Perspective of an Attorney Living Alone during the Pandemic

By Weichen Wang

0321-WFH-with-puppyThere are certain perks of being single and living alone during these crazy times. I am insulated from many common sources of stress such as worrying over childcare and distance learning, finding space for more than one working adult, and getting along with roommates when everyone is at home almost all the time. But there are corresponding disadvantages, too, in the form of the loss of day-to-day structure, a larger dose of social isolation, and being more prone to loneliness. The same set of stressors manifest differently in work, life, and travel. I have identified a few coping strategies that have helped me along the way.  

Finding Support & Structure

Before the COVID-19 pandemic started, I was already working from home three to four days a week. As a result, I experienced a smoother transition working entirely from home than people who are used to going into the office every day. The biggest change was the enhanced feeling of loss of social interactions with coworkers. I miss seeing the faces of my coworkers: Jane from HR greeting me with her cheerful hellos, Jim from Quality popping in to ask a random question, and my supervisor Alex proposing lunch together at a nearby restaurant after we have finished discussing the issue at hand. 

I remember hearing about (pre-pandemic) research from the UK showing that even though productivity and job satisfaction improved when employees worked from home, after a couple of weeks, most of them wanted to go back into the office. I didn’t believe the study before, but the loss of human company we’ve had in the pandemic has hit home for me. As my company further tightened the work-from-home policy for office workers, I missed the friendly social environment I had at my workplace. 

As one social aspect of my life, my workplace, was closed off, I felt a loss of motivation. As a corporate lawyer, many if not most of my projects have flexible deadlines. Managing the priority list and planning the order of completion have always been part of the job. During the last few months, I have seen myself falling down the holes of procrastination and poor productivity frequently. 

By now I have found a reliable way of climbing out of the pit: first, I locate the easiest task of the day and make short work of it; second, I use the sense of satisfaction, however tiny it might be, to power through one or two tasks deliberately selected not according to priority but the likelihood of quickly receiving nice thank-you emails; third, I allow myself to feel good, or even gloat if I must, over the “thank you so much!”, “you’re the best!”, and the smiley face at the end; and last, filled with renewed motivation, I return to my regular working state. I have been blessed with colleagues who know a hundred different ways to voice their appreciation. As I draw support from my fellow workers, I have come to realize just how essential motivation is when we are enduring a pandemic, cut off socially, and see the lines between work and after-work relaxation start to blur.  

Working from home full-time has also amplified the importance of having structure. When I got my dog three years ago, I learned to build into my day two 10- to 30-minute periods for walks. When my company continued to tighten the work-from-home policy due to the coronavirus, I learned that all the spontaneity and flexibility I love about working from home are outweighed by the growing need for more predictability and stability. My mornings are now “quiet hours” for researching and my afternoons are designated email-responding time. I have an earlier and full-hour lunch break as I cook a lot more than before, and my first dog-walking of the day is consistently around 1 p.m. There is a sense of comfort in knowing what happens next, and this is also a way to gain a bit more control over my life in these times of great uncertainty. 

On social isolation, loneliness, and solitude

Social isolation can give rise to the feeling of loneliness, but loneliness can occur without social isolation. Solitude is being alone without feeling lonely, and that’s the desirable state of being for lone dwellers like me. 

Social isolation is an inevitable result of the world we live in. Living by myself, I am looking at an increased chance of loneliness for an extended period of time. It’s a creeping sensation, at times almost tangible, as if I could catch a glimpse of it in the shadows had I turned my head fast enough. Then I actually turn around and see instead my dog curling into a fluffball on the sofa, her head on the armrest, facing the window and ready to bark at any human or dog who dares to appear in her line of sight on the sidewalk outside. Any sadness that has begun to accumulate just dissipates or gives way to exasperation as I yell at her to stop barking. I am not surprised at all that many animal shelters have been cleared out during the lockdown1—a furry friend is one of the best companions that a person could have in the fight against loneliness and social isolation. (However, I was surprised at the 60 percent price jump at the breeder where I got my dog, and, boy, isn’t that the perfect example of supply and demand?) Whatever the price, the companionship of a pet is invaluable. I, for one, know that I cannot live alone without my dog, at least not as happily as I have been.

The other pillar that supports me and my sanity is my lovely group of friends, who have quickly adjusted to virtual meetings and commit to appearing regularly on video calls. We see and talk to each other on our scheduled times every weekend. The call goes on for about two hours, during which we clean, cook, fold laundry, lounge on the sofa, and enjoy the company. It’s not the same as trying new restaurants, going to summer art fairs, watching a movie or play, or playing board games together, but it’s what we have, or rather, what I’m so, so lucky and grateful to have. In the rare instances of in-person encounters, such as the two socially distanced picnics we had in the park and short conversations when a few of us made the rounds dropping off food and gifts, I have realized time and again that we humans are social animals that derive a lot of positive energy from socializing face-to-face. Solitude is most easily achieved when one is in the warm embrace of a stable social network. We shouldn’t need the pandemic to tell us that in-person interactions are indispensable.

On wellness, mental health, and therapy

Related to but separate from the topic of managing loneliness is maintaining mental health and wellness in the time of coronavirus. Wellness is embedded in the most mundane—food, sleep, exercise, media consumption—and it takes a lot of deliberation and care to do the upkeep. The therapist in the television show Rick and Morty said it best: “Because the thing about repairing, maintaining, and cleaning is it’s not an adventure. . . . It’s just work.”2 But sometimes even when you are doing every right thing to promote general wellness, your mind can still sink into a state of unwellness. 

It’s all about catching early signs. Back in the summer, there was a day that I moved around slowly with an invisible heavy weight on my shoulder. I could hardly do any work, and I would randomly burst into tears. My dog sensed my shift in mood and would sit down right beside me without prompting and put her paw on my knees. Usually that would be sufficient, but it wasn’t working. On the second day of the same conditions, I asked my supervisor for some mental health days, which he immediately approved with a reply email containing many kind words. The triggers were glaring and hard to miss. It was around the time of George Floyd’s death. The trauma was compounded by a post that was circulating on WeChat of a mother asking for help for a young Chinese student who went missing on the way to the airport. I had experience with anxiety and depression that were rooted in internal factors such as my own beliefs and thoughts, but I realized that external events could be every bit as damaging. 

As I sat down and clicked open the “Find a Provider” tab on my insurance website, I saw that it was possible to sort therapists by race and ethnicity. On another day I would pause and ponder whether this unnecessarily highlights the individual differences between all qualified providers on which they have no control, but at that moment, I just felt relieved. Commonalities make one feel closer to another. I’ve known that since college, when I found it easier to converse with other international students, whichever continent they were from. 

It’s important to find a therapist with whom it is easy to build trust. I’ve met with six therapists throughout the years. The two with whom I didn’t have a second appointment had the same issue from my perspective in that there were too many assumptions, voiced and unvoiced, that hindered my process of sharing. The rest have been extremely helpful and they are each different in their approach. I used to think that therapy works best if the therapist carefully stays neutral, but the most recent therapist I visited wasn’t shy to share his thoughts and opinions and I found it sincere and validating. I could also see how I changed as I became more self-aware and used more tools that were given in previous sessions. I started out as a lost traveler who saw walls everywhere, but this time around, I had pieces of the map and just wanted another source of encouragement and assurance to draw on as I keep going in the direction I chose.

I started my search for a therapist at my insurance company’s database of in-network providers, but there are other resources available. Many employers have employee assistant programs (EAP) that include free therapy sessions. As lawyers, we have organizations that provide peer and professional help such as Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.3 

There are many reasons people do not seek out therapy. First is the perceived inability to seek help from other people. It feels like an unsurmountable challenge because you are essentially fighting yourself. But know that it gets a lot easier once you take the first step. I first went into therapy through intervention from my school, but now, equipped with more self-knowledge, I am able to seek help as soon as I spot the signs. The second is the stigma-inducing misunderstanding from other people. When I took a break from law school, my dad’s judgment added to the guilt and shame I was already feeling. He couldn’t understand why I was suddenly so “weak” with no visible signs of physical illness, a track record of academic success, and a goal of going into a profession of advising other people. Present-day me would explain that it wasn’t about being weak. On the contrary, I could even argue that the fact I didn’t give up and was trying to nurture my mind back to health through therapy was a clear display of strength. I had questions, some stemming from thought distortions and some legitimate life decisions, that I couldn’t answer all by myself, and therapy was an available solution that proved effective. So why should there be any barriers to trying or continuing? I wasn’t as eloquent then, but I had support from my mom, and ultimately my dad understood that it was what I needed. I didn’t have to worry about the costs or life’s many necessities, but my first-world problems were nevertheless important to me. These attempts at resolution ultimately became an integral part of my personal growth. 

Surrounded by social isolation and uncertainty, we are all weakened by the pandemic and may have become more vulnerable against the many stressors thrown our way. It’s important to know that there is support from various sources, and therapy can be of great assistance, like it has always been to me. 

On traveling during the pandemic

Right when everyone was suffering from pandemic fatigue in October, I took full advantage of the flexibilities of being single and working from home by taking a month-long road trip. I selected major cities in South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri that are four to five hours apart. The driving was quite pleasant as it felt like I was going back in time with the fall colors getting more vibrant the further south I went. But the impact of the coronavirus was all over the plan and the actual trip as I tried my best to lower the risk. 

I limited my choices of accommodations to places where I could have the whole place to myself: an apartment, a second floor with its own entrance, or a house. The only exception was in Sioux Falls, where I stayed in an Airbnb house with three other people, each of us having our own room. We were careful to maintain socially distanced interactions, most of which occurred on the patio. 

My food adventures were devoid of any possible pluses from charming interiors. But the value of customer service wasn’t diminished at all. I left my first Google Map review for an Afghani deli where I was greeted warmly and where the chef had mastered the secret sauce for the best chicken shawarma wrap. The second time I was there to pick up my food, the server/owner recognized me as the reviewer and offered to reserve one of the deli’s most popular menu items—a serving of roasted lamb leg—for my Wednesday lunch.  

On my trip, the most time I spent indoors was 10 to 15 minutes in gift shops and used bookstores here and there. I didn’t want to behave like a misanthrope, but crowds of people without masks, even seen from some distance away, filled my head with worry and dismay. I was in Iowa in October when it was one of the very few states that still didn’t have a mask mandate! I also remember feeling anxious when maskless people in a crowded downtown area in Nebraska asked to pet my dog. 

Without the virus I would have visited museums, arboretums, shopping malls, and theaters, but instead my trip was full of parks, lakes, and downtown sidewalks. Those outdoor places were beautiful though. The Pappajohn Sculpture Park and the Gray’s Lake Park in Des Moines were perfect for a leisurely stroll (with falling snow in the background). The Old Market neighborhood in downtown Omaha was charming with its red brick roads and horse-drawn carriages, and the Jefferson Barracks Park in south St. Louis was an oasis of nature full of white-tailed deer that curiously peeked through the bushes. Pandemic-style travel meant that I spent more time getting an overview of the cities than I did exploring specific cultural structures. 

Ultimately, a change of scenery was extremely beneficial despite the many limitations and all the brain cells lost in coming up with risk-mitigation strategies. I would recommend traveling, albeit in a safe way. 

Conclusion 

With the pandemic raging on, we must stay resilient. I have learned to refuel my motivation for work through virtual connections with colleagues, building and modifying structures for the workday, surrounding myself with supportive friends, taking care of my emotional health with the help of pet and human therapy, and drawing energy from a change of scenery. In these trying times, let us continue to be strong by taking care of ourselves. 


Weichen Wang is a regulatory attorney at Fagron, a pharmaceutical compounding company. She focuses on federal drug compounding law and state pharmacy law and advises Fagron’s facilities across several states. 

 

 


Notes

See, e.g., Marcheta Fornoff, Before Minnesota Animal Shelter Temporarily Halts Adoptions, Hundreds of Pets Find New Homes, MPR News, March 23, 2020, https://www.mprnews.org/story/2020/03/22/before-minnesota-animal-shelter-temporarily-halts-adoptions-hundreds-pets-find-new-homes. 

“Pickle Rick.” Rick and Morty, season 3, episode 3, Cartoon Network, Aug. 6, 2017. Hulu, https://www.hulu.com/series/rick-and-morty-d76d6361-3fbf-4842-8dd7-e05520557280. 

For immediate assistance, please call 651-646-5590 or 1-866-525-6466. Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, https://www.mnlcl.org/contact.