On leaving safety for longing and loneliness

Originally published in Vaein Zine #3 — Cyborg issue — visit http://vaeinzine.tumblr.com/

I.

Have you thought about what would happen if you completely shut yourself off from the world? Alone in that dark damp warmth, with all the doors firmly locked and blinds drawn across bolted windows? What would you be left with? How long could you survive in that space, without food or water, and especially without human contact? Would you retain your sanity? What faces would warp and weave toward you, making their way out of the darkness?

I once dreamt of a space of infinite faces, a space where I could be simultaneously known and unknown. I once dreamt of a time when reality would begin, where I would find the key to happiness, the people to anchor me to myself. Back then, in that small town, I felt less girl, more machine. With noone around me who understood me, it felt so possible that none of it was real.

Vivian Gornick wrote in ‘The Odd Woman and the City’ that “[o]ne is lonely for the absent idealised other”. The idealised other was the person, or people, that I dreamt of who would tie me down to my perfect future self, again an idealised other. Reality was meant to begin, for me, at seventeen, with my dreams of finding these “others” coming into fruition, with the end of my small-town loneliness.

I left that particular small town behind a while ago now. I haven’t been back in years. But, as any person attempting to be wise might tell you, simply leaving didn’t mean that the problems were solved, the void filled. I avoided the emotional hard work for a while. I flirted with oblivion, just to avoid being alone, and oblivion laughed right back. I lived most of my life like a dream — I migrated through relationships, moved in and out of places, came and left and returned again. Slowly I found anchors, small but strong, and I became an anchor myself. I was busy and popular and I lived on the edge of mania, mostly. But in that I found comfort. The approval from others gave me a heady rush; it seemed to mitigate any need to work on the upkeep of my emotional hygiene. After all, who has the time for introspection when you’re just so busy? I was captivated by an outer world, and inside, it started to feel sunny. It started to feel warm. The blinds were open, and air was rushing in.

Then I left my new home, the foundation still freshly laid. I left to be alone again.

II.

My mum calls me regularly to check my vital signs. Am I still breathing? Have I eaten? Am I still lonely? I tell her that I moved a lamp from the spare bedroom to the table in the living area and how much it brightened my outlook. I lie about social outings that I told her about but couldn’t find the courage to attend. I neglect to inform her that I haven’t had a conversation (other than this one) in almost three days.

The symptoms of feeling lonely are synonymous with those of grief — sadness, detachment, isolation, longing — which isn’t entirely surprising. I have been separated. I am suffering a loss. I have lost the intimacy and closeness of having those anchors close to me. Emotional bonds have been suddenly (but not unexpectedly) severed. I skate around feeling weightless, heady.

I have recently taken to describing this year as limbo, living in the middle of the past and the future with nothing but me. Memories are hazy; time lapses. Nothing has happened and yet the nothing has happened so quickly. Confined in the dark damp warmth, I wonder what would happen if I died. Who would be the first to notice? How long would it take? How many unanswered phone calls before my mum realised something was wrong?

Being alone in this limbo has been a small introduction to feelings of abandonment, brought on by grief.

III.

The dark damp warmth can become unbearable. I would know. It’s not like I haven’t felt heat before. I could describe it to you. I could call it oppressive, or stifling, or liken it to a heavy wool blanket soaked in sweat wrapped around you at all times. Sometimes you can trick yourself into believing that you might actually suffocate.

This time, the heat is different. It’s still heavy, I still struggle to breathe. In amongst that, though, I remember where I am. There’s only so much pretending-to-be-somewhere-else you can do while sweat trickles into too familiar places. How can you pretend you’re a machine when the back of your knees are so wet? Isn’t that a purely human sensation?

It is humbling, being alone, being present. You start to make the most of each moment. The smallest of life’s coincidences play out like symphonies, like when a song hits it peak as you step out of the shadows into the sunlight. Like the way the lights blink along the horizon in perfect unison. Everything becomes almost unbearably cinematic. You start to think, what would these moments be, without you there? Without you paying attention? What do these moments mean to you, as you are, in this moment? The quietness from outside brings a quietness within.

Loneliness manifests as silence, a marked lack of distractions. Sitting quietly with yourself on a much more regular basis than before is both frightening and therapeutic. I appreciate having this time and space, knowing its transient nature, to rest and recharge, and to simultaneously live.

The Gornick quote from ‘The Odd Woman and the City’ reads, in full, “[o]ne is lonely for the absent idealised other but in useful solitude, I am there, keeping myself imaginative company, breathing life into the silence, filling the room with proof of my own sentient being”. Active hibernation is another way I have described this year. Useful solitude would fit too. Like limbo, but without the fear that nobody will be on the other side.

I miss the intimacy of others, but I have become intimate with loneliness. Finding comfort in being alone, the idealised other isn’t necessary for my needs to be satisfied. In solitude I create the antidote for myself.

IV.

In ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’, Joan Didion describes an aspect of grieving as having “no further focus than ourselves, a source from which self-pity naturally flows”. Solipsism — that is, focusing on the “self” as the only thing that exists; the “tunnelling inwards” referred to by Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace — is a dangerous byproduct of solitude, however useful it can be in getting to know yourself better. When the only remnant from your past anchoring you in the present is yourself, how do you avoid becoming solipsistic?

And yet I must continue to avoid tunnelling inwards, and look outwards instead. The machine-girl is in the past, and the humanoid in the present, learning to connect with others in ways not previously thought possible by the machine. This is learning the power of everyday vulnerability, the value of human connection in all its forms.

People are obsessed with asking about the friends that I’ve made since moving here. It always comes out so timidly, so anxious about what the answer might be. If I was honest and truthfully, I struggle to admit that answer would be none. I’m anxious, too — about the fact that I could die and so few people in my physical space would realise I’m gone, about the apparent failure of this humanoid to emotionally connect with others. The self-pity flows naturally, endlessly.

But I avoid solipsism through tiny connections with others, so small that no one bothers to ask about them. Oddly enough I’m actually more social here, where I have no one. In an average day I talk to a lot more people, without my headphones on constantly, without my head drifting away. I chat to the cashiers, security guards, a man who ends up in the lift with me each day at 8:30am precisely. I’m present in the moment, looking further away than who I am when I’m alone.

The anchors outside of myself exist beyond the corporeal space I inhabit. None of the timid voices ask me about the friendships I’ve forged and strengthened through the internet, through emojis and Twitter mentions and long-winded emails and Skype calls that cut out intermittently. I’ve been more open and vulnerable in some of the texts I’ve sent this year than I ever have been with ‘real life’ friends I’ve known since high school. Vulnerability and intimacy, I’m learning, is a process. A process in destroying the idealised other, the stoic self who needs nobody that deeply yet fears being alone. I’ve let my guard down — with myself, and then, with others — and I’ve found understanding. The idealised other has vacated, and in its place blossoms anchors more concrete and truthful.

V.

Have you thought about what would happen if you shut yourself off from the world? Is it really that simple? For even when you’re alone, you aren’t really alone. New growths continue to sprout in the dark damp warmth, even without help. Despite the new life developing around you, it’s still terrifying in the dark. Loneliness, as any good psychologist could tell you, is something you can feel even when other people are around. But why are you so scared? Sit quietly. Now — what is it trying to tell you?