On being lonely, and attempting to write my way out: A brief reflection

Words are lumpy, awkward, and unwieldy these days. Frozen, they neither form nor flow. I would like to blame it on the times, the weather—anything but this emptiness I can’t shake.

I used to say: I’m a loner, but I’m never lonely.

These days I’m lonely, even when I am not alone.

8460394828_a318b259c7_bI am reluctant to write about this. I can remember listening to others complain about being lonely—even when their lives were filled with activities and people—and wonder how they could talk that way. More critically, I blamed them. It must be something in them, I reasoned, a bitterness or despondency that drives others away.

And now that person is me.

I understand the sense of alienation—and the way it can so easily be reflected in a coldness borne of anger and pain. Loneliness engenders a void that fills the space between the self and others. A space that grows and pushes the lonely person farther away.

I’ve been reading about loneliness of late. In an essay published on Aeon last July, Cody Delistraty argues that for all its pain, loneliness can build character. It can be a positive experience.

Assuming one emerges, that is.

Depression, cognitive damage, and suicide are very real risks for those for whom loneliness becomes chronic. Delistraty’s thesis is self-serving. He goes to Paris seeking a period of solitude and finds himself irritated by a lonely woman who desperately craves someone to talk to. Choosing to isolate one’s self for a period of time—to recharge, to create, to write—is a deliberate, and hopefully productive, act. In The Lonely City, for example, Olivia Laing chronicles her experience being alone in New York City. I read it last year and related to her observations, but at that time I was still grounded by two important people in my life. One year later, both of them are gone.

And loneliness is very hard to bear.

As a loner, I was always careful to balance my tendency to isolate against work that was people focused. When I unexpectedly had to leave my workplace several years ago, I instantly became aware of the void that had developed over years of living closeted, as a man with no past. Unable to work, I sought to find a community where I could be out, be myself, but that seems to be a space that exists most authentically only when I write. In my experience, the LGBT “community”—at least in my age range, in my city—is not as supportive of diversity as one might imagine.

So if it is in writing that I find the freedom to be myself, how to exist beyond the page? Alone?

I will have to find a way to write through, above and beyond this loneliness, I suppose.

And find out where it takes me.

*Photograph by Joseph Schreiber, copyright 2013

The artist as outsider: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

The lonely city is a pervasive phenomenon. The specific city of Olivia Laing’s new essay/memoir of the same name is New York City, but there is something about the modern city – be it the glass towered canyons of the central core or, I would argue, the uniform, ordered expanse of soulless suburbs that breeds a loneliness that can be suffocating. And surely some feel it more acutely than others, but most of us have probably, at least at some time or in some space, been troubled by the longing for contact, the need to share, and the sense that our aching neediness is conspicuous, writ large in awkward desperation. That is the experience Laing sets out to explore, by placing the inward focused isolation of being alone in a foreign city, against the works of a number of artists who, she argues, portray loneliness – capture the sensation, however bleak or beautiful – in a manner that speaks to her, during her sojourn and, in the end, perhaps help her find her way out of her darkness.

lonelyHer previous book, The Trip to Echo Spring, also set in America, was a road trip via the lives of five American authors who battled the bottle, framed against her own experiences growing up in an alcoholic household. I read it with an eye to understanding my adult son, a creative young man who is also an alcoholic. In her new work, the terrain she covers is confined, claustrophobic, but again informed by her own experience, this time of a period spent in New York following the emotionally devastating collapse of a relationship. I read The Lonely City in an urban centre less glamorous but with its own tendency to be unfriendly, at the apex, perhaps, of an extended period of crushing loneliness of my own.

Laing begins her journey through urban alienation with the suggestion, inspired by an entry in the diaries of Virginia Woolf, that there can be a transcendent quality to the experience of loneliness. She seeks to find this idea reflected in the lives and creations of a number of artists whose works draw her in and help her articulate and understand her own loneliness, in the moment, and as it exists within in the context of 21st century technology. She asks:

“What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people, particularly if we don’t find speaking easy? Is sex a cure for loneliness, and if it is, what happens if our body or sexuality is considered deviant or damaged, if we are ill or unblessed with beauty? And is technology helping with these things? Does it draw us closer together, or trap us behind screens?”

As an essayist, Laing has the ability to balance just the right measure of personal exposition and vulnerability, with an uncanny talent for bringing the lives of the individuals that fascinate her into an immediate, sensitive focus. She writes with an honest compassion and curiosity. New York City – reflected through her months of moving between rented or borrowed accommodations, patrolling the streets with a sense of acute isolation, and digging through the archives of artists in search of meaning and treasure – is exposed and stripped bare through the emotionally disenfranchised creative eye. The eyes she choses to look through include Alfred Hitchcock, Valeries Solanas, Nan Goldin, Klaus Nomi, Peter Hujar, Billie Holiday and Jean-Michel Basquiat; but four artists in particular provide perspectives she finds deeply intriguing. They are the realist painter Edward Hopper whose stark images capture the solitary urban existence with an intensity that is poignant and uncomfortable; Andy Warhol, the socially awkward artist who virtually fabricated an identity protected by silkscreen frames, cameras and tape recorders; the unknown Chicago janitor, Henry Darger, who left an extensive, often disturbing, legacy of folk art and thousand of pages of imaginative prose; and, finally, photographer, artist, writer and activist David Wojnarowicz.

Laing weaves her personal reflections with a survey of some of the essential psychological studies of the causes and expressions of loneliness; expanding on these themes against the broad canvas of the lives and artworks of the artists she examines. Her subjects, the key players and the supporting characters alike, tend to be outsiders, typically survivors of troubled childhoods – victims of neglect, rejection, even outright physical abuse. Many are queer, individuals set apart by their sexuality, most find normal conversational communication difficult, and addiction is a common demon that recurs. The art, film and writings produced by these complex individuals is, in many instances, boundary breaking, frequently disturbing, and contain, at their core an attempt to articulate the aloneness of life in the city, to portray the isolated individual within stark interior spaces (as in the haunting paintings of Edward Hopper) or to record the desolate environments where the dispossessed seek to assuage their alienation through drugs and risky anonymous sexual encounters (as in the work of Warhol, Goldin, Wojnarowicz and others). Then there is the janitor/artist Darger, a loner who created a detailed alternate universe, illustrated with playfully coloured paintings that frequently contained elements of disturbing violence enacted on children, leaving an exhaustive wealth of works that no one saw until he was forced into hospital care at the end of his life.

Each of Laing’s outsider artists is treated with an empathetic respect and is understood within a society that is perceived as antagonistic to the those who by virtue of personality, mental illness, social anxiety, gender expression or sexuality are seen as divergent from the “norm”, whatever that is. The artists who seem to hold the greatest appeal for her, as a memoirist, are those who exploit their own differences to challenge the pressures that perpetuate a mainstream conformity. Regarding Wojnarowicz she says:

“All his work was an act of resistance against this dominating force, driven by a desire to contact and inhabit a deeper, wilder mode of being. The best way he’d found to fight was to make public the truths of his own life, to create work that resisted invisibility and silence; the loneliness that comes from having your existence denied, from being written out of history, which after all belongs to the normal and not to the stigmatised.”

As Laing unwraps the nuances of her own engagement with loneliness she finds in herself a profound identification with the gay artists who were navigating the city’s streets in the years before Stonewall, or even worse, during the height of the AIDS epidemic. As the daughter of a lesbian who was outed when homophobia was still legally enforced in the UK, she was especially sensitive to the gay taunts and jeers she heard in the school yard. But the knife cut deeper in an unexpected way:

“It wasn’t just about my mother. I can see myself then, skinny and pale, dressed as a boy, completely incapable of handling the social demands of being at a girl’s school, my own sexuality and sense of gender hopelessly out of kilter with the options then on offer. If I was anything, I was a gay boy; in the wrong place, in the wrong body, in the wrong life.”

These words struck a deep chord with me. Growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s, I found myself in the same space, only more completely if you like. I was haunted by an other-worldliness, a complete sense of my lack of ability to understand, let alone communicate, with those with who apparently shared the same gender. This feeling began to escalate as I reached my mid teens. That was, incidentally, a time when I sought a sense of self-identification with the world personified by Andy Warhol, The Velvet Underground and other denizens of the Factory scene. I was, without any language for myself, grasping at straws. But I would not find the words, or discover that there was a way to ameliorate the crushing sense that I was in the wrong body until I was well into my 30’s. Many years on now I would like to say that being able to exist in the world in a way that is at once socially and emotional right has rendered loneliness a less pervasive force, but, in truth, it just changes the parameters of one’s alienation. At best, I am a loner who appears outgoing, who can readily speak to a room of 100 people but stumbles awkwardly over small talk; at worst I am floored by waves of intense loneliness that break over me when I least expect it, most often when I am in public places.

I have introduced my own experience here because it leads into the curious question of the role of social media in the 21st century experience of isolation. Laing describes how, during her New York stay, she would open and close the day wandering the virtual streets and alleys of the city of Twitter. In between, even more hours could be lost to clicking, conversing, and cruising hashtags. In my loneliest periods I have fallen into the same pattern and asked myself the same questions she poses:

“What did I want? What was I looking for? What was I doing there, hour after hour? Contradictory things. I wanted to know what was going on. I wanted to be stimulated. I wanted to be in contact and I wanted to retain my privacy. I wanted to click and click and click until my synapses exploded, until I was flooded with superfluity.”

The migration of our social engagement to a virtual sphere is, she argues, reflected in the gentrification of our urban communities and in the gentrification of our emotions. Happiness is assumed to be the default; difficult feelings are to be avoided, corrected, numbed. The internet can be a comfort, a necessary connection, but it is important to understand its limitations. It cannot cure loneliness. The answer lies not in another person, but within ones self. After all, a period of loneliness can be positive experience, a time of personal growth. Longing, as Laing reminds us, is a vital part of the human experience, it “does not mean that one has failed, but simply that one is alive.” I am inclined to believe she is right.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone is published by Picador.

Hard to remember when the world had colour

- Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012
– Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012

Granted midwinter in my part of the world is not the best place to find colour in nature. Branches are bare, grass is bunched and brown, snow is patchy and grey. But when I look back over the past year I can see how difficult it has been for me to register any enthusiasm to take my camera out. I walk a lot but I seem to want to stay in my head, maintain a fast pace, measure the rhythm of my boots against the ground. I circle the neighbourhood, walk with purpose on errands, but avoid the pathways and parks I have documented season after season these past few years.

Photography was a diversion, a relaxation and an isolated activity against a busy life at work and home. I would wander forest trails, across grassland parks or along the edges of rivers and lakes, framing and reframing the view and listening to recorded podcasts – discussions about books, philosophy, current events. It was a meandering, escapist pursuit. If I look back I have to wonder what I was escaping and where I had lost the capacity to dream.

Madness, mental illness if you prefer that term, brings back the capacity to dream because all the parameters are changed. For me it has brought words to the foreground but pushed the pictures to the background. Walking has become a means to expel restless energy, drive out the demons of anxiety and despair that keep reaching in. If I want to drown out the city noises I listen to music, the words in my head are my own.

Without being able to return to work at this time, I do feel a certain loneliness. But when I reflect on the years I devoted to a job that I believed validated and defined me, I realize that I was never more isolated than when I was working. Invisibility and an unwillingness to call attention to myself was not a measure of my successful transition. It was denial. To hide the fact that my past contained realities inconsistent with the man everyone knew, I believed I could not afford to allow anyone to get close. I captured colour in the outside world but painted myself with the blandest palatte possible.

A manic episode and all of the reckless behaviour and poor judgment it entails has left me with a professional legacy that I may never be able to salvage. I don’t even know if I want it back. Reclaiming my identity, being comfortable with my own history of sex and gender is a work in progress but I have to trust that it might lead me to a better more authentic place. It might even bring some colour back into my life.

Melancholia

Just before Christmas he returned to church, entertaining the hope that the community of faith, especially one welcoming to all, might help fill the emptiness he carried inside. It almost worked, for a few weeks.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014

After this Sunday’s service he retreated down the stone steps into the shadow of a void that no sermon could fill. It is not the church. It is him. He had hoped that faith might come back, comfort him as once it had when… well I can’t really remember when it last provided respite… but there was a time. He worried now that believing was beyond him. To be denied like other comforts. Perhaps one can only fall away from faith so many times before it is impossible to return.

You can only be lifted if you will yourself to let go, you can only be held if you allow yourself to be touched, you can only be loved if you dare to love first. But once you believe you have rendered yourself unlovable, the stalemate is long and sad and lonely.

I suppose I could say he is depressed and that this will pass. I could also admit that he is me and that there is something more fundamental at work.

A love-hate relationship with a city

The City
         C. P. Cavafy (1910)

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”
 
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.
                   (Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)

My city was new when Alexandria which inspired these words was old but the sentiment  rings across the century, speaking to me.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013

I live in a glass and rock cast stucco bungalow, the kind of finish that will slice your palm if you lose your balance and put a hand out to stop your fall. It sits on a 6500 square foot lot overgrown with 60 foot spruce and spiky hawthorns. The garage stands, roof sagging, without a foundation and no more than a scratch coat for stucco that was never applied, at best a large shed. It is only a matter of time before the sewer line to the street which is already oval shaped, collapses in on itself. After a few years of eager redecorating, projects remain incomplete, even though all the paint and supplies were purchased long ago.

This year my house will be 62 years old, I have lived here for 20 of those years. Due to the location, the lot size and the high property values in this city, it is assessed at a value that shocks me. I have ample equity in this house I own, but no secure income. And you can’t eat equity.

More and more the house is closing in on me. It is filled with the artifacts of 20 years of raising children. And a 25 year-old alcoholic son who seems to have taken root in the basement. After being a single parent for so long, I am done. My career prospects hanging on a thread frayed by mental illness; I feel haunted by the house, the responsibilities that weigh on me, and the fatigue of facing it alone.

And this city is no more a home than it has ever been. Without my job it holds nothing and never has. I love the pathways and wild areas, I love the wide open skies and the mountains on the horizon, the rolling foothills stretching to the west. But the city has no soul, or at least not for me. My relationship with this city, one to which I chose to return at one time, is fraught with complicated anxieties.

It may be my fault. Perhaps I am the one who failed to open up and build connections. But that has never been easy and the more I go out to meet people or attend events, the deeper the loneliness settles in on me the next day. Like it or not, there is a fundamental disconnect between me and this city of glass towers and oil executives.

As I walk these streets I am haunted by the sense that I have wasted so many years here, not certain what I have to show for it, feeling all is lost, fearing that I am, as the intended recipient of Cavafy’s advice, destined grow old in the same neighbourhood, turn grey(er) in the same house.

As the year draws to a close…

At the beginning of 2014 my world was rapidly spinning out of control. There were clear indications that the extreme stress and toxic work environment I was living under was taking its toll. I was clearly struggling to hold myself together but like any good manic depressive I could not step aside and recognize the crisis that was unfolding. No one else in my life had the understanding to step in either and, in all fairness, I am not sure how I would have responded.

Now, at the end of the year, I have been out of the office for six months. My future is unclear. I had loved my work with brain injured adults and their families. It was challenging, rewarding and I was well respected. At least until I went crazy.

As soon as I walked away from my job I realized the price I had paid to build a career from community field worker to manager in less than a dozen years. I had intentionally alienated myself from people. I have always been a person inclined to isolation, shy in a curiously outgoing way. Public speaking does not phase me at all. I could speak to a crowd of 300, riffing on a theme if necessary, but face to face small talk is uncomfortable. The thought of baring my soul to another person in real time, over a coffee perhaps, is almost unbearable. In my life I have made few friends and had only two significant love affairs. And somehow I had managed to convince myself over the past decade or so that in addition to the challenges of raising children on my own, the social interaction provided by my work with hundreds of clients and professional colleagues would suffice. Close friendships and romantic relationships were not required.

I was wrong. But what now? I am in my 50s. I have repressed the very uniqueness of my history, that which had always set me apart. The very queerness of my being in the world. The ostensible and hard won success of fighting to be true to myself in the world was turned to dust in an instant. The road ahead suddenly looked lonely and long…

Slowly I am recovering. Much slower than I expected perhaps, but this unplanned respite has forced me to explore, re-evaluate and reach out. My therapist (thanks Jane) has been an important sounding board. Blogging and making contact with both bipolar and bookish fellow travelers has been vital. It has allowed a space for cathartic dumping. A medium for strengthening my ability to clearly articulate my thoughts and reflections. It has given me confidence to move out into the world closer to home.

Thanks to the fact that I have not been working I was able to volunteer at our writer’s festival and meet writers I admired from around the world, all of whom are in my age range. Financial constraints encouraged me to cancel my TV since I was generally using it as a mindless distraction. Consequently, reading and music have regained the attention they deserve. And when it is not -20C, like it is at the moment, I make a point to get out every day, frequently just to read and write at a local coffee shop.

So here is a song and a haunting video to carry you into the new year. It goes out especially to my brilliant friend of Blahpolar Diaries fame (infamy?) whose typically colourful ode to the therapeutic value music inspired this post.

Solstice to solstice: Reflections on madness, identity and writing

It is winter solstice, exactly six months since I left my job. At the time, a year and a half of toxic work-related stress had taken its toll. Had been taking its toll for months. But by the time I managed to pull enough awareness together to face the harsh reality that the mental illness I imagined to be long stabilized had resurfaced in full manic glory, irretrievable damage had been done.

I left in shame. A shame that can not be absolved. I have been shut out, I have no idea what my relationship with my employer is, or if I have any income going forward. When I can eventually return to work I wonder where I will go. And so I enter the shortest day of the year reflecting on what I have learned and looking ahead.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012

I loved my job. I managed a small agency supporting survivors of acquired brain injury. I worked with a wide range of remarkable people and their families, walking beside them as they struggled to recover and rebuild their lives, to regain independence, to battle their own challenges and demons. It gave me refuge from the demands of single parenthood, provided human and social contact against my tendency to isolate, and confirmed my value as a man. But the price I paid was huge. I believed it was enough in itself and had not imagined it would end.

Suddenly I was tragically alone in the world. My closest friends were far away. In a city of over a million, there was no one I could call. No one to have coffee with, no place to go, no arms to lie in.

How had I managed that? Well temperament in part. But much more critically I began a transition from an externally female existence, to a more true, coherent identity as male at 40. I built my career in social services after that process began.

In transition I did not move from my neighbourhood, I remained actively engaged in ensuring that the schools my children attended were open and diverse, and experienced no rejection from my family. However to create a whole and consistent space in which I could live where no one knew my past, I guarded my history closely at the workplace. Over time I constructed walls, mastered the ambiguous answer whenever asked about my life, and even managed to successfully neuter and closet myself years after originally coming out.

Somehow this practice bled into my engagement with the community. Fourteen years on it came to colour my identity in the world.

This extended time of reflection from solstice to solstice, aided by a wonderful therapist, has been a time of learning to open and reclaim my identity. To understand how trans, gay and queer relate to me. To put it out in the world. To own it and to write it into being.

As the days grow longer I face an uncertain future financially. Yet slowly I feel the fire of anxiety and agitation that have marked this recovery from my breakdown losing some of its intensity. I have been filling notebooks with writing hoping that maybe some gems might emerge, for the sake of catharsis if nothing else.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012

So more than New Year’s Day, solstice holds the resonance of new beginnings for me this year. Happy solstice – winter to those of us in the the north, summer to my friends in South Africa and Australia.