We humans are social animals, and the importance of touch, of communicating with others, of simply being together has been reinforced in study after study.
Physical contact is critical for social and emotional development in newborns, and that need continues into adulthood.
Enter March 2020 when countless individuals and families in communities like Bakersfield became reluctant participants in a yearlong worldwide experiment in loneliness, in social isolation and even in touch-deprivation.
“Do you know how much I miss a hug?” asked Bakersfield resident Cheryl Tate. “We have to elbow bump. We have to stand back and air hug.”
The 68-year-old retired health care worker lived alone during the first several months of the lockdown. She was strict about avoiding social gatherings. She wore face masks and tried to maintain physical distance when she had to go out.
“I consider myself a pretty strong individual, mentally,” she said. “But I started having heart problems, panic attacks, anxiety.”
Eventually she moved in with her sister.
“I’ve done better,” Tate said. “To have physical contact, just to know someone is there makes me feel better.”
Heather Berry, a licensed clinical social worker with a private practice in the Kern River Valley, has been a mental health provider for more than 30 years. Berry described the impact of social isolation on those who already lived alone as a “double whammy.”
But the pandemic and its emotional and psychological effects are virtually universal.
“The overall view is that we have all suffered greatly. I mean, who hasn’t?” Berry said. “Fear, irritability, exhaustion, uncertainty, tension in relationships … no one is coming out of this untouched.”
Megan Resendiz, a nursing student at Bakersfield College, said she’s worried about how the lockdown is affecting her children. She knows how important socialization is in their developmental growth, and like so many children, hers have essentially been cheated out of those important experiences.
“I feel so bad for my kids,” she said. “They need friends.”
Jean Palmer-Daley, a licensed marriage and family therapist who, for more than 30 years has specialized in Jungian analysis, said the year of the pandemic and its associated lockdown has been all encompassing.
“It colors everything,” she said. “All the plans we had are gone.”
Grandparents missed their grandchildren’s birthday parties. Vacations were canceled. Baby showers were held online or not at all, and childbirth itself was restricted. Loved ones took their last breath in hospitals as their family members cried at home, unable to be at their bedside to say goodbye.
Shutdown and social distancing orders borne out of fears of spreading the coronavirus have not only affected nearly every aspect of our lives among the living, they have impacted our deaths as well.
“People have found themselves negotiating end of life alone,” Berry said.
Hundreds of funerals in Kern County have been postponed or downsized significantly due to COVID-19 restrictions. Even the simple, yet necessary act of mourning has been altered.
“Even the fact that people haven’t been able to go to church,” Palmer-Daley said “and other places that support you psychologically, has had an impact.”
Not surprisingly, healthy families may have gotten healthier while dysfunctional families have become more dysfunctional.
One positive effect of the lockdown, Palmer-Daley said, is that it forced many families to sit down to dinner together on a regular basis, a practice that the family therapist lauded as “an incredibly powerful event” in promoting the healthy development of children and teens and the overall health of families.
“This has not been true in our culture,” she said of the once traditional family dinner.
There’s a flip-side, however.
“The pressure the pandemic has placed on women has been tremendous,” Palmer-Daley said. “I’m a good cook, not a great cook, but I’m pretty good.
“I’m sick of cooking,” she said. “And I don’t have to feed children. In our culture, this is put on women.”
Both mental health professionals agree that the pandemic and its effect on individuals and families will have a ripple effect, that it’s not over just because vaccines are being distributed or schools are opening.
Berry said we have experienced mass isolation. People went months without the social benefits of being at the barbershop or the hair salon. College students who had looked forward to meeting new friends, establishing new social connections, or maybe even falling in love found themselves alone with only Zoom meetings as social outlets.
“I’ve talked to college kids living in dorms that are empty,” Berry said. “They’re not dating, they’re not having group study. I talked to a student in her freshman year who has not met a soul.”
She knows a painter who stopped painting because no one sees his paintings anymore, a musician who stopped playing for the same reasons.
Just as the Great Depression and World War II defined a generation, and the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and their aftermath may have defined another, the pandemic and its world-changing effects may have that power as well.
The past year has been “damaging,” Berry said. “Damaging is a strong word … but over the past year, we have cultivated an atmosphere of mistrust. In grocery stores, masks covered our smiles, we kept a six-foot distance.
“There’s a sense that you’re a danger, like a sexually transmitted disease, everyone you’ve been with and everyone they’ve been with pose a threat.
“How are we going to reconnect? How are we going to relax?” she asked.
But now it’s time to heal.
“Each of us has gained something from this experience,” Berry said. “Identify what has been the gift that each of us has received.”
Maybe there’s a new closeness with a spouse, a deeper level of communication with a child, a goal that has been set or reached, a realization that if we are strong enough to get through this, we are stronger than we knew.
Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.