When the pandemic hit, photographer Eva O’Leary found herself living on her own in her central Pennsylvania hometown. She navigated her isolation through a series of self-portraits.
Eva O'Leary
April 17, 2021 7:00 AM EDT

“I’m a toucher and flirter, and I don’t care who you are,” says Maggie Duckworth. “I will talk to a log.” Before the arrival of COVID-19, Duckworth had a pretty sweet life. An events coordinator for a waste-management company in Chattanooga, Tenn., she traveled frequently for work and for fun. She had a large group of friends, a loving family she could visit in Atlanta and a cool apartment all to herself.

In December 2019, Duckworth, 43, was on a date when she snapped her Achilles’ heel. She was told to keep off her foot and had to be confined to her home while it healed. Just as she was ready to go out again, the pandemic hit. (However long the stay-at-home restrictions have been for you, they have been about four months longer for Duckworth.)

The torn tendon was painful, but people could still visit. The isolation of the pandemic was worse. “I wasn’t having any interactions with people; I wasn’t touching anyone; I wasn’t getting to tell my funny stories,” she says wistfully. “I didn’t have anyone to hug–or even high-five–for months.” Duckworth clearly remembers her last embrace before social-distancing measures were put in place. Finally able to walk with a cane, she went out for drinks with two friends, and they all went back to her place. “We hugged, and we were like, ‘O.K., we’ll hug in a year,'” she says. “We knew that was the last great night out.”

In May, Duckworth was laid off. She doesn’t blame her employer. “Who needs an events coordinator when there are no events?” she says. But that intensified her isolation. She was popular at work and had run the women’s group. “If someone wrote me and said that they were struggling, I could send them flowers,” she says. “It gave me this really great community.” She occasionally went for socially distanced walks with a neighbor or sat on someone’s porch for drinks. Nevertheless, she lay awake at night, worrying about her rent and her health. She began to feel an old adversary, depression, creeping up on her. When a therapist’s office told her its earliest appointment was several weeks away, she burst into tears. (The office called back as soon as it had a cancellation.) For the first time in her life, she filled a prescription for antidepressant medication.

At the dawn of 2020, about a quarter of American households were made up of people who lived alone. According to the U.S. Census, the number of households consisting of only one person has jumped 10% in the past 20 years to an all-time high of 28.4% in 2019. Partly this is because people are marrying later in life (the average age of first marriage is nearing 30). And partly, sociologists believe, it has to do with money. Wealthy countries generally have a higher proportion of people who can afford to live solo. At the same time, many people don’t want to get married and raise families until they feel financially secure. In 2017, 14% of Americans told Pew Research they had no interest in getting married.

While there’s still pressure to pair up, the notion of the sad unpartnered soul has largely been banished. Single people are no longer denied such societal goodies as a full social calendar, an active sex life or a home of their own. They can take spontaneous trips, volunteer, indulge in their hobbies and go on as many dates as they feel up for. They can hang out on short notice with work buddies, neighborhood buddies, college buddies or extended family. They can spend their money and time as they wish. They can be there for friends who need them in a way those with families cannot.

The pandemic changed all that. It amped up the things that are lonely and stressful about being single and muffled the fun stuff. Mathematician-philosopher Blaise Pascal was exaggerating when he wrote in 1654 that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” (Either that or he didn’t predict Netflix.) But even with the Internet’s distractions, many single people have had more solitude in the past year than they know what to do with. As the months passed, what was once a feature of their lives became the dominant force.

While those with kids and jobs have been run off their feet and those with spouses have been forced to plumb the depths of their patience and their conversational well, those who don’t live with anyone tell TIME they have had a reckoning with themselves, their choices and the direction of their lives. We spoke to five of the more than 35 million Americans who live alone, in their 20s to their 50s, in the fall and again in the spring. Some have moved, many have started therapy or taking medication, some have recommitted to finding a companion, prioritizing their social lives or strengthening bonds with family. While being single is not a uniform experience, their stories share several themes: Being single is quite different from being alone. There may be a limit to the utility of a fully remote workforce. And as sophisticated a species as we humans are, we remain an animal that prefers to herd.

After moving nonstop for several years, O’Leary was forced to stay put during lockdown. Setting up her camera became a way to endure moments that felt intolerable.
Eva O'Leary

“There’s a really abrupt moment when the Zoom call ends, and you go from this feeling of ‘Oh, it’s me and six people hanging out,’ and then it’s completely silent in the apartment,” says Erin Tye, 30, of her pandemic social gatherings. “There isn’t even the train ride home with music to transition between those mental states.” Ten months before the pandemic struck, Tye moved out of the place she shared with her ex-boyfriend to one of her own. She had given herself some time off from dating, and enjoyed it: girls’ dinners, happy hours, birthday parties, impulsive nights out. She was going to restart the engines at the end of February, “which it turns out,” she says, laughing, “was just before the pandemic hit.”

In those early days, single and nonsingle folks alike turned to creative pursuits to fill the time, but for those with partners or families, the activities usually had a social dimension. Tye took to baking but was often left with a whole cake to herself. “Cooking is an act of service, an act of love,” she says. “I stopped because I felt like, ‘I’m just doing this for me.’ It kind of sucks.” She hasn’t baked in months.

Others, too, reported a spike in creativity that faded. Duckworth wrote 15-page letters to friends and practiced her ukulele. William Theriac, who had recently moved to Minnesota and hadn’t quite found his social scene, perfected a 25-ingredient borscht and kulebiaka, a Russian fish pie. Joel Pritchow, newly separated from his wife, wrote stand-up comedy. One of his gags was about how there had been so little time to make friends between his separation and the pandemic that “it would’ve been nice if she decided to leave a little sooner.”

Tye also threw herself into her work as a content strategist at an ad tech platform. “The workday just bleeds, it sort of overruns its margins in a way that it didn’t used to,” she says. “I can make dinner and get back on and work until midnight.” That experience was familiar to many even before the virus, but it got amplified; a July study out of Harvard Business School estimated that employees were working an average of 48 minutes more a day during the pandemic. Employment became the scaffold against which many people leaned for some stability; when they didn’t know what to do, they did their jobs. Unusual work hours, of course, were not limited to single folks–companies like Microsoft found their employees working more often at night, on the weekend and through lunch–but for those who lived alone there was often no reason to step away.

Some found ways to artificially delineate their work and home lives. Lucy Anguiano, 54, a marketing and promotions manager for a media company and a lifelong workaholic who partly attributes her singleness to her love of her job, had formerly observed a strict labor demarcation between her Manhattan Beach, Calif., apartment and her L.A. office. “I actually never brought my laptop home,” she says. “I would work late and I would not leave the office until everything was done to my satisfaction. I always felt my home was sacred.” After her office closed, she says, “It felt like a violation of my life that when I walk in, the first thing you see is the big computer.” She decided to keep her office confined to the dining-room table.

Still, Anguiano had trouble adjusting to her new reality. Normally very sunny, she had crying jags, especially after work when there was nobody to talk to. She went for long walks and began video-chatting with her family in Guatemala. But she was worried about losing her job and fell into a depression. In June, she started seeing a therapist via Zoom. “The situation brought out so many things that I knew I could not fix on my own,” she says. “I needed help.”

This would not be surprising to those who study social isolation. Loneliness has long been believed to increase people’s vulnerability to such mental disorders as depression, anxiety, chronic stress, insomnia and even dementia. After a lockdown in Hong Kong, an August 2020 study there found that two-thirds of respondents to a questionnaire reported clinical levels of depression, anxiety or stress, and more than a fifth showed signs of psychosis risk. A July 2020 study out of Israel found that older people were no more likely than normal to be depressed or anxious during the pandemic–unless they were lonely.

Of course, Anguiano, Tye and Duckworth all had friends and family whom they could call up anytime. And they made the most of the social options they had. Tye celebrated her 30th birthday with a picnic instead of the big bash she had planned. She signed up with a wine club and Zoomed a lot. Anguiano joined a Saturday-night online movie-and-wine group, and on Valentine’s Day hand-delivered goodie baskets to her fellow members’ doors, with a card that thanked them “for being my date every Saturday.” But seeking companionship can require an admission of vulnerability that not everybody (even the recently separated) is prepared to make. “I’m 45; all of my friends are married, and they have kids,” says Pritchow. “It’s not easy to say to someone, ‘Hey, I’m alone on Tuesday night, and I really don’t want to be. Can somebody come over and hang out with me for a couple of hours?'”

Pritchow, who works in IT for a health care company, was born with a deformed aortic valve, which meant that catching the virus could be fatal. So he had to keep his social circle small. Besides, some of his friends told him their wives were too worried about their kids or elderly parents to allow hanging out at his place. After six months, he says, he ran out of home-improvement projects, his baseball-card-collecting habit got too expensive, and his dog was sick of being walked. “There’s time after work where I just go lay down for a while, because I’m like, ‘What am I gonna do for the next seven hours?'” He’d been seeing a therapist since his split, but after a few months alone, he started taking an antidepressant.

None of the single people blame their married friends for not checking in on them more; they have sympathy for the grind of homeschooling or never seeing anyone but your partner. “My married friends with kids are saying, ‘Yeah, my wife and kids are driving me nuts. You’re so lucky you just get to sit there and play video games,'” says Pritchow. “And I’m like, ‘Hey, at least you got people to talk to.'”

For Theriac, 26, an IT project manager at a construction company, anxiety would hit him, and he couldn’t tell why. “I’m not behind on anything. I’m not worried about anything,” he says. “And then I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s because I don’t have any social plans.'” Theriac moved to Minneapolis just a few months before George Floyd was killed. He was unemployed at the time, so he would check the news often, which added to his stress. He tried to grab some sleep during the day because the helicopters and popping tear-gas canisters kept him awake at night. “I feel like emotionally I’m dealing with three or four national crises at once, and that’s just too much to do alone,” he says. His mother stayed with him at various times, but there wasn’t enough privacy. As friends moved away, “I realized I’m nobody’s No. 1 priority,” says Theriac. “It was that moment where it just got super intense, and I was like, ‘This is extraordinarily lonely.'”

Anguiano says she’s been surprised by who among her friends has looked out for her and who has disappeared. “I try not to take it personally,” she says. “I don’t know what they’re going through.”

O'Leary thought the photos would be a private way to process the emotional intensity of the experience.
Eva O'Leary

In ways both big and small, the pandemic has given these five single people ample time to reflect not just on how they got to where they are but on what direction they want their lives to go. The long months on their own sparked in most of them a realization that although living alone had its merits, they didn’t want to do it forever.

Just before Christmas, Theriac took a risk and moved in with a person he had never met. “The restless loneliness is gone, and I feel more calm, settled and less anxious about every COVID-statistic upturn,” he says. Duckworth went back to her parents’ house in Atlanta after her lease ran out. It has been better than she feared. “My worst-case life scenario was being single in my early 40s, living in my childhood home. I really thought I’d be suicidal,” she says. “But this has actually been a huge blessing, and I don’t feel depressed at all.” She has a car. She formed a quarantine bubble with her nephew, sister and brother-in-law. Recently her father had to be hospitalized, and the family has told her they would never have managed without her.

Tye also moved to her parents’ house, in Florida, but returned to her apartment in New York City after three months. The period of enforced singleness has made her rethink her inattention to her dating life. “It has just reinforced what the actuality of being single is,” she says. She hopes to “stop giving myself excuses for not going out and talking to people and not being on apps.” Pritchow has stayed put, but is seeing someone–carefully, mindful not just of the pandemic but also that he might have gotten married too fast twice before. He has been vaccinated, and as restrictions have lifted in Washington State, they’ve been able to have some dates at restaurants.

At first glance, Anguiano’s life seems unchanged–same job, same home–but she feels transformed. “I learned so much about me,” she says. “It’s just ridiculous, the amount of self-reflection–like a huge mirror that I had to look at. It was not a one- or two-day process, and I think that’s the reason why we don’t take the time to do it.” She realized she had been ignoring a lot of needs amid the bustle of her life. She was not making time for the things that brought her the most joy: her family, her friends, other people. When the pandemic is over and more offices open up, Anguiano will be eager to go back to hers. But she’s never going back to being the person she was before.

This appears in the April 26, 2021 issue of TIME.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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