April 3rd, 2020

Words by Upasna Barath · Artwork by Camila Paz Alarcón Ferreira

The habits that I developed out of a need to survive childhood loneliness are the same habits I return to now.

Self-isolation feels eerily nostalgic and admittedly, comforting. I saw this tweet earlier last week:


When I was in high school, I spent a lot of time alone, and not necessarily by choice. My parents were not as strict as other Indian parents I knew, but I always struggled to muster up the courage to ask if I could hang out with and see my friends. In high school, I struggled with loneliness and what seemed like an uncool way to spend my weekend nights. I was frustrated that I couldn’t go to parties and that my parents’ idea of an outing was a walk around the neighborhood. I’d always have to convince my mother why going to the movies or having a sleepover was more important than homework, studying for the ACT, or um, safety. So, in order to avoid giving all of my energy away to persuasion and persistence, I just stayed at home. I gave my energy away to reading, listening to music, spending hours on Tumblr, and writing.


I often think back to the memory I have of spending time with a group of friends during and after a football game. I was a sophomore, and most of my friends at the time were seniors. Not only did they have cars, but they were also legally adults. When I spent time with them, I forgot that I was two years younger than them, and I began to hold myself to the standards that they were able to live by. After the football game, I came home at 12:40am instead of midnight, as promised. My mother opened the door even before I could put my keys in, and all of the happiness, lightness, and bliss of teendom disappeared as soon as I saw the look on my mother’s face. I never wanted to feel that way again. 


High school felt a lot like my earlier childhood, too. I grew up an only child, and my coping mechanisms carried themselves into my teenage years. While I had plenty of playdates and friends I looked forward to seeing on school mornings, I learned to cope with only-child isolation. I also spent a lot of time with babysitters while my mother was at work, and oftentimes I found myself at peace reading a book alone or watching a movie in silence. As soon as I was cognizant, I learned to be by myself.


My ability to be by myself strengthened during my elementary school years. When I turned six, my mother got remarried. She was only married to this person for three years, but during that time she was physically and emotionally abused. I could not quite understand what our circumstances were at that time because I did not have the emotional capability to. But I knew that my mother was experiencing a lot of pain and by proxy, so was I. As I grew during those three years, not only was I learning to cope with being alone and having no one to spend free time with, but I was learning to cope with pain and trauma. That brought me to my Natasha Bedingfield and Lionel Richie CDs, my Beverly Clearly novels, my oil pastels, and my notebook paper. I found that distracting myself from my surroundings - and from the thoughts in my head created by whatever was going on in my surroundings - was best done when I could get into someone else’s head or translate my feelings into another form.


When I saw the aforementioned tweet, I laughed, hard, from the ability to relate and the irony of it all. But the habits that I developed out of a need to survive childhood loneliness are the same habits I return to now, during the COVID-19 crisis. I find myself watching interviews with musicians or biographical video essays, getting lost in other people’s stories and creative processes. Reading fiction has helped me enjoy worlds that are not my own. Writing gives me the ability to put my thoughts somewhere else when I cannot handle having all of them in my head. I deal with loneliness by turning it into something neutral - aloneness. I have associated being alone with creativity, curiosity, and catharsis. Not only am I now practicing my ability to be alone, but I am also practicing the art of staying inside - no restaurants, no bars, no movie theatres, no concerts. Just like high school, except I’m not with my parents, of course. It’s been five years since I have lived with my parents.


There is privilege in being able to somehow find peace and comfort during a disruptive and uncertain time, and for this peace to outweigh anxiety. I recognize this, along with the fact that I have always associated comfort with the sensation of being alone in my house all day for weeks at a time. My ability to get through self-isolation, and enjoy it, in some ways, is not a sign of insensitivity or dissociation from the world around me, but proof of the history, pain, and trauma I have been through; how I was able to survive through it all then, and how I will survive through it all now.

Upasna Barath is an Indian-American actor, writer, and aspiring film producer living in Chicago, Illinois. Through writing and performance, Upasna advocates for authentic representation of people of color in film, television, and theatre.

Camila Paz Alarcón Ferreira lives in Chile. She likes to draw, and is passionate about dogs.