Solitary Confinement

Today marks 160 calendar days since my office went on full-time telework. It feels like forever.

I miss the office. Not necessarily because I miss spending 8 hours in a box every day, but it’s nice to be able to print a 400-page manuscript quickly when I need hard copy instead of having to make do squinting at the computer. When I need help with something, I can just run down to my boss’s office instead of trying to schedule a video chat. I can collaborate with colleagues without having to go back and forth via email over details that we could have resolved easily in a quick face-to-face exchange.

Most of all, I miss the people. Although some days the only colleagues I’d talk to were the people in my carpool, there was still some human contact. My cubicle is in a fairly high-traffic area, so I saw nearly all of my coworkers every single day as they passed by me on their way in and out of the office. There was always the chance that someone would stop and say hello or the option for me to go and visit them.

It’s not that I didn’t appreciate these things until I lost them; it’s more like I appreciated them so much more than most people because I had finally found them again. Many of my colleagues have been with the company for decades and had only teleworked a day or two per week, if at all, in the years before Covid-19. I, on the other hand, had spent more than a decade as a freelancer, with a few short stints of concurrent outside employment to make ends meet.

I’d gone freelance after my son was born, but when my marriage went sideways, I quickly learned to miss the career I’d left behind. (Mind you, I don’t regret that decision. Being home for the first 8 years of his life was the best thing I’ve ever done. But I missed the career a lot when life came calling.)

In high school, I’d had a few traditional hourly jobs—summer jobs in an amusement park arcade and a miniature golf course and a year as a pharmacy cashier. In college, however, I got a job in banking as a teller and customer service rep and basically became a “white-collar” wage worker. I studied English in college, and when I graduated, I fell quickly into my first job in medical publishing in Philadelphia, PA. Two and half years later, I was in my second publishing job, in Washington, DC, and three years after that, I was a full-time mom and a part-time freelance medical copyeditor. To afford the lifestyle change we moved away from friends and family to a semi-rural town outside Kissimmee, FL. I had no one but my husband to talk to in those years, and he was gone all day working. It was lonely, but the freelance work kept my brain occupied and my infant son kept the rest of me busy.

When my marriage ended in 2009, I had tough choices to make. At 33 years old, I had no background in retail sales or food and beverage services, no local job contacts, and a my most recent actual employment was nearly a decade behind me. My skill set was editing and managing book projects in medical publishing. Living near DisneyWorld, where everything was retail or food service, I had a lot of trouble finding work. I didn’t have a portfolio. I wasn’t a writer or a marketing type. I couldn’t do sales because I’m not equipped to pressure people into buying things they don’t want. I’d kept freelancing, but I’d never built a client base; my only real client was my former employer. After two years of job hunting I finally got another job in banking, and I managed to keep myself afloat for nearly another two years until life took a sharp turn in 2013—a motorcycle accident and a brain injury—and I was forced back to freelancing full-time. I’d remarried, but my husband worked nights and I worked during the day, so we saw each other rarely. I’d made a few friends while single, but many of them had already faded away. I was basically alone again.

In 2015 we moved to a small town in west central Virginia. My ex had moved back to our home state of New Jersey the year before and taken our son with him, and our move was a vain attempt to get closer so I could visit more. My new husband had quit his job and was trying to launch an online retail business. I was still freelancing. We were home together all the time, but we had little going on to spark conversation. Our days were endlessly identical. The move to Virginia didn’t help. We knew no one. The town had little entertainment to break up our days. Even the dining choices were extremely limited. We were hours from what we called “civilization.” Our two independent (and failing) businesses were draining us and our marriage was suffering. After months of sending out applications for work I finally landed a job at the local DMV office in September 2016, where I suddenly had my fill of human contact, but not exactly the positive kind. Eight months later, another accident and brain injury cost me the DMV job. My husband began working 6 days a week for the post office and would be gone as long as 10 hours a day. I was alone again.

Through all these years, the one constant in my life had been my freelancing work, and my one steady client had been my former employer in Washington. I had been following the company on LinkedIn for years, hoping and praying a spot would open. One had come available while I was still in Florida, but they’d needed to fill it quickly, and I couldn’t make the move fast enough (nor did I want to, in those days; I was still living very close to my son). Now, in Virginia, I was sending out resumes and applications all over the place. I’d reapplied to the DMV to no avail. I interviewed for an office job with the county prosecutor’s office and another with a real estate agency. In March 2019, I interviewed for a clerk job with a metalworking company in a nearby town. It was clear the company liked and wanted me, but an hourly job in an office trailer just felt wrong. My ego, my self-image, had been decimated; I’d once been so much more than this, and I just felt like I would never climb out of this hole.

That was when the spot opened. I saw it on LinkedIn, and I knew it was my shot. I felt I had the inside track because they knew me. My husband thought it was a pipe dream and was angry with me for not taking the metal shop job, but I assured him it would be worth it. A month later, we moved here to Northern Virginia, and I returned to the career and the company that I’d left sixteen years and several lifetimes ago. Many of the same colleagues were still there. I had friends again. I had people again. I had a purpose again. I was proud of myself for the first time in a long time. And more than anything else, I had a defined line between work and life. Work began at 8 and ended at 4:30 and the rest of the time was my own. We had gone from zero options for food, dining, and entertainment to more choices than we could probably make in a lifetime. I was within a three-hour drive of my son for the first time in six years, and I could even afford to take the faster toll roads to get there.

Everything was finally as it was supposed to be. I was finally among the living again.

I had ten months of normalcy this time before life took another radical turn. Covid has affected us all. So many people have lost so much, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have and keep my job. My husband is working as well, and we’re on a similar schedule. Our bills are paid. We can’t go anywhere, true, but at least we have a lot of delivery choices. I’m grateful.

But I’m alone all day, every day again. My life and my work are one and the same again. If I’m not working, even for a minute, I feel horribly guilty because it’s there and I have responsibilities and expectations to meet—my own, if no one else’s. Even when everything is up to date or ahead of schedule, even when there’s nothing on my desk to do right this minute, I feel horrible; I have to reach out for more, more, even more than my boss can give me, because even though I do a lot, and do it quickly and well, I am still home and bored and alone, and this is the only way I can fill that time without guilt.

It feels like I’ve been training for quarantine for nearly 20 years. My only hope now is that when this is all over, when life returns to anything like normal again, I will still have an office to return to, colleagues to carpool with, an actual life to begin living again. Every time life had shifted on me, it’s taken my work away and left me with money struggles and isolation. Please, please let this time be different.