Solitude

Winter sunshine, Orkney

I’m back in Orkney after six weeks away. I’ve been busy, teaching and working, as far afield as Bangladesh. I’ve also found it impossible to sit down and write even when I’ve not been occupied.

One of the things I’ve had to learn as an adult is how ‘be’ with myself. When I was a child, I was often very solitary. I enjoyed reading and spending time alone. I’m one of those introverted people who needs to recover from a stressful day, with people who never seem to stop talking, by being on my own; rather than, as some people relax, by heading out to a noisy party. Extended time interacting with others without a break is for me a peculiar form of torture, although I strangely never experienced this much in the company of my patients and closest colleagues.

Unfortunately the world is full of extroverts who cannot understand the needs of someone like me. As Anneli Rufus commented in her book Party of One: The Loner’s Manifesto, its not easy to be a loner in a world obsessed with ‘team-building’; in a society where the very word ‘loner’ has connotations of being odd, crazy, secretive and strange.
However, being alone brings it’s own challenges. Living inside your own head is all very well if it’s fairly pleasant in there. But if it’s rather a mess and full of the rubbish left over from past relationships and conflicts, it’s not a peaceful place to be. Its tempting to spend more time in the company of others, not necessarily because you want to be with them, but in order to drown out your troublesome inner dialogue.

It is true that spending time on your own can be a way of escaping from dealing with things you have to tackle in the ‘real world’, but its really important not to assume that is always the case. I’ve seen too many people forced out of their protective shell by extroverts who think they should ‘socialise’ more. It happens in mental health because of the belief that those who are on their own mustn’t feel lonely. Some people need time alone to feel safe.

Looking back over my adult life, I’ve spent hours, days and weeks in the company of others trying to avoid feelings of loneliness and unworthiness, while at the same time resenting the time I’ve wasted not doing all the things I wanted to be able to spend time on. Something changed for me in adolescence. I started to hear the self-critical voices in my head (and my mother too- a born extrovert) telling me to ‘get out and mix more’. Its also hard to meet a partner too if you never leave the house, though social media is changing the way we view dating and our other interactions with the world to a degree that mental health workers haven’t quite caught up with yet. The on-line world can seem more real to you than the jungle out there…and can be just as threatening.

I find it difficult to be creative in the company of others, or when there is too much ‘going on’ in my life. Virginia Wolff was so right about needing a Room of Your Own. I’m on an island. As Anthony Storr wrote in his now classic text Solitude we need time and space to discover what we are capable of achieving. Being alone is a necessary step to learning about your self. The difficulty of course is that you may not like what you find. There may be a great deal of ‘stuff’ reverberating around your head. Being alone forces you to begin to sort out the packed store cupboards of your mind and throw out the junk. When I am on my own with my thoughts I have to find ways of dealing with them, e.g.by going out for a walk or having a sleep. Not by seeking out others who will then make more demands on ‘me’. It sounds a little selfish as I write about it. But its self-care.

An increasing number of people live alone, including many who are depressed. Loneliness is viewed as a growing problem in our society, yet there remains a real stigma to being on your own, which I suspect prevents some people from embracing their solitude and learning to live with it as they fear becoming even more lonely. I can see now that I felt lonelier in a failing marriage, making meaningless conversation at corporate parties, than I did when I really began to come to terms with being on my own on a prolonged stay in a remote Scottish cottage.

I am not completely alone now. I have a husband to whom I speak to every day, but from whom I spend quite long periods away. He is a person who needs his own space too. Each of us needs to find, what is for us, the right balance of intimacy of aloneness to be able to function.

There now….I’ve started writing this blog again.

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