The Outbreak | A commuter’s guide to being alone

The Outbreak is a new blog describing the different ways the coronavirus pandemic has affected our lives.

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Megan Williams | Contributing Writer

Staff writer Megan Williams sits outside the Carnegie Library in her car.

As Pitt empties itself of the vast majority of people, many students will have to grapple with consistently being alone during learning for the first time.

Classmates, friends and students alike are being torn from each other because of coronavirus and scattered across the United States, sent back to their homes for online learning. For some, this change signifies a sudden shift into unfamiliar and isolated territory. For me, a commuter student of two years, I’ve created coping mechanisms for loneliness just as I’ve created study strategies for all my classes. 

Beyond physically attending four classes a semester — one usually completed online — I spend almost all my time at home. Home is a three-story house in the North Hills with my mother, a school superintendent and my sister who is three years my junior. My father, a lawyer, lives two streets away looking after my grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. My house is about 20 minutes away from the Cathedral of Learning in light traffic. I’ve driven to and from campus every single day since December of 2017. My car, a blue Toyota Rav, is my closest friend in the world. We’ve braved snowstorms and broken air-conditioning and crying fits and crumbs left behind from the kids I babysit these past three years.

We can’t brave coronavirus together, though. She will sit untouched in my garage over the next few weeks. Even so, this change is not so devastating for me. My gas bill will go down and I’ll miss pretending to be the leads of many Broadway musicals on my commute in, but otherwise, my schedule will remain the same. I’ll apply my coping mechanisms against loneliness and feeling left out the same as I always do, and share them now in the hopes that they’ll help students who are not so gung-ho about going home. 

One of the first things I had to make myself comfortable with after coming home post-freshman year, essentially friendless, was talking to myself. Because of my existing mental health issues, I always avoided audibly talking to myself — I worried that I was crossing some invisible line because of an existing stigma about some of my disorders. However, as I moved through college primarily talking to the four members of my family and the occasional professor, I started to tell myself about my day on the car rides home. This practice, which feels strange and embarrassing at first, actually helped me sort through my feelings about being lonely better than ignoring those feelings ever did. So if you start to feel frustrated by the current status of the world — a common experience as of now, I’m sure — say it to yourself aloud. No matter how sad it sounds, you can be your own friend. 

Another important practice when working alone from home is adhering to a schedule, the importance of which for individuals and families alike has been heralded by many news organizations already. The intensity and specificity of a schedule can vary from person-to-person. I’ve found that waking up and going to bed at the same time every day are the best bookends for me, though for my online classes specifically I do carve out a consistent time period to complete that week’s work. In my stats class this semester, I do the upcoming week’s work every Saturday so I can focus on more timely and interactive assignments — like discussion board posts that require responses to peer posts — on their specific days.

My last piece of advice as a person who interacts constantly with her family (indeed, they are watching the Netflix series “Cheer!” and screaming at the television as I write this now) is to find or create a confidant. It’s normal to get on each other’s nerves, or to have experiences you don’t want to disclose to your parents. If you have other people with whom you talk, make FaceTime dates. Then, when you want to kill your mother for interrupting your Zoom lecture for the 15th time, you can avoid hurting her feelings by telling yourself you’ll scream and spill the details to your confidant. If you, like me, lack friends — or perhaps have trouble articulating yourself to others — make a private Twitter! My account has 0 followers but more than 5,000 tweets, small screams into the void which alleviate my stress and help me feel as if my words are important. 

My time at Pitt has taught me how to spend time by myself more so than anything else. I’ve become fluent in isolation, so much so that this announcement of a shift to online classes is one of the smaller blips on this week’s radar. I’m worried much more about one of my friends currently being tested for COVID-19, for the status of my parents’ jobs and for the state of the world at large.

That being said, I know this shift is scary for many students — like being asked to leap into the dark and do it all alone. Sometimes, focusing on the plights which should be philosophically greater than simply missing graduation doesn’t actually numb the sting of your life changing. I became a commuter because my mental illnesses got much worse living at Pitt, but leaving college lonely and friendless didn’t hurt less when I thought of other students with mental health issues who didn’t leave school alive.

I still hope that with patience, compassion and the practice of healthy habits, every lonely Pitt student can land on their feet. Words might not be much help right now, but by using some of these strategies, I am standing strong and steady, even today. 

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