Stories from a place called home — Shira’s lifelong social-distancing

Yoav Goldwein
6 min readMar 29, 2020

Student life. An explosion of a wild youth full of stimulation and connections is now a nostalgic memory fading into the reality of contemporary detached adulthood. This is a story about the gradual social distancing we experience in this transition into adulthood and the dissonance between the way we design our environment and the way we nurture our hearts.

For me university life was my first home away from home, and that home was Jerusalem. Not the first city to come to mind as a choice for a young man in search of fun and freedom. It’s religious, hectic, tense and filthy; but it’s got its quirks, it is culturally rich, edgy and spiritual. I fell in love with it during my army service in a department study trip, about the same time I fell in love with Shira, my bestie.

We met during our service and later studied our bachelors together in Jerusalem. We fully embraced the student life back then; we enjoyed all the city had to offer and engaged in the students’ rich social and cultural scene. But Jerusalem is a complicated place to settle in and like many other university towns, most students (myself and my friends included) eventually leave it once they finish their degree.

Shira stayed. The only one from my friends at the time who made Jerusalem her home, and the main reason (the other being my favourite hummus) for my annual pilgrimage to the holy city when I visit Israel.

It’s a chilly afternoon, typical to this holy mountain, and we sit in our favorite cafe for a deep conversation, heart to heart, while I try to understand what keeps her here after all these years without the people who made this place home for us.

“It’s true. I don’t have a community here anymore. When I come back home from work there is no one around that I can hang out with. I know some of my neighbors, and they are all very friendly, but none of them is really like… me.”

After a few years living in the student dorms next to campus, Shira moved to a single room apartment in the city centre. After the exodus of her university friends, living in the beating heart of the city, with all its culture and vibrance, was a possibility to fill the social void.

Like many of us, the work routine and the soul searching of a 30+ year old woman alone in the big city left her feeling lonely. She didn’t find new connections, just a lot more background noise.

Some of her friends had headed to the big city to follow their pursuits, others had given in to the Jewish family pressure, gotten married, had children and stuffed their suburban home with toys and distractions. Shira, in contrast was filling up her calendar with weekly therapy meetings and her bathroom cabinet with Prozac and Xanax.

The anxiety which took over her life was a cruel combination of her high intelligence, complex self awareness, childhood post trauma and social pressure. She became tangled between the fear of loneliness and the fear of rejection. Paralyzing fear.

In her home, between the sealed walls of a single room apartment these strong emotions prospered, trapping her alone with her own demons.

Having known Shira for years, I also know that she is no less than amazing, but it’s hard for her to believe it herself sometimes. In recent years I noticed her dealing with her loneliness in the digital realm, pouring her heart out on social media and maintaining most of her social connections through tweets and memes. At some point though things got real. First gently and later more raw and open, she started communicating her fears to the outside world seeking support and empathy. Sadly, very often what happens in Facebook stays in Facebook, and a virtual call for help usually ends with nothing more than a virtual response. Without someone to hug or share thoughts and fears intimately, her anxiety was getting worse.

“I’m not angry or resentful, I understand that in this time and age no one is committed to anyone or anything in the city. My family, friends and you among them, are far away busy with life and dealing with their own challenges. All I was left with is my computer screen to bounce back my fears.

Eventually anxiety became a neurological construct. That’s what my brain knows what to do in reaction to life. And finally, as a coping mechanism, I close myself to the world to protect myself. Not to be disappointed.”

After years of intensive therapy Shira has made peace with her anxieties.

She has a sweet dog now and a calm introverted lifestyle. Her longest relationship, with her therapist for the last 6 years, has ended, and her emotional stage has numbed down.

“I’m still mostly alone but I’m not lonely anymore. I know how to fill my life with content that suits me and to be in peace with what is. my communication on social media is not a call for help anymore. Or maybe it’s a sober one. Weak one. Without the expectation that someone will actually answer.”

As students, when sitting in a classroom together, we constantly interact with others and confront our social demons. But in real life, it is sometimes easier to retreat to the shadows and avoid conflict or potential rejection. This avoidance or anti-depressant infused numbness is like a thick layer of crust above the emotional bubbly lava waiting to erupt.

And it cracks.

“I have this thought that I will be in a hospital room, all alone dying from cancer and no one will be there to look after me. Not my brother. Not my mother. Just me and 4 white blank hospital walls.

Subconsciously I know they will, but I also don’t want to expect it, just for the chance they might not.“

Depression and anxiety became a plague among the Y and Z generation in the developed world. Many of those invisible beings are walking among us in the streets, seeking sources of energy, waiting for the city’s vibrations to trigger their own. But the harsh characteristics of these type of mental illness make them passive in this yearning to be a part of the social fabric. How will we leap outside our grim comfort zone and reach out for a healthy human connection?

Is the current rise in mental illness a result of an urban exclusive society? Or perhaps it’s us and our tendency to avoid the real world and spend more time in a safe digital space specifically tailored to us?

Perhaps the core problem is the sense of solidarity we lost in our communities and the lack of urban spaces dedicated to emotional care. If we were all feeling we are a part of a greater community, safe to be ourselves and accepted no matter what, would we still choose being alone?

This story was written before the current crisis of Covid-19 pandemic, but these questions are still relevant. Perhaps even more than before. Our society needs more places outside and inside our homes where we can be together with our fears. It is fine to compromise on virtual connection in times of crisis, but we must not forget about the importance of real touch, care and effort in being physically next to each other in times of need. Authentic social life shouldn’t end when we get our diploma. After all, university is a lifelong project, and screens would never be able to provide the type of wisdom we get from non-digital human interactions.

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Yoav Goldwein

Everywhere and nowhere. Urbanist, researcher, social anthropologist and a huge fan of human humans. https://yoavgoldwein.wixsite.com/intrinsicurbanism