Revisiting loneliness and isolation

Tom revisits some of his thoughts on loneliness, overpowering subconscious thoughts and relationships


Ade suggested recently that I ‘revisit’ some of my writing on loneliness and isolation from back in 2015. Most of it was written at a time when the divorce process was just beginning, and I was left to react to a world and life situation that was incredibly different to what I had been used to for most of my adult life.

One change that I am aware of is my own enthusiasm for sharing my thoughts on these subjects online. I would like to think that it is because I have become so comfortable with such subjects that I no longer feel the urge to write about them, but the reality is probably more to with confidence. There is so much written on the internet, by so many people; what gives me the right to contribute and what would I be saying that adds value to this whirly web of thoughts and opinions? These thoughts might reflect a lack of confidence in my writing muscle, or maybe I have had many of these discussions in the offline world and don’t feel such a need to do it anymore? Even so, here I am, trying again.

Thoughts of loneliness and feelings of anxiety certainly crop up more than they used to, but my perception of their arrival is much stronger. In recent months I found it difficult to achieve a meditative state while so many things were going on in my personal and work lives and I am aware now, while returning to the meditative practice, how much of a toll that has taken on my mind.

I have spent some time dissecting the thoughts of loneliness. I have sat and looked at them. I visualise them to my left and the more rationale part of myself to the right (for some reason). They encapsulate a constant bickering of conflicting points of view and self-deprecation. As I have looked at these thoughts I see more clearly that they have very little to do with loneliness itself. They are a mix of other thoughts: the fear of letting go; longing for meaningful and reciprocal connections; doubting the people you trust; replaying events with different, fantasised motivations; fear of rejection. It interests me that none of these things are specifically or exclusively connected to being alone or to loneliness, but they do empower the negative feelings of isolation. If you spend too much time listening to such voices then you just become trapped within yourself.

Many people are quick to defer much of this negative thought stream to the hunt for a ‘significant other’ who, they fantasise will chase all these unwanted sensations away. This seems to be entirely unfair on the other person. We are talking about the acquisition of happiness, which is something that can’t realistically be attributed to a single person.

*In reference to what I mentioned earlier, that voice has just appeared; the voice that says ‘why are you writing this? Everyone knows all of this already. You don’t have the answers’. Thank you for the reminder, brain!

So where am I with loneliness right now? I am aware of it. I see it. I know that I am actually quite happy on my own and always have been; it is the battle against the stream of negative thoughts that is the main thing I struggle with. This negative stream of subconscious can be combatted or, at least, postponed by being sociable. I have been quite sociable in various forms in the past couple of years, but I am also aware of a need for my own space and time away to process things and empty my mind, so I am trying to find a middle ground with this.

I think relationships hold great value, but probably more for their ability to help two people cope with the ever-increasing demands of life, rather than a means for combatting loneliness. If both people (or more, if that is your bag) are invested in it then it can be a wonderful thing. It is great to have people you can turn to for support, but I am aware of the ever changing nature of things. The fight to keep things as they are is fruitless if life is inevitably about change. Change is not always something welcomed, but it pays to be prepared for it.

The world around us in 2017 is one of perpetual changes in political landscapes and crises which contribute to anxiety and division, but it is important to tune out from time to time to allow essential perspective to flourish. Knowing there is ground beneath your feet is an important realisation.

 

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Will these memory flashes fade? Coping with the coping mechanism

Coping Mechanisms

Following Ade’s recent blog on loss, Tom considers how we walk through the maze of healing and tries to understand how the brain reacts to loss.


Ade’s recent blog about death and how we cope with such things has made me think about the ghosts and shadows that haunt my life. It has been almost 12 months since I separated from my wife and the pain of that event is still present. Ade wrote that ‘much in life becomes trivial and is rendered superfluous in the wake of a loved one’s permanent absence’. I have said many times that it would have been easier to cope with my wife’s death, rather than the circumstances under which we parted ways. In that scenario there would have been an end to our story, but there wasn’t one, there was just a sudden transition to a different form of life.

I am still haunted by her. Not long ago I left an important work meeting and drove away in my car, really pleased with the day’s achievements. I turned my gaze to the passenger seat, where she often sat, and I was ready to tell her what I had done today, but the seat was empty. I had to go and sit on my own for a while after that and process this lingering memory of familiarity. That was a very direct version of such hauntings, there are others that are subtle, but more frequent. Certain colours that held some association with her were difficult for me to cope with, but this issue is starting to leave me. TV programmes, films, sayings… anything that allows access to some of these abandoned memories of our relationship often bring a sudden rush of images and sounds and emotions that I can no longer abide. As time has passed, I have started to accept these experiences as part of a healing process and have felt more comfortable in the knowledge that these things will dissipate with time. I have tried hard not to run away from such experiences and tried to face them and accept that I will, of course, meet people that like similar things or wear similar clothes. I think I have put some barriers in place that I consider to be ‘too similar’, but I assume I will know them when they occur. I think people who haven’t experienced such loss find it difficult to understand the mental effort required to push past such issues and avoid shifting into a very negative and defensive mental space.

It’s funny how you can make yourself believe that you have overcome something like loss or trauma and then you find yourself moving into a new stage of the healing process and struggling to overcome an aspect that was previously beyond your understanding. This recently happened when I started to re-engage in relationships with others. My friends had told me that I would have difficulty trusting people again, which I knew would be the case, and I thought I had coped well with this, but it was only when I entered into a new relationship that I could actually see the amount of damage I needed to fix in my own internal wiring. It takes all I have to convince myself that other people will not treat me the same way as I have been treated before. What helps with this process is knowing I don’t actually need anyone else in my life, that I can survive quite comfortably on my own and I can maintain my own self-sufficiency, and that the people in my life are there because I want them to be.

I don’t want the events of the past year to define my life, so I am annoyed when unwanted thoughts careen back into my consciousness, but those friends that are close to me, tell me that it is still early days for me and that I should talk about these things when I want to and allow myself to feel the emotions that come forth.

Ade also wrote ‘in a world of opposites the more you experience one side, the greater the secrets of its opposite are revealed’, this is so true to my recent experiences. The feelings of freedom and peace that I have felt around the darkness and trauma have been so uplifting that I wouldn’t change a thing. I have met so many new friends and experienced so much, that I can’t conclude that all of this has only brought me pain and suffering. Anyone that has been through a similar set of events knows how far reaching the fallout is. It effects everything in your life, but it also cleanses at the same time. I have enjoyed losing the set predictable patterns of my old life and following this bumpy completely unpredictable one. I can see things differently, hear things differently. The world just isn’t the same.

You do have to be cautious of the type of people you communicate regularly with, as some types of discussion can be hard to cope with if there is a lot of difficult things going on in your life. Some people’s attempts to empathise can be damaging, as some people can’t help but reinterpret your issues via their own insecurities. I have been the recipient of some astronomically damaging advice and support over recent months. I include some of my favourites below with a few of my internal reactions:

It must be so difficult for you, you must see no future’ – all air in my lungs suddenly departs, and all I can say to myself is ‘wow, just wow, I totally don’t agree’

I feel so sorry for you, you have had such a terrible year’ – I don’t think it has been a terrible year actually, but I get what you mean.

The loneliness hasn’t kicked in yet, you’ll feel it in another couple of years’ – How patronising, thanks for the support, this assumes that I require some kind of permanent ‘other’ in my life, maybe you should read my blog about solitude.

I would have killed myself if I was in your situation’ – ummm… that is a bit weird to say and isn’t that helpful, because I immediately have to consider that specific train of thought. I’ll internally reform this into a sentence that says ‘wow, you are doing really well’.

You have plenty more years to start a family’ – another patronising comment and making further assumptions of what I want my life to be in the future. Thank you.

The best support has come from people that accept that I will have difficulty coping at times and that I should take every day as it comes, and have emphasised that I am doing well. Positive support, patience and positive distraction is just fine to help me along the way. Someone recently showed me a David Attenborough documentary about bioluminescence when I was feeling particularly low, which allowed me to refocus my mind onto other things. These experiences are so important.

‘Time will save you, you don’t need to save yourself’

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How lonely is your solitude?

IMG_0026NSEPSCTom discusses his recent thoughts on what it is like to be alone


Let’s talk about loneliness and being alone. Seriously, let’s do it now, before anyone notices. Of course if you are actually alone then maybe no one will notice anyway. I’m alone. I’m alone right now. Well, not exactly: I’m on a train. I don’t know anyone on the train so I suppose that counts.

I’m starting to spend a lot of time on my own. It isn’t that bad really, but it does take some getting use to. When I was in a relationship I use to spend a lot of time on my own too. Usually when I was doing fieldwork. That was difficult to cope with at first. I was a very homely person. All the things I use to love doing were things that I could do at home (building things, making music etc.) but I had to adapt, so I did. I started writing again, building imaginary worlds while away from home helped me concentrate and stopped me missing home. I also managed to find a method of recording music while away (one of our B-Sides was recorded in a little house in North Norfolk). Before long I was starting to enjoy these experiences away from home. I enjoyed seeing new places, meeting people, learning new things and challenging myself to get out and about. This was always easy in the framework that, at some point soon, I would be home with my partner, comfortable in my known surroundings and with someone I trust. Things change.

What do you do when a relationship ends? How do you cope? I’m learning that right now.

There is a song on Daughter’s new album that describes the feelings of loneliness in a very visceral manner. I like this song, but it isn’t the way I feel about being alone. I am starting to feel quite comfortable about it.

 

It isn’t that different to how I deal with being away for my survey work. It involves all the same things. You have to learn to cope first. Becoming use to a new routine can be really difficult, your domestic duties double, minimum (unless you were the one doing all domestic duties anyway), your financial outgoing increase and beyond all that there is this absence, a pain, but what is this absence? If you look close enough what does it actually look like and what do you want to do with that absence? This has been something on my mind for a few months now.

What I am starting to see and learn is that people can be incredibly lonely and isolated within relationships. Some relationships can be overpowering and oppressive, but they can still be comfortable. I wonder how many relationships are clung onto due to a fear of change? I’m not sure those situations are built on respect or love, or if they were it might have dissipated with time. There are so many people that look lost or drained within their coupling. I’m not sure I want that in my life. Life is supposed to be fun, isn’t it? Maybe being alone isn’t that bad, after all.

So if I start to consider that loneliness is not systemic to an absence of a relationship, then maybe it is related to a lack of communication with other people in general? I talk to a few people, not loads, but those friends I have, I am close to. In fact, these days I’ll talk to pretty much anyone (to start with). It’s usually uncertainty or fear of new things that slows my progress, but it is easier just to throw caution to the wind and just get on with trying things out.

I’m actually starting to find a lot of comfort in solitude. I suppose that can be classed as ‘comfortable alone time’. I can define the parameters of my existence, I can go where I want to go, do things when I want to do them, and there is little need to compromise.

I have my weaker moments, but I try and deal with them as best I can, but they are rarely any different to anything I have felt before when in a relationship, so what is the problem with being alone? There is a social stigma to it, which is discussed in this interesting blog on Brain Pickings. I’ve experienced a few of the things mentioned in this blog before and just one such experience can be damaging to progress, but you just have to chalk it up to ‘experience’.

 

And home, what is home anyway? Is it where you feel safe? So many people cling to this idea. Four walls of safety. A lock on the door. I’m starting to consider home as a broader concept. It’s not just the place I live in Swindon, it’s starting to become many places. Home is anywhere I feel comfortable. The more places I visit and the more things I do, then the more comfortable I become.

I do hope I meet someone I’d like to spend time with again (maybe it will be soon or maybe it won’t), but until then I might as well work out who is under this Midlander’s skin and go places and meet people and do things. Why the hell not? A friend told me recently that we are always alone and yet we are always not alone. I suppose I need to learn to find peace within both scenarios.

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No Side Effects Podcast 1: Isolation, Loneliness and Anxiety

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The debut podcast sees Tom and Adrian chatting around a variety of subjects and questions including; external happiness, social interaction, social anxiety, social avoidance, being overweight, divorce, holidays and custard doughnuts. This is a relaxed, informal discussion with a dubious level of understanding and sense.

Please click on the links below for either YouTube or Bandcamp.


The following articles and organisations are also discussed in the podcast.

Links:

The Age of Loneliness is Killing Us‘ article by George Monbiot in The Guardian

Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi in Glass Box for Cancer Awareness’ article on BBC News

Combating Isolation‘ article by No Side Effects member T Haynes

How To Completely Lose Social Anxiety‘ Youtube Video by Noah Elkrief

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)‘ information from the NHS Choices Website

A Step by Step programme for dealing with Social Anxiety‘ from the the CCI.

Depression Alliance UK

The Samaritans

Podcast 1 is now online

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At last, you no longer have to wait to hear the incredible insights into various topics including isolation, social anxiety, loneliness, holidays and custard doughnuts. Have a listen to the mediocre ramblings of Tom and Ade, a perfect way to waste 50 minutes.

Combating Isolation

Isolated Tom

Tom discusses his feelings about relationships and isolation as part of new series of blog articles about isolation.


 

Me and Ade decided a while ago that as we released our No Side Effects singles we would share some writing and discussions about some of the themes that influenced our music.

Our first release is called ‘Isolation Explosion’ and we were both interested in discussing social isolation in its many forms. This is a wide ranging subject and encapsulates elements of social anxiety, the disconnect between our online and real lives and maintaining effective communication and maintaining or losing belief systems in a modern world.

With the imminent release of this song I have found that the world has shifted beneath my feet and given me my own understanding of isolation due to a sudden divorce.

The sensations that come with such a sudden change in status quo are quite odd. I immediately feel more connected to the world and less able to communicate to anyone about it. I have such a great group of friends and they are all looking out for me, but they can’t truly fill the void that my wife once occupied and it is unfair to expect them to. Everyone has their own lives to lead. Any time they can spare is greatly appreciated.

But what do you do with yourself in those moments in the void? I suppose for many these are very dangerous moments. Do you let you mind wonder into the past? Considering what went wrong? I do this from time to time. It is terribly un-constructive, but sometimes it is necessary. We were together a long time. There are so many memories to explore and redefine. In a perfect scenario you would leave these memories as happy and content moments, but we aren’t perfect.

My mind cycles fiercely, it always has. It likes to find answers to problems. That is what I do in my day job. That is what I do all the time, but this puzzle is the master puzzle and it can never be solved.

This is where isolation creeps in. While trying to find answers to these questions you end up isolated within your own mind. You have no external stimuli. You just have your own problems to torment you indefinitely. This isn’t healthy.

The breaking of trust can also lead to isolation in these instances. A failure of being able to trust seems to be a common theme when relationships fall apart. How long does it take to trust people again? How do you know your friends from your enemies? It is too early for me to tell.  I can only work on my instincts at this stage and I know the people I can trust, and they are the friends I am talking to right now.

There is also a trepidation of moving out of my isolation. My relationship was attentive and didn’t really cater for the more social aspects of human interaction (dinner parties, gigs etc.). Now that such things are likely to occur I have to adapt. Pre-divorce me wasn’t interested in such things, I was comfortable and happy, but now I have to try and step out of this restrictive mindset and enjoy myself.

That doesn’t sound difficult does it?

But I am someone that can spend considerable amounts of time on my own while surveying the Scottish coastline. I’m someone that is quite comfortable in my own company. I prefer an open grassland in winter to a drunken night out.

Despite this I cannot retreat fully, because if I do, who do I talk to about such places? Who will ever listen? More importantly, how will I learn about what other people care about?

I am combating this by getting out and about in public.  I am usually on my own, but sitting in a coffee shop or a bar helps (like I am while I write this). Listening to other peoples conversations, receiving the odd smile from a passerby. This is how I combat loneliness when I am field surveying, so why shouldn’t it work when my relationship has fallen apart?

This modern world is demanding and distracting and leads us to forget who we are.  Maybe sometimes it is important that these events happen so we can reassess ourselves and consider whether we are on the right path. This is much more constructive than wallowing in loss and pain.

No one can save you but yourself.

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