Rediscovering loneliness

Three years ago, if anyone had asked, I’d have said: I don’t get lonely.

Running away from it all

I’m a stone introvert – the kind who doesn’t just like to be alone but needs to be alone. In my 20s, I lived with friends or partners. Then, about the time most people start pairing up and shopping for pushchairs, I moved to Ibiza.

Time alone became the norm. Freelance writing, never the most social of professions, was a ticket to a lifestyle that, in retrospect, verged on isolation. But I was content. Or at least didn’t experience my situation as lonely.

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Photo by Marc Zimmer on Unsplash

A slow tide

Discovering my capacity for loneliness happened gradually. Prior to meeting Chris I was happy to be a leaf drifting in the wind. Alone but not lonely.

When we fell in love and started rearranging our lives to be together, and I found myself lonely without him.

Acknowledging that should have been scary. What about my hard-won freedom? But it was so obvious, so inevitable, that I accepted it without a tremor.

Loneliness is not finite or discrete though. Our need for companionship extends beyond intimate relationships. When my internal barricade of plausible deniability/wishful thinking/calling it something else came down it made way for a tide of emotion.

Losing the everyday

Our abrupt move across the country taught me that the loss of familiarity – even routine, irritating, rubbish-strewn familiarity – can trigger paralysing loneliness.

The longer Chris and I have together, the more I crave the unthinkable: roots.

One big reason for moving was that we didn’t feel our last home was where we wanted to be long term. That’s still true, but it hasn’t stopped an onslaught of anxiety.

There were many good things about where we lived and it was comfortable. We didn’t have close friends or a lively social circle, but we had amiable neighbours. We knew their routinesroutines, signed for their packages, petted their dogs.

The old men sipping sherry at the corner kiosk waved hello as I walked to work, when my cat jumped out the window the kids playing outside banged on my door to tell me, the delivery drivers knew my ID number by heart.

Mundane treasures

Ripping myself away from all that revealed just how much energy goes into every day life. Snug in my routine, I forgot how draining, and how lonely, it is to have to think about everything. Thankfully, my intimate relationships and close friendships are intact, but that soothing web of mundane friendliness and ordinary interaction is gone for good.

Acquaintance, basic community, depends on presence. When you’re there you are part of it by default. If you leave you can come back as a visitor, or guest, but you’re not a thread in that particular tapestry any more.

Rebuilding

On the one hand (what we were thinking of as we hired a van, gave away old clothes, packed our life into boxes) a new setting is freedom. We can, in theory, rebuild the network any way we like. If we’re lucky, there will be new work, different perspectives, people who become dear friends.

On the other, leaving a place is a hard, expensive, exhausting enterprise that has no guarantee of coming good. I am lucky to have never, in the long term, regretted a move. Even Glasgow, my nadir, brought me cherished friendships and self-awareness.

One can, and does, rebuild. I’ve done it before. But those muscles are atrophied and honestly, all I want to do is curl up with my newfound-friend loneliness and cry.

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Photo by AJ Yorio on Unsplash

Opening up to more

From an individual point of view, loneliness is maladaptive. Why face something that makes you miserable? (And stunts your health, motivation and productivity.)

Yet as people, we need loneliness. Otherwise, what becomes of empathy and cohesion?

Loneliness is fundamental to emotional development — along with heartbreak, happiness, disappointment, anger, and everything else that makes us human.

Maybe not in the short term (right now, I feel about as empathetic and giving as The Grinch) but over time, it inculcates an awareness of how fragile happiness is, and how much we can contribute to each others’ well-being.

When we open ourselves to loneliness we invite anxiety, insecurity and sadness – but we also, just possibly, make space for something new.

“It is not only indolence which causes human relationships to repeat themselves with such unspeakable monotony, unrenewed from one occasion to another, it is the shyness of any new, incalculable experience which we do not feel ourselves equal to facing.”

– Rainer Maria Rilke

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Routine benefits

One of the many things repeated moves have taught me about myself is that I need routine like bees need flowers. This flies in the face of the cherished self-perception that I am fearless, free, and endlessly flexible.

My youthful fantasy was to fit everything I owned in a backpack and earn a living with a typewriter (yep, it’s been that long).

To an astonishing extent, I managed it – at least for periods of time. This let me kid myself into thinking my spirit is free.

Trekking across the country, life crammed in a rented van, again disabused me of this wishful thought. That I mourn its loss suggests a reckoning. Why is routine a dirty word? What is freedom, really?

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Photo by Sorin Sîrbu on Unsplash

When routine is wrong

My mental resistance to routine – despite the fact it is essential for my mental health and productivity – springs from the fear of being trapped.

Growing up with an authoritarian father and Evangelical mother, my ability to make decisions based on my own wants and needs was basically zero. They told me what to eat, when to sleep, what to wear, what to believe, with hellfire and damnation to come if I disobeyed.

Physical, intellectual and emotional oppression tainted my understanding of routine. Instead of seeing it as positive and reassuring, I thought it was prison.

Real-life routine

As an adult, I’ve never quite lost my fear of it. Yet, despite a peripatetic life and work-style, routine finds me. When I was writing a book and had no outside obligations, I woke, drank coffee, ran, showered, worked, ate, slept at the same times every day. For the past nine months, I left the house at exactly 15:55, Monday to Thursday, to walk to work.

Writing, eating, yoga, walks with the cats, happened as if to a factory clock. Being displaced from them feels like be yanked from a deep salt current onto baking sand.

The geographic change has pushed sunset back an hour, the cats are disorientated; I don’t yet have the structure of out-of-home work. Worse, there is a mountain of one-off tasks: hoovering, mopping, washing, unpacking and packing. Rattled, my brain is creaking along in fits and starts, adding anxiety to the general feeling of unsettledness.

Lacing this is my stubborn, though discredited, notion that I should be able to carry on as if nothing happened. To my dream self, moving a thousand kilometres would be as easy as crossing the street.

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Routine = daily ritual

Routine carries connotations of repetition, boredom, drudgery, lack of imagination. Ritual, on the other hand, has overtones of ceremony and celebration. When we think of rituals we picture weddings, christenings, funerals (even sombre rituals are elegant).

Part of readjusting my attitude towards routine is giving it a proper title: daily ritual.

Waking up, feeding the cats, boiling water for coffee are small, valuable rituals. Drinking coffee from our matched mugs (mine’s the chipped one) while the cats poke around the yard, also ritual.

The order of work, chores, movement, even grocery shopping, can all be appreciated as a part of the ongoing ritual of sustaining a meaningful, productive, satisfying life. That’s no small thing, when you grow up with no concept of what that kind of life looks like.

Routine can make us part of something bigger

Routine helps us create a collective life, too. Work, education, society and politics couldn’t function with the rhythm of ritual. That’s not to say existing patterns are sacrosanct – there are many routines we would be right to change – but the move would have to be in the direction of a better routine, not chaos.

“You hear every day greater numbers of foolish people speaking about liberty, as if it were such an honourable thing,” wrote the Victorian critic John Ruskin. “It is, on the whole… dishonourable, and an attribute of the lower creatures. No human being, however great or powerful, was ever so free as a fish. There is always something that he must, or must not do; while the fish may do whatever he likes.”

He continues: “A butterfly is much more free than a bee; but you honour the bee more, just because it is subject to certain laws which fit it for orderly function in bee society.”

Being “fit… for orderly function” isn’t just a social benefit, it is a personal good. Human beings need community and a sense of purpose. Positive routines nourish the relationships and responsibilities that make for a rewarding life.

 

 

Blame it on the rain

Why do I feel uprooted (panicked, dismayed, trapped)?

I blame a four-letter word: Rain.

Remember Milli Vanilli? I was nine when “Blame it on the rain” came out. We weren’t supposed to listen to “secular” music but my big sister sneakily tuned in Casey Kasem’s Top 40. The chorus never left me: “Blame it on the rain/that’s fallin’ fallin'”.

 

Growing up on the central Oregon coast rain was a constant. The occasional days a high north wind pushed away the clouds were bitter. Wet and cold were the warp and woof of my childhood. They crept past windowpanes and under doors of the crumbling ex-holiday cottage where we lived. The small, square black wood-burning stove and ancient electric heater never made a dint.

The other constant was the wild fluctuation of my father’s moods. Fear permeated the air like water, raised goosebumps like a chill.

The things I carry

My brain learned, fast and young, to blur the present and project itself to the safety of the future. This let me survive and escape. It also sapped my ability put my experiences and emotions in context, leaving vast gaps in my self-awareness.

It took moving to Glasgow in an unusually cold, wet year to acknowledge rain’s hold over me. Rainfall elicits anxiety, hopelessness, depression, anger, helplessness. I feel like a child again.

Living in Glasgow catapulted me into clinical depression. I wanted to die; also, stubbornly, I wanted to live. Which, at that point, meant leaving as quickly as possible and promising myself to never again live somewhere that required GoreTex.

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Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

Plotting the resistance 

Now, I’ve broken that promise in style, husband and cats in tow.

Maybe it’s a dumb risk to leave a lazy, sunny town for a cold house in rain country, thereby putting my mental health and relationship on the line.

How else can I overcome my fear of rain?

I don’t want to be a prisoner of my childhood anxieties. Avoiding uncomfortable emotions and circumstances is a strategy, not a solution.

To be happy anywhere, I need to cultivate my capacity to be happy everywhere.

As Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:

People have (with the help of convention) found the solution of everything in ease and the easiest side of easy; but it is clear that we must hold to the difficult…. We know little, but that we must hold to the difficult is a certainty that will not leave us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; the fact that a thing is difficult must be one more reason for our doing it.

Whatever the year brings, I want to live with intention and integrity, in the rain.

 

Uprooted

Life in motion

My husband and I just moved house. Actually, moved to a house across the country, with our three cats and a motley assortment of possessions in a hired camper van.

Haphazard, yes, but not the worst of my moves. That would be the time I had to drag my possessions across town in a suitcase because I didn’t have a car; or the time I had to leave my cat with my ex-boyfriend because I was moving across the Atlantic.

This move was anticipated and embraced.

Until it happened.

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My road warriors

Feeling the fear

No single thing triggered the panic. It is the house’s accumulation of dust, spiders, cobwebs; the discarded shoes in cupboards and underwear jammed beneath beds. It is lukewarm water, cold floors and incessant rain.

Panic started in my belly, rose, rolled around. For my husband’s (and cats’) sake I’m trying to quell it but the effort is short-circuiting my brain. I can’t understand simple statements, nor follow directions.

It took all my willpower to not utter the phrase “I want to go home” — that and the knowledge that I can’t. Not after quitting my job, ending our lease, and spending all our money to move here.

Get up, or give in

Right now, I want nothing more than to curl in a ball and weep. I want to tell someone, anyone: “I’ve made a mistake, please let me go back.”

But of course, that’s not an option. Chris is already back at work. The cats are doing their best to acclimate. It’s still raining.

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Three’s company

I’m scared. But somehow, I have to keep moving. 

Elements of Storytelling 2: Urgency

Storytelling is the essence of communication. Whether you are a writer, entrepreneur or politician your story is how you connect with people.

The elements of storytelling are like the letters of the alphabet. Once you know them, you can put them together to tell your story in the best way possible.

Element 2: Urgency

Great stories say things that matter. They aren’t just entertainment, they have an urgent message.

Case study: CALMZine

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What it is: CalmZINE is a by-men/for-men magazine published by the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM). CALM is a British charity that works to prevent male suicide (in 2014 men accounted for 76% of UK suicides and it is the leading cause of death in men under 45).

Brash as the captain of a five-a-side team after six pints, CALMZine hums with the urgent message: You’re not alone. In another context its laddishness, #Mandictionary, its jocular tone, would be gratingly juvenile. But it works because it is fuelled by urgency. Life and death. Every article whether news, interviews, fashion features, sport or entertainment, is twined with the message: It’s okay to struggle. You’re not alone. We’re here to listen.

 

Why it matters: Nothing comes close to being as awful as suicide. I’ve seen friends, family, shattered by it and there is nothing to say. Not a single word of comfort. No, “everything will be all right,” no “it was for the best,” no “at least he didn’t suffer,” no no no. None of the platitudes we salve ourselves with in the face of ordinary death. You can always find mercy if you look hard enough. But not in the vortex of suicide. You can stare into that pit all day, until your eyes burn at the blackness. You can cry enough tears to fill the ocean and that hole stays dry and dead as a slice of outer space.

The hopelessness of words after the fact gives utmost urgency to every word spoken or written to prevent it. There are no second chances. Any comfort or stumbling block, anything that helps one person make the choice to live, matters more than art.

Their story:

CALM works to prevent male suicide by:-

  • Offering support to men in the UK, of any age, who are down or in crisis via our helpline and website.
  • Pushing for changes in policy and practice so that suicide is better prevented via partnerships such as The Alliance of Suicide Prevention Charities (TASC), the National Suicide Prevention Alliance (NSPA). CALM also hosts the Suicide Bereavement Support Partnership (SBSP), which aims to ensure that everyone bereaved or affected by suicide is offered and receives timely and appropriate support.

Read the rest of the CALM story here

Practice: “Rather than daydreaming about what you’d like to write, sit down for fifteen minutes, keep your hand moving, begin with “I want to write about,” and go. Stay specific and concrete. Not ‘I want to write about truth, democracy, honesty,’ but ‘I want to write about the time my father lied right to my face and I could taste it all through dinner. It tasted like hot gasoline.’ ~Natalia Goldberg (Wild Mind)

Remember: “The one I felt pulsing in my chest [was] like a second heart… the story I couldn’t live without telling.” ― Cheryl Strayed