In late April, the three sisters who make up HAIM, the L.A. pop rock band, sat in their separate homes and performed the single “I Know Alone” for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. A keyboard, microphone, and various sound equipment surrounds each of them, Danielle, Alana, and Este, in their respective rooms. They sync with one another on their laptops, and in the break between the bridge and the outro, they queue strobe lights in their homes in time with the music. Although they later released an official music video for the song with a choreographed dance, I rewatch their Colbert performance almost weekly. Each of the sisters is alone, yet they reach across the signals and wires for some semblance of togetherness. It reminds me that connection is possible in spite of the circumstances.
I texted the clip to my group chat the day it was posted to YouTube, but no one responded. I wanted to talk, but no one was available. Maybe they were busy, or didn’t care. The day carried on, but I kept checking for a notification, a wave to break the silence. A confirmation that someone else understood the feeling articulated by HAIM. On “I Know Alone,” Danielle sings of isolation in extremes, the kind of loneliness that no one else could possibly relate to. “I know alone like no one else does,” she boasts on the hook, the obvious lie containing a painful truth: when feelings of isolation invade the psyche, there is not another person to relate or refute you. Those who try, no matter how well-intentioned, would be wrong. As if to slap the hand that reaches out, Danielle doubles down in the bridge: “I know alone, and I don’t want to talk about it.” Had any of my friends ever felt this way? I wanted to talk about it, to see them, to be seen.
A few years ago, no one knew these feelings better than me. I quit my job and went back to school, but the stresses of academic life, coupled with multiple part-time jobs that barely covered bills, weighed on me. I had made this choice to advance my career, but I did not anticipate its costs to my mental health. I stopped talking to friends, panicked in classes, and struggled to formulate thoughts. A friend of many years was in the program with me, and I told him I was having a hard time holding a conversation. He said he had noticed, but didn’t know how to bring it up. To notice me like this might be an unwelcome observation. It was a kind of mercy, even as I had hoped it was not obvious. He was reaching out now, but I did not know how to take the hand he was offering me. Being seen, I wished to become invisible again. Thank you for everything, but I must be going.
I eventually took advantage of the university’s free counseling center, where I learned that I live with social anxiety. Finally, a name for a persistent struggle. At its worst, this anxiety builds a case against my relation to others, denying any evidence to the contrary. A text goes unresponded to, and I assume the person hates me, even though I often forget to respond to messages. Misread moments in conversation lead to days and weeks of overthinking interactions already forgotten or never noticed by others. Coupled with seasons of depression, as I was during that time, my sense of isolation locks me away from the people who love me, misinterpreting knocks on the door as meant for someone else.
With “I Know Alone,” HAIM’s lead singer, Danielle, articulates one aspect of her own depression, which speaks both to a personal and now collective sense of solitary life. HAIM wrote the song before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the United States, but its timing was perfect. In an Instagram post on the eve of its release, Danielle wrote that the song came from “feeling like I felt loneliness deeper than anyone ever had.” With many people isolating from others, she acknowledged that alone now “feels like a ritual.” This year pushed everyone into our homes and away from others. As safety measures required that we stay inside and avoid unnecessary interactions, I worried at the ways this might eventually become natural, normal, preferable. On video chats with my friends, we worked against the ritualization of loneliness while I feared its ability to seep into the everyday.
Other 2020 tracks and albums recorded before or during the present moment speak into this shared state. French singer Christine & the Queens released “People, I’ve been sad” in February, a haunting track as direct as its title and possibly in reference to her mother’s passing in 2019. In contrast to HAIM’s singular claim on loneliness, Christine’s chorus welcomes anyone who feels the same isolation as her, layering the line “you know the feeling” on top of promises to disappear alongside her mother, the listener, or both.
Having experienced both depression and grief in my life, sometimes all at once, I don’t see Danielle Haim and Christine in disagreement, but rather articulating the many sides of a kaleidoscope of solitude, one with which we are all now deeply familiar. As we began to experience a collective isolation, doors opened for my friends and I to talk about our struggles with mental health. When I lived through a depressive season in graduate school, my grandmother died, compounding my sadness with mourning. Now, several friends have lost family and other loved ones this year. I can’t fathom someone else’s pain, not exactly, but I know my own: stumbling up a hill that feels like a mountain, straining to fall asleep, losing the plot and not wanting to see it through.
In the midst of this pandemic, my feed is full of an overwhelming sense of global doom, uncertainty, and fear. I turn it off but try not to disconnect from my friends. Teri tells me we should talk soon, and I want to. For now, keep sending me messages, reminding me you are there. In every interaction, we speak into our separation through screens, masks, and at least six feet. Communication becomes strained by signals cutting out, half-hidden expressions, and invisible lines of distance. I fight in the ways I know how or am learning.
English singer Charli XCX recorded her new album, how i’m feeling now, entirely during quarantine. In her song, “pink diamond,” Charli insists on still looking good for video chats, taunting the spaces she cannot inhabit: “In real life, could the club even handle us?” Still, she later laments that she cannot see her friends on “c2.0,” repeatedly singing, “I miss them by my side,” the screens of our devices poor substitutes for physicality.
I live in a one-bedroom loft with my partner in Dallas. Meg is in law school, and I am a high school teacher. On March 16, our schools moved online, and we have mostly been in the apartment since then. I have not experienced a bad spell of social anxiety in some years, so I do not often feel alone, especially as Meg and I are spending more time in each other’s presence than ever. Even so, we both long for contact with the people we love who are not in the room.
In the past two years, several of our friends moved into the buildings next to us, in part fulfilling a longtime desire to be neighbors who can pop over for visits and run-ins. While our friends in other states and even neighborhoods feel far away, we meet Lauren and Kate on our shared rooftop every Friday night to eat dinner at separate tables for each of our households. We haven’t crossed each other’s doorsteps in months, but we know we’re lucky to have these small moments of reprieve from the four walls we are confined to otherwise.
Still, I miss my friends and the rhythms we had learned. I miss sitting next to them in a theater, perfectly quiet but together. I miss being in their homes, sharing junk food out of the same bowl. I miss the silence that comes with not worrying if you need to impress someone, not the silence of our apartment when Meg steps out, the quiet intensifying.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote that most marital problems stem from the same place: “You’re not enough people.” Living with another person does not forever cancel out feelings of isolation. You don’t trade in your loneliness the day you find a partner with whom to share your life. Meg and I are happy to have each other through this season, but we know we’re not enough people to make a life feel whole. There are parents and siblings, friends and classmates, coworkers and students. In marriage, we find our lives made larger not just through family, but through everyone who shares in our lives. Meg has helped me work through social insecurities so that I can learn to love the people in my life better. Now we long to see them unpixeled.
Alongside HAIM’s Late Show performance, I return to another video of Phoebe Bridgers performing alone at home on acoustic guitar. “I Know the End” could be a sibling to “I Know Alone,” in both its title as well as its cynical outlook. Bridgers evokes The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy, one of several songs on her album Punisher where she longs to escape some place that is not home. Wishing to click her heels while an apocalypse looms, she fantasizes about the monotony of laying around, getting up, then laying down again. “There’s no place like my room,” Bridgers sings, undercutting Dorothy’s desperation for dreams of being left to her devices.
As soon as I saw Bridgers debut “I Know the End” on Instagram, I texted friends who are also fans of her: “omg new phoebe song is EVERYTHING.” Like HAIM, like Christine & the Queens, and like so many others, Bridgers gives voice to a particular desire for solitude: “I’ll find a new place to be from / a haunted house with a picket fence / to float around and ghost my friends / no, I’m not afraid to disappear.” I recognized the desire before seeing that Bridgers confirmed the song started as an expression of her own depression.
When I first heard her sing these words, I was struck by the acceptance of impermanence and the longing to be peripheral. How far I am from that feeling now, but how true it often rings. I want to be with the people I love, but sometimes I want to live outside of my brain and body, to live without being seen. I want to not look at my phone and worry about it going off, or staying silent. I want to not overthink interactions, to let them be. Sometimes being a ghost seems easier, preferable. I don’t want to die, but sometimes I want to be free from the anxiety that haunts me.
I did not listen to the recorded version of “I Know the End” until Punisher was released two months after the song’s debut. It closes the album, and in place of Bridgers solo on acoustic guitar, the song builds to a dramatic crescendo featuring horns, guitars, and drums. Eleven people—including frequent collaborators Conor Oberst, Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus—sing on the outro, their voices joining to sing, “The end is here.” In the midst of an apocalypse, here is some semblance of community standing next to the overwhelming abyss of the self.
Hearing Bridgers perform the song solo, then with friends, is a kind of hope in the face of the otherwise morbid lyrics, a rebuttal of her own solitary fantasies. “I’m looking forward to someday having people sing it back to me in a crowd,” she said.
My friends texted back. We can’t wait to be there.
Ben Lewellyn-Taylor is an educator in Dallas, where he lives with his spouse, Meggie. He is an MFA student in nonfiction at Antioch University, and he works on the Lunch Ticket staff for the Amuse-Bouche, nonfiction, blog, and web teams. Ben co-hosts Deep Vellum Books’ monthly Book Cult with Cristina Rodriguez. His work has previously appeared on the Adroit Journal, New South, and FreezeRay Poetry, among others. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @blewellyntaylor.