Desperately Seeking Solitude

Nine patients a day, 23 weeks pregnant, a side-career of teaching, household duties, a new relationship, social pressures, a restless child who wakes before dawn. I felt like everyone wanted something from me. I theorized that I did not need to play into these perceived demands. Still, I couldn’t derive a solution from a mental realization alone. My body had to seize up in excruciating pain to get me to slow down. I didn’t know how to slow down. I didn’t know how to stop the machine. Some days, I would collapse and cry. I didn’t know how to state my basic needs, much less implement them. Doing so would have subverted my entire way of life.

“Who will guard my solitude? Somebody guard my solitude!” When a trip to the hospital brought life to a full-halt, I finally realized I was calling upon myself. The world does not stop turning without me, and no one needs me more than my baby. (Turns out my unborn and I are pretty healthy, except for requiring a big scare to achieve a sustainable lifestyle.) I’m still exhausted. I’m still having contractions. It took me almost a week to relax into inactivity, and now I want to make it a way of life. The constant mental multitasking and chronic lack of sleep enslaved me even as my body tried to rest. Before last week, even my “down time” was productive.

Even without the insane overscheduling, I identify as a hermit. I am generally happiest when I am alone, and always have been. It’s far from lonely. Sometimes I feel like a dying star; the muses ride me hard in wasteful explosions. It’s garish. The space around me teems. Hermits and astronomers know that you can find a dying star wherever space is ample. And only there.

We live in a culture that does not make provisions for hermits. I refuse the sentimentality and nostalgia of sentences like, “Long gone or far away are the days in which communities provide for their outliers.” So are the days of being burned at the stake. We are here now. I imagine many would-be monks become artists in fields ranging from tech to literature. We still make our own way like salmon swimming upstream, hoping to see the ocean, where the open sky spreads like a smile. I love my life. I really do. But part of me is just biding time until I can become a nun. I crave renunciation, which feels like joining.

I have a few friends who feel particularly hurt by my lifestyle, i.e., a reserved personality combined with the duties of motherhood and financial survival tactics in the San Francisco Bay Area. They feel neglected. They take it personally. Someone recently reiterated his dismay. I responded, “If you could spend a week in my life, you wouldn't ask anything more of me.”

All of this compelled me to enumerate the reclusive strand of my awareness. It’s not a passive aggressive defense. It’s more an exploration. An articulation. A question. Sometimes hermits have a lot to say, which is why we don’t say it. Sometimes saying it helps us figure it out.

  1. Sorry for not calling you back. I am not a talker to begin with. The phone drains me, and I have to be very careful of how I spend my energy. In person, I can communicate with a full conversational palette — words, body language, environmental input, silence. On the phone, silence is awkward. I can’t assimilate visual, kinesthetic, and environmental cues. I feel like I’m missing half the input. This may sound incongruous, but text me if you want to talk. It takes the pressure off, puts a timecap on the conversation, and makes me much more likely to respond.
  2. It’s nothing personal. I don’t hang out with people very often. It’s not a snub. When I do, it’s in small doses. I’m constantly assimilating loads of environmental input. It’s nothing special, and I’m not complaining, but it’s a lot. I literally do not hang out with people regularly so that I can experience health. This has nothing to do with you personally. More than likely, I am very fond of you. I love to demonstrate that fondness from over here.
  3. I feel trapped in the role of listener. I enjoy listening, and people are usually more than happy to talk. This generally works well for everyone. But sometimes, I’d rather enjoy silence, or even have the opportunity to speak. Occasionally, a person will surprise me and leave enough room for this to happen. It usually takes a deliberate invitation and a longer-than-average pause. Like yours, my inner world is rich and difficult to convey. I feel big and slow, like the lovechild of Jupiter and a sloth. If you want to have a conversation with me, give me room to speak. Just know that I often speak in silences.
  4. I know what I need. Even though I have described the ways I fall short of meeting my basic requirements for sanity, I have not failed completely. I am also relaxed and happy when I do the things that work for me. For example, I almost never go out at night. If I do, it takes a long time to recover. I firmly abide a senior citizen’s schedule. I love to be in bed by 8:00. This may seem like a prison sentence to you, but to me, it’s a boundary that enables health.
  5. I’m not depressed. Recently I told a therapist, “I just want everyone to leave me alone.” She then gave me a book about depression, and suggested cognitive behavioral therapy. I have a history of depression, and I have an indelible, visceral memory of its grip. It’s horrible. So, I can say with authority that I am far from depressed. My cup runneth over. Most of the time, I just need everyone to back up so it can overflow.
  6. Everyday activities cost more. Interactions that energize others can drain me. Social gatherings ask a lot of me, sometimes more than I have to give. Once, someone convinced me to go out to a movie at night with a group of acquaintances because “it would be good for [me]!” I tried be open minded. I even dressed up. But I felt miserable the whole time. I think quiet people often feel excluded. (Make room for the quiet ones.) I also missed my window of sleep, which cascaded into days of insomnia. I actually do know what’s good for me, even if you are dubious, and even if my needs look different from yours.
  7. Convention can literally make me sick. As a young adult, I was sick constantly. I assumed this was because I had a weak immune system. I have since learned that I did not know how to manage my physiology. No one did. How could we have? There was no manual for introverts back then, much less for those of us who live way out past introvert, deep in the land of hermit. The demands of high school were insane. The “freedom” of college was a disaster. If I could go back in time, I would legitimize my mystical bent and need to be alone. I would assure myself that my perceived neuroses were perfectly normal.
  8. It’s easy to beat myself up. “Why don’t I want what other people want? Why can’t I do things other people do?” Slowly, I am learning not to recoil against myself. I have never wanted a conventional relationship, for example. This is still hard for me. With the help of an incredible man, I am learning that even that’s OK. My mantra has become, “What if it’s not a problem?” As a mother, teacher, and healthcare professional, most of my life is geared toward caring for others, yet I have to convince myself that unearthing my own needs isn’t selfish. It has taken me a very long time to realize there is nothing wrong with me, even if my needs defy the American behavioral canon. The spirit of defiance does not move me, and I’m not trying to make a statement.
  9. Social media is good for me. I’ve taken flak for reaching out over social media, both to offer and receive support, or just to communicate. People suggest that “real” interactions can only occur with a phone call or over tea, etc. For me, the best way for me to stay connected to people is through social media. It‘s a healing force, a window to the world, a way to share. It’s where I say things! To people! I love seeing what is happening in my friends’ lives. I love sharing what’s happening in mine. I’m not exactly sorry about it, either. That’s what social media is for.

If I could be my own crazy aunt, and give myself a little pep talk, I would say:

  1. You can’t do a lot of stuff other people can do, but you can do a lot of stuff other people can’t do. You have a lot to give, and you can give it by cultivating healthy solitude. Solitude is actually part of the gift you are giving. So much of what holds up the world is unseen.
  2. Remember humanity when you reek of low tide. If the ocean recedes beyond your sight, you will founder and fester. Let people in. Stay connected to the ocean of humanity. Your suffering is never your own. A drop of poison retains its potency even in open water, but the scale of the sea renders it benign.
  3. Knowing your needs is a necessary privilege. If you live under conditions that enable you to discover them, do it. Articulate your needs, especially the uncommon ones. Have your friends help you implement them, knowing it could take some time. Take the time. Trust your way in the world, tiny boo. You got this!

Lastly, I would like to thank the people who quietly demonstrate sanity against all odds. Sanity has many expressions, but the hermits have my heart. I love living in an age that facilitates reclusive solidarity. You who haven’t left for the mountains are like a drink of cool water to me. Thank you for your unassuming confidence that defies convention. I rest in your simple statement knowing you have no desire to make one.

Alexandra Courtesan

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like if you cross Lascaux with the Hallmark Channel and add a dash of Chaucer

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