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a lesson in not vanishing
When I was 22, I moved to Ann Arbor to be near a boyfriend I’d met studying abroad, an attempt to reclaim the passion we’d had on foreign soil. Summer jobs were hard to come by in a college town, and I ended up taking a job as a receptionist at the University of Michigan’s Liver Clinic. As I was reading about hepatitis, cirrhosis, liver disease, I tried not to tally the amount of drinks I’d consumed the night before, or would consume that night.
Nothing was healthy that summer: my on-again, off-again feelings for my boyfriend; my state of just-graduated mind; my eating habits; my body.
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I’d spent the last year of college having periodic bouts of debilitating stomach pain, throwing up for days whenever I tried to eat. Doctors ruled out ulcers, tried to get me to keep a food diary, but the thought that a food could be causing this much pain seemed ridiculous and with the end of college and so many goodbyes looming, a thesis to write, and my future as an employed English major looking increasingly bleak, I could not be bothered to document meals. Besides, I was barely eating. We were veering ever closer to the dreaded non-diagnosis diagnosis of IBS. The last doctor I saw told me to eat more bananas; they would help settle my stomach.
But after moving to Ann Arbor, the stomach pains slowed and all bodily care went out the window. I drank more, binged on late night Jimmy Johns, sometimes stuck my finger down my throat afterwards in the hopes that I could keep the skinniness I’d acquired over the last year of stomach aches.
So much of loneliness is fantasizing your own disappearance.
For the first time in my life, I was nervous about being alone. I had sublet a shabby apartment for my summer there, but I insisted my boyfriend stay every night in that apartment with me. I wanted him to arrive at the same time as I did after work– or meet me out and walk back to the apartment together, like I’d somehow vanish without him there, a drame de la solitude1. But it made me sad, for him and for me, to see him on my rented couch, at my rented sink, and still feel lonely.
And it’s impossible to tell a person you feel lonely with that you feel lonely with him. It’s certain goodbye. And I couldn’t bear the thought of even more aloneness.
I’ve always sought out stretches of alone time. Despite being one of the slowest on the team, I ran cross-country in high school instead of playing field hockey or soccer like my friends because of the alone time it afforded me.
In middle school, we took a field trip to The Cloisters in New York, now a museum, but the atmosphere of silent nuns hung deliciously in the air. The visit directly preceded a fervent adolescent religious phase. As I write “meditation garden”, I am salivating.
When I was 15, my friends called me “the hermit” when for months I avoided their phone calls, going out, having them over to my house. I wrote maudlin poetry, read Salinger and Wharton—weird bedfellows that made sense at the time—and felt alive and refreshed. And then returned to them, my friends, and they generously took me back.
But in that summer of official adulthood, I felt an aching aloneness. What is the word for craving intimacy and solitude simultaneously?
I’ve had many boring jobs, but the Liver Clinic was one of the worst. The white-on-hospital-white of the waiting room, like the loneliness of a Hopper painting, enhanced my gnawing existential crisis.
On my third day, Debbie, the head receptionist, said to me, “Come on, let’s go.” She said it with such command that it was satisfying to follow her. We walked to the covered parking deck, she unlocked her car, an old blue Ford Taurus, “climb in,’ she said in her husky voice, bemused at my hesitance.
The car shifting under her weight, Debbie pushed the cigarette lighter in and pulled a pack out of the glove compartment. Tapped out a cigarette like she tapped on the keys at reception, then held the pack out to me with raised eyebrow. I shook my head. She took a deep inhale, and blew out a sigh that could answer everything. Debbie didn’t want to waste gas, so she turned off the ignition after her cigarette was lit. The car was hot, filling with smoke, so I began to roll down the window. ‘Don’t do that,’ said Debbie, “I don’t want any alarms going off.” She used the plural first person as if I were a participant, which I suppose I was: “We’re not supposed to be doing this on hospital property.”
My throat screamed after a break with Debbie, but I’d go with her every time she asked that summer. There was something in the command of her voice that made me feel less lonely. I smelled like a bar and I didn’t like that Debbie complained about everything and talked shit about everyone, but that Taurus hotbox of misery that I could but couldn't escape was another form of self-flagellation; submitting to her dominance a means of self-abnegation. I didn’t want to be with myself.
Most of the time in the office, I had nothing to do. But they made it clear that I was not to read books or magazines. I had to be ready— for doctors, patients, pharmaceutical sales drop-ins. Instead, I spent my time illicitly reading patient files. I figured I was already breaking code by aiding and abetting smoking on the premises.
By the time you get to a liver clinic, you are not in good shape. There were some files I came back to again and again, hoping they’d been updated by a visit in the months I worked there. I was silently cheering for impending transplants. A perverse kinship with these patients I knew through a database grew in an inverse relationship to my interest for my boyfriend.
In her memoir Lonely City, Olivia Laing writes: “Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee.”
But before my boyfriend could flee me, I fled. I fled to the other side of the world.
My first night in Sydney, I couldn’t sleep and finally rolled out of my hostel at 4am. I walked Hyde Park as the sun rose, watched a collection of women practicing Tai Chi, listened to birds I’d never heard before, and felt my breath settle.
The original admonisher of don’t run away from your problems, Montaigne wrote, “If a man does not first unburden his soul of the load that weighs upon it, movement will cause it to be crushed still more [...] You do a sick man more harm than good by moving him.”
But in a new environment, textures change, and so for a moment life appears to us again after lying invisible. Inattentional blindness is lifted. And in that time of disruption, we can change, before all settles and feels so comfortable again that we don’t feel it, forget its edges. Foreign landscapes offer an offramp for cognitive loops. The newness allows us outside of ourselves and in turn, reentry to ourselves.
Australia was a mess as one’s early twenties should be: living in hostels, cobbling together enough for food and beer and bus fare with various part time jobs waiting tables, working at a nursery, canvassing neighborhoods. The books I read in my year in Australia had an intensity that books before and since haven’t had.
The mystery of my chronic stomach aches revealed itself, too, as an allergy to bananas. The food I’d been told to settle my stomach had caused the pain in the first place. Self-sabotage by fruit and by boy.
Toward the end of my trip, I traveled the middle part of the continent alone, latching myself onto guided trips periodically. I spent a lot of time on buses, looking out at flat desert. Lonely landscapes—solitudes—are good company; it’s easy to see yourself on their horizons. I slept in a sheet next to Uluru with a smattering of strangers, saw more stars than I’ll likely ever see again, felt myself small and myself.
When I arrived in Darwin, the heat was beyond anything I’d felt before. The hostel I stayed in cut the air conditioning during the day, and it was in a cold shower that I realized a lumpy rash was growing all over my torso. My body transformed in a way I’d never seen: bulbous, red, like being wrapped in large bubble wrap, my outsides unrecognizable as me, much less as human.
When I shyly asked the hosteller about what it might be, he said it was likely from contact with wallaby scat while pulling myself through a cave in Kakadu. “The heat can’t be helping,” he said unhelpfully. I had no money to go to a doctor, so I went to a matinee instead. I was alone in the cold theater but for one couple at the back. Midway through A Beautiful Mind, I began to sob uncontrollably.
I was so alone, and it was relief.
Today, the hardest part for me of being a mom and a teacher is this lack of solitude in my days. I am desperate for it. Last week, a friend and her daughter got on the tube just as I was settling into 15 minutes of public quiet. I needed to write this essay and solo tube rides are my room-of-one’s-own to do so. I tried to hide the dismay of spoiled solitude.
Without any moments of solitude, I start to feel lonely in company. My speech is full of platitudes; an awkwardness sets in; I laugh in moments that aren’t funny; words escape me. I start to dislike myself. The Latin root of solitude, solus, is a choose-you-own adventure of meaning: alone, only, single, forsaken, extraordinary. When I’m too much in the company of others, my life—my self—feels unextraordinary.
15 years ago, William Dershowitz wrote an essay lamenting the end of Emersonian solitude with the rise of social media. He asserted that solitude allows us to “secure the integrity of the self as well as to explore it”, the logical conclusion being that without it, we lose integrity and self-exploration. Plug parenthood in for social media, and it’s not so different. Parenthood does a number on our edges, blurs all kinds of bodily and psychological boundaries and integrity. Transformative in so many important ways, but when we’re not careful, diminishing.
As much as I adore my children, my husband, my friends, I can’t define myself with other people; I can only find self-definition by myself. In order not to disappear, I need to be alone.
Which brings me to this page, these essays. My middle-aged Australia.
In French, the late discovery of the body of an elderly person who died alone at home.