My first Christmas alone: lessons in solitude

My relationship with solitude was indeterminate. Christmas Day alone, I figured, would be a good test.

With the year that’s in it, I found myself alone for Christmas. It wasn’t my first Christmas away from home but given the annual mass exodus from Berlin, unstymied by Covid-19 travel restrictions, I found myself bereft of friends and plans for Christmas day.

I travelled to Berlin in full knowledge that by doing so I was sacrificing Christmas. Before leaving Ireland in late October to make the most of remote working, I warned my family I would not be coming home during Christmas break: self-isolation and testing either side morphed a five-day trip into a costly, fortnight expedition, and the Irish government had made their views on the issue as clear as day.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

It also helped that I am not overly sentimental about the holiday season. I wasn’t always this grouchy; as an imaginative child who read a lot of fantasy, I was thrilled to see the magic and mystery of storybooks playing out in real life. But once my younger brothers outgrew Santa, despite gallant efforts and fervent denial on my mother’s part, the Christmas traditions of my childhood were gradually dismantled.

Although I didn’t recognise it at the time, I was mourning an intangible loss far bigger than Santa, or even Christmas: the loss of my childhood innocence and its sincere belief that anything and everything is possible. Adulthood beckoned, and sensibility, realism and cynicism took its place.

Afterwards, particularly as a teenager, I struggled to find my footing at Christmas. By its very nature – the advent calendar countdown, the month-long hype – Christmas conditions us to have high expectations, but my inevitable disappointment made it feel like I kept falling for the same cruel trick year after year.

While I enjoyed the season’s conviviality Santa had big shoes to fill, and what remained in his absence was rather…lacklustre. The dinner was bland, the dessert inedible (anything riddled with raisins is not dessert in my book), and as a vegan, aspiring minimalist, renounced Christian, I was ethically opposed to most of the traditions that Christmas is built on. It was, I summed up, little more than a glorified Sunday roast which took a huge amount of labour to pull off. Was there some hidden meaning I was missing?

Berlin, Christmas 2020

Unsurprisingly given my feelings about the holiday, I made little effort to organize plans for Christmas Day. Once it became apparent everyone would be travelling home, I registered the news I would spend the day alone with relevant indifference. I was more concerned about how my family would receive the news, given they had been asking after my plans in every recent phone call.

The plus side of being alone at Christmas is that you are truly alone, a luxury rarely enjoyed unless you live by yourself and even more out of reach with everyone confined to their homes. I wasn’t so much counting down the days to Christmas as I was counting down the dates till my flatmates’ departure.

My relationship with solitude was indeterminate. I enjoy my own company and am not deterred by the prospect of embarking on solo adventures. Having said that, each move to a new city has been punctuated by bouts of loneliness. Christmas Day spent alone, I figured, would be a good test.

Empty streets in Berlin

 A Covid Christmas

My Christmas began with a lazy morning reading while eating one of four vegan donuts I had gifted myself. Around 10am I dragged myself out of bed and dressed to go running. I had planned to depart from my usual park route and go for a long run from Prenzlauer Berg to Mitte.

The streets were deserted save for families and the odd couple. Observing them as I ran past, I felt a momentary twinge.

Everyone appeared content, unrushed, taking simple pleasure in their morning stroll. It was the first time since Covid struck that the emptiness felt normal, the silence soothing rather than eerie. The only thing out of the ordinary was me, the interloper.   

And yet, I felt entirely at peace. My chest bloomed with the conviction that I was exactly where I should be.

In a year of ceaseless oddities, this aberration was the silver lining.  

My effervescent gratitude made me hungry to consume, to name the things for which I was grateful. Sprinting through the Museuminsel I marvelled at the elaborate, superfluous beauty of its architecture. I looked at the faces of the people I passed. I said hello to food delivery drivers and policemen, for whom it was just another day at the office.

As I pointed myself back in the direction of Prenzlauer Berg my phone rang. It was a video call from my mother, who had generously driven two hours to spend an allotted half hour visiting my grandaunt in a nursing home in the west of Ireland. Exercising her maternal clout, she successfully cajoled me into performing a breathless rendition of ‘I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus’ in the middle of the Berlin streets. Not waiting around for the reviews, I continued my run home.

Her call was the first of many and between fielding calls from friends and family, I just about managed to cook and eat Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. By 10pm I was all talked out of it, ready to wind down and watch a film.

I’ll admit that seeing my family together celebrating and saying they missed me melted my icy façade ever so slightly. It was, I realised, important to know I was invited, wanted, and missed by family, even if I couldn’t be there. It made my decision to be alone a choice, rather than a lack thereof. And just like that, the hidden meaning of Christmas revealed itself.

Solitude

My two weeks spent in solitude was a welcome retreat. Never in my life have I had so much free time coupled with space of my own. I had dinner with the occasional friend, but I was mostly alone, and happily so, a significant departure from my usual Christmas chock full of social obligations. If I felt my mood dip, I knew it was time to leave the house.

The experience made me think back to the times I had felt lonely in the past, both at home and abroad, under a roof shared with almost-strangers or the over-familiar.

Revisiting those periods, I realise that social isolation was only a half, and maybe even the lesser part, of my discontentment. While I used to think I felt sad because I craved the company of others, I am beginning to think its inverse was the case, that I craved solitude and the emotional space it affords.

Most societal maladies in one form or another stem from the negotiation of finite resources, with space being amongst the most coveted. This logic is implicit in the bargaining that makes up day-to-day living in shared accommodation, whose terms have becoming increasingly limited as Covid restrictions tightened.

Solitude, that is, being truly on one’s own, has been scarce for most, while those who live alone are drowning in it.

Many of our needs ordinarily met through the normal course of living in the Before Times – social interaction, time spent outdoors, emotional space – have become neglected during the pandemic. This leaves us with the difficult tasks of parsing through our muddled emotions to recognise, identify and tend to our unmet multifaceted human needs.  

Knowing the difference between these distinct yet overlapping needs is an important skill, particularly amongst younger generations who are uber-connected but also report the highest rates of loneliness.

As Berlin begins to fill up once again, my days of solitude are numbered. I’m excited to re-join society but having grown protective of my time alone, I intend to find creative ways to safeguard it.  

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Save each other, touch yourself!

When staying safe means staying apart, a lot of us are missing out on human touch. Non-sexual intimate self-touch can help.

On a Friday night five weeks ago I was seated at the only empty chair I could find in a crowded Dublin bar, scrolling through the news headlines while I waited for my friends. Ireland  was one day out from its first official confirmation of Coronavirus, but already the media were heeding warnings of how the public should behave. One headline caught my eye: ‘Coronavirus advice: Wash your hands and avoid hugging, kissing and hand shaking.’ I scanned the room, observing the crowds of people sat in small groups, leaning close together to hear one another speak over the jovial hum of voices.

The advice was at odds with the scene before me making it easy to make light of as one tends to do at the penumbra of a crisis, when you know the worst is yet to come but the present hasn’t altered enough for real worry to set in. I joked that it was my civic duty to patrol the bar and break up any kissing couples. Back then it seemed comical that the State concerned itself with the intimate Friday night activities of its citizens, offering well-intentioned warnings usually delivered by parents to the turned-backs of teenagers as they head out.

62 days, 20,612 confirmed cases and 1,232 deaths later the government’s intrusion in our personal lives has been welcomed, demanded even. With the entire country in lockdown my in-person social interactions are limited to three family members, and my movements restricted to a 2km radius. When I do leave the house, strangers wait behind a corner or cross the road to avoid me. No one has touched me in over four weeks.

This isn’t the first time in my life that the absence of touch has registered itself as a physical deprivation. Over the last four years I’ve moved to a new city six times, each time finding myself alone amongst strangers. The experience is not the same as self-isolation or social distancing, but when you know no one and no one knows you, it can feel like everyone is crossing the road to avoid you. You don’t find yourself being touched very often.

It wasn’t until I left Ireland that I came to appreciate how much Irish people like to hug one other. We are a nation of huggers, embracing friends old and new with equal enthusiasm (often to the bewilderment of visitors).

Each time I found myself in a new city trying to imitate the local greeting customs I found that I sorely missed being hugged. There is no greater feeling of intimacy than when someone wraps their arms around you and pulls you close, squeezing the distance between you to almost nothing. The weight of their bodies tells you, ‘I am here for you, I am present’, far better than words ever could. It is the opposite of feeling alone.

What better life-giving affirmation is there than the fission of skin-to-skin contact? To be seen, desired, acknowledged, to experience the warm glow of human connection. We spend so much time communicating through our devices or living in our own heads that we have become oblivious to subtle bodily sensations. Touching and being touched offers us an escape from the incessant chatter in our head; guided by instinct and desire the cognitive side of our brain disengages as we become both the giver and receiver of pleasure.

Although I recognised my internal restlessness during periods of yearning, I always looked outside of myself when I craved touch, operating under an implicit belief that this need could only be satisfied in the hands of another.

It wasn’t until I came across renowned relationship therapist Esther Perel’s ‘Where Should We Begin’ podcast series, which allows the listener to ‘sit in’ on an hour-long couple’s therapy session, that I began to think about this differently. In one of the episodes she helps a client overcome his physical discomfort by coaching him in masturbatory touch, which she defines broadly as touching one’s entire body for pleasure (in contrast to its common usage referring to genital stimulation for sexual pleasure). She encourages him to stroke himself, to caress himself, and to pay attention to the pleasurable sensation it arouses.

I had never considered touching myself in that way and realised that I am not nearly as good a lover to myself as I am to others. Although we touch ourselves constantly (our face especially, as we’ve realised as of late), we are rarely conscious of these absentminded movements nor the sensations they evoke.

Even my daily beauty routine is be performed with a heavy hand, moisturiser slapped on, rubbed in, washed off aggressively.

I compared this to a recent afternoon spent getting a facial and a massage. Over the course of two hours the beauty therapist blended oils, creams and lotions into my skin. Her movements were tender and gentle, and I lay there like a baby submitting myself to her healing touch. The experience was utterly relaxing, devoid of the pressure to respond a certain way or perform the receiving of pleasure often expected of lovers (women in particular).

I realised that I had been neglectful towards myself and needed to be more conscious of how I handled my body, that I should be gentler, more loving, more affectionate in my actions. I also realised that I needed to value the power my own touch if I wanted to unlock its potential to bring myself comfort.

I felt my loneliness most keenly lying alone in my double bed at night. I decided to put Esther Perel’s advice into practise. Applying delicate pressure, I traced my fingertips along my collarbone and across my chest in a sweeping back and forth motion, tuning my attention to the faint tingling sensation left in its wake. The effect was incredibly soothing and slowly the ball of tension in the pit of my stomach began to unravel.

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic we find ourselves experiencing unprecedented levels of collective distress, while simultaneously being closed off from our regular stress-relieving outlets. With the virus having weaponised our social instinct, the panacea found in the company of others is the very thing we must avoid at all costs. The absence of a clearly defined exit-plan from our current phase of state-sanctioned celibacy is immensely frustrating, but on the bright side, it has created the ideal conditions for us to spend time alone and give more attention our relationship with our own body. In  a capitalistic and social media driven wellness era the affection we give ourselves is often undervalued. Now is the perfect time to change that. Save each other, touch yourself!