On Loneliness

Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul. Marcus Aurelius

The first time I opened up my mind to understanding what loneliness is happened when I was six years old. I was on a walk with my mother when we started talking about loneliness. I do not remember exactly what brought up this topic. Perhaps it was a recollection from her own life, or someone we saw sitting alone on a public bench, but what she told me had a profound impact on me. “A person can be surrounded by many people and feel lonely, or a person can be walking alone in a desert and not feel lonely.” To me, a child, this distinction was eye-opening and intriguing.

I was an only child, and from an early age was used to spending time by myself. I had many friends in the neighborhood with whom I played outdoors, running, jumping rope, drawing with chalk on the sidewalks, and making up various games. But when my friends were not available, I knew how to be by myself. I could read a book on the couch, play family with my small plastic dolls, make a zoo with my stuffed animals, or go to the kitchen and ‘cook’ for my grandmother. As I grew older, time alone became not only acceptable, but desirable. Solitude felt soothing, safe, and liberating. Alone, I had space for my thoughts and feelings to come and go unrestricted and uncensored. At difficult moments, when sharing my sadness or disappointment seemed impossible, being alone felt like a soft hug, enveloping me with peace and warmth. It never failed.

My comfort with solitude was tested beyond anything I could imagine when I was eighteen years old and my mother developed a major mental illness. What began as sadness and withdrawal turned into psychotic behavior. Seeing her acting mad was surreal: everything that supported me until then was gone, and my mother as I knew her was gone too. I was very scared. She was taken to a mental hospital, and now I was truly alone. The apartment where I had lived since I was three no longer felt like home. I sensed hostility from the walls, and every object that was either dear or neutral before, now only augmented my isolation. Being with others became unbearable as well. Fears of whether my mother would never get back to normal persisted in my head. I hoped that a class, a forced distraction, might redirect my thoughts albeit for a few hours. Two days after she was hospitalized I went back to school. I was a second year University student. In class or during a lecture I was all right, as no one could ask me personal questions, or chat. But between classes and at lunch break when I felt infinite isolation. The hallways were packed with students loudly and vivaciously speaking to each other. Only just recently I was one of them, but now I was cut off from their simple and carefree world. Just like my mother told me about a person feeling lonely in a crowd with other people, I felt alone and isolated among my classmates, teachers, and everyone else. I was tightly wrapped in my grief, unable to speak about it, and firmly convinced that my heartache and despair would not be understood by others. I could imagine speaking about my mother having a heart problem, an injury, or a serious disease, but I could not find words to talk about her madness. This time I did not choose to be alone, and solitude felt like fighting with an invisible and overpowering force. I was defeated.

I longed for my mother to become herself again, and for life to return to where it was before it collapsed. I continued going to school every day, and sometimes I went to see my grandparents and spent a night at their small apartment. They were kind, and loving, but the grief was wholly mine, and its otherness, and the total disconnection from normal, recognizable, experiences that I could share with another person, pushed me further to withdraw into myself.

A few times a week, when it was allowed, I visited my mother at the hospital. Three months passed since she was hospitalized and now she was recovering to being herself again. Not quite understanding what had happened to her, we called it a nervous breakdown. I brought her fruit and sweets, and we talked while holding hands. My heart ached seeing her dressed in a gray robe, her hands trembling from the medicine, her body appearing small and weak. The room where I saw her on my visits had no windows, and smelled of the concentrated old air eternally stuck there just like many of the patients. The nurses’ faces were stern or at best indifferent, everything about this place felt more like a jail than a medical facility. Many patients had severe conditions, randomly screaming, gesticulating, talking to themselves, pacing back and forth.

After a few weeks of living alone, I began getting used to it. The silence of the apartment that at first seized me with fear, was now soothing and comforting. With my mother safe and recovering, my agony and fear retreated into the distance. I could feel at home again. After school, I went straight home, cooked food, studied, read and went to bed. I kept the apartment clean and neat, longing for some order in my life fractured life. Solitude became acceptable and agreeable again.

My mother came back home, but a year later she had another psychotic episode and was hospitalized again. Her illness that I tried to fight so hard won every time despite the medication and the calm and loving environment I attempted to create at home. I still never spoke to friends or anyone outside the family about her condition and my pain. Every time my mother had a mental collapse, that deep loneliness came back to me, but I no longer was afraid of it. Like many repeated experiences it became familiar. I knew how to be with it, and it made me stronger, more self-reliant, and less vulnerable, although my hands still get cold and clammy as I write about those painful times.

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Vera Siegel

Vera Siegel

I have been an English teacher, simultaneous interpreter, translator, and language specialist, and am now a professional and life coach.