There has been a lot of talk lately about isolation and how it’s been affecting us as a global society. Being quarantined for such a long time has no doubt, taken its toll on peoples’ mental health. But what about those who were already isolating? Only not due to a virus outbreak. What if there are people whom are already quarantining, only to protect themselves from opening up emotionally to others? And not from a potentially deadly virus.
This was how I had been living for decades, not realizing what I had been doing. In this post, I’d like to take a look at what brought me to this place and what I’m doing about it now to help alleviate some of the pain of emotional isolation. Hopefully, helping both those who are too scared to open up emotionally, but also those dealing with pandemic isolation as well. So let’s jump right in with where it all began for me.
How the Past Shapes the Present
When I was young, things were pretty good. I had a best friend, support from family and interests I was developing. I was well on my way to a healthy version of person-hood. But things took a turn for the worse when I was about 8 years-old. My family fell apart and I lost my best friend, all at about the same time.
This is a difficult situation for anybody to handle, but when you’re 8 and emotionally abandoned, it’s nearly impossible to sort out and understand all the emotions tied into what’s happening to and around you. Also not to mention, to not take responsibility for what’s happening. Especially if the messages you were being sent were, as I was, “there’s something wrong with you, I know what it is, but I’m not going to tell you and I’m disappointed in you for it.”
These messages came from my family mostly. There was always a smug sense of knowing, of superiority that my caregivers carried about them. And when you’re a child just coming to understand how you affect the world you’re inhabiting, as I was, this is more than just a little confusing. I was second guessing my belonging, how I was seen by others and whether what I was doing made those I relied on and trusted, reject me. I was lonely, isolated and had absolutely no one to talk to, to help me to understand what I was experiencing. Fast forward to the pandemic and I had already experienced what others were coming to know well as a heartbreakingly lonely experience. Only for most, theirs was due to COVID-19.
And the older I got, the further apart my family drifted. To almost complete isolation. We never spoke to one another and when we did we didn’t have anything nice to say about anything or anyone. We were becoming less and less recognizable as a family, aka a group of people who love and support one another. It just wasn’t in us.
Okay, It’s Hit the Fan, Now What?
To watch something you felt loved and supported from fall apart, is no easy task. As I’ve said in earlier posts on this blog, I have very fond memories of my family as a youth. So getting used to the cold, emotionless, emptiness that was slowly growing in the place of where my love and support used to live was maddening. But it was also fact. No amount of wishing things were differently was going to make things change for the better. Especially around the holidays.
So I did what anybody in my situation would do. I had a breakdown. I left my wife for a woman I thought I loved, only to find myself rejected yet again. A pattern I later realized that I emulated from my family history. But it’s the best thing that could have happened for me at the time.
I realized I was living the embodiment of my family’s toxic ways of being, all the while running from what was healthiest for me. Which was to build lasting relationships based in mutual respect and love. Not on the image based and emotionally avoidant ways my family has been living.
I chose my ex-wife because she held strong opinions and knew what she wanted. These aren’t inherently bad qualities, only it left me without a voice in the relationship. But this was just what I was looking for. Someone to tell me how to live my life. And that’s exactly what I got from our relationship.
The woman I left my ex-wife for was more of the same. I was regressing in my emotional growth by choosing women who were obstinate, mildly self-absorbed, bullish, self-righteous and mean spirited. But if we’re being honest, I was exactly the same way. And I was also looking to avoid actually being a part of my relationships because it’s how I was hurt in the past.
So after my breakdown, I moved in with one of my childhood caregivers. This was a wakeup call In that most of the life events that I experienced, my caregiver had as well. Only I never knew because we never spoke. They were avoiding building a relationship with me in the same ways I was avoiding building relationships with them and at all.
So again, I was left alone and with little direction on how to move forward with and in my life. But luckily this time around, I had a few resources and some goals to work towards. These, in conjunction with one another, gave me the insight to help me move forward, and finally grow from the regressed, stagnant place I had been living from for so long.
What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do
There’s a feeling I get when I go into a drug store or a thrift shop. It’s a feeling of knowing that I can probably get what I need from the place I’m in, but it maybe won’t match the ideal aesthetic of what I want. But there’s a potential that’s embedded in that feeling. What if I can make something of what I have. What can I do with where I’m at.
And that’s a good feeling. This was the feeling I got when I moved in with my caregiver after barely speaking for 26 years. We were finally in a position where we would be stuck in a place together, for better or for worse, and have to navigate our situation together. But it took a while. We had to get use to being around one another again. Get to know each other as the people we had become, with all of the life experiences we’ve accumulated. It was uncomfortable at times but we stuck it out and grew stronger because of it.
I started doing laundry every other week with one family member, which slowly allowed me to get to know them again. This is where I started to trust again. Then I suggested family dinner nights on Friday. Every Friday, one of us chooses a recipe and we all come together to cook. Dividing the tasks and enjoying the fruits of our labor, the conversations, the mistakes. It’s become a favorite night for all of us. Then I suggested just hanging out with one family member on Monday mornings when I wasn’t working.
Slowly, we were, are, learning how to be a family again. But no one of us could have done it alone. We all had to be willing to become a part of something bigger than just three people living in a household. We needed to be open to the idea of living in a home, foibles and all.
And this took a lot of work, for all of us, but on my part as well. I had to be open to being hurt again. So I could feel the vulnerability and the tenderness that comes with feeling connected. Because I will be hurt again. I’ll be let down by something somebody does or hurt when they leave me for the final time. But it’s worth remembering to open anyways. There’s a line from a Kings of Leon song, “The Immortals” that goes, “don’t forget to love, ‘fore you gone”. Something I feel as though a majority of us are too scared to do. And what I was running from for so long.
Tick List: Stay Connected
I have a list on my phone, next to my “Todo” list. This one is called, “Stay Connected”. It’s a list I wrote of my friends, the people I want to stay in touch with. What they’re up to and current plans I have with them. For someone like me, who has been isolated for the better part of three decades, this is an important aspect of my life for me to stay on top of. There’s a line from a song that goes, “being lonely is a habit, like drinking or taking drugs, I quit them both, but man was it rough” Jenny Lewis, Acid Tough.
And being lonely is both habit and rough. One of the reasons we may be isolating and why I was is, to protect ourselves. But it’s doing more harm to stay isolated than to take the risk and feel connected. This article from Tulane University explains how isolation can lead to anxiety, depression and heart disease. But do we really need scientific research to show us that we feel better after a talk with a close friend? Or the feeling of warmth while we’re cuddling with our S.O.? Sometimes we need only listen to the wisdom of our hearts to know what’s best for us, even if that wisdom is intertwined with fear.
Taking the Risk
I have a photo from “Man on Wire” on my desktop, where Philippe, the subject of the documentary, is on a high-wire between the tops of the two world trade center buildings in NYC. The photo is both terrifying and beautiful at the same time. This is what it feels like, for me, to risk feeling connected again after so much neglect and estrangement. It’s not safe, but necessary, to cross the void in order to feel loved and connection again.
So how do we begin to cross the void? Don’t look down! JK, but seriously, it takes a lot of feeling uncomfortable and swallowing a fair amount of pride in the process. For me, I had to recognize that I was actively withholding love from others. And what’s most surprising is, I didn’t even realize I was doing it. It became so engrained in my personality, in my defense against being hurt, I didn’t even realize it was happening. It was a lesson I learned from my family, who has been practicing it since I can remember. So to even wake up from this trance I was in, is a feat on to itself. But it’s doable. It just takes practice.
What practice looked like for me was, I had to find ways to make my environment comfortable for me to inhabit first. I started with my room. Filling it with plants, a diffuser and some candles. Things that imbue comfort for me. I then took some of that comfort and carried it into the next room I wanted to acclimate to. I started burning candles while I was learning to take care of my nutritional needs by way of cooking for myself while in the kitchen. I was then able to offer this peace I had found in myself to others. But the other aspect I needed was to learn how to be kind to myself first.
This took practice as well. I didn’t realize the ways I was beating myself up in most cases. Trying to reach that impossible standard to feel loved and accepted kept me from seeing a lot of the ways I was disconnecting from myself and how I was pushing myself too hard. But these were learned behaviors from my family. I was neglecting myself in the same ways my family neglected themselves.
For example, my family, for Thanksgiving, wasn’t going to buy a turkey for themselves because it was too expensive and too much food. I don’t eat meat, and they couldn’t eat a whole turkey with just the two of them. But they would buy it for another in a heartbeat if they were coming over for dinner.
These are the ways I had modeled for me in neglecting myself by way of neglecting what brings me joy, because I feel I need to settle for something lesser. This is due to not feeling as though I’m worth the effort, but if I’m always neglecting myself and sacrificing my happiness for no other reason than because I don’t want to spend the money or effort on myself, what kind of message am I sending to myself and others? That I’m not really worth or worthy of love. From myself or from others.
And my family members are good people. They’ve just been told time and again this unhealthy message of, sacrifice your happiness and joy in the name of being frugal, or for someone else’s sake. We never learned how to care for and love ourselves. But this is what I’ve been doing with my planned family dinners and time spent with family members again. Learning how to care for myself, as well as those closest to me. As a result, we’ve all come to trust and love each other a little more deeply because of it. It hasn’t been easy, but it is most definitely worth the while.
There’s a greater sense of ease around one another now. A place where uncertainty and distrust lay before. Something that wasn’t possible only a few years ago. It’s not perfect, but it’s fulfilling. And that’s good enough.
Begin With What You Have
So how do we make the U-turn from lonely and isolated to connected and loved? I’ve found that starting with where you are, and who you are with, is the best place to begin. But first, it’s important to assess your situation and whom is around you to make sure you’re taking care of yourself in as safe a way as possible. For example, if I was still living with the last woman I was staying with, I most likely wouldn’t have been able to grow in the ways I have. I just wasn’t in a safe and supportive environment and subsequently felt guarded and on edge. This was not an environment conducive to building trust.
Finding supportive friends is also fundamental to building trust and love as well. I’m so grateful for the countless hikes and conversations that have nurtured me when I most needed love and support from my friends and family that are closest to me. Time spent together was a soothing balm to the neglect and abandonment I experienced in my youth. And they are relationships I value more and more the more time I spend with them.
So if you’re in a similar situation to what I have experiences and are feeling lonely, find a relationship that feels like it has potential, even if it feels a little risky, and start there. Find a foothold in a shared common interest. For me and my family it was food and gardening. What do the people in your life value? Where does it intersect with where your interests lay? Explore these areas a little together. And remember, it doesn’t have to happen overnight.
Treat your relationships as you would something that is growing. Give them the time and space they need. The nutrients of your shared interests and what you discover along the way. Again, it won’t happen overnight, especially if there are hurt feelings to tend to. But be patient. Also, if you’re new to building healthy relationships, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I owe a great debt of gratitude to my therapist who has been a personal ally for me when I most needed them.
And also, don’t forget to have fun along the way! For me, I can get so wrapped up in thinking I need to constantly improve, be as healthy as possible, that I forget that I and those closest to me aren’t projects. We’re just people who want to connect, to be seen and heard.
The holidays can be lonely for some but they don’t have to be. If you are finding that you are in a similar situation, feeling a bit adrift and lonely, reach out to someone. Even if you haven’t spoken in years. You’d be surprised how many people I’ve contacted after years of not talking and fell right back into a rhythm of conversation again. Start where you are, with who you know. It’ll help, just be open to connecting and you’ll be part of the flow once again. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.
Image Credits: alone… by VinothChandar is licensed under CC BY 2.0