Living thru a pandemic: Lesson 2

“Isolation is devastating to the human psyche.” ~Dr. Gary Chapman

Note: This article provides you with a glimpse into the lives of those of us living all alone– our only human connections relegated to zooming with work and friends, joining the chorus of 7 pm revelers out of our apartment windows, and passing masked strangers when we dare to venture out. Many of the solo travelers during this pandemic have lacked physical touch, like simple hugs and handshakes, and regular face-to-face human connection for more than four weeks.

Last Tuesday afternoon, I met a friend for an SDC–a social distancing chat. We sat appropriately distanced on Central Park benches with squirrels and pigeons foraging for food around us, an ordinary spring afternoon in the park. I was excited to get out from behind the computer screen and actually see someone in-person. But almost immediately during our chat, my mind started playing tricks on me. I wondered silently: was she real? was this visit really happening, or was it a dream?

As I sat across from my friend, I began staring at her eyes; the pupils seemed larger and not proportional. I wanted to reach out and touch her; I wanted to make sure she was indeed physical–it was almost like grasping in a fun-house mirror or seeing a mirage. I was confused. Her face and three-dimensionality didn’t make sense– they seemed detached and not how I remembered her. The mask covering half of her face surely didn’t help with the recognition; it made things even more confusing. It was scary. It took me a half-hour to adjust to “her”, to recognize her, and to know that this interaction was real. Luckily, we spent another hour together, and eventually, my brain began putting the scattered pieces back together before we parted ways. As I walked home, I was quite bothered by the surreal feeling of losing my mind for that brief moment. I wondered why had I been so confused about something that used to be so normal– a simple in-person chat. Why had I had such a difficult time processing the full form of a human face and confusion of being together in-person?

The next morning, I woke with curiosity about what prisoners in solitary confinement must experience when they are released to the general population. (I realize that I am far from living in prison and have many, many freedoms and luxuries, and yet, I too have been deprived of real human contact.) I immediately googled the topic. One of the first articles I found in Psychology Today* referenced Robert King, a prisoner who, after his release from 29 years of solitary confinement, shared his “trouble recognizing faces and {how he} had to retrain his eyes to learn what a face was like.” This confusion was my experience. I was shocked. Could my brain have been re-wired to recognize faces within just four weeks? I am not sure, but the description of the experience read familiar.

Study after study detailed the damage to prisoners lacking social connection: the effects on certain cognitive areas of the brain, e.g., decrease in memory and simple tasks; a marked increase in loneliness; and issues surrounding the decline in mental health, to name a few. This information, of course, got me thinking about other marginalized and isolated populations, such as the elderly, the physically disabled, those with mental health challenges, and even young babies separated from parents at birth. How are we as a society protecting those who lack care and meaningful human connection? What are the long-term effects on us as individuals and on our communities? How will the further social isolation and “newly” isolated fare during and after the pandemic? And, as a collective, how are we going to protect each other during and afterward? I guess only time will tell, and I imagine the role of social service organizations will need to expand to care for those who have been affected. We all need to play a critical role in recognizing the severe consequences of isolation and figure out a way to be there for each other.

My Lesson: I had never given much thought to solitary confinement; my only imagined realities based on television and movies, such as OZ and Shawshank Redemption. This experience of living with a lack of in-person connection has made me realize that not having meaningful person-to-person contact is one of the cruelest forms of punishment. It has made me question our social and justice systems–are they indeed just and beneficial. People need people. I need people. I need meaningful connection. I need a hug. And, as a non-profit leader, now more than ever, I need to continue my lifelong work and passion building bridges for human relationships — this is my purpose and where I can use my power.

P.S. I quote Dr. Gary Chapman at the beginning of this article; he is best known as the author of The 5 Love Languages. Coincidentally, my love languages are physical touch and quality time, so it’s no wonder why I am craving and have been impacted so intensely by a lack of both.



  • Ruth Rathblott

    Expert| Inspirational speaker on diversity, inclusion, belonging; nonprofit executive

    Inspirational Speaker Ruth Rathblott is an award-winning CEO who is committed to creating inclusion for all. She is a leader who has spent her entire career focused on providing opportunities for those who face obstacles. Ruth was born with a limb difference and currently speaks on issues of inclusion and diversity, the gifts of being unique, the freedom of accepting your differences, and rising above life’s challenges. Ruth has been a leader in nonprofit organizations for more than 25 years; 15 of which she spent at Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City, where she played a central role in its expansion. It was here that she fostered a deep appreciation for inclusion within education and opportunity, which successfully propelled the students to greater achievement. For the past eight+ years as CEO of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF), a NYC-based college access and success program for underserved youth, she directed the HEAF vision of providing a continuum of educational, developmental, leadership, and personal resilience opportunities. She currently serves as a Board Member of The Lucky Fin Project. Ruth holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Goucher College and a Master of Social Work degree from Boston University. She was honored as the youngest alum ever awarded the Goucher College Excellence in Public Service Award. In 2014, she was given the Smart CEO Brava Award and profiled as a CEO in the NY Times Corner Office, which featured her passion and motivation for “things I want to be a part of.”  Ruth has also been identified and received the Trailblazer Award from the Community Resource Exchange in 2019, and the Unsung Hero Award from the Female Founders Alliance in 2020. In addition to Corporate Speaking Keynotes, Ruth received Certification from American Management Association in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (2020) and has been a guest on several Webinars and Podcasts — including Sree Sreevisan, Mayshad, Tevis Trower, et al — in 2020-21.