This article is part of a series on resilience in troubled times — what we can learn about it from history and personal experiences.
When I realized March wasn’t going to end like it started, I developed two obsessions. The first was drinking water out of an empty antique whiskey bottle. I liked the feel of the bottle in my hand and it stopped me from drinking actual whiskey in the middle of the day like I desperately wanted to.
The other was “Alone,” a History Channel-produced reality show in which 10 people are each left so utterly alone in the wilderness that they have to film themselves as they use their skills, knowledge and the 10 items they are allowed to bring with them to do their best to survive for as long as possible. When they want to quit, the contestants can push a “tap-out” button and be rescued. The last person standing wins $500,000. It all came down to your survival plan.
I started with season six, the only season available on Netflix. Watching the contestants in the middle of nowhere, having to adapt to this wild, jarring new normal — it all felt familiar, unsettlingly so. Sure, I was sitting on a couch in my Brooklyn apartment, not trying to build a shelter while searching for potable water. But the global pandemic immediately changed our way of life, all of us. At times it did feel like we had been left alone on some kind of rocky shoreline.
Within a few days I had binged the season. My fiancée and I were taking the stay-at-home orders seriously. Alice didn’t leave the house at all and soon joined me in watching Ray Livingston as he made friends with a squirrel, only to be forced to hunt that squirrel when he ran out of food. Or Michelle Wohlberg, a tough Canadian whose ability to live in the wilderness came from growing up in the wilderness, the experiences of her impoverished childhood turned into knowledge about how to survive.
Alice laughed as she read me a comment from the “Alone” Subreddit about Jordan Jonas, a contestant from season six who took down a moose and feuded with wolverines. “New show concept,” it read. “‘Jordan’: A variety of wild animals are sent to live at Jordan’s house to see which can survive the longest.”
This is how much the show got inside my head: When I saw a chipmunk in our backyard, my brain immediately thought: “FOOD.” Thanks to the show, I now had a rudimentary sense of how to set a deadfall trap. (The chipmunk was ultimately spared.)
Dave McIntyre, a season two contestant, said he wanted to win the $500,000 cash prize because, as a single parent he was always saying “no” to his children, and he wanted to be the type of father who could say “yes.” Alice and I grew up poor. We cheered for Dave as he came across pools of water near his habitat filled with crabs. We yelled in anguish when his fishing line broke, and when he fell into the dangerously frigid water.
When we weren’t watching “Alone,” Alice and I passed the time reading, writing, cooking and getting used to Zoom hangouts with friends. The world seemed to be in an unending downward spiral, but at least we had takeout. And we had each other. For that we were grateful.
By May, though, we were wishing we had a “tap-out” button of our own. Alice and I lived in Park Slope, right by NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. The city was silent save for the ambulances, so numerous and inescapable in those early months that it’s already a cliché to mention them.
By early June we knew more about the virus. Wearing a mask and staying six feet apart was relatively safe. I started taking walks in Prospect Park. We participated in Black Lives Matter protests. A few friends came over to hang out on our front stoop. There was a growing feeling of community.
In mid-July, my brother, Joel, in New Hampshire gave me a call. The local Covid-19 numbers were low, and his children were asking about when they could see their uncle. He had a boat docked by the water in Portsmouth. I could come stay on it for a socially distanced visit if I wanted.
Alice and I had been indoors together for four months. Whenever people asked how we were doing, I always responded, “Globally worried. Locally OK.” Alice and I had been lucky through it all. We didn’t get sick or have sick family members. But it’d be a lie to say both of us didn’t perk up a little bit at the idea of being separate for a few weeks.
I wasn’t ready to take a train or plane yet. But with a combination of ferries, I could get to New Bedford, Mass., where Joel would pick me up, taking me to the boat docked at Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth, where I would sleep.
After so many months of doing my best to stay sedentary, my heart leapt at the idea — adventure! a voyage! movement! The journey was made all the more special because I’d have to spend a night without lodging on Martha’s Vineyard, a waypoint between ferries. I looked forward to camping — everyone safe and sound in their expensive summer homes while I found a secluded beach or a grove of trees.
“It’ll be like ‘Alone’,” I said to Alice, who looked at me skeptically and teased me about taking my privilege out for a spin.
The walk from our apartment in Brooklyn to the dock in Manhattan was seven miles. I packed a light bag, put on my mask and rode my skateboard whenever I could, feeling ecstatic and free.
At the dock I lined up along with the other happy vacationers. As the skyline retreated in the distance, I turned my back on the city and faced the open ocean. Is there a better thing for the soul than a blast of salt-heavy sea air? I’d spent the summers of my youth working on the Atlantic. I love boats and the ocean, and I had no idea how badly my body had been missing both.
I turned my headphones up and, with a beer covered in a paper bag in my hand, began to dance. A few of my fellow passengers laughed and clapped.
Five hours later we arrived at Oaks Bluff on Martha’s Vineyard and I was drunk. When we disembarked I waved goodbye to the crew and made my way down the dock. My legs beneath me weren’t as sturdy as they had been in New York, and my joyous drunkenness quickly turned into a heavy tiredness. By the time I stepped off the pier I was less concerned with finding my secluded beach or grove of trees and just wanted a place to sit down.
Down the boardwalk I found a bench. The sun had set, and I sat gratefully and watched the dark waves crash onto the shore. I smoked a cigarette (a bad habit from my youth that I had picked back up during quarantine), and put my feet up, resting my head on my bag. I closed my eyes, thinking to myself that it would just be for one moment.
When I opened my eyes, the sun was up. A jogger ran past; sea gulls shrieked. My big “Alone” adventure: passing out on a bench by the ocean. I stripped down to my shorts, walking into the ocean up to my waist, then dove in. It was cold and perfect.
Later I went into town for coffee to wait for the boat back to the mainland. I struck up a conversation with a local man who ran a construction company. He figured I was down on my luck and offered me a job with his crew doing repairs on the rich people’s homes. I passed on his kind offer, saying I had to make it further up the coast. Before heading back to the dock, I asked the man if he was familiar with “Alone.”
He wasn’t, but he had been right about one thing: I was down on my luck. I just didn’t know it yet. Within the next week, while living on Joel’s boat, I would realize my relationship had been falling apart. It came as an epiphany, something that I hadn’t been able to see while stuck in that apartment. It wasn’t one big thing — simply a bad year stacked on top of another: Alice’s father had died the year before; our money was running out; we were trying to figure things out in a city that’s tough even for those who seemingly have enough; then 2020 started kicking us while we were down.
Like so many of the people on “Alone,” we had reached the end of our endurance. “Globally worried. Locally OK.” Turns out we weren’t.
After my realization, I returned to the city. Alice and I picked up a meal from our favorite local Korean spot. We laughed and drank cocktails on our stoop. We talked. And then she left.
What did this pandemic take from you? A job opportunity? A loved one? A year? I know what it cost me. Both Alice and I are going to make it through this. But our relationship won’t. Our survival strategy wasn’t strong enough.
After waving goodbye, I walked back into our apartment and, with nothing else to do, started to rewatch a season of “Alone.”
Isaac Fitzgerald is the author of the children’s book “How to Be a Pirate” and the forthcoming essay collection “Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional.”