Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Sounds of Silence

I’m an introvert through-and-through. I don’t say it as if I’m proud, just more of as a matter-of-fact. People familiar with introvert/extrovert traits know how it goes: being around people or stimulating situations for too long is exhausting. I need a tremendous amount of downtime. I like being alone. I thrive in quiet and peaceful places. Though I love intimate gatherings of close people, I often make up excuses as to why I can’t go out and avoid being in social situations. I’ll regularly retreat back to my room to be by myself even if I’m just at home with family. It’s never really bothered me much. But then a weird thing started to happen. I started to become increasingly anxious when I was by myself.

I think this all started last year after my grandpa died. Except for a short two-month period after his stroke when he lived with us and a year spent living with my uncle and then in assisted-living when his dementia got bad, he lived the majority of the seven years after my grandma’s death by himself. I was always aware that he was by himself. I knew that he preferred to live in his own house and would talk about going “back home” while living with us and even during his stay in assisted-living. He liked his independence which I understood and respected. But not until after his funeral, when I really stopped and thought about it, did I realize how lonely it must be to be by yourself. He was always very social. He lived in a senior community and had many friends and was also involved in his church and had a close church family, so he wasn't completely alone. But at the age of 93, his funeral was small. It wasn't because his friends didn't care; it was because they were all gone.  And that’s when I started to dwell on the idea of what it must be like to outlive everyone you know. He had lived such a rich life. He knew so many people and went so many places and did so many things, and in the end, there were only a handful of people outside of his family that were there to see him off.

The more I thought about it, the more uneasy it made me. Maybe it's because I am the complete opposite of my grandpa. I am not very outgoing, I'm not very social, it takes a tremendous amount of effort for me to establish relationships with people. By my age, my grandpa had already fought a war overseas, praying in foxholes he wouldn't be killed. I was praying to God I didn't have a panic attack on my way to a massage appointment. When I realized that we not only had two different personalities, we had two different life experiences, it eased my mind to know that he had preferred to live by himself because he could handle it. It didn't ease my mind to think that one day I may be in the same situation, but not be able to handle it at all. 

I like being alone, but I don't like being physically alone. I like the choice of being alone. I like being by myself in my room knowing my family is down the hall if I needed them. I don't necessarily need the interaction (though I really do; I thrive on deep, meaningful conversation) I just need to know that they're there in case I ever do.  

One day last year I was home by myself in the middle of the afternoon laying on the floor in the family room, trying to fight off the crushing weight of solitude, and explain away every foreign noise that was coming from every corner of the house, when I started to hear some loud noises outside. I got up and looked out the window and saw some workers in my neighbor's backyard. I suddenly felt this relief come over me. I wasn't entirely alone, there were other people out there. Now I wasn't going to pop my head over the fence and start up a conversation-- I didn't need that, at least not then. I just needed to hear the noise of another person's presence. 

So I laid back down on the family room floor and started to think of Sarah Winchester. And I started to think that maybe she made up the story about the psychic and the ghosts. Maybe there were never any ghosts after her, she was just a widow who didn't want to be alone. Maybe the ghosts she was so afraid of were the ones inside her own head. So she hired builders to work on her house, around the clock, for years, so she never had to live in silence. There were always people around, making noise, keeping busy so she never had to be alone with her loneliness. She was smart enough to know that ghosts only ever seem to appear in quiet, dormant houses. They're not as threatening in houses alive with people and noise. So she did what she could-- she paid people to be around her, making an unrelenting amount of sound. If I was a lonely rich old lady, I would probably do the same thing. But then again, this is just a theory I came up with while in my own solitude. She was probably just a delusional woman made crazy by loneliness.

Regardless of why she did it, I came to the conclusion that I can't let myself be that lady. I don't want to wake up one day when I'm 75 and realize that I'm breaking things in my house just so I can call a repair guy to hang out with for 45 minutes because I spent my twenties isolating myself in my room, being more concerned with coping with my anxiety than I was about forming proper relationships with people. And the thing is, is you can't just form some relationships once and then you're good-- you have to continuously form meaningful relationships throughout your entire life so you're never not without people. Kurt Vonnegut said, "What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured." I know he's right, and I hate it. 

It's terrifying because this is the thing I'm the worst at, and I'm the worst at so many things. I'm always going to be that introvert who likes downtime, who prefers quiet gatherings over big parties, who relishes in a quiet life. And while I really enjoy being by myself now, I can't be that person who fails to form connections and relationships just because it might be uncomfortable and scary and even a bit exhausting. Because when I no longer have the novelty of always having my family down the hall, I at least want someone in the next room. And I'd prefer it not to be a hired worker building a doorway that goes into a wall.

photo via tumblr
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