I’ve been away for a few days, visiting an old friend several states away by myself. This is a “first” for me, in many ways.
I actually traveled by myself, which I rarely do – Over the past 20 years, I have always had someone with me, partly because I tend to get turned around in my directions and wander off and get lost… I tend to get fatigued and start making poor behavioral decisions (like with interactions with police officers)… and I usually don’t have the money or the time to travel alone — I usually take two-for-one trips that cram in as much activity as possible, while we’re on the road. Also, it’s much more fun to travel with someone else. They can share the driving or the luggage-hauling. And they can help with logistics.
This past weekend, however, I took the opportunity to drive across a couple of states to visit a good friend I haven’t seen in years. I used to see them every year or so, over holidays, but that hasn’t happened in since 2008, so I figured it was time. My spouse was away on a business trip, the weather was nice, and I was in the mood for a change of pace.
So, I hopped in the car and headed out. I got 3/4 of the way there, then I got turned around and ended up stuck in traffic for a few hours. I got completely bass-ackwards, and ended up in god-knows-where… then had to figure a way out. So, I did. I consulted the map, I took some chances, and I ended up arriving 9 hours after I’d left. The trip should have taken 7 hours, and it could have, but I lost my bearings, and that was that.
At least I got there in one piece.
And I had a great weekend.
On my way back, I got turned around again, and added another hour to my drive — this was an 8-hour drive, which is an hour better than I did going down. I missed a turn on a back road and had driven west for 20 minutes, before I realized I needed to be driving east. Oh, well. I saw some beautiful country in the process.
On my drive, I had a lot of time to think. I listened to a lot of music, and I thought about my life. The friend I went to see lives alone, with friends and relatives nearby who drop by all the time, just to hang out and say “Hi”. It’s always interesting to me, to see who comes to visit. It’s always something different. And this friend of mine really handles everyone well. They live a solitary life, without much connection to any one particular person. They travel a lot, and they spend a lot of time alone. And yet, they never seem lonely.
This is a real contrast to what I’ve seen with other people I know. One friend of mine, in particular, is very social. They are the life of the party, popular, sought-out by others who look to them for advice and support. They are well-known in their own circles, and they have no lack of people who want them to spend time with them. And yet, they tell me frequently that they are so lonely. They can’t seem to really connect with anyone. They are alone, and they are lonely.
I don’t know what to say to them. I watch them interact with others, and I see how others respond to them, yet they cannot seem to let it in. They are surrounded by people, they have people constantly asking for their company, and yet they are consumed by loneliness.
And then there’s this other friend of mine, who lives alone, who spends hours and hours just by themself, who has intermittent company, and they are not at all lonely. They are fine with it, they are fine with never having anyone around, and they actually prefer to be alone.
I was watching closely this weekend, observing how this alone-but-not-lonely person lives their life. And it occurred to me that whatever situation they were in, they were 100% there. If someone was talking to them, they were there, 100% involved in the conversation. If they were all by themself, they were 100% present with that experience. If they were annoyed, they were 100% annoyed. If they were happy, they were nothing except happy. For them, there was no long-term projection drama, no looking-back-in-regret pain. They had their memories and they had their recollections, and they had their plans, but that wasn’t all that was there for them. In fact, those were like “background music” for their life, which was all about the NOW.
And while I was there with them, I wasn’t lonely, either. I have often felt that terrible pang of isolation, of being cut off from what I wanted and desired. I have felt that sense of separation from the life I wanted to lead, the separation from the people I wanted near me. And now when I think about it, I realize that the thing I was really separated from, the thing I was really missing, was me… well, not so much ME, as my experience of the moment, as it is/was at that point in time.
Looking closer at my life, I see the times when I have felt the most distant and separated from others, have been the times when I have been distant and separated from myself — distracted by things other than my present moment, consumed by regret about my past, or worry about my future… thinking about everything but what was right in front of me, absorbed by things past and future, but not the present… so absorbed in the stuff that I thought I was supposed to be doing, that I couldn’t pay attention to the stuff I was doing.
And I was lonely.
When I was caught up in myself and my own insecurities… when I was consumed by worry and dread about what I thought was wrong with me… when I was literally working overtime, trying to keep up with what was going on around me, unable to follow what people were saying and being so terribly distracted by everything around me, because my slow brain wasn’t able to fully engage with the present as it happened… I was so, so lonely, so separated, so apart…
It was truly awful. There was nothing I could seem to do about this. And in a way, there wasn’t. My brain had gotten rearranged, and I literally had to pay attention to so many more things than usual, that I was scattered and distracted and tired. And being tired made me more scattered and distracted. So, it was a vicious, self-fulfilling cycle I was stuck in. And I could not see it changing anytime soon. I didn’t have anyone to talk to, in the early days, so I didn’t know that my situation was temporary, and I didn’t understand how it could change — or that it would change. I was so isolated and alone in my own mind, and I didn’t know how to get out.
Fortunately, things have improved tremendously. I think that just talking to people in person made a huge difference. That started with my neuropsych, who has been a regular source of help — just by being able to talk to me in a way that is respectful and decent and direct. Perhaps more than any other way, having that person there to talk to me as a regular person, not laughing at me or making fun of me or making me feel bad about how I was thinking about things, made a huge difference in my life. And it gave me a relief from my loneliness — not because they were able to connect with me better than anyone else, but because they gave me the space to be myself and connect with myself more than practially anyone else in my life, to that day.
We all need that, really. We all need to connect with others and be ourselves. We need someone in our lives that lets us not constantly pay attention to the things we might be saying or doing wrong. I grew up in a world that was obsessed with doing everything “right” — or in a certain specific way. And believe me, that was a terrible place to live, with a traumatic brain injury (or several). All the time I spent, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong now… again and again and again… What a lonely, lonely way to live. Isolated in my own head, surrounded by people who were constantly trying to get me do things “right” – or else, always scrambling, always wondering what the hell I was supposed to do, to get it right…
And the harder I tried to get it all right, the more distant and lost and lonely I felt.
But with this one person in my life who not only lets me just be how I am and understands the ways my brain works — and helps me constructively with suggestions and asking the right questions, rather than hurting me with criticism and demands — I have come so far. By being allowed the space to just be, and being allowed to explore different options, rather than being punished for needing to find new ways of thinking and living, I’ve come so far and managed to accomplish so much.
I haven’t been 100% perfect and I haven’t been 100% correct all the time… but then, who is? Like my 9-hour drive to see my friend, the road can be a lot longer at times, than it “should” be… but at the same time, I can enjoy the parts of it that I find interesting, and taking a little longer to do some things isn’t the worst thing in the world.
The worst thing in the world, for me, is sometimes to be 100% right… but to be so wrapped up in getting it right, that I can’t really experience what’s going on around me, in all its variety and difference and texture.
That’s really lonely.