too long — was a genuine, medical term and not just a casual way of joking about isolation. I was on a hypochondriac mission, tasked with discovering exactly why I felt so completely out of my mind after only one week in COVID-positive solitude. When I searched my anxieties and fears, dozens of incredibly validating affirmations popped up: You are not alone; your symptoms are real; you can get better. I had never taken being alone that seriously. It was a common, unavoidable condition of being alive, so why would I? 

My discovery that cabin fever was a recognized ailment encouraged me to see isolation in a new way. The severity of the condition was now obvious. As a kid, one day inside had been enough to send me climbing the walls, searching for anything to do. What I didn’t realize as I grew older was that isolation crept into my brain in a much quieter way. Loneliness, shame, unhappiness, and impatience replaced the agitation and boredom I had grown up with. The more I read, the more I realize how universal, yet unique, this feeling is. Why does being alone make us feel this way? 

Technology doesn’t help. Most of us can have all our wants and needs met from the comfort of our rooms — food delivered, friends found in anonymous chatrooms, entertainment discovered on endless streaming services. Technology, ironically, has brought freedoms to confinement. We could spend our entire lives within one small space if we chose to, as the economy molds to serve our desires. The lazy day watching Netflix, the guilt-laden Uber Eats order, even the bold Instagram message, have all emerged around a generation spending more time by itself than any before.

Of course, isolation is not just found through a physical landscape. The most harrowing form of loneliness can occur in a crowded room. Edward Hopper famously explored the loneliness of living in the big city through paintings likeNighthawks.” This ubiquitous depiction of urban isolation, a diner with no entrance and no exit, serves as a memorable illustration of loneliness. When you are inside of this feeling — the metaphorical diner if you will — there is no perceived beginning or end, and no consideration from those around you, as nothing exists beyond this world-swallowing experience.

During the pandemic, isolation transformed from a misfortunate occurrence to something so widespread it was impossible to avoid. Like most people, I spent weeks and weeks inside my house, with no contact with anyone except the members of my household. All aspects of isolation hit at once and were impossible to escape. I realized how easy it would be to continue living like this — perpetually isolated.

I wasn’t the only one who had this idea. The switch to working from home brought the overlapping isolations of technology and the pandemic together. However, this change was not an unavoidable curse cast upon working society: Only three percent want to fully return to the office now that we are able to. Solitude is not just wrought upon us; oftentimes, we choose it. The desire to be left alone by the bothers of the social world often overpowers the negative experience that isolation implies. 

I am drawn to the idea that reading can connect the isolated — that one story on loneliness can link together hundreds of confined minds to think, Maybe I’m not alone. The stories on this list do not just seek to analyze and dissect the effects of isolation; they serve as a powerful tool of connection.

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The Hikikomori couldn’t go outside for years. Then Covid-19 trapped them again (Ann Babe, Wired, March 2021)

Ann Babe has written a number of pieces on the solitary experience of different Korean groups, including a powerful article on the isolation of Korean adoptees in America which looks into solitude as an inherent feature of minority identity.

Like many other people, the coronavirus lockdown was my first taste of prolonged isolation. It was a complete change from my regular lifestyle. But what was it like for those who were already isolated — people who had spent years of their lives locked in their rooms, having already chosen a lifestyle of reclusiveness? This describes the hikikomori, a unique subset of people, largely in Asia, who can live decades in almost complete isolation.

South Korean-based journalist Anne Babe thoughtfully explores the experience of these people during the pandemic. She sensitively lays out multiple, personal hikikomori narratives, displaying their anxieties, reservations, and fears, all without judgment. The effects of COVID on these people ran just as deep, despite the misguided thought that they should be used to it. Babe takes us into their worlds, reminding us that there’s not so much difference between us and them. 

Reflecting on the pandemic, Kim makes a comparison. “Someone who’s been living in the cold climate for a long period of time, like I have, is able to continue on in the cold weather,” he says. “But if that person is from a hot place, they will find it hard to adapt to the suddenly freezing climate. I would say I’m numb to the coronavirus situation because I am so used to being secluded in my room. But I wouldn’t say I’m completely indifferent to it, because I’ve experienced, briefly, the warmth of being part of society.”

The Future of Loneliness (Olivia Laing, The Guardian, April 2015)

Olivia Laing is also the author of The Lonely City, an enlightening book that pulls together personal narrative and art analysis to develop a beautiful understanding of loneliness.

As a Gen Zer, technology is an integral part of my life. It’s how I keep up with work, understand the daily happenings of the world, and, most importantly, how I talk to every single person I know. This reliance on social media for connection has potentially worrying effects, as Olivia Laing argues in her illustration of concerns for strictly virtual bonds. 

Written in 2015, Laing’s fascinating piece points out what we should have realized by then — that the internet is not the perfect tool for connection, that is just an illusion. We may believe it allows us to be seen while simultaneously supporting a level of privacy, but neither can truly be achieved. You will never be viewed for who you really are, just as you will never be concealed from prying eyes. Years later, her predicted anxieties have turned into daily reality. It is normal for every app to gather mountains of data on you, every mistake to result in a permanent “canceling,” and every relationship to spend at least half its time connecting through social media. Laing discovers the true nature of the online world and maintains tension to the last word as we discover more and more truths about our online activity. 

This growing entanglement of the corporate and social, this creeping sense of being tracked by invisible eyes, demands an increasing sophistication about what is said and where. The possibility of virulent judgment and rejection induces precisely the kind of hypervigilance and withdrawal that increases loneliness. With this has come the slowly dawning realisation that our digital traces will long outlive us.

Is Long-Term Solitary Confinement Torture? (Atul Gawande, The New Yorker, March 2009)

I spent my lockdown days in Scotland, under the daily COVID guidance of Boris Johnson, who created laws that only permitted going outside once a day, for exercise. For years, like most other countries around the world, we could not meet anyone outside our “bubble” — the small group of people designated as our close contacts. These restrictions on freedom led to societal concerns about the power of government to forbid even the most basic forms of contact, such as a hug, and led many to come back to the fundamental question: Is socialization a human right?

Gawande delves into this concern in this piece, which focuses on the emergence of solitary confinement as a regular form of punishment within the American incarceration system. He draws us in with stories of monkeys and prisoners of war, creating a compelling argument for the inhumanity of isolation from the get-go. He keeps this level of focus throughout, putting you through the experience of solitary confinement with his illustrative depictions. By the end, you’ll be writing to your local representative, asking them to reconsider their position on this brutal prison punishment. 

This presents us with an awkward question: If prolonged isolation is—as research and experience have confirmed for decades—so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?

On Solitude (and Isolation and Loneliness [and Brackets]) (Sarah Fay, Longreads, March 2020)

There is an implied difference between solitude and isolation. Solitude is a choice, your own rejection of the world, your own contentment with being alone. With isolation, the rejection flips; you are pushed out of society, no matter how much you want to climb back in. This peculiarity is just one that Sarah Fay explores in this piece. Subtle contradictions are her strong suit, as she walks the line between being alone and being lonely, the various subtleties between autophobia and eremophobia, and the distinction between interaction and connection. Ultimately, Fay’s personality is the driving force of this article, compelling us to read on to uncover her personal revelations on solitude.

The key to connection was not to be needy of connection with others. We have to give freely of ourselves, act as social philanthropists who donate anonymously expecting no plaques or appreciation in return. (Turkle and others have pointed to this as the reason why social media doesn’t make us feel connected. Each tweet, post, or friend request is made with the expectation of a response: a retweet, a repost, a like, an accepted request.) 

Together Alone: The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness (Michael Hobbes, Huffington Post, March 2017)

Isolation can often be interlinked with identity. People who are perpetually alone may come to the conclusion that this feeling is an inherent feature of who they are. This is particularly true with minorities, as each member finds themselves intrinsically different from the people surrounding them. Michael Hobbes reflects on this experience within the gay community, almost a year after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Hobbes meets each man he interviews with a deep understanding — he is a gay man himself — as he intertwines his personal narrative with that of his community. He allows their revelations to propel the article, using his own logic to back each reflection. 

I’m always drawn to pieces that effectively communicate an experience I will never personally understand. Hobbes’ depiction is painful; it is raw; but, importantly, it is thoughtful. Each sentence takes care not just for its audience, but for the subjects it depicts. The level of consideration put into each word creates a simultaneously welcoming and challenging reading experience.

You grow up with this loneliness, accumulating all this baggage, and then you arrive in the Castro or Chelsea or Boystown thinking you’ll finally be accepted for who you are. And then you realize that everyone else here has baggage, too. All of a sudden it’s not your gayness that gets you rejected. It’s your weight, or your income, or your race. “The bullied kids of our youth,” Paul says, “grew up and became bullies themselves.”

Loneliness and Me (Claire Bushey, Financial Times, November 2020) 

The Loneliness Project also takes on the normalcy of loneliness with its online archive detailing anecdotes of isolation from hundreds of submitters.

Is loneliness shameful? Does it function as a reflection of who we are as people? These are the integral questions considered by Claire Bushey as she investigates the hows and whys of her own personal loneliness, which started long before the restraints of COVID. To Bushy, being alone is neither a curse nor a blessing: It is simply a way of being. She presents her findings as a blunt response to the ideas that surrounded isolation at the start of the pandemic — that this was a new, torturous experience for all. What draws me to this piece is its honesty: Bushey doesn’t hide behind convention and expectation; she lays out everything she feels and experiences as if it were essential. 

Lonely as a cloud? I am as lonely as an iceberg, an egg, a half carafe of wine. I am lonely as the body is hungry three times a day, hollowed again and again by an ache that does not ease except with the sustenance of connection. The feeling differs from the peace of solitude, which many enjoy, including me at times. Instead, it is a gnawing sadness. Even before the pandemic, a combination of circumstance and choice left me with fewer close ties than I wanted. Every day I forage for connection, and some days I go hungry.

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Kara Devlin is a writer and student based in Glasgow, Scotland. Her writing has appeared in Her Campus, Medium, and others.