Solitude is a habit with me, a byproduct of anxiety and distrust that I haven’t really figured out how to get rid of. Since high school, I’ve used the internet as an adaptive tool to help me manage my isolation, but now that I’m in my early thirties, it isn’t as effective as it used to be. The friends who were once available on chat for hours and hours over the course of the day have differently structured lives than when they were finishing up their degrees and looking for full-time work—whereas I’m working from home, still sitting in front of the computer for eighteen hours a day, still just as available as I always was. I used to harangue myself into at least taking my laptop to coffee shops, but since my car got stolen and my damaged tendon started severely limiting the distance I can walk in a day, my already narrow world has shrunk considerably.
My brain has learned a lot of strategies for keeping itself company over the years, starting back when I was a kid with two working parents and no friends in my neighborhood. Books helped, obviously. Solitude + books made me a writer; I could have turned out worse. But I didn’t, as most people assume, deal with the isolation by making up stories in my head. Frankly, I’ve always had trouble coming up with plots. I don’t live in a world where a lot of things happen—mostly, things hold very still. In any case, I can get plots from automated plot generator scripts. What I do in my head is talk.
I don’t see myself as an especially private person, but the conversations I have with the people in my head are not for public consumption—mostly because they’re embarrassing. Six years ago, when I started seeing a therapist and really investigating the state of my mental health for the first time, I took a long look at how I function in solitude, and I realized that the conversations I have with fake people are now, and always have been, critical to my sanity. Who are these fake people? Sometimes they’re real people who are dead, or real people I’ve never met, or real people that I know but who are much less accessible and interested in me in the real world than they are inside my head. Very often, they’re fictional characters—mine or someone else’s.
It took about six months of therapy and reflection before I figured out that my dialogues with ghosts weren’t attempts to connect with the real people they stood in for—they were how I talked to myself. I’ve never had any success with the kind of therapeutic exercises where you stand in front of the mirror each morning and give yourself a compliment, or say something self-affirming. (Attempts at these kinds of exercises have resulted in broken mirrors.) But I can lie awake in bed for hours having an argument with a fictional person about, say, whether or not it was my fault that I was assaulted two years ago; and that fictional person has a much better chance of convincing me that it wasn’t my fault than I have of believing it on my own. In the absence of family and friends, I learned to sustain a kind of magical thinking that supplied me with the bare minimum of care and reassurance I needed to survive. It is, I suppose, childish self-soothing that has evolved into adult self-care.
It does not, in case you’re wondering, compare in the slightest to real friends and real affection. But it serves in a whirlwind.
It’s hard to tell a story like this in public without concluding on a triumphal or redemptive note—it’s hard to share this as a present reality, rather than as a slightly sad chapter of my life that closed a long time ago. I choose to believe that this will not always be the way that I live, that as I continue to grow in strength and health and security, I will find a niche for myself in the world of tangible beings. But even though I’m not there yet, I need to explain how my broken brain works, because then I can explain the curious way my broken brain repairs itself.
About two years ago, in the spring of 2014, I had just left North Carolina, my life there having fallen apart somewhat. I had been invited to stay with a friend in Virginia for two months; I didn’t know where I was going to go after that. I think I can safely say that I was at my absolute least lovable that spring. My misery was breeding self-obsession, and diminishing my capacity for empathy. I couldn’t seem to talk to my friends without arguing, and every relationship I had was was falling apart.
The pressure built to a crisis point one night as I started to realize how wretched I was making the people who cared about me, without in the least relieving the wretchedness inside myself. Not knowing what else to do, I shut my computer, turned off the lights, set a song to play on loop in iTunes, and got into bed.
And then, for the first time in my life, I shut my eyes and consciously summoned one of my fake people—one of my ghosts—to join me in my head and help me figure things out. The face this person was wearing isn’t really relevant. It was someone who, to me, represented gentleness and trustworthiness, and who had an expert grasp on how self-hatred poisons the mind; someone who wouldn’t be shocked by anything I had to say, and who wouldn’t let me get away with being anything other than ruthlessly honest. They were mostly me, but also sufficiently not-me for the purposes of our conversation. I couldn’t have a conversation like this with myself. I couldn’t have fantasized sitting in a chair across from myself without wanting to fly out of my seat and tear myself limb from limb. That was the whole problem. That was how I’d got to where I was in the first place.
How can I reconstruct that conversation? It was a dream, mostly; a lucid daydream, something I created but didn’t entirely control, not on a conscious level. I feel as if the conversation lasted for hours, but it probably didn’t. In any case, I only really remember the important part—the very end of it.
I was explaining to my ghostly friend that I needed to be okay again. I needed to be a sane, whole person, someone capable of caring about other people, about anything other than my own misery. I said that I believed I could get to that place, one day, but I couldn’t see how, yet. And in the mean time, how was I supposed to survive? How was I supposed to keep going through the minutes and hours and days, when I didn’t know how long the misery would last, when I felt like I was perpetually suspended in the worst moment of my life, a moment that never ended, but just kept happening for always—
Here is what my imaginary friend said in reply:
“If you know that your sanity and your health will return eventually, then the worst part—the waiting—is already over. If it’s going to happen, then, in a way, it’s already happened—it’s happening right now—because time isn’t linear.”
If anyone who wasn’t, in essence, a fragment of my own consciousness had said that to me, I would have wanted to punch them. But somehow, lying on that narrow bed in that dark room, listening to Eva Cassidy on loop, talking to an imaginary person in the dark world behind my eyelids—it was perfect. It was the essence of truth. I repeated it to myself over and over—time isn’t linear. I started to laugh, and then for the first time in months, I started to cry. Eventually, I fell asleep.
When I woke up the next morning, I wasn’t magically restored to full health. I was, however, just a little bit less broken than before. I don’t think it came across that way to other people—I remember trying to explain to someone why I was feeling better suddenly, fumbling for a way to describe the therapeutic revelation I’d had, and the painfully polite encouragement I got in return. But that was fine; I was content to be slightly insane, as long as it meant that I was starting to remember how to be a friend again, that I was regaining the awareness that each moment was transitory, and my future, even for the short term, wasn’t set in stone.
My point is, brains—even broken ones—are remarkable. They can’t entirely compensate for social deficiencies, but they can help you survive in the mean time. Maybe that’s redemption enough.