Thursday, 30 March 2017

Striking the balance of being solitary.

This is the extended* Wellbeing Column, first published in the York Press on Tuesday, March 14th 2017.

Two women of mature years met on the bus going into town and enjoyed chatting and catching-up on their lives. Sitting in a nearby seat, I couldn’t help but hear some of their conversation. One of the women said, “he’s a bit clingy.” and I wondered if they were talking about a grandchild. It quickly became clear that the woman was talking about her husband. Both women compared notes on having husbands at home who wanted to know what their wives were doing and where. The women were going into town to have some precious time on their own. They laughed as they admitted not taking their mobile phones with them, so that they couldn’t be contacted. “My son would be cross with me”, said one woman, “but it’s such a bother.” I smiled at the description of her trying to retrieve a ringing phone from deep inside a handbag, looking for her glasses and then finding out that it was her husband wanting to know how long she would be. She said longingly, “I don’t get much privacy these days.” The quote about retirement came to mind. ‘I married you for life, not for lunch.’ 

Finding time and space for some ‘me time’ is the other side of the loneliness coin, a well-aired subject at the moment. We need to find a balance. Too little time to oneself can be as emotionally unhealthy as too much time.  In the same way as too much self-reflection can be as unhelpful as too little.  We need to find some personal space each week, somehow, somewhere. Somewhere away from the demands of others. It is not about being selfish, it is a human need for healthy emotional growth. The activity could be a hobby, a class, reading, walking, listening to music, gardening or just ‘being’. The space could be a shed, spare room, study, the bath, going to the shops and cafes, enjoying a walk or sitting in a garden.

The writer Alice Koller wrote: “Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your won presence rather than the absence of others. because solitude is an achievement”

*Taken from the book 'Are you Chasing Rainbows?' Chapter 20.

Privacy, or time on one’s own, is like the refrain in the story of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’. Too much is not right. Too little is not right. We need a balance of just enough to be just right. However, in reality, who is able to achieve that? We are just as likely to be screaming inside that we want to be alone for just a minute, as we are feeling that we are getting too much of our own company.
I had a crazily busy life that veered from barely a moment alone, to one where every evening was spent on my own with the TV and red wine for company – but I did discover the difference between loneliness and solitude. I spent many hours feeling very solitary but, due to a great network of family and friends, I never felt lonely. 

Thinking time. Being still. Putting things into perspective. Certainly some problem-solving can be achieved in states of high emotional arousal in an emergency, but generally if we want to look at all the options available to us, we need the mind to be more relaxed so that the brain can work effectively. Using alcohol and drugs is a common way of relaxing and switching-off the noise of life, but they come with a price: addiction and/or later problems with ill-health. In the same way that as children we were often given a sweet or biscuit to ‘make it better’ when we had hurt ourselves, rewarding stress and a need to relax with alcohol and drugs sends a message to our brain that this is what we do when we need to relax.

That need is one that we all have at times: some ‘me time’, some space. It is not about being selfish, it is about allowing the brain to slow down. A time to rest the mind and body. A time to recharge the batteries. Like the battery indicator on a mobile phone, we all need to have a time for our mind and body to recharge, otherwise our batteries run out. We are warned. Our body tells us, the red light goes on – and we don’t listen to our cost. Or perhaps our mind and body feel like an electrical socket, and each demand on us is a plug: it is easy to imagine how the circuit can be overloaded. We need to remove a plug or two, or just switch off the whole system for a while.