For many years, I could not stand to be alone. It was a compulsion brought on by PTSD. It wasn’t that I didn’t like to be alone – it was I could not be alone without suffering physical and emotional symptoms that left me trembling and useless. Before I was abused from about nine to eleven years old by neighbors, I loved to roam the woods alone, to ride my bike alone to meet friends, to play outside and just be. During the years the abuse was happening, going anywhere alone meant I became a target, but changing my behavior meant my parents would find out what was happening to me. I continued leaving the house and going out alone, and dealing with the consequences of this choice. It was then that Alone became a beast that I could not face. Anxiety consumed me quietly, and once we moved and I was free, Alone was a thing I wanted nothing to do with.
It’s pretty easy for an extrovert to cover this compulsion and make it look like a choice. I have never in my life lived Alone. I never shut doors – because open doors mean I am not Alone, even if everyone else is in other rooms. In high school, I was anxious and afraid and lonely all at once, but I wanted so very much to be with people. I joined all the music and writing extracurricular activities I could find. I was constantly busy, and surrounded with people, and I learned to make friends. In college, it was trivial to find people to surround myself with. I was gregarious, I was expressive, I loved to touch and kiss and to talk and laugh and to throw parties and gather people around me like armor. Alone was far from me in college. When I moved to marry my ex husband, I knew that he would keep me from being Alone, and I would be safe. When he was working, or traveling for work, I found people to spend time with, or would dive into an Internet role-playing world where I was not Alone, though there were no people in the room with me. When my daughters were born, I felt I would never be Alone again, but… but what if they were Alone sometime? Alone became inflated in my mind, it was more than a beast, it was a labyrinth filled with beasts and dead ends and oubliettes. Even if I only had to run downstairs to do laundry, and leave my computer or leave my husband upstairs, I would start to think about being a child and I would taste that fear again. I would smell white pine and mud and snow and blood. My hands would shake. I would look for anything to take my mind off of being Alone. I was very busy, manic busy. I never sat still because stillness meant anxiety meant fear meant the lack of being able to control my environment meant failure and if I failed how could I make sure that I would never again be a victim?
It’s a crippling thing to not be able to be on your own. When I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and I knew that I would not always be able to be around other people due to pain and needing rest sometimes, I started to work very hard on facing my fear of solitude. I started small – learning to be comfortable while Aaron was at work. I started with the television blasting. I would text him sometimes thirty times a day just to check in, and I would call him many times a day. I learned gradually to turn the television off. I came to accept my home as a place of safety, where being alone was okay. I pushed myself out of that comfort zone when I realized that I could just as easily be trapped into not ever leaving my house, and I made myself go daily out of the house, even if only to the store. There were other people there but it was a step. And I learned, finally, to take walks on my own and to reconnect with nature. I learned to open my front door and find a quiet space, to listen to the birds and the brook and the wind in the trees and the far-off hum of traffic, and not to be always looking over my shoulder. I took it day by day, and appreciated it day by day, and then moment by moment.
It took me years of re-training myself, but I can now go outside and walk and notice things, and let my body relax in the awe of things that actually are beyond my control. I can’t do it every day – some days I feel that anxiety nestling on my spine and Alone feels frightening again, unless it’s in my home. I have to honor those days and accept that PTSD means that I am a work in progress, and setbacks don’t negate the good hard work I’ve put in to letting myself be comfortable and happy.
I’d like to share photos from my walk this morning, and share four benefits I feel solitude brings me.
1) Solitude lets me notice the contrast between the new blossoms, the white tubes that make gloved hands, and the fading yellow blossoms below. Because I notice this contrast, I am slowing down and taking the time to notice other things in my life. I notice my daughters even more, and I am already so aware of them, and I notice their feelings, their moods, their joys and challenges – because I have learned to notice this flower.
2) Solitude lets me feel like I am not in charge of everything all of the time. This is difficult for me, as I am a woman who enjoys being in control. But I am not in control of this bunny I saw today – the dappling, the quirked ears. I couldn’t control a thing about her, except by removing my presence to make her more comfortable again. And when I can’t control a bunny, I let myself let go of control of other things, which makes me a happier person.
3) Solitude lets me forge new paths. When you need to be around people all the time, you can’t really set off and explore new directions – what if there are no people there? Learning to embrace solitude has made me far more willing to take calculated risks in my life. Without risk, life is low reward, at least for me. Being able to leap into new situations with less fear is a gift brought by solitude.
4) Finally, solitude gives me mental space to work on other things. Until I learned to be alone and unafraid, I was not able to share my writing with anyone, and many times I was unable to write. Until I learned that it was safe to be alone, I couldn’t work on overcoming other PTSD symptoms, and balancing my life. I’m not perfect, and I never will be, but every day I learn something new – and that wasn’t possible when alone was Alone, and anxiety was omnipresent.
Thanks for reading this. If you are in a crisis and you need help, you can find help via text message from the Crisis Text Line, by texting START to 741-741. The link will also connect you with their website, and you can find links to other places that you can start getting help.