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711: How to Be Alone

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Prologue: Prologue

Announcer

Bim Adewunmi

It's This American Life. I'm Bim Adewunmi, in for Ira Glass this week. So, back in early April, when we were still only a few weeks into lockdown in New York, a friend of mine asked me what things were like on Planet Bim. It was a joke, but it was one of those accurate jokes. Because living alone right now is probably not that dissimilar to being a far away, solitary planet.

New York was one of the first places to lock down. And in a way, I'm still living like it's March. I work from home. I leave for groceries. I attend almost no social functions.

And it's not that I don't know how to be alone. Being alone, even in a crowd, is not new to me. We moved continents when I was very young, living between the UK and Nigeria. I went off to boarding school when I was 10 years old. I left home for university when I was 19, and I never really moved back home again.

I've lived in London, Lagos, Berlin, and now New York. I chose to live in those last two places, to move far away from family and home. But there's something different about the aloneness of right now.

COVID-19 has taken away that element of choice. Like a 9-year-old being sent up to her room as punishment, versus sitting in her room, quietly reading anyway. The activities are the same, but the issue is control. So many of us have been dealing with this enforced aloneness a lot more since the pandemic began.

Sometimes I feel like I'm floating through space, a sort of dwarf planet in a galaxy that seems to be populated by planets with people attached-- children, a partner, other family members, maybe even housemates or a pet. I have none of those things at the moment. My family, my parents, my siblings, their partners, they're all in London, about three and a half thousand miles and a full ocean away.

I'm basically a caricature of the elder millennial. It's just me and an ever-growing collection of house plants and candles. And as I kept thinking about space and about distance, I realized, oh, I'm not a planet. I'm an astronaut. It feels like no one is psychically, if not physically, further away from their loved ones than an astronaut in orbit.

So I found an astronaut, just to compare notes with-- Leroy Chiao. He's retired now from NASA. But altogether, he spent more than 7 and 1/2 months in space.

Bim Adewunmi

Can I ask a child's question now?

Leroy Chiao

Sure.

Bim Adewunmi

Can you be bored in space? Like, is it different to Earth boredom?

Leroy Chiao

You know, I think you-- well, put it this way. We do have a lot to do. Even if a lot of the work is tedious work, it's still work that has to be done, and it has to be done per the schedule.

And if we didn't have that, it would be a lot more difficult. Because even though you've got the spectacular view of the Earth and you're taking photographs of all these great places, after a while, if you didn't have enough to do, it'd be pretty tough, you know?

Bim Adewunmi

So the answer is yes. I think he was saying yes, you can absolutely get bored in space, even though they keep them quite busy. Leroy told me something I hadn't known. At the end of every day, all the activities on the International Space Station had to be logged. And every single day, based on that log, the plan changed.

Leroy Chiao

Before you even launch aboard a six-month space mission, every minute of your mission has been planned out and taking into account all the requirements, constraints, priorities, things like that. And then you get up there, and you start the first day with day one. And at the end of your day, you've got logged on the computer the things that you finished, things that you got ahead on, things you maybe got behind on.

And then while you sleep, the entire planning team on the ground in the mission control center is replanning the entire mission based on what happened that day and then ripple it all the way through to the end. And then they send up a new flight plan. And the next morning, when you get up, you've got a new flight plan on your computer because of this replanning team that has to do this every night.

Bim Adewunmi

I love that it fell to a whole crew of people at an entirely different location to plan, minute by minute, everything that a person should be doing with their hours. Eat breakfast and clean up between 0615 and 0645 hours. A 15-minute conference with mission control after experiments. Sleep for eight hours. Someone to check in, make sure you're on task.

Unfortunately, unlike Leroy, I have no mission control. The usual order of my day has been disrupted since March. With no commute, my desk is now only a few feet away from my bed. My sleep schedule is messed up. A friend of mine said, we should stop calling it "working from home," but rather, "living at work."

Everything feels like it's drifting-- and not just in my apartment. It'd be nice if someone seemed to have a bit of a plan, globally speaking.

When Leroy and I first spoke, it was April. And at that point, I'd been alone indoors for about six weeks. I remember it as a slightly feral time. I joked that I wished I'd thought to trap a boyfriend before the pandemic hit, some kind of human space junk to occasionally bump into in my apartment. But then Leroy told me about the perils of cohabiting in space.

Leroy Chiao

I talked to some of the cosmonauts who had been around for a long time. And they said, some crews came back, and they said, if I had had a weapon, if I had had a gun, I would have killed my crewmate. I mean, that's how bad it can get.

Bim Adewunmi

I have no tension with my houseplants. My candles burn, but not with any malice. And I actually really like living alone. It's not that I want to fight with anyone. I just wish I had the option sometimes-- you know, break glass in case of boredom.

Leroy's longest stint in space came when he lived on the International Space Station with only one other person-- Salizhan Sharipov, a Kyrgyzstani cosmonaut-- for 192 days. For context, my personal expedition is currently around 130 days.

Part of the terror of being alone right now is that this pandemic feels endless. I asked Leroy when things began to feel really impossible for him. Was there a time in space when the itch to be home became unbearable?

Leroy Chiao

I would say right around the four-month point. Three, four months seems to be kind of the right amount of time, if you ask most astronauts. And that's when you're saying, well, this is great. This is interesting. It's fulfilling, but I sure wouldn't mind going home either.

[LAUGHTER]

And when you start getting eager to go home is actually after the next crew arrives. You have generally about a week or a week and a half together before you go home. And so the next crew arrives, and you start getting really excited about going home. And that's when the time seems to slow to a crawl, [LAUGHS] that last week or so.

Bim Adewunmi

That makes sense to me. Even in the majesty of space, four months is still four months. Four months of being alone, of being so far away-- it's hard. And four months is where we're at in this new reality. We're ready to come back to Earth, but we don't know when we'll be allowed to go home. There's still no cure, no vaccine, and a steady increase in new cases.

So what do we do? Today, we're going to hear from people who've had time to think about their aloneness, or their loneliness, even when they're in a crowd. How to be an astronaut or a solitary planet when there's a whole galaxy just around the corner. How to be alone. That's the feeling of today's program. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Bim Adewunmi. Stay with me.

Act One: The Unbearable Part

Bim Adewunmi

Act One, The Unbearable Part. When isolation and social distancing was still new, I read a letter, and it felt like pages from a diary I hadn't even known I was writing. It was published in The Sewanee Review back in April. The writer, Danielle Evans, alone in Baltimore, seemed to synthesize the feeling of aloneness and loss and fear that I hadn't yet been able to even articulate. Here's Danielle reading a version of that letter.

Danielle Evans

"Who was everyone's last real human touch?" a friend asked at a Zoom birthday party in late March. I said a name, but once everyone hung up, I thought again, not sure if I remembered correctly.

I walked myself through that last real day of human contact-- the first week of March on the last day of AWP, an annual writer's conference. I had planned to fly to San Antonio a day and a half early to treat a friend who'd had a difficult year to a pre-conference spa day, but in the days leading up to the conference, fear of the virus spread. Thousands of people, including my friend, canceled their travel plans.

I canceled the spa day out of prudence, but my flight was departing as scheduled, and I wouldn't get reimbursed if I didn't get on it. I decided to travel, anxiously, but I am anxious as a general condition. One way to live in the world when you have anxiety is to get used to pushing it aside when it gets in the way of being alive.

This is my best explanation for why I trusted the city and the airlines and the institutions who said it was still safe to travel, and ignored the warnings of friends who said what was coming. I thought quarantine was still an if, and weeks away if so. And I thought if loneliness was coming soon, I did not want to be alone any longer than necessary.

The conference was part hectic work trip, part carnival. On its final day, tired after two days packed with events and panels, I slept in and stayed in bed for hours after I woke. I finally made it as far as the hotel lobby, intending to grab lunch, but instead spotted a friend at the bar. We spent a few hours day drinking, having a meandering conversation about our novels and major life decisions.

"I feel so settled," I said, believing it. The serendipity of the afternoon bled into the evening. I spent the day moving from crowded space to crowded space, running into friends, making plans for later in the night, or the month, or the year.

Late in the evening, a group of us headed to the conference's dance party. But when we all went upstairs, the dance floor was hilariously, heartbreakingly empty. It already felt like a metaphor. Downstairs, people began to peel off. We were tired. Flights were early. It was starting to be unavoidably clear that we were in the before of something terrible and on the wrong side of caution.

I remember who was there. I remember that some people were already conscientiously not hugging or touching, that some people were there who I didn't know well enough to hug. Who was the last person who leaned into me to say goodbye? Who was the last person, besides me, to realize the party was over?

Two days after I returned to Baltimore, the campus where I teach was closed immediately and indefinitely. I prepared myself for the city to shut down for about a month. I walked a block to buy extra cat food, and then a block more to stock up on canned and dried goods and, for reasons unclear to me, essential oils, at my tiny and mysterious neighborhood health food store. I reinstated the service that mailed me a box of fresh vegetables weekly.

A month passed. The virus hadn't peaked yet. April and May passed. I kept waiting for a clear sign that the worst was over, but instead felt like we were all trapped in the opening half of a horror movie. By the time the city's stay-at-home order lifted in early June, little seemed to have changed to make me feel better about being in crowds, or riding the city bus, or sharing indoor space with people.

It's July now, and most weeks, I only go as far as my apartment building's front entryway to collect mail and occasional groceries and bring them inside to disinfect. In more exciting weeks, I venture down the fire escape to take out the recycling and walk around the block to come back in through my front door. Though, for three weeks, our recycling was on hold because of an outbreak at the Bureau of Solid Waste, and I stopped making even that small trip.

In over three months, I have seen six delivery people, two neighbors in the hallway, one friend making a masked front door grocery drop-off, one repairman, one stranger who needed to tour the property, and my landlord.

As time passes, there are fewer unbearable days, but they are worse when they come. I had a running joke for years about how none of my survival skills would be useful in an apocalypse. But it turns out, being anxious and alone in my apartment, weighing which things I love are worth the possibility that they might hurt me, is the one scenario I was somewhat prepared for.

At the start of the year, I had been looking forward to spending some time alone. I was on teaching leave for the spring semester and I thought it would be a luxury to be mostly at home for a while. I love my apartment. I bought myself a smart bike and taught myself to like it, anticipating a season when I would become a creature of odd habits and hours, and wouldn't want to walk to the gym after dark or in the spring rain. I was preparing to hibernate and not miss much.

Now I miss so many things. I take vitamin D pills and sometimes hover over the fire escape ledge, standing beside the trash can, to try to get some sunlight, and imagine the luxury of having a backyard. I miss my father, who is a 40-minute train ride away. The train feels out of the question. And I can't ask my father, working full time from home and recovering from minor surgery, to drive an hour each way just to visit.

I never learned to drive, something I sometimes considered a badge of city-dwelling honor. Earlier in the year, I told a relative I didn't need to learn to drive in Baltimore, when I live a short walk from Penn Station, and at least a dozen city buses stop within a block of my apartment. If I had a car and a license, I think now, I could drive to wave at my father from a safe distance.

When the casual relationship I had drifted into early in the year just as casually evaporated, I told a friend, I guess we weren't that serious about it, so it's for the best. Now the scolding voice in my head tells me that a person who believed in chasing after things, who didn't think it was as clear as people either want to be around you or they don't, and if you didn't know which, there was your answer-- well, that person might not be alone in her apartment for months.

When I turned 35 a few years ago, I promised myself I'd let go of the idea that someday I was going to become a different kind of adult. I let myself accept that there would be no house or a husband or a baby or sudden mature renunciation of glitter.

It was only the baby I really grieved, but I let myself have that grief and move on. I gave myself permission to live a life that wasn't waiting for my real life to start, to free all of my intimate relationships from the emotional tyranny of a ticking biological clock, to claim as a choice what would otherwise feel like it had happened to me.

I thought it worked. But the loneliness of isolation some days mocks all of that, makes all of my possible joys feel ephemeral. I asked which of the things I promised myself I could still have-- casual flings, travel, community in the form of classrooms and bookstores and coffee shops and bars-- will survive this or exist in recognizable form when we emerge. It is possible to feel stuck with your choices even without wishing you'd made any differently.

When I hear that this could go on for a year, I think it is lack of human touch, human contact, that will break me. And then I think it might actually be grief. Without the constant, busy buzz of my normal life, it's harder not to dwell on what is absent-- the lives I might have had, the life I would have if my mother was still alive.

I keep waiting for the first feeling I have that is wholly untouched by grief, or that is at least its own fresh grief, not marked by her death three years ago. But it hasn't come yet.

When I heard the early descriptions of the virus, of what it does to people's breathing, I thought of my mother at the beginning of her illness, when she went to the ER with undiagnosed stage four cancer and a liter and a half of fluid in her lungs, and the doctor was planning to send her home with a laxative, until my mother's friend, a cardiologist at the same hospital, insisted they give her a CAT scan.

I thought of my mother at the end, when everything they had given her to keep the pain at bay, to keep her unnaturally calm while her body's every instinct told her to panic, also meant she couldn't hold her head up to cough or vomit. How many times she'd said she didn't want to die hooked up to tubes, so when they first asked to intubate her, her partner said no.

How when I was alone with her later that day, she began to choke, suddenly awake and terrified. And I held her hand and I pushed the call button and knew we didn't have that much time, so I ran into the hallway screaming for help, and the nurse came running.

I stood in that hallway, terrified my mother was going to die, while I was, in fact, at the hospital by her bedside, waiting for my mother to die, just not like that. How I didn't know for certain, until after they'd put the tube in, that I'd heard her voice for the last time.

In the first months of quarantine, sometimes in the middle of the day, I would find myself sobbing and only realize later why, which bit of news triggered which memory-- the descriptions of what the virus does to the body, how many of the early faces of the dead were Black women my mother's age, or the infuriating financial politics of our health care system. It was hard for me to untangle on a personal or national level the difference between a health crisis and the financial crisis.

When my mother's CAT scan came back indicating a problem, before I could comfort her, I had to ask her for her insurance card and step out in the hallway to call in a payment, because I knew if she got any further behind, she would be uninsured.

I knew that because we'd fought the week before when she told me she had stopped paying her insurance. She said, "The only thing wrong with me is high blood pressure, and the only reason for that is stress. And the main reason I'm stressed is money." I said, "If there's something else wrong, by the time you know it, it will be too late." It was already too late.

When the virus first hit, I thought of what hell it would have been for my sick mother, after years of chemo and complications, to have to add a pandemic to her list of dangers. I had the unbearable thought that it was a good thing she didn't have to live through this.

As time passed, I thought more of my mother when she was well-- my mother, who would have made it maybe two weeks before calling to tell me she was coming to get me or she was coming to stay, but she wasn't letting me stay in my apartment alone for months. "But it's my apartment," I would have said. And she would have scoffed at my boundaries and come anyway.

What I've been feeling acutely is the particular absence of the only person in the world who would have refused to leave me alone, even when I absolutely wanted to be. When I can step out of my personal grief for long enough, I summon my mother's tenacity in the face of the more collective grief. When the data on race began to come in, it was not a surprise, but it was devastating, and also terrifying.

When I saw who was dying and I heard the narrative shift to personal responsibility, I lost all faith that we would take this seriously enough for long enough. I knew my country, I thought.

And I was afraid that once it thought this was a Black and brown problem, it would not blink at sacrificing gig workers and shipping plant workers and service workers and food workers and city employees to have back the world of money and parties. It would kill them and replace them for as long as it needed to, even once the color of the faces started to change.

For months, I felt like my fear that Black life wasn't worth much in this country was another form of aloneness, which is why the shock of June's protests and the deaths that made them necessary felt like horror and hope at once, like we could say what had clearly been true all along, even if we couldn't yet say for certain that it would change.

Still, I'm terrified of getting sick. Because being sick alone means it may be too late when I realize how sick I am. I am terrified of having to go to the hospital alone because everything I know says there is no point in going to the hospital if I'm not well enough to credential myself.

I do not have any particular health risk factors for this virus, except that I find doctors stressful, and my blood pressure spikes at the beginning of any doctor's visit. If the doctor is willing to humor me and take it again, my blood pressure is almost always normal and the file says I have anxiety. If the doctor is not or the visit was upsetting, then the file says my blood pressure is elevated, mild hypertension.

If I got sick, no one would say she is a professor who just achieved a Peloton milestone and has a refrigerator full of almond milk and fresh vegetables and a book out soon. And she Clorox-wiped the apartment's front doors every time she went to get the mail.

Someone would say hypertension. Someone would say comorbidity. Someone would read the summarized statistics and say, that one doesn't count. She was basically dead anyway. Because this is the game we are playing with language, one where I and most of the people in my family cannot count as dying of this because we are already not alive.

When I think this, it is not especially good for my blood pressure. I add spite to my reasons to stay alive and well. I greet my anxiety like an old friend, one who wants me to live a long life and forgives me when I doubt her.

I alternate between my peppy smart bike and the despair of Twitter. I order new books from local bookstores before I've finished the last batch. I donate what I can where I can, work my way through the local tip jar Venmo, looking for my bartenders and baristas and my hairdresser.

I talk to my father several times a week. In recent years, he has taken to beekeeping in a county park near his house. And he is pleased that he can tend to his hives without violating social distancing guidelines. I am anxious to find a safe way to visit him. I confess I am indifferent to visiting the bees.

I congratulate my students on their accomplishments. I read a friend's daughter books via Zoom and come away with a critical thesis on reforms needed in pixie society.

My most cautious friends in the city haven't socialized in person in months either. I regard with affection and suspicion the invitations I do get for masked socially distanced gatherings as our restrictions relax. I am a lot of people's good friend and no one's singular person. And so every time someone reaches out, I think, yes, I would love to see you. And no, I cannot risk it if your social circle is already wide enough that I am included.

I'm trying to imagine the first day I will say yes. I'm trying to imagine when I can hug someone again, and beyond that, to the first day I will take touch for granted, to the next time I will go someplace and spend the day among friends again and leave not remembering which of the people I adore I said goodbye to last, not conscious of the significance, not conscious of the danger.

Bim Adewunmi

Danielle Evans is the author of a short story collection called Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.

Act Two: A Notion Apart

Bim Adewunmi

Act Two, A Notion Apart. There's a way that loneliness calls to loneliness. The more you know it, the more likely you are to see it in the world. Lonely people can see things that other non-lonely people might have missed. Lilly Sullivan has a story about that. It takes place in a vast non-human setting-- literally, no humans. Here's Lilly.

Lilly Sullivan

So, seven years ago, when I was just starting out in radio, I did a story about this scientific discovery, because there was something about it that I wanted to understand. The guy who first noticed this thing was named Joe George, on an island off the coast of Washington State.

Joe George

Yeah, so I was in the Navy. And we looked for submarines and that in the open ocean.

Lilly Sullivan

And by looking, they were really listening. This was the '80s, by the way. And the Navy had these devices called hydrophones that would listen to sounds in the ocean, anything that might be a Soviet sub. Joe had been doing it for decades-- could basically identify any ocean sound by its wiggles on the chart.

But one day, he saw something he'd never seen before. A marine biologist looked at the signal, said that it might be a whale. It seemed like it was huge, like a blue whale or a fin whale, judging by the characteristics of its call. But the song this whale was singing was totally off.

Joe George

Because the whales we were looking at-- where it would be the loudest was down at 20 Hertz. And this one, he was at-- he started out at 52 Hertz.

Lilly Sullivan

Meaning the sound was over an octave higher than it should be. And they could never detect any other whales with him. These kinds of whales are really social animals. They often traveled together in groups called pods.

And usually, when one whale calls out, other whales respond, calling back and forth to each other from miles away. Without that, they'd never be able to find each other in a huge space like the ocean. But this whale, when he called out, no whale ever seemed to respond.

Joe George

I'd always be looking for something else to see if there was anything out there like that. And through the years, it was the only vocalization like that in, I'll say, the North Pacific Ocean.

Lilly Sullivan

Hm.

Joe George

There was nobody else like it.

Lilly Sullivan

I can actually play you a recording of the call they picked up back then. Huge whales like that, like fin whales or blue whales, they're among the loudest creatures on Earth. Their songs to each other rumble across the ocean. They can hear each other from 1,000 miles away.

But those same songs, they're at frequencies too low for most humans to hear. But this whale's call is high enough that most humans can actually hear it. Lots of speakers don't play sounds at such low frequencies, but see if you can hear him.

[WHALE CALL]

And if you couldn't hear that, here it is shifted up a bit to make it easier.

[WHALE CALL]

For scientists, they thought, this is so useful. Usually, it was almost impossible to track an individual whale because you pick up on their entire pods. But now they could follow a single whale's migration precisely.

And as they tracked the whale like this, Joe realized the whale was in the wrong place, roaming miles away from where other whales were migrating, calling out all the time, never seeming to get a response.

Word of this eventually made it out into the public. A science writer for The New York Times wrote a small story about it, "Song of the Sea, a Capella and Unanswered." When people heard about this, they thought, oh, my God, poor whale.

People wondered, maybe other whales couldn't hear him because of his song's high frequency. Or maybe he couldn't hear other whales. Or maybe he's a hybrid, maybe a cross between a fin and a blue. And because he sounds so strange, other whales are afraid of him, so they don't respond.

When whales keep silent, that's how whales hide. There was just something about the idea of a creature moving through life constantly calling out to others and never getting a response. He seemed fundamentally out of sync in a way that got to people.

I felt this way, too. I first heard about the whale five years before I talked to Joe. Back then, I spent a lot of time alone. I actually had a job where I traveled 24/7 for two years, barely seeing friends or family or anyone I knew.

I would email myself passages I liked from books so I could read them over and over. Here's one of them. It's from a book by James Salter. He wrote, "In solitude, one must penetrate. One must endure. The icy beginning is where it is worst. One must pass all that. One must go forward all the way, through bitterness, through righteous feelings, advancing upon it like a holy city, sensing the true joy."

I still like that idea. Loneliness is a thing you can get better at, and that getting better at it would take you somewhere more true. I started to think of solitude as a project I wanted to master.

Over time, more and more people heard about this whale. I remember seeing someone post about it on Facebook. And within a day, 20,000 people wrote comments. There were the people who wanted to try to fix the whale.

One person asked, "Why can't we help it?" Another wrote, "Why can't it be tagged with something to rebroadcast the calls at a lower frequency?" The answer-- you just can't. People wrote music inspired by him, like this song.

[PIANO OF "THE LONELIEST CREATURE ON EARTH"]

I talked to a guy in Ireland who was going through a divorce. His wife saw the story online and emailed him a link from where she was sitting in the next room. Another guy I talked to made mixtapes of the whale's song and would mail those tapes, actual cassettes, to strangers who asked him for it.

Someone in Germany wrote a children's book. People imagined his life in the icy depths, swimming 100 years alone. There we were, all of us walking around, dizzy in our own isolations, connecting to this whale, rather than to other people. Scientists called him 52 Hertz. The rest of us called him "the loneliest creature on Earth."

When I talked to Joe, he raised this issue that all those blogs kept overlooking and that I had overlooked, too. We have no idea if this whale's alone at all. Just because we can't hear other animals with him doesn't mean they're not there. He could be swimming with another group of whales or with a group of females, whose vocalizations don't travel as far.

There is, of course, one thing that could answer whether or not he's actually alone. We could go look at him. But actually, all these years, no one has ever seen him. All we have is an idea of him. He's just a sound in the ocean. Even Joe hasn't seen him. He's only heard his calls. Joe told me back then it'd be next to impossible to find him physically.

Joe George

Right, no, we have no idea what he looks like. It'd be like looking for a needle in a haystack out there.

Lilly Sullivan

Why?

Joe George

Because the ocean is big. And you're looking for one whale. You know, how big? Out in the ocean, it's not that big. Even in a square mile, it's hard to find stuff.

Lilly Sullivan

Listening back to this interview now, seven years after I recorded it, I can hear myself fishing, trying to see if there was any part of Joe that thought about him the way I did.

Lilly Sullivan

Has this-- I guess, this story for you, is it mostly pure science for you? Or do you think of this as personal as well?

Joe George

For me, I look at it more science, discovery of a different whale.

Lilly Sullivan

Mhm.

Joe George

Yeah, more scientific.

Lilly Sullivan

More scientific.

I can hear myself being disappointed here. I keep trying.

Lilly Sullivan

Do you feel like you know the whale?

Joe George

Well, know it? Yeah, I know it a bit, but not fully.

Lilly Sullivan

So have you ever been just mowing your lawn, and all of a sudden, maybe after you saw the blogs, did you ever have a thought, like, oh, maybe that is a little sad. Did you ever have a moment where you did think that it was-- the story was romantic in some way?

Joe George

Hm. Hm. No? [LAUGHS] No. I'd have to say no.

Lilly Sullivan

Joe told me, we have no idea if he's lonely. We don't even know if whales get lonely. We're all guessing here. And since all we can do is guess, here's another possibility.

Maybe he's hearing other whales and avoiding them. Maybe he wants to be alone. Or maybe he doesn't mind. I hope that's true. Me, I don't think about it much anymore. I stopped thinking about him after I got a dog.

Bim Adewunmi

Lilly Sullivan is one of the producers of our show. She did her earlier story about the whale as part of the Transom Story Workshop.

Coming up, a kid in Texas in isolation with his mom. He invents a game that's not exactly a game, that's a lot like real life. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Three: The Parent Trap

Bim Adewunmi

It's This American Life. I'm Bim Adewunmi, in for Ira Glass. Our program today, How to Be Alone. Act Three, The Parent Trap.

So lots of people have been spending time isolated with just the few people in their family. This next story is about a more extreme version of that. It's about a mother and her son who really had no choice about it. They were at a family detention center in Dilley, Texas.

You probably remember, a couple of years ago, parents and children were being separated at the border. They also sometimes end up at places like this. There's three of them in the country. It's a particular kind of aloneness. You're in a group, but at the same time, being kept away from the rest of the world.

A little while ago, this mom and her son were offered a way out, but there was a catch. One of our producers, Nadia Reiman, explains.

Nadia Reiman

When I asked the mom, who I'm calling Yiret, to describe the detention center to me, she said, "Can't you all just secretly fly a drone or something so you can see it?" She's a get-things-done kind of person. "You could attach a wire to a psychologist who comes in here and make recordings." She says she has ideas like this all the time.

The Dilley family detention center is the biggest of its kind. It's a bunch of trailers, like the temporary housing kind arranged in clusters, surrounded by a chain-linked fence. There's a cafeteria and a gym area with arts and crafts supplies. It's all moms and kids.

When Yiret and her son first got there, she talked constantly with the other moms, about which guards were nice and which were jerks, about the many ways the food could be better, about all the people they'd left behind. Her son, who I'm calling Alejandro, he's eight. He made up this game that he'd play all the time.

Yiret

[SPANISH]

Interpreter

He would play pretend as if he was the judge. My goodness, he would come out with all the other kids, and he would sit down. And he would say, "I'm the judge."

Nadia Reiman

It was immigration court, of course. He'd never actually been there, but he pieced all of this together from stuff he'd heard.

Yiret

[SPANISH]

Interpreter

And then he'd tell one of the other kids that he was the officer and the other kid that he was the attorney. And he would ask the psychologist for lots of pieces of paper and for folders. I mean, I even participated. I would join in to prepare a written paper so that we could have the kids sign.

Nadia Reiman

He was a pretty lenient judge. He'd give all the kids asylum most of the time.

Yiret

[SPANISH]

Interpreter

Sometimes when he would get mad, he'd tell them, I'm denying you asylum. That was the only time where they would be like that. They would be laughing. And it made me feel, like, a nostalgia, because of how my son was with how he was doing mentally.

Nadia Reiman

Which was not great, especially after coronavirus got going. Alejandro wasn't allowed to roam around as much. He mostly had to stay inside the trailer with his mom. He'd pretend all the time that today was the day they were getting out, like he was trying to will it into existence. Have faith, he'd say. It will happen. And then, one morning, a guard came and woke them up.

Yiret

[SPANISH]

Interpreter

So I was sleepy because I tried to wake up my son later in the day so we wouldn't get up too early. So I kept him sleeping until 10:00 or 11:00 in the morning. That way, his day would be shorter and would go by faster. And I did things like that.

That day, they knocked on my door. And the officer told me, ma'am. She told me, they need you in court at 9:45. OK, I told the officer. And I was happy and I left the room. Happy because I said to myself, today, I'm getting out.

Nadia Reiman

She gets Alejandro and steps outside her trailer. She merely sees that all of the other moms are also outside with their kids. She's like, hey, I got called into court. And they're all like, me, too. Everyone had been summoned.

They go to this huge trailer that functions as a courthouse. And as soon as they walk in, they get sent to different courtrooms. There's like 10 of them per room-- no judge, no lawyers. Just a couple of ICE officers, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Yiret sat down and put Alejandro on her lap. Some of the other moms had their kids with them, too. An ICE officer began speaking to them. "We need a signature from you guys," she says the officer told them in Spanish. So that the kids can go with their sponsor, a relative or a responsible adult who could take care of them. In other words, her son could be released, but she would stay here, alone in detention.

Yiret

[SPANISH]

Interpreter

He didn't say separate, but we're not dumb. And from the moment you're saying that you're talking about the kids staying and without me, obviously, it's a separation.

Yiret

[SPANISH]

Nadia Reiman

While this is happening, Alejandro is sitting there, just absorbing it all. He doesn't say anything. The officer said they should sign because of the coronavirus. Their kids would be safer somewhere else, not locked up in here.

Yiret

[SPANISH]

Interpreter

So one of the moms got up and said, "Excuse me." She said, "How could you think that if this is dangerous for the kids, it's not dangerous for us, the coronavirus?"

Nadia Reiman

There is COVID at Dilley. Some of the guards and some of the ICE officers have tested positive. The document the ICE officer handed Yiret to sign, it was in English. She asked for one in Spanish. They said no. She asked if she could take a copy and show her lawyer first. They said no. So she started to quietly freak out.

Then she notices another one of the moms, a lady that had been there for about a year and always seemed to know what to do. She gets up and goes to the bathroom. So Yiret is like, I got to talk to her. Yiret takes Alejandro's hand and tries to follow her, but a guard stops them. No one's allowed to go to the bathroom together-- social distancing.

Yiret's like, it's the boy. He has to use the bathroom. It works. Once they're in the bathroom, she picks the stall next to the old-timer, who tells her, don't sign. You don't know where the kids will actually end up.

Yiret is supposed to go back to the room at this point. But she doesn't. She improvises an escape. She and Alejandro start to leave the trailer. And when the guard asks, where are you going, she says, "We signed. We're done." Then she and Alejandro run to another trailer. Where she can call a lawyer, which she does.

Ixchel Lopez

Her voice is really distinct, so I was like, is this Yiret? And she was like, yes. She was talking really fast, and she sounded really worried and confused and had a lot of questions.

Nadia Reiman

This is Ixchel Lopez. She's a paralegal for Proyecto Dilley. It's a group that offers pro bono representation for families in detention. Normally, there's always a team of them just sitting in a room at Dilley. But since COVID, they've had to work remotely. So they came up with a way to still be there. They made a hotline and took turns answering calls coming from the detention center. That day was Ixchel's day.

Nadia Reiman

Did it surprise you, in a way, that she was the first to call? Or were you kind of like, of course she'd be the first to call?

Ixchel Lopez

Literally, I was like, of course. Of course. Like, that was entirely unsurprising. I was like, out of everyone, it would be her. Like, she's so badass. And she's so just, like, strong-willed, and she says it as it is. She's like, this is messed up.

I think as soon as she said, OK, they're asking us if we want our children to be sent to live with our sponsors, I was like, oh my God. Like, they're going to separate families again. And I remember hanging up with her and cussing up a storm and being like, what the fuck? Like, what?

Nadia Reiman

Ixchel starts texting, messaging, e-mailing what's going on to the rest of her team.

Ixchel Lopez

I think I hung up the phone and immediately got another call from--

Nadia Reiman

Oh, really?

Ixchel Lopez

Yeah, maybe within, like, two or three minutes.

Nadia Reiman

It was another mom from Dilley. Frantic calls were also coming in to lawyers from the other two detention centers, all telling the same general story. ICE was asking families to sign something. But the whole thing was really confusing. Some people were saying that they weren't even shown a document. Some were told, sign this. It just proves we talked to you.

But others say ICE was threatening them, telling them that they had to sign, no choice. That the officer asked if they would give their child up for adoption. In many cases, the officers asked all of this in front of the kids.

Within 24 hours, the lawyers from all three family detention centers got on a giant Zoom call with press to sound the alarm, arguing it was illegal to break up families like this by asking parents to sign something they couldn't even understand. And ICE wouldn't give the lawyers a copy of the document. ICE did put out a statement shortly after this, saying the officers were just going over a routine form with the detainees.

When Yiret hangs up with Ixchel, she looks over at her son, who's been quiet this whole time.

Yiret

[SPANISH]

Interpreter

His little eyes were filled with tears. He was worried since he thought that he was going to be separated from me. And he told me, "Don't sign. Because wherever you go, I go."

Nadia Reiman

While Yiret was making the phone call, the guards had started looking for her. They put her name and photo up on the screens that are all around the facility. As soon as she stepped out of the phone room, a guard recognized her, made her go back to the trailer where all the other moms were with the ICE officers. When she gets there, the officers looked pissed at everyone.

Yiret

[SPANISH]

Interpreter

And the other moms were saying, "No one sign. No one sign," signaling for everybody to not sign. And I'm going to be honest. I was telling the others that were there to not sign.

Nadia Reiman

So, just to be clear, did you sign?

Yiret

[SPANISH]

Nadia Reiman

Mm-hmm.

Yiret

No.

Nadia Reiman

As a parent, you're supposed to be the one in charge. It's an unspoken pact between you and your kid. You're the one who decides things. But in detention, so much was out of Yiret's control. This was a rare moment where she got to at least say no.

Yiret

[SPANISH]

Interpreter

I felt like I had an authority at that moment, when I was saying that to them. But from then on, I felt-- you know how I felt? I felt like I was trembling. Like, this trembling took over my body.

Nadia Reiman

Why?

Yiret

[SPANISH]

Interpreter

Because I felt like I was defying an authority, and I never thought that I would do something like that. You know, they're the Department of ICE, and you can't say no to them if they decide to kick you out of the country. I mean, we're in their hands.

Nadia Reiman

I reached out to ICE multiple times about this, but they haven't responded. But the lawyers I talked to have a theory about why the ICE officers were doing this, though. The government isn't supposed to detain kids longer than 20 days.

But some families have been in detention for months. There's this federal judge, Judge Dolly Gee, who has been basically yelling at ICE about this for a while. She keeps getting more and more annoyed. And the court deadline was coming up.

So the lawyers think ICE was trying to cover their ass. Ask parents if they were willing to separate from their kids. And when they said no, well, they could tell the judge, it's the family's fault. They won't release the kids. So we have to keep everyone in detention. But once a question like, do you want your kids to be separated from you, is said, you can't really hear it. It becomes part of your world.

For days after this happened, Alejandro and his friends couldn't stop talking about it. They kept asking each other's moms if they had signed. Alejandro asked Yiret, too. She kept saying, no, you know I didn't. You were there.

Yiret

[SPANISH]

Interpreter

He was just scared. Look, he would sleep with me. This kid, he couldn't even go to the playroom to play because he was scared that ICE was going to grab him and take him.

And sometimes, I'd tell him, "Son, go grab a-- go grab some milk." And he said, "No, mom, the officers are there, and they could take me." And he would sometimes even scream in his sleep.

And so I'd ask him, "What's wrong?" And he'd say, "Mom, I'm scared. Don't sleep," he'd tell me, "because that's when they're going to take me."

Nadia Reiman

For what it's worth, as far as I can tell, when presented with the option of letting their kid out or being stuck together in detention, every single family chose to stay. All the lawyers I talked to-- and they represent almost every single family in these facilities-- they told me they didn't know of anyone who agreed to separate. Better to be alone together. At least this was a loneliness they knew.

Bim Adewunmi

Nadia Reiman is one of the producers of our show. Alejandro and his mom did finally get released seven weeks ago, but it had nothing to do with the judge's order. Alejandro had to have his appendix out, and they couldn't care for him at the facility.

The judge has extended the deadline for ICE to figure out what to do with kids who have been detained longer than 20 days. ICE has until the end of the month.

Act Four: Applied Bob Studies

Bim Adewunmi

We've arrived at Act Four, Applied Bob Studies. Can we take a moment to review some of the negative connotations the word "isolation" brings up? Think of the penalty box or solitary confinement.

But what if that isolation is a choice you make? Does that aloneness feel like something very different? I spoke to someone with an idea of the answer to that question-- writer Sandy Allen. The story begins in 2017.

Sandy was living in Brooklyn with an increasing feeling that they wanted to live closer to nature. It wasn't that they'd fallen out of love with cities. This was less about running away than it was about actively running toward something-- something green and lush. And on top of that, Sandy was beginning to come out as a non-binary.

Sandy Allen

I think I was just starting to play with such things as dressing a little more androgynously and leaving the house and/or going to a barbershop for men and getting a haircut there and trying to kind of like violate that taboo and not feel too weird if all these men were staring at me as I got a haircut.

Bim Adewunmi

In those months of change, they'd begun to notice how their very appearance seemed to make the air charged.

Sandy Allen

I had shifted from appearing like a certain thing in public, which was like a white woman, to appearing like this other thing, which was this white-- I don't know. Like, are you a dude or what?

And I was, I think, all of the time becoming more and more aware of everybody who saw me, and what did I look like to them, and how much of a threat was a random woman in a woman's room going to be to me. Was I going to get weird looks? Was I going to get yelled at? Was I going to get hostile comments muttered at me?

And I'm a sensitive flower. I'm a very, like-- I really-- I don't know. I'm very sensitive to people's feelings and emotions. And so I think there was a sense of, it would probably be wiser for me to cut down on the volume of interactions that I have with strangers.

Bim Adewunmi

But Sandy had at their fingertips an example of how to handle the situation, their Uncle Bob. At some point, he'd also decided that the volume of interactions in his life was way too big. And he took decisive, radical action. He moved a few hours away from where he'd grown up in the Bay Area to somewhere farther up north, a place mostly free of other humans.

Sandy had known Bob as a sort of weird figure who lived a mostly solitary existence. Sometimes they'd see him at Christmas or at their grandfather's vacation home in northern Minnesota. Bob liked to have long conversations, and sometimes he'd leave long, rambling messages on Sandy's family's answering machine, playing his music or comedy skits.

Growing up, Sandy didn't see Bob as a kindred spirit. In a family that didn't talk directly about things, Bob was an incomplete picture, an example of failure. As a teenager, Bob had been given the psychiatric diagnosis of schizophrenia and was repeatedly hospitalized and prescribed antipsychotic medication, sometimes against his will.

In family lore, he was kind of this troubled guy, who'd got kicked out of high school and then bounced between psych hospitals and friends' couches. Sandy and Bob weren't close. And then, one day, in 2009, just as Sandy had started grad school in Iowa, they got a package in the mail. Bob had written his autobiography and sent it to them.

Sandy Allen

I initially got this text in the mail from my hermit uncle that was typed in all caps on a typewriter and 60 pages. And it had swear words and slurs, and it was a mess. And it was-- I was just like, what is this? I don't want this, you know?

And at the time, I would have thought, OK, this guy-- as I would have called him way back, my crazy Uncle Bob-- my crazy Uncle Bob and me, we are as far apart as two people can be. I would have thought in my heart, here I am. I am a scholastic achiever.

And here's Uncle Bob, who lives in the desert. And I've been to his house once, and it was full of cigarette smoke and bibles and a TV that he hadn't turned off in decades. And I kind of got out of there and was like, all right, I don't really need to know that guy.

Bim Adewunmi

But then Sandy got to reading the manuscript. And they didn't just read it. They dove into it, tried to figure out who Bob was, even started writing a book about him.

And they discovered something. Bob had solved for himself a problem that his mental health professionals and the world in general hadn't been able to. Bob had managed to bring out the best version of his life, living alone, far away from the crush of people. And Sandy found that Bob was mostly content.

Sandy Allen

And I saw that as a model for, like, OK, you've realized you're incompatible with society at large, perhaps. So what do you do? I was like, well, I kind of have a guidebook here.

Bim Adewunmi

And so they took Bob's example and moved. In 2017, Sandy and their boyfriend, now husband, moved upstate to the Catskills. They weren't under any romantic illusions about country living.

Sandy Allen

It's like, if I go to a grocery store or I go to the post office, an old man would stare at me the whole time I grocery shopped. Or little kids would debate what gender I was in front of me. You know what I mean? That kind of stuff could happen here, just as well as it could happen anywhere.

And there isn't really anywhere where I think I feel entirely safe, other than my house, [LAUGHS] which is why I like my house so much.

Bim Adewunmi

Tell me about your setup then. So how isolated is life up there, really?

Sandy Allen

So when we moved here where I sit on my front porch, I don't see another human dwelling. It's very much like my neighbors are trees, and trees and trees and trees. It's just-- it's astonishingly beautiful in a million ways every day. I mean, I think that is mental health care.

Bim Adewunmi

Before COVID-19, Sandy's husband traveled a lot for work. Sometimes Sandy was alone for weeks at a time. It felt incredibly challenging at times, especially early on.

Sandy Allen

I was like, oh, no. I felt like, oh, what did I just do? Like, I've replaced people with trees. I had that feeling of like, oh, no, I'm going to have no friends. And then I remembered Bob. And I remembered, well, Bob didn't let living in the desert stop him from having friends.

Bim Adewunmi

Bob built a system for himself, where he interacted with people, but not so many and not so much that it became unwanted noise in his head. He was only as alone as he needed to be. It turns out Bob, a man who proudly called himself a hermit, living only with his two dogs, was actually something of a social savant.

Sandy Allen

I think in Bob's specific case, it totally surprised me. I got on the phone with every person who had known him, who I could possibly find, who would talk to me. And everybody who I found, everybody I spoke with was like, you will not believe it. Bob used to call all the time. Bob would stay in touch.

And I was kind of like, isn't that funny how a norm here seems to be, if you're physically isolated, you have to really cut off from people? And I think Bob, if anything, because of the life he'd led and all of the ways in which I think he was a lonely person, he was actually, I think, really adept at overcoming maybe that little voice inside your head that says, all right, don't reach out. You know, like, don't do that. That would be weird, or whatever.

Like, Bob was not worried about that. He was calling people. And I think it's forced me in a way to-- I don't know-- not really accept physical isolation as an excuse for being disconnected. I try to tell myself, like, hey, don't just stop talking to people because you live out here. It's something that you have to invest in.

Bim Adewunmi

Sandy wanted to learn how to be alone, and how to do it comfortably. In their words, "to just hang out with themself." And Bob provided a model. His big three tenets were creativity, community, and spirituality.

Sandy Allen

Bob was like this just example I had kind of in my head of like, OK, you're alone. What are you going to do about it? You know what to do. Bob showed you. Like, it's not the same stuff. I don't read the Bible and play the guitar and watch Joel Osteen and call my cousin, Jane. I don't do the same stuff that Bob did. I do call Jane. But I had to figure out what are my versions of read the Bible, play guitar.

Bim Adewunmi

Their version of that was singing and playing the piano, baking bread, and, where possible, growing food and sharing it with their small community.

Bim Adewunmi

Would you say that you've ended up getting what you wanted? Would you-- did it make your life better in the ways that you hoped it would?

Sandy Allen

Oh, I mean, honestly, Bim, I don't even remember what the world was before. I mean, I feel like my whole consciousness began about three years ago when I moved to this house.

Bim Adewunmi

Wow.

Sandy Allen

I don't know.

Bim Adewunmi

That is a big thing to say.

Sandy Allen

Is that weird? I don't remember. For me, this is my whole universe now, is like this place, the weather here today and what's going on in my garden. I think I've just, like-- yeah, I've had a full head transplant of some kind. Even since the first afternoon I was here, I was just like, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. This is what I want to be doing.

Bim Adewunmi

Sandy is not alone-- not really. The same way Bob wasn't either. Instead, they're in a sort of self-governing isolation, which is different to the misery of COVID-19 driving us into our own homes indefinitely. Sandy's isolation is completely under their control. They looked squarely at aloneness and made decisions about how to manage it.

Sandy Allen

Alone is one of those words that I immediately kind of wonder, aren't we all alone? Is there anybody who does not feel very alone? I would love to meet that person. There's stuff that can make that even more profound. And I think when you're queer-- or trans maybe, too-- you just know that some people aren't going to be in your life forever.

For me, coming out has entailed a fair amount of social loss. As long as you're alive, you're going to have to contend with being inside your head, being inside your story, being inside the world, which is full of prejudice and bullshit.

I think that for me, that really thinking about not let's solve it all, or like, how will I combat loneliness forever. Definitely, I've had these moments where I'm like, wow, I've really set myself up to just be alone. I've tried to kind of give myself permission to embrace, yeah, I'm weird, you know? I'm not normal. I've never been normal.

There was never a moment of my life when I understood whatever a person who was assigned woman at birth or man at birth and just feels that way-- I don't know what that is. I've never known what that is.

So for me, it's so freeing to just be like, yeah, I live in the country by myself for the most part. And I can walk around topless. And I've had top surgery. And I don't care if anyone drives by and sees my scars. This is who I am. And life is glorious. And let's show up for it, you know?

Bob wasn't sitting in the desert, going, oh, woe is me. I'm sure he had minutes and days where he felt that way. I think he did sometimes get really down about some of the experiences that he had in his life. Especially the first time he was in a hospital, I think a lot of stuff happened to him that really was hard. And I think he also was someone who, despite a lot, figured out how to sit down at his typewriter or pick up his guitar and continue on.

Bim Adewunmi

Sandy Allen, their book about their Uncle Bob is called A Kind of Miraculous Paradise, A True Story About Schizophrenia.

[MUSIC - "ALONE AGAIN" BY BOBBY OROZA]

Credits

Bim Adewunmi

Our program was produced today by me and Nadia Reiman. People who worked on today's show include Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Aviva DeKornfeld, Noor Gill, Damien Graves, Miki Meek, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Julie Whitaker.

Our managing editors are Sarah Abdurrahman and Diane Wu. Our executive editor is David Kestenbaum. Special thanks today to Rob Rosenthal, Melissa Flores, Shay Fluharty, Bridget Cambria, Andrea Meza, Leroy Chiao, Julia Furlan, Jami Sunkel, Christopher W. Clark of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Laela Sayigh, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

You can hear the original version of Lilly's story about the whale that may or may not be lonely at transom.org, a website that gives people the tools and inspiration to make their own Public Radio. Lilly made this as part of a training they offer called the Transom Story Workshop. Visit transom.org to learn about their workshops and to check out all the resources they offer.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks to our show's usual host, Ira Glass. You know, he has Netflix, but not HBO Max, which led to a horrible realization about his favorite sitcom.

Sandy Allen

I had that feeling of like, oh, no, I'm going to have no friends.

Bim Adewunmi

I'm Bim Adewunmi. We'll be back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "ALONE AGAIN" BY BOBBY OROZA]