I took a trip over Teton Pass the other day to hook up with a girlfriend for a hike on the Aspen Trail. As I waited for her I reveled in the warm air and watched young moms pack up their 2-year-olds in high-tech packs with sunroofs and Binky holders, remembering fondly the “old days” when the friend I was meeting and I did the same.
My girlfriend arrived and walked toward me with her dog, and before we even said hello she slapped a kiss on my lips and grabbed me in a massive hug and held me there, saying, “I love you, I miss you.”
As I processed the fact that we’d pitched any facade of social distancing my body leaned in and I held on tight for at least three minutes, which felt like a delicious forever. Tears I didn’t expect to show up that day started stinging and flowed from my eyes, and my body began to shake. Because we were right in the middle of the dusty road, when a car approached we had to finally let go.
I’ll spare you the details of all the stream of drama I’ve faced in the past few months — eight to be exact — because I know you have plenty of your own. Suffice it to say, good hugs from a friend are extremely scarce, a lover nonexistent, my 17-year-old holds me only at an arm’s length, and I had to put my sweet dog Squirt to sleep during the pandemic. Thankfully I have an 11-year-old who still loves to snuggle, but even that is becoming rare as he rises to middle school.
On the car ride that day to Teton Valley, Idaho, I was listening to the book “Good Chemistry: The Science of Connection from Soul to Psychedelics” by Julie Holland. A psychiatrist and psychedelic researcher, Holland explores the science of connection. COVID-19 aside, she argues that an epidemic of disconnection and isolation leaving so many people in a constant state of “flight or fight” is the explanation for the frightening rise in depression, anxiety and addictions of all kinds in our society. Key to a sense of peace and connection, Holland contends, is oxytocin, the neurotransmitter and hormone that fosters attachment between mothers and infants, romantic partners, friends and our pets through human touch, eye contact and physical connection.
The purpose of Holland’s book is to legitimize how psychedelics, THC, CBD and other substances overlooked by modern medicine can help people with psychiatric disorders reach a state of mental and physical well-being that oxytocin facilitates by fostering a sense of awe and oneness. That got me thinking about how the current pandemic is amplifying these trends already exacerbated by social media, loss of close family ties as people migrate to cities, a widespread disconnection from nature, and tribalism — many people’s last attempt at feeling like they “belong.”
Later that same day I was driving down Kelly Avenue when I saw a couple of counselors from a local kids summer camp holding hands with young children as they walked from Mike Yokel Park. My first thought was, “That doesn’t look like COVID policy.” My second thought was, “Oh, thank God they are holding hands.”
My daughter works at Wilderness Adventure’s Base Camp, and she tells stories of hanging out all day with second graders constantly creeping closer and closer and wanting so badly to pull them in her lap. One of her favorites, she says, follows her around holding tightly to her backpack strap, asking, “Since I can’t hold your hand, is it OK if I hold this?”
Anyone with kids can tell you that their children are suffering from lack of contact, lack of touch, lack of running, jumping and swinging with peers. I can’t begin to wrap my head around how school can start in the fall with expectations that kids will be expected to stay socially distant from their friends and beloved teachers — treating each other like they are dirty and unsafe. I can’t fathom how grandmothers, used to a weekly snuggle from a grandchild, must be suffering. All of us are noticing the paranoia of people we pass on the sidewalk, and the inability to see a smile through a mask is as suffocating as the mask itself.
I have personally been able to hold it together, barely, thanks to a solid practice of daily outdoor exercise (sometimes with a few friends), meditating, soaking up the natural beauty around me, and a glass or two of wine each night. At the beginning of COVID-19 I was uber tech-connected, now I use my phone as little as possible.
I get all the COVID-19 hysteria, every single argument, and I do find most of it justified. But we need physical touch and in-person social connection to thrive.
Every time I pull on my sweaty mask I tell myself I’m willing to do anything to keep us from moving backward to total quarantine. The economy aside, I wonder: At what point do the risks of social and physical isolation outweigh the benefits, and how are we going to heal ourselves, our communities, and our planet without real human connection?