How to be Alone

For many of us, the difference between isolation and solitude is more than a simple matter of semantics. Solitude is often a choice — the peaceful walk in the woods, or the quiet morning meditation. It’s Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, in which he builds a cabin near a lake and proceeds to live there for two years and two months. Solitude is that treasured time we take alone to reflect and learn about ourselves.

Isolation, meanwhile, is often thrust upon us, and research shows that it can actually be physically painful to experience. (This explains why “not fitting in” in high school was such a wretched experience.) Human beings are social creatures who depend on connection. We need to understand and to feel understood. Due to different circumstances, however, we may not always have the amount of human interaction we need. While living like this is not ideal (in fact, social isolation can lead to mental illness and premature death), there are ways to minimize the suffering we feel, should we find ourselves in an isolating situation.

1. Reach out However you can
It is somewhat fashionable to bemoan the advent of social media and online video games as the End of Real Human Interaction™. Political cartoons and satirical websites are rife with images depicting couples at dinner glued to their phones, or children swiping away their childhoods on the touch-screen du jour. While the debate on whether and when to unplug certainly has merit, we should be cautious not to glorify too much the “good old days” where we had to show up at a friend’s doorstep in order to share the latest gossip. (Some things never change.)

For those of us in difficult geographical circumstances (all of us astronauts, for instance), and those of us with physical or mental disabilities, being able to plug into online communities brings about some relief. For example, because of my ongoing battle with depression, it’s not always possible for me to get dressed and zip over to my much-beloved friends’ houses. When simply getting out of bed presents a challenge, I’m grateful to be able to chat and even laugh with a friend on social media.

In large, anonymous cities in which we hitch a ride on a subway with strangers, sit at a desk for eight hours, and come home to an empty apartment, we may also find some respite in our Twitter feeds.

Ideally, we would all hang out and hug and talk about Star Wars in person, but sometimes we are presented with less-than-ideal circumstances. My point is, don’t let purists talk you out of opportunities to connect. If it’s all you can do right now, pick up that phone and ‘like’ your friend’s picture. You’ll feel better.

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Like this plastic tree limb, branch out. 

2. Keep Busy
When we think of survival movies, we’re often presented with characters who use their time in isolating situations to make and reach goals. A recent example of this can be seen in the book-turned-movie, The Martian, in which an astronaut left behind on Mars gets really busy doing math and planting potatoes.

In real life, CBC News journalist Melissa Fung was abducted in Afghanistan in 2008. She was kept in a hole underground and watched by her captors, whom, obviously, could not have been the best company. To survive this ordeal, Fung made plans about her future. She planned a dinner party, she planned what she would do when she got back to Canada.

Moments of isolation require us to make plans and keep busy as much as we can. With mental illness, this can be a real challenge: how do you make goals when you have no motivation? It’s hard, but everyones’ goals will be different. If all we can do is shower and make breakfast, then we can start there. Circumstances are always changing; what is challenging today might not be as difficult tomorrow.

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The busiest guy in my house.

3. Watch Movies, Read Books, Listen to Music
Speaking of keeping busy, getting a start on that “books-to-read” list is a great way of going about this. While some might argue that books, movies, and music simply present ways of numbing the pain of isolation by offering distractions, there’s likely more to it than that.

When a movie makes us cheer for the protagonists, a book presents us with characters so real they feel like friends, or a song makes us shaky-shoulder sob (I’m looking at you, Adele), we’re experiencing the emotions we feel when we have a human interaction. The magic of art, is that we get to find those kindred spirits and as a result, we feel less alone. As a teenager, during my most painfully lonely time (and, I suspect, I wasn’t the only one who felt this way), I found solace in songs about misfits and books and movies, like Ghost World, about strange girls who skip town. So find the art that speaks to your soul, and hit repeat.

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What better reason to read comics?

4. Make Non-Human Friends
A few weeks ago, I was waiting for the bus in my hometown (trivia: I don’t drive), and a woman in a hot pink toque with a shopping cart full of Walmart bags sat beside me and started up a conversation, as friendly people waiting for buses in smallish towns sometimes do. The conversation was standard post-holiday small talk, until we somehow veered onto the subject of her guinea pigs. She informed me on the multi-generational commune of guinea pigs she took care of. Their cage, apparently, took over half of her living room. She was able to train them — one of them earned a certificate because he could literally jump through hoops. Lady, if you’re out there, I would love to see a video.

Peoples’ eyes light up when they talk about their pets. This isn’t surprising, when we consider that the chemicals we release when we hug a loved one or, in fact, give birth, the same ones we release when cuddling up to our pets. That dose of fuzzy-wuzzy feel-good cocktail can be therapeutic when we feel alone.

And when buying and caring for a traditional pet isn’t an option, we can always get creative. Plants, apart from decorating a room and purifying the air we breathe, can also give us the feeling we crave in a symbiotic relationship. Caring for a plant and watching it grow just feels good.

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Seen here: my humiliated Spaniel and my smirking sister.

5. Enjoy your own Company
Let’s cut to the core of it: this won’t be easy if we’re constantly berating ourselves about not being _____ enough. Who wants to spend time with an asshole who won’t shut up about our weight, our lack of productivity, our undesirability, and our giggle-snorts?

Self-acceptance takes time and practice. We have to gently retrain our minds, like so many cute puppies peeing on the carpet, to speak to ourselves the way we would speak to a loved one. But it’s a practice that’s well worth the effort. When we’re able to hang out in our own heads without criticism and instead with encouraging thoughts and rational suggestions for improvement, we edge closer from the pain of isolation to the peace of solitude. We can’t always control our circumstances, but we can decide to cut ourselves a break and say something nice for a change.

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Fear not the gratuitous selfies. 

If you’re feeling isolated right now, take heed: you’re not alone, and this situation won’t last forever. If you can, reach out to someone— however you can muster it. Make plans for your future. Find friends in books, movies, music, and meet some friendly plants and animals. Above all, treat yourself like the worthy and worthwhile person that you are.

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