I’ve been having a hard time being by myself for a few months now. It started out as this sort of weird feeling, an uncharacteristic thirst for human contact.
I haven’t always been this way, either. I remember my junior fall (September – December 2015) as a time when I truly felt at peace being alone, in no one else’s company but my own. I had forced myself in ways to develop a decent rapport with my other selves, and in a way I had begun to embrace parts of my identity I had thoroughly but ineffectively tried to stow away. Nonetheless, as the semester drew to a close, and as my stomach began to knot up around itself, I started to have this sort of weird desire to be around people. It was I suppose when I was in Senegal when I began to become aware of it. Set adrift in a new country ruled by a foreign tongue, I began to find the presence of my American classmates oddly refreshing in contrast to the sensory bombardment all around me. I at first moaned about having to get up every morning at 7:45 in order to make it to school on time, my mind remembering in small the agonies of high school, but I found the subsequent eight hours I would spend at our house-cum-campus nice and comforting. Even if at times I was distant or removed from class, my mind elsewhere, I still found solace in the presence of other Americans, with whom I could speak freely without pre-thinking, without rehearsing a list of cultural and linguistic considerations.
I would not say that I clung to my friends in Dakar, but I would say that the amount of time I spent around them was markedly different from the amount of human contact I had at school the semester prior. I could go a couple of days without spending a large amount (more than a half an hour) with someone, and I was fine with it. I woke up alone, went to lunch alone, went to study alone, and went to bed alone. I had grown accustomed to this routine, and it had been beneficial for my mental health, to such an extent that I began to wonder if I really was this sort of reclusive hermit of a person, the kind who cringed at the touch of a familiar, who found nothing more loathsome than being in a room full of drunk people of their age.
This summer I continued this pattern of surrounding myself with people, only for it to severely backfire. I began to have unpleasant, multiple-day anxiety spells. Anxiety is a strange condition, really; for me, and I can only speak for myself, it is like being rendered completely exposed. To have your entire body visible, not necessarily naked insofar as the body, but just far too capable of being seen. I find that I have a hard time occupying public space, for the presence of other human beings makes me deeply uncomfortable, so much so that I find that I actively flee the touch or gazes of those I love. Walking down the hallway of my dorm, I would turn around at the sound of a door opening, at the interrupted laughter of people or the sound of footsteps scurrying towards a threshold. I cannot look you in the eye, am forced to keep all conversations short, for it feels as if my throat has been wrung dry of all moisture. My stomach tenses up, twists like a key in a lock, as I attempt to will from my diaphragm the words to say “hello” to someone in passing, or to order something to eat. My subconscious behavior seems to change completely in response to being anxious, as well. I would force myself to go to the gym to sweat out the negative energy. I would sit by myself, not only because in that state I cannot stand the presence of other people, but because I feel almost as if I need to recover from something, to allow my psyche to heal from a wound I don’t remember getting. I will barely eat and when I do, it is usually in the form of a sort of “punishment,” cooking or preparing “healthier” foods – greens, light soups, salads, rice & beans – and eat small portions, all in the name of “recovery.” I find it difficult to even think about eating unhealthily in this state, and the smells of foods which I normally would crave can turn my stomach, like a hangover.
I know I sound quite bizarre in this description, but what I am attempting to show you is that there seems to be a relationship between the presence of people and my mental health. It seems, at least to me and my therapist, that my emotions are connected to other people, to the point that the process of adopting their suffering as my own is enough to trigger “sympathy anxiety,” and my brain, unable to differentiate its traumas, treats the suffering of someone else as its own. At the same time, I also became aware of the subtle narratives behind my interactions with people in ways that I wasn’t able to articulate until just before they became disturbingly apparent. This I can discuss at another time, but I liken it to a form of sensory perception. Picking up on “emotional energies” and the like.
I am attracted to emotional bonds. It is my modus operandi in most social interactions. I find that I have a number of acquaintances, not because I am afraid of making more friends, but because my friendships are thoroughly involved emotionally. I invented a nice little word to describe my mentality, panthemophilia, (an attraction to suffering), but now I think it is more of a quasi-benign form of sadism. I do not necessarily cause suffering (intentionally) for the people around me, but I find that my friendships are sustained by the shared negative energy produced by the individual instances of pain and sorrow which constitute everyday life. The act of expelling negative energy into the atmosphere, or better yet, onto someone else, in the form of a confession, is in a way empowering, but it is also sadistic. It very easily lends itself to nosiness, but also to the seeding of sorrow into the lives of others so as to “get your fill.” I suppose the reason for this developing is because 1) I had no one to talk to growing up, and so I internalized my issues until I got to college, when I finally met people willing to listen, and therefore expelled all my life’s foul laundry and feel empty now, having very few secrets of my own anymore 2) in college I began to develop relationships which were markedly stronger than the ones I had created through high school, and therefore I was more predisposed to being a confidant 3) I start to romance this disturbing thought-process that human beings can save one another, and that the right person can come in and fix your life for you, so long as you willing to let them do it. Needless to say, my freshman and sophomore years were the deepest valleys of my emotional development, mostly because I was trying to manage my emotions and those of the people around me in ways which were unfair to everyone. And so my junior year, I kept fast to myself, began to put my house back together – or better yet, to finish building a house long covered in psychological scaffolding – only to be sent backwards in the process for reasons I still don’t know.
The past two weeks have been strange. I call the sort of waiting that happens at the beginning of each year a process of “normalization.” Time drags by and there is too much of it in the day. There are too many days in the week, and too many weeks in a month. The time after and between classes seems interminable, for there isn’t much yet to be done, or things to worry about. I find that in this interim I seek out my friends to waste the time with, only for this sickness to begin to mount again as a dull ache in my stomach, as a singularity of pain behind my eye, or as the gathering of storm clouds inside my skull. I find that I at times feel as if I am being drawn in this and that way by multiple opposing forces in my life. I don’t know what the forces are, for they are perhaps so important to the fabric of my own worldview that I have learned to unsee them, or better yet, to never question that what it is I am seeing or perceiving is anything at all. That is why I refer to myself – in a psychic sense – as constituted of several different entities, all of which must find, despite grave difficulty, some way of existing with one another. The caretaker, the philosopher, the brat, the enabler, the moral paragon, the conformist, the recluse, the scholar, the artist, the craven, the socialite, the subversive, the weirdo ; a real tableau of different Xaviers, each possessing his own understanding of “how things are,” each seeking to seize the reins of my (central) consciousness. My life is the composite image produced by the entire troop of funhouse mirrors, a harmony of dissonant voices singing ten different songs.
This year I want to make more friends, sure, but I also want to learn to be my own person again, to take solace in my own company. I do not believe so much in the idea that we are made to be with certain people, for we were born alone, and will die alone. The presence of others, while pleasant and necessary to our survival as both a species and a civilization, cannot be the modus through which we find happiness. In the absence of others, in the faraway hotel room, in the guest bedroom of a family friend, on the alt rock-soundtrack’d trip home on public transportation, we find ourselves untethered from the reality of others, and must, in those moments, find a way of enjoying solitude not as a punishment, but as its own form of social engagement.
We cannot try to fit ourselves into the minds of others, we cannot will open the locked doors of our loved ones’ lives. In our minds, we are completely and utterly alone.
And that’s okay.
Featured art: Faith Ringgold, The Black Light Series: Big Black