Unchained Melody: Isolation

By Melody Thomas

Melody’s other column,
Wāhine, is a regular
feature in print.
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real thing here.

Melody Thomas brings
us her new monthly
column, available
exclusively on the
Capital website.

In her inaugural article,
Melody discusses the
woes of post-pandemic
loneliness, and how we
can get back into a
better headspace.

Discover her monthly recommendations for

reads, eats, beats, and
stuff to watch.

It is two years since New Zealand’s first lockdown, but it feels like a lifetime ago. Back in March 2020, the novel coronavirus was still – well – novel. It was scary, of course, especially for those who were particularly vulnerable, and with (at that point) no vaccine in sight. But for many the first lockdown also provided a chance to do something they hadn’t allowed themselves to do in so long: stop. We got to spend time with our kids, bake bread, go scavenger hunting for teddy bears (thank goodness that trend passed, but it was nice for a time), and explore parts of our neighbourhoods we hadn’t taken the time to explore before. The government called us a team of five million and for a little while that felt like it fit. Like whatever happened, we’d get through it, and we’d try our hardest to make sure no-one was left behind.

But things have changed. The cost of living has continued to rise at the same time that many have lost jobs or income. Warm, secure housing continues to elude too many. Misinformation has driven a wedge between friends and family, with those who are vulnerable feeling thrown to the wolves by a “freedom” movement calling for a return to a business-as-usual which was already wilfully ignorant of their needs.

It’s no surprise then that all around me, friends and family are struggling with their mental health (and I’m not exempt, either). Shit is tough. We go about crying “Why do I feel like this?” but of course we feel like this! Given the circumstances, it would bode much worse if we were all doing fine.

But if we’re going to be honest, many of us have been struggling since well before Covid. Depression and anxiety have risen to epidemic levels all over the world. Fifty years ago a requirement to distance from each other might have seemed unfathomable: how to go about separating ourselves off from the communities in which we were so deeply embedded? How would we cope? But in 2020 that was easy. We didn’t really know our neighbours anyway. We preferred to walk past strangers with a distant smile, rather than stopping to talk. We were already living in bubbles.

I’ve been listening to a book called Lost Connections by Johann Hari. In it, Hari highlights nine  causes of depression and anxiety uncovered by extensive analysis of the available research, some of which are in our biology but most of which lie in the ways we live. All of them are forms of disconnection.

Humans are social animals, who evolved to live in hunter-gatherer groups of up to about 100, relying on a web of connections between members for survival. Without those connections we feel increasingly lonely. And loneliness is dangerous, not just mentally but physically: it’s linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, and even death.

Today, one of the most consistent measures of loneliness is the rate of “micro-awakenings”: frequent, short disruptions to sleep that a person may never notice, though they may feel poorly rested on waking. One of the theories as to why lonely people experience more micro-awakenings is that evolutionarily, we are still out on the plains. Without the warmth of other bodies around us we are eternally vulnerable, and must remain constantly vigilant to threats, even as we try to rest.

“Everyone knows that human beings have innate physical needs — for food, water, shelter, clean air. There is equally clear evidence that human beings have innate psychological needs: to belong, to have meaning and purpose in our lives, to feel we are valued, to feel we have a secure future. Our culture is getting less good at meeting those underlying needs for a large number of people — and this is one of the key drivers of the current epidemic of despair.”– Johann Hari

It’s been good to hear all of this put into words, but it’s not anything I didn’t already suspect to some degree. We all know that community and connection are important. But when I’ve heard that in the past I’ve thought to myself, “Well I have friends, so I must be connected”. But this book has made me think about it all more deeply. How many of those friends am I in regular contact with? How many do I feel comfortable reaching out to when I am in distress? If I were struggling or got sick, do I feel secure in the knowledge that people would check in on me? If I’m feeling alone and isolated, how many of my friends are feeling the same?

For all the incredible damage it has done, Covid has also provided us with a unique opportunity to reassess. We’re already doing this when it comes to work, and the grand-scale realisation that many jobs can be done from home. How might we turn that same scrutiny towards our relationships?

I understand that when you’ve already got so much on, and you’re struggling to simply hold it all together, reaching out to friends to see what they need might feel like a big ask. Similarly, putting your needs on them feels like an imposition. They are already carrying so much. But if I’m carrying this heavy load, and you’re carrying that one, what harm can it do to swap a little? I’ll take that one off your plate, you take this one off mine. In the end we are left with the same amount to carry, but we are more connected and better supported. We can lie back under the stars and get some much-needed rest, safe in the knowledge that whatever comes our way, we won’t have to face it alone.

What I’m cooking

Ottolenghi’s confit tandoori chickpeas

This recipe has that perfect combination of ease and deliciousness. The chopping is a slight chore but then it all goes into one dish and comes out of the oven 75 minutes later done! Slow-cooking the chickpeas in all that olive oil makes them incredibly soft, the herby, lime yoghurt topping brings the whole thing to life, plus you can’t go wrong with 11 cloves of garlic. Cook now while cherry tomatoes aren’t too pricey (or swap out regular tomatoes) and omit chilli if cooking for the kids – it’s still great!

What I’m reading

Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes

I just devoured Rachel’s Holiday in anticipation of the sequel Again, Rachel which has just been released 20 years after the first Rachel book. I hadn’t read this one before and it was a wonderful ride! (Fans will get that joke). Very much looking forward to the sequel, which I currently have on hold at the library. Other great books I’ve recently finished include Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, and Everyone in this Room will Someday be Dead by Emily Austin.

What I’m listening to

Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression, and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari

I’ve always struggled to read non-fiction even though I know there’s so much incredible information waiting for me to soak up, and I think I’ve finally cracked it by listening to them via audiobook on Audible. You can try it out free of charge, though if you like too much you then have to figure out how to afford yet another monthly subscription, so beware.

What I’m watching

The Morning Show, Apple TV

Maybe it’s just my journalism background, but who wouldn’t want to watch Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon play American morning show hosts grappling with #MeToo fallout at their network? Shout out to Steve Carrell for an excellent and nuanced portrayal of an entitled white guy struggling with being held accountable, and Billy Crudup for being weird and hot. Also there’s gay stuff.


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