Live Through This

I Against I

Last month we talked about the advantages of solitude. Here, a few words on its limits.

Illustration by Cynthia.

Illustration by Cynthia.

C: When you’re living so intensely in your head there isn’t any difference between what you imagine and what actually takes place. Therefore, you’re both omnipotent and powerless.

S: You’re saying teenagers aren’t in their heads?

C: No, they’re so far in there’s no difference between the inside of their heads and the world.

—Chris Kraus, I Love Dick

I.

Sometimes I get the feeling that I’m living two separate lives. One that’s all in my head, and another that’s me out in the world, being funny or friendly or bitchy, bouncing off other people in a million and one ways. The me in my head is quiet, serious, and not willing to apologize for that. She is also anxious, obsessive, and unyieldingly ambitious (not always a positive thing). Sometimes I am so tired of her, and this usually means I need to put down the laptop, change out of my pajamas, and go join the rest of the human race IRL.

Being alone with yourself is tricky. Sometimes I fantasize about it, especially after a rough day of teaching. Other times I romanticize it: If only I could be totally alone, I would accomplish so much. But I am not interested in romanticizing aloneness, at least right now. This year, I have been very alone. I mean this dramatically, of course. The way Thoreau meant it when he was chilling in his friend’s backyard. Or the way Annie Dillard meant it at Tinker Creek. I have some friends. I’m not on a desert island conversing with a volleyball (poor Wilson). I am, however, teaching English in a small Polish town near the Ukrainian border. (Background: My parents are Polish and moved to the U.S. some years before I was born. I’m here to learn their language better and also to write about our lives here and there.)

I had this idea that a change of scenery and an escape from the post-college pressures of job-hunting and résumé-building would be good for me. That somehow in another country all my bad habits (too much TV, too much scrolling) would fade, and I would be able to focus on my writing. Alone with my pens, paper, and books—have I done much more that I would have otherwise? I don’t know. But I have learned a lot about aloneness and loneliness.

II.

When I was 12, my favorite book was The Ashwater Experiment. It’s the story of a girl, Hillary, who travels around the U.S. with her hippie parents. They settle down for short periods of time in one town or another, and then keep moving. Obviously, Hillary spends a lot of time alone. She begins imagining her life as a Truman Show–esque experiment someone else is conducting. She calls the people she imagines running it the Watchers and tries to test the limits of their study (i.e., her world). She throws open doors and slides out drawers quickly, hoping to find some yet-unmade part of their project. She imagines the space in the drawer as a void before she opens it—blackness, nothing—that gets filled in a split second with socks and underwear (props) the moment she chooses to pull it out. Looking back, I can see that all this meant that Hillary was spending too much time in her head, but at the time I felt like Hillary’s imaginary world was a perfect illustration of the divide between in-my-head and in-the-world. There were times when I’d feel like I was watching myself laugh or talk and feel like the person I was at school or with friends was a completely different me. Not that I was faking it, more like there was some secret part of me that never seemed to make it to the front of the stage. The world between my ears when I’m not talking or doing something is one of rushing thoughts, trembling ideas, and lots and lots of to-do lists. Sometimes when I don’t like someone or can’t relate to them, I think about what they must be like alone, brushing their hair or sitting on a bus, physically there but with all their energy focused inward. I think about all the weird, conflicting stuff that goes on in my own head and instantly feel more sympathetic toward them.

That’s why reading is so weirdly contradictory to me. It’s a thing we mostly do alone that helps us understand other people by showing us the insides of their heads. I’m usually hypercritical of myself, and reading is a kind of assurance that other people have the same worries and hopes and strange feelings that I do. When I was younger and too shy to ask questions about sex, love, and other gross things about adult life, I turned to books. In them, I read bad advice and questionable advice and things that were probably inappropriate for my age (Cosmo) but I was just curious to see how other people had dealt with the things I had begun thinking about. I probably shouldn’t have been doing all this research when I was supposed to be volunteering in the children’s section of the library, but between the stacks, looking up orgasms or virginity or whatever it was that day, what I found was enough to allow my anxious brain a sigh of relief as I realized, OK so I’m pretty normal.

III.

Some of the best things in our world are products of aloneness, of imagination. The story ideas I have just before sleeping. The drawings I would be too embarrassed to do if someone were with me. The amazing cool various shit I have found on the internet because I am bored and alone. But I promised I wasn’t going to wax romantic, so I won’t forget to write about loneliness. For me, loneliness feels less like sadness than it does a weird circling anxiety fogging up my brain. It manifests as checklists and irrational fears, like when I called my mother long-distance after reading an article about the side effects of the HPV vaccine I had just gotten and could barely breathe. “When’s the last time you went out?” was her first question. My boyfriend knows that if tell him I just watched an entire season of Homeland in two days it means I’m not feeling too hot psychologically. Ditto for when I’m online so long I get that weird electric buzz in my brain. You know the one?

I guess what I’m saying even as I’m pitching you this idea of two different lives is that you kind of have to keep the drawbridge down, you know? If you lose yourself inside your head it’s no good. It’s just as bad as losing yourself to the pressures of the outside world (bad influences, peer pressure, other peoples’ expectations). There’s got to be a healthy flow between what’s inside your head and what’s outside in the world, or else both of the yous I’m talking about can be lost.

IV.

My friends here in Jarosław, the Polish town I’m living in, are from all over—Turkey, Spain, Ukraine, even Uzbekistan. We run into one another in the communal dorm kitchen and go out together every Thursday night. But I do most things on my own: cooking, cleaning, sleeping. I dream of going food shopping with my long-distance boyfriend, or, like, kissing him. Sometimes with Skype, Gchat, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. it almost feels like the distance shouldn’t count anymore, but then there are those times when it’s the middle of the night U.S. time and my Facebook is quiet and I realize just how far away the ones I love are. You know that Louis C.K. bit about being alone? Yeah, those are the times that I have to face my aloneness, when it becomes a thing altogether less pleasant than those afternoons I spend by myself on the roof outside my bedroom window, under the trees, but still only a pane of glass away from my family. Now I wish there was someone to watch the pot when I have to pee and I’m afraid to start a fire on the shoddy hotplate we use for cooking in the dorm.

But for the most part, I got what I wanted coming here. I do have time to write. My journal has more full pages than empty ones (rare for me), and I’m reading lots. My inner and outer lives are on the same page for once. The goals and dreams inside my head are being followed up by my actions IRL, and that feels important. Because when we’re talking about these two selves, the inner and the outer, we’re also talking about our past selves (the many many of them—remember the you that thought kissing was gross?) and the amorphous future selves we dream of or dread becoming. Many of these future selves we’ll come up with in those precious hours alone with our papers, pens, and books in hand. And they will keep us company, for a time. ♦

21 Comments

  • amelia3 May 5th, 2014 3:52 PM

    “For me, loneliness feels less like sadness than it does a weird circling anxiety fogging up my brain. It manifests as checklists and irrational fears…”

    I try not to post “I can totally relate to this!” on every Rookie article, but that really does sum up a lot of my internal life. Thanks :)

  • themostunus May 5th, 2014 4:06 PM

    this is perfect!

  • Erin. May 5th, 2014 4:34 PM

    You darling Rookies must really be psychic. I’ve been thinking about/struggling with this exact same thing. But, how does one get outside of one’s head? This has always been an issue for me, although “issue” isn’t quite the right word. I think the real problem is that, while I’ve always lived inside my head, it used to be a sort of happy place, but lately it hasn’t been so happy. It’s a bit like trying to climb your way out of a deep hole, but the air is so thick and murky that you can’t even see the edges or the walls that enclose you.

  • Margo May 5th, 2014 5:06 PM

    Oh. My. God. The Ashwater Experiment was my favorite book in fifth grade! I must have read it about a thousand times over the course of that one school year (even though my teacher said we should be reading different books…). I completely forgot about it, it’s weird to see it here!

  • aidaspida May 5th, 2014 5:55 PM

    Monika – Thank you SO much for writing this!! I really connect to everything you said – about the joys of loneliness and the trouble of getting TOO into your head, as well as just living inside my head. These are questions and feelings and thoughts I have been struggling with my entire life. It’s also really hard to reconcile the self I am in my head and the self I am in public, with my closest friends, with my family, etc. I don’t ever want to be ingenuine or “fake” but different atmospheres put me in different moods! Anyway, thank you for sharing. I really really connected to this and it’s so special for someone to be so articulate with emotions and thoughts I have been trying to put into coherent words for years.

  • enthusiastictruckdriver May 5th, 2014 6:17 PM

    I love it when articles make me go like “OMG ARE YOU ME” and this one totally did. Last year I moved to a different country and I was actually really happy about it because it meant I would have more time to create stuff and be inside my head and I wouldn’t have to experience social anxiety all the time. And, yeah, since I moved, I got way more stuff done and became comfortable enough with myself that I no longer get so anxious. But then recently I was like, whoa, I actually miss having a lot of friends and hugging people and even occasionally feeling shaky and giddy in social situations! I think that, in the end, reading and making art and talking to people all have the same purpose: to make us more aware of the stuff happening outside of our heads so we can feel less lonely. Depending on what people or art you have in your life right now, it can feel like one works better than the other, but I think ultimately we all just want to connect to something.

  • katie_o May 5th, 2014 7:03 PM

    Everything you said resonated so much with me. Thanks for this!

  • Monica B May 5th, 2014 7:28 PM

    I keep trying to write comments, but I just woke up and it’s not working and this piece moved me so greatly. The writing, the sentiment, the truth in every line, the Ashwater Experiment (my old favorite book)…I will be saving this one.
    Thank you, so much!

  • iriselle May 5th, 2014 8:25 PM

    This post was like looking into a mirror! And it makes me feel even better to scroll down and read all the comments saying the same thing as well :) Thank you thank you thank you, Rookie.

  • pubertyblues May 5th, 2014 8:41 PM

    the part about being separate from who you are when talking to friends really hit home for me, and its something i struggle to make sense of. thanks so much for this xo

    http://pvbertyblues.tumblr.com

  • cherrycola27 May 5th, 2014 9:52 PM

    Oh wow I remember The Ashwater Experiment! I only read it once, when I was probably about 11, but it’s stuck with me ever since. It’s in the back of my mind, and every once in a while drifts towards the front. I was a very lonely kid and I think this book really captured how I felt.
    great article!

  • Daniizle May 5th, 2014 10:58 PM

    I absolutely love this.

  • readyfortofade May 5th, 2014 11:01 PM

    Hi Monika!

    I always love your articles, but this one especially spoke to me. It’s funny to connect with somebody over our respective senses of almost ineffable isolation (however infrequent, these experiences are really potent, at least for me).

    I’m preparing to do a domestic exchange program next semester which will entail me living very independently in a new city with new people, most of whom will be older than me. I’m worried. I’m bringing my collection of Joan Didion and a bike. We’ll see what I manage to make of the solitude.

    Anyway, hope all is well!

    Best,
    Abby from Swat

    • Monika May 6th, 2014 2:20 AM

      ABBY HI,

      Where are you going? What are you up to? Email me! Also thanks girl. xo

  • Isobelley May 6th, 2014 6:32 AM

    I needed this so much, and it kind of helped, but I was hoping it would tell me how to get out of my head. But I don’t know if anyone knows that answer?

    • enthusiastictruckdriver May 6th, 2014 1:26 PM

      I feel like “getting out of your head” can be intepreted in a variety of ways, but one of the things that really changed my point of view on this was David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” speech–you should check it out!

  • AndreaGG May 6th, 2014 11:16 AM

    This is just so on time! Thank you <3

  • Dino May 7th, 2014 6:02 AM

    I love this. I can’t find the right words…I’m just so glad that other people struggle with similar things.

  • flocha May 8th, 2014 2:55 PM

    I find the idea of being myself so confusing because there are just so many versions of me which I use according to who I’m with. This article expresses everything so beautifully thank you <3

  • Mumblebee May 8th, 2014 9:41 PM

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this. For summing up my thoughts that couldn’t be put into words. I’ve always thought of myself as two different people, the public one and the one that… That could fly, could read or draw or say whatever she chooses, that does whatever she wants. The one that is so different from the one others know. Even my closest friends don’t know me, not really. I’ve bookmarked this page to remind me to try to connect my selves! Thanks for writing this, again.

  • halbie May 11th, 2014 5:11 AM

    sometimes i get sick feeling like i’m the only breed who does this to myself, and i cried reading this. i didn’t really want to comment this but idk where to put messages. i’ve never identified with something this much in years. i’m terrified of what’s coming, i’m headed to teach english in a foreign country, and i’m already so lonely in my own country. i dunno. was nice to feel like someone else is living through my fears, like maybe i can, like maybe it’s not so hard to keep the drawbridge down if you just keep breathing and keep your eyes open. probably sounds like a broken record at this point but thanks from me, too.