Solitary mind: compelled introversion

Solitary mind: compelled introversion

In recent days on social media, my fellow introverts have been joking (perhaps half-joking) that the social-distancing or self-isolation of the Codvid-19 pandemic is something us quiet people have been waiting for all our lives.

A lazy conflation persists whereby introversion is seen as synonymous with shy or anti-social. This is bunkum; I love connecting with people. But it does leave me needing to recharge and I do have a pronounced need for my own company. Being alone can be rejuvenating for me long after it bores or depresses my extroverted friends. Being alone holds no particular fears for me. And I am really sure that there are other introverts out there who will enjoy it, at least for a while.

At least for a while…

As happily introverted as I am, there have been periods of isolation in my life that did not enhance my wellbeing, but were, instead, enervating or distressing. These were times when, due to poverty, I lacked the resources (money for public transport, phone, internet, or even food) to leave my home or contact anyone. They were miserable times, bad for my physical health due to extremely poor diet. But they were even worse psychologically, with extended bouts of anxiety over choosing between paying the rent or eating, anger over employers or clients paying me late, and sadness at having to halt and watch my efforts to move forward with my life atrophy. Tackling the corrosive effects of all of this was made worse by the fact that I would lose contact with my networks because I couldn’t afford to ring or visit them. I will never forget the chilling sense of being cut off from support in an apparently uncaring world.

These times were not the manifestation of an introvert choosing the pleasures of their own company, or of any personality type (extrovert or introvert) choosing to dedicate themselves to concentrate on a project. These episodes were things I went all out to avoid but which happened despite my best efforts. They were exercises in enforced passivity and shit-eating.

isabel-quintanilla-vaso-glass-1969
‘Glass’ by Isabel Quintanilla Vaso

A matter of choice

These days I often choose to live inside my own head. While sometimes a little too exciting, I have good adventures in there. It’s an interesting and enriching place to be. But during my earlier stints of compelled isolation I felt I was forced to go inside my head and stay there, deprived of the solace or distraction of friends and family. My inner landscape during these times was not a safe place to be lost in, it was full of quicksand, or snow, and without shelter.

“Oh the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.” ~ Gerard Manly Hokins

In my life, the difference between prolonged bouts of time spent joyously alone as a self-determining introvert in comparison to unwanted isolation from my community as a poor person is one of agency, of feeling able to make a choice and then equally able to act on it. When I choose to distance myself from people for a while – either to rest or to create – I love it. But in the past poverty forced me into a solitude I was never ready for at the time. There was never any alignment with my needs, my energy levels, my goals.

We are all going into a time where people feel that, for their own protection and the good of their communities, they must physically distance themselves or self-isolate. Depending on where they live, some people may be compelled to stay home through the coercion of their State. Some people will be better equipped for their time alone than others, both in terms of inner and material resources. Some people will be able to exert more influence on their home conditions than others. But none of us are doing this as a holiday in the first place, even though there will be a few lucky souls who will shrug their shoulders and be able to choose to look on it as such. There is an element of compulsion behind our isolation right now. Let’s not forget that; let’s not forget that therein lies a challenge. Be gentle with yourself and those around you.

Regardless of how well we are able to cope with this anti-social communal adventure, all of us carry a certain amount of tension within us: when will this be over? Will anyone I know get ill? What is happening to the economy and how will it affect me? Which talking heads should I trust?

Even if you are good at pushing all of this to the back of your brain, it will still hum there as a sort of psychic white noise. This hum will eat up your own personal wavelength; it will be a constant leech of energy. This will leave you with less focus for your work, even the work of relaxing and having fun. It will leave you less energy for your emotional labour of supporting those around you. It will nudge your imagination off its normal trajectory (although this could be a bit interesting). Take this into account. Adjust your expectations. Be reasonable with yourself.

Recommended read:

I mentioned agency above. Read this lovely article about agency by Simon Terry.

And…

I derive my income from a mixture of casual and freelance work. If you would like to support me, please consider one of the following:

If you can’t afford to support me because Covid-19 has knocked the stuffing out of your income streams, please know that you have my profound empathy. The very best of luck to you.

The solitary mind: I’ve been here before

The solitary mind: I’ve been here before

A blog about clinging on.

We are all at odds.

Living in a society in thrall to a pandemic is new for many of us in Australia; it certainly is for me. The experience of living in isolation to counter the infectious nature of this particular coronavirus is one part of this adventure that we all have to share as a community, and yet it is something that we can only undertake alone or in small household groups.

Most of us have not been constrained to staying in one place for long, with contact with our networks reduced to whatever we can access on the internet or by phone. I can see that attitudes to self-isolation or lockdown vary. Some people are assuming that the risk has been overstated and have not even thought about preparing for it. Those of us that do take the threat seriously have been confounded by the footage of multitudes of oily bodies packed onto Bondi Beach. Over the weekend, as I went on my (responsibly socially-distanced) daily walks in my local park, I was disquieted to see large groups of people crammed onto picnic rugs or strolling shoulder to shoulder, apparently assuming that contagion happens to other people.

Some people are alarmed by the pandemic, and are prepping for it as if we are looking down the barrel of a nuclear winter. Some of the worst behaviours have been manifested by the panic buyers – those wild-eyed, grim-faced hoarders of toilet rolls, prepared to trash the social norms that hold our society together in order to push and shove their way to grab that last bottle of hand sanitiser.

I find the Hunger Games style panic buyers and the “it’ll never happen” brigade to be equally worrying for all that they occupy different ends of whatever bizarre spectrum they’re on: neither seem to be processing information and thinking about consequences. Both are reacting to the ‘feels’. We are all at odds. It is against this background of communal dissonance that we are preparing to lock ourselves down, to last out weeks of living alone (if you’re like me) or with just the same few flatmates or family members, day after day. The Premier of the state where I live in Australia – Victoria – announced just last night that all non-essential services would be locked down. It’s official: with just the digitised anger and anxiety of Twitter to accompany us, we are to isolate ourselves from the real life presence of most other human beings for most of the time.

I’ve been here before

I am as new to coping with pandemics as anyone else, but in terms of social isolation I do have some form and this, I think, I hope, will help me understand the challenge of the weeks ahead.

My own bouts of past isolation arose because of poverty. Working as a freelancer in the arts and community sectors saw me living, precariously, on low wages, on short contracts, with short stints on welfare in between or when contracts were cut short due to the funding running out. I was bedevilled by unpaid invoices, late paid invoices, organisations that were tardy in paying my wages, or my dole accidentally getting cut off (Australia’s social security bureaucracy is notorious for its inefficiency). Despite careful budgeting, I would sometimes just run out of cash. Although this belongs to my past, I have strong visceral memories of what it is like to starve for a few days, or to subsist on a limited unhealthy diet of cheap carbohydrate (basically toast) for a few weeks. It was horrible. I lived permanently frightened.

A psychological relic of my past is that, alongside hunger pangs, I have indelible memories of what prolonged isolation did to the inside of my head. When I used to run out of, or low on, cash I would not just have to skip meals but could also find myself unable to afford phone credit, internet credit, or public transport fees. If the hunger went on for too long then I would find the physical symptoms of that – the shaking legs, stomach aches, dizziness – would make going for long walks impossible; I just didn’t have the stamina; I was ill from hunger. This means that while I was waiting for the next pay date, or for an overdue invoice to be paid, I would be unable to leave my home, or phone, text, email, or otherwise connect with other people. I have had to live like this for a week on a few occasions; I once lived like this for six weeks and I really thought I would go mad.

I would be stuck at home, alone, with my thoughts. I would try, very hard, to distract myself and, to some extent, would succeed: initially I used the time alone at home to write, or to rehearse, or to clean, or to plan, or to research. But, as the physical hunger and emotional stress grew day by day, it became harder to focus on these things. My head would ache and my eyes would blur from physical fatigue making concentration difficult. This was a constant reminder of my situation that it was impossible to ignore. Did you know that you can ache from hunger, literally? I used to, and, no matter how hard I worked at steering my thoughts to affirmations or inspirations or disciplines or work, my body would urgently remind me of the material reality of my situation. I could distract myself up to a point, but beyond this distraction was impossible. Then there would be no respite from the fizz and hiss of anxiety or the heavy surges of dread. Getting over these dark thoughts took longer than recovering from the physical hunger once the money started flowing again. This, for me, was where the real test of resilience lay. I learnt to keep one small part of my head separate from the rest; this couldn’t do much by way of work or optimism but it could, at least, take note of the exact nature of the waves of emotion as they lapped at me. This gave me some sense of control so that on my better days I could mitigate the effects and on my worst days, in the words of Gerard Manly Hopkins, “not choose not to be.”

Finding a toehold

I realised that, even though my life would be put on hold for a while, and even while the conditions that forced this were damaging, I could still retain a toehold on whatever projects I had been temporarily forced to stop working on, or even on the kind of life I wanted to envisage for myself. This doesn’t sound like much, but it allowed me to start to rebuild when conditions improved.

TheFirstMenInTheMoon-10-A
Illustration from HG Well’s ‘First Men in the Moon’ (1901 ed.) by Claude Allin Shepperson

I survived my past, somehow, and I am proud of that; I owe much of my current resilience and ability to cope with a crisis to that survival.

Because I am in a better place in my life now, I think that, during the next few weeks of isolation, my mind won’t stray into dangerous territory. I do keep reminding myself that self-isolation due to Covid-19 will be a different type of aloneness, with different conditions, for better or for worse, than my previous periods of isolation. But I also keep reminding myself that I have this history of survival to draw upon. I don’t exactly know what the forthcoming experience will be like; I just know that it could be challenging. Having had my resilience undermined previously by isolation, I know the nature of that challenge will be psychological. Having outlasted previous crises, I must admit that I’m confident I’ll make it through with my mental health intact this time. It probably won’t be all bad. I’m an introvert and I’m determined to enjoy a few – maybe many – quiet days indulging my own whims. And I must admit to a curiosity as to what exactly will test me during my time alone: what rogue ideas or moods will bubble to the surface? I’m going to use them as fodder for my writing. I am alert for them, but not alarmed.

People who subsist on welfare will probably have had similar experiences to me. People who haven’t may have no idea what to expect during periods of self-isolation; for some of them, maybe many of them, the nature of the challenge will be unexpected, perhaps difficult, and perhaps even radical.

“While we know social isolation has a negative impact on health, we don’t really know much about what the effects of compulsory (and possibly prolonged) social isolation could be. But we expect it could increase the risk of loneliness in the community.” (Michelle H Lim and Johanna Badcock)

Since those past experiences of hardship and isolation, I have long been interested in how you can embed resilience in your life, especially in your creative practice. How do you find those tiny but valuable toeholds that let you cling on for just long enough to figure out how you climb a mountain? When your life has been stripped of the resources – time, money, human – how do you keep an idea, an intention, alive? What tactics can you use? How can you carve out those little pockets of awareness, of courage, of cunning in an otherwise besieged brain? I’m going to use these Solitary Mind blogs to try and share some perspectives and provocations that might help.

If you are finding the experience of lockdown to be unnerving or discomfiting, then be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself the time to adjust, and then start a dialogue with your inner-self. And take reassurance from the knowledge that this won’t last forever. I survived being cut off from society in the past, and so will you now.

Recommended resource:

Author Josie George has written a remarkable resource called Inside – A Guide. Due to health conditions, Josie has been forced to spend prolonged periods of time inside her house. She has written a guide as to how you can find meaning and resilience under such conditions.

And…

I derive my income from a mixture of casual and freelance work. If you would like to support me, please consider one of the following:

If you can’t afford to support me because Covid-19 has knocked the stuffing out of your income streams, please know that you have my profound empathy. The very best of luck to you.

The solitary mind: how do you sustain your psyche?

The solitary mind: how do you sustain your psyche?

ETB3_mSUcAAMOQQ
Drawn by May Gibbs during the Spanish Flu pandemic

Like just about everyone else on the planet, I have been swept up in preparing for, and trying not to panic about, the Covid-19 pandemic. Alongside working through practical considerations affecting my home, work and finances, I have been thinking about how the adventure of social isolation will affect my creative practice and mental wellbeing.

There are people out there who seem to think that prolonged periods of minimal or no contact with their networks will be a bit of a bore, but no worse than that. But I think these people underestimate how impactful isolation or distancing will be. We are social creatures; even introverts like me need some sense of connection. An unvaried diet of social media, or none at all for the digitally excluded, in addition to the absence of meaningful face-to-face interaction will hit many people harder than they expect. While a stretch of solitude can be restful, solitude experienced under duress isn’t. How does a herd animal sustain their psyche under these conditions?

I have written a series of blogs that I have grouped under the title of Solitary mind and which I am about to start posting. These pieces have been inspired partially by my need to manage my own expectations around how I will navigate my inner world during periods of minimal contact, partially by memories of past episodes of social isolation and what I learnt from that, and partially my desire to feed something that is, hopefully, helpful into my online community as they, too, face these challenges.

At the end of each blog I am going to post a resource – an article, a web page, an online archive – that I think might be useful, as well. You can find these, and others I have collected in my travels on the internet, in this Wakelet collection I have made. I will try to add to it from time to time. Please feel free to pass on recommendations of anything you have found to be informative, or reassuring, or inspiring during this time.

Please, also, forgive my typos, my appalling punctuation, and the strange sentence construction in these blogs. I don’t usually end my pieces with a naked plea for forbearance, but these blogs have been written in a hurry. I don’t know why, but I feel a strong urgency to get them out there.

And if you do read them, please leave a comment to let me know how you are supporting yourself or a loved one during this discomforting, dangerous, but remarkable time.

I derive my income from a mixture of casual and freelance work. If you would like to support me, please consider one of the following:

If you can’t afford to support me because Covid-19 has knocked the stuffing out of your income streams, please know that you have my profound empathy. The very best of luck to you.