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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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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A Hidden Conversation

A Hidden Conversation

In this blog, Adrian tries to illustrate the battle between negative subconscious thoughts and the reasoning, rational conscious ones that can defeat them.


 

In the quiet and still of the evening, when conversations and distractions subside and the patter of rain drops can be heard above all else, just before retiring to sleep, are the times I feel most vulnerable, most aware of the world as distinct from me and the times I wonder just who am I?

It is these moments a conversation ignites, stirring the mind, drawing attention and keeping me infuriatingly awake! It is a conversation that goes on all the time, day after day, but only now I notice it because of the absence of external stimulus and clutter.

This conversation is in my mind. It is between thoughts that randomly appear from my subconscious over which I have no control, and those that I generate through conscious thought, ones over which I have some element of control.  The question of whether I have the ability to create and control a thought or whether I am subject to an endless stream of uncontrolled thoughts is related to the question of free-will. I refer to an understanding of free-will that suggests that all thoughts appear from your subconscious, from somewhere beyond the tangible spotlight of internal consciousness. If thoughts that appear un-announced, uncontrolled and preceding conscious thought implies that our will is actually not free and subject to hidden workings.

So, in the quietness a thought will pop into my head. Where does this thought come from? I would ask you the same question. Where do any of our thoughts appear from? As I lie in late evening semi-slumber, a thought will be created ‘I did not do that speech very well at work’ or ‘I am really not liked very much’ or ‘I am ugly’. I did not ask or try to create these thoughts, they just appear.

If we had free will, would I ever have bad thoughts? The fact that we have bad or negative thoughts is surely testament to the fact that we do not create them. Why would I purposely place bad and negative thoughts in my head? What does it serve me in terms of my well-being? This is a fundamental component of understanding for me and for understanding my own depression and anxiety because once I recognise that these thoughts appear in my conscience mind against my will, then I can seize trying to stop them. In fact, it’s important to accept that they will appear and concern myself with the things I can control.

These unwanted thoughts will appear then, building a narrative of yourself, pretending it is the true you, the depressive you and there is nothing you can do to stop them. But, you don’t have to believe them. It is not that these thoughts are true in themselves, it is my belief that they are true. So, when a thought pops up in my head unwillingly from my subconscious and says ‘I am a failure’, it is only a statement. It is my conscious mind that turns this into ‘I believe I’m a failure’ that it starts to take its negative effect. The goal then is not to stop these negative thoughts but to stop believing them. They are falsehoods collected from past experiences and uninvited. They throw their collective weight into the narrative of who I am, an incorrect narrative.

There are times when I can recognise the distinction between automatic unwanted negative thoughts and conscious thoughts. As the negative thought appears it is tied up with all sorts of associated emotions so it is not easy to battle against but it is becoming more and more possible, with practice and understanding. As they appear I can send a conscious arsenal of reason, understanding, testing the truth of a particular thought against the reality. I feel that being aware of this interplay between automatic and conscious thoughts is a big step to overcoming depression.

So who am I? I guess I’m still working that out but what I am not are all the automatically generated negativities that disturb my peace and quiet and keeps me up at night.

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An Account of Social Anxiety

Isolation Ade

Adrian shares a personal reflection on the feelings and emotions that manifest when you suffer from social anxiety.


The weight of your body is pulled around your waking day by muscles that try to carry its  weight. Those muscles will be used to their burden, delivering you about your daily comings and goings with relative ease and automation. It could be that one day you realise that you have been carrying around an unfair weight your whole life, unknown until this moment. A weight exerted by the mind that cripples, isolates, dominates and tears at your every joy. A black mental filter that twists words, cast shadows on every event, pulls you away from those you love and shoves harshly at those you care about and who care about you. A mind that torments itself in the silence and relishes in pain and suffering because this is the normal practice.

This heavy burden of long term anxiety was saturated deep inside through your childhood, given to you by the culture in which you live and through unknown instruction from family, friends, school, news and the mediocre of the day to day. Your mind has had many years of practice reinforcing just how bad, useless and worthless you are by repeating this mantra over and over again until it is normal. In the minds desire to see just how correct its view of the world is, it will extract any little morsel of supporting evidence it can from wherever it can get it. The smile of a girl is turned to a smirk, the complement on your physical appearance is a secret joke, the offer of a cake is a hint at how fat you are, the praise by your boss is a subterfuge for redundancy and the trust of a friend is just a manipulation ready for exploiting you. An endless tiredness claws at you earlier and earlier each evening, this exhaustion draws you away from friends and solitary quietness and rest becomes a persistent necessity.

It becomes difficult to spend time with anyone and fear joins the normal run of things, fear of failure, rejection, insult, death and loss of loved ones. The fear sometimes manifests itself when multiple people are present in a room, in a bar or in a restaurant, the knotting ripples down through your abdomen, picking up the baton and running with the dysfunctional messages from the brain, broken and false messages that the body does not question. A repetitive cycle of learned responses, homed and trained over a lifetime.

The consumption of this fear instigates a clinging to your homely sanctuary, wherever that may be: a home, a shed, a toilet or a corner of a woodland. A place to shut off, to re-coupe and prepare for the inevitable social interactions that litter the day and bring persistent anxiety when they fall upon you.

A friend or partner you have known for years will become impatient with your inexplicable intolerance of friends or family and the reluctance to venture outside into the dangerous, critical, brash world beyond. When part way though a group interaction you’ll constantly question your role:

Do I deserve to be here?

What do they think of me?

How will I be remembered?

In the quiet of the evening, you’ll constantly ruminate, question and concern yourself with the social events of the day and how these interactions contribute to other peoples perceptions of you and whether or not you have rectified with the outside world the intended story about yourself.

This persistent burden limits your every waking moment, saturating and draining the joy out of each day. The weight of those extra bags on your shoulders are part of you and learning to live with them, rather than removing them is the most realistic option.

It is actually useful to understand that depression and anxiety is the subconscious’ way of letting you know that something is not right and your thinking is faulty. It is difficult to see when trying to gather up your feet from the thick mud that depression is a positive thing. The recognition of your predicament is actually the baseline from which you start fighting your way out.

It will take courage to firstly except your inherited condition, then to the face the world with it. Social interaction is such a large part of your life that when it becomes a displeasure to instigate this wondrous activity, the fear and anxiety is compounded and hardens within.

So how can an individual move away from this heavy burden of long term anxiety? This is where you will need courage and a new way of looking at the world and, I must confess, I am still working my way free to this day. The key component is slow, careful reasoning, dissection of your outlook and the way you think of yourself.

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No Side Effects Podcast 1: Isolation, Loneliness and Anxiety

 Podcast Icon NSE Tom and Adrian Icons

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