Truth be told, this is not my first experience with social isolation. Though at the time, it wasn’t mandated by the state due to a nationwide pandemic. In fact, it was business as usual for everyone but me. I reason this might be why I am handling the current state of affairs as well as I am. Solitude is an old friend of mine. One I first loathed, then came to love over the years, growing accustomed to spending extended periods of time alone, with little to no social interaction.
If you were never in isolation before, I feel for you. I know this could be jarring. Especially for those who require social connection. I can’t tell you how I faired mentally and emotionally with my first experience because those feelings were mixed and diluted with another set of feelings. I couldn’t discern the two – not then and not now. I imagine the feelings associated with isolation were there, they were just overidden by the terrorizing and glaringly obvious reason I could no longer leave my house – the sexual assault. Of which, was my best kept secret at this time.
I spent 6 months in isolation from the outside world. At the time, I was living with my father in a duplex in North Scranton. My bed was the living room couch. My dressers were rubbermaid bins. He was a truckdriver hauling back and forth from California which meant 2-3 weeks on the road, home for a day or two, then repeat. He had no idea what was happening. In the day or two he was home, I could easily pull off my physical and mental state as exhaustion from studying and school work.
I wasn’t working. I saved up enough money to take the first year of college off. I wanted to focus on my studies, dive right in, soak up the college experience and find the real me. The me that was separate from my dysfunctional family and the me that was separate from my shitty high school experience that I believed turned me into something so far removed from who I actually was. The sexual assault put a hard stop to all of that. Instead of propelling me forward, it suspended me in time. Oh, my life was about to change all right. Turned right upside fucking down. This was not the change I had in mind.
Thanks to this monster, I spent my first year of college almost failing out of it, losing my academic scholarship while simultanously losing my mind, paralyzed inside the walls of the house I lived in. A prison of the self-made variety.
When you stop partying, when you disappear off the map, you find out that your circle of “friends” weren’t really friends at all. They were people you got shitfaced with. They were there to support your drinking habit, not you. They aren’t there to help carry the weight of your burdens, of your trauma, of your grief. Unless your intent is to drink it all away. Then of course, by all means, pick up the phone and a 30 rack and get to it. Just never talk about the reason why you’re there to black out. Your suffering is a buzzkill. Your agony is a Debbie Downer. Slap on a smile, throw on a short skirt or a lowcut top, do your hair, look cute, pretend to be indifferent to your pain, and get ready to chug that next beer bong or have that mindless one night stand to feel anything other than torment.
Video chat was just becoming a thing. Facetime and Hangouts didn’t even exist yet. Facebook was only two years old. I had just swapped my Nextel phone for a Blackberry, the one where you had to click the number button several times to get the letter you wanted to type, moving through the whole alphabet to form words and sentences. Three-way phone calls for hours with girlfriends were no longer a thing. They hadn’t been in years, at least not for me. Family support was not an option. My tribe was nonexistent. Our house on Main Street might as well have been Mars. I wouldn’t have known the difference.
This was isolation of a different kind – a very disconnected one. I spoke to no one for the better part of 182 days, practically mute. This does not include the hollow excuses given to my professors to try to save my own ass and get back to campus nor the cursory responses given to my dad whenever he asked if I was alright. I’m just tired.
And I was. I was So. Fucking. Tired.
Along with isolation came another ‘I’ word. Insomia. It meant watching strange late night advertisements and endless reruns with bloodshots eyes. It makes you contimplate running head first into a wall hoping to knock yourself unconciousness for awhile. It’s pouring a glass of Nyquil and praying it makes you pass out. Your thoughts are on an endless loop. Your mind never shuts off. Insomnia makes you feel like you are living in a dream. Never really asleep. Never really awake. Perhaps more like a nightmare.
We usually consider home our safe haven. The place where you can relax, unwind, get comfortable, be yourself. Where you can escape the outside world. But in times of isolation, home can be suffocating. Those once protective walls start to close in on you. You have the ability to leave but at the same time you are trapped. The anxiety lives in your body like tremors, threatening to dismantle your world if its magnitude breaches a 7 on your personal Richter scale. The panic breeds in your lungs and sits heavy in your heart like a stone.
My full experience during this period of isolation is a story for another time. One I have yet to tell in full, but I intend to someday.
Out of isolation came a great many things. Suffering was the largest part of it. But there were silver linings. Ones that looking back now, I couldn’t see. Of course I couldn’t. When you’re in the eye of the storm, all you see and feel is the storm happening around you. You don’t even expect to make it out alive so who’s thinking about the sunshine and the silver linings? No one. No one at all.
Prior to this, I was terrified of being alone. Alone with my thoughts, alone with myself, alone without anyone to occupy space with me. The thought of being alone or ending up alone, was a very real fear for me. If I spent time alone, it meant I would have to sit with all the things I was running from. If I looked inward, I would discover all the things I didn’t want to see, this person I didn’t really want to become but did anyway. I would have to face not only what was done to me, but what I had done to myself and to others.
When you distance yourself away from other people – what they think, what they do, how they act, who they are, and most importantly, what they want you to be, how they want you to act, how they see you, how you want them to see you – something magical happens. You start to discover the places inside yourself that society can’t reach, you start to discover the parts of you that society can’t touch. And you fall in love with them. And suddenly you want YOU – the real you – more than ever before. No matter what people think. No matter how they react. No matter what they say.
Your voice begins to take centerstage.
It silences the crowd that’s normally around you.
You need this time to listen. To understand. To comprehend. To tell the difference.
You slowly peel away standards and labels.
You grind off the rust.
You sand off all the layers of old paint to reveal the original work underneath.
And what you find,
it’s a masterpiece.
And it was so before you became saturated with the opinions and ideals of others.
It was so before you were raised to be like this or that.
It was so before it must be done this way. Before you must believe this. Before you must look, feel, and act like this.
It was so before they were right and you were wrong.
It was so before you were dragged through the mud and kicked when you were down.
Before someone or many people hurt you.
Before they stole your light.
Before they silenced your voice.
Before you changed who you were to fit in, to be loved, to succeed.
It was so before you so desperately tried to become part of the machine.
It was so before the monsters came.
Isolation then, can be seen as something good. As something constructive and helpful. A reset. A time of reflection. A time of discovery. A time to slow down. A time to appreciate the little things. To appreciate you and all your unique and beautiful contributions to this life as an individual. To turn the switch off. To focus on your own little slice of this pie.
I know this now, but I didn’t know it back then.
Solitude was once insufferable. Isolation was the very definition of torture. A lot of pain can happen in solitude. But that doesn’t mean we should avoid it. Avoiding pain, trauma, grief, anger, sadness, is like living with a knife stuck in your side. Without pulling it out, the wound remains open. It never has a chance to heal. And what battle have you ever heard of that was won by running away?
For me, distance is the very thing I require most when trying to figure things out. I willingly go inside my mind to search for answers, to work through issues, to grow, to make changes, to progress. It’s where I go when the world is making me feel less than or other than. I look to myself instead of others when there is uncertainty, when there is doubt. I am my own compass. I am my true North. I know myself more completely because of isolation, because of time spent in solitude. Away from society, away from social media, away from the thoughts, opinions, expectations, and lives of others.
Spend this time in isolation to learn, to discover, to dive deep, to be creative, to go back to the basics, to appreciate you, to be grateful for the little things, to cherish all that you have and all that you are in a time when society and social connection isn’t accessible.
I promise, it will do you much good to step away for awhile. Whether you believe it now or not. These times are uncertain for sure. The health of our nation is in crisis. But hasn’t it been for quite some time? Perhaps we haven’t thought about it until now.
We should take this time and spend it being more certain of ourselves. Who we are. What we value and prioritize. How we want to live. What and who we love. Where our passions lie. Who we want to become. Where we might have fallen. How we can rise again. The work that needs to be done. If we should slow down. What we are running from. Or running towards.
We should take this time to focus on our whole truth – its beauty and its ugliness.