Is it wrong to say I kinda like this?

In the 7th post in our series #NSUNCovidLife, Rai Waddingham thinks about the impact of enforced solitude when she’s spent the last 20 years trying to create connections.

Is it wrong to say I kinda like this?
Thinking about the impact of enforced solitude when I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to create connections

Is it wrong to say I kinda like this?
This is Grief, by Rai Waddingham

I am a little nervous about saying this out loud, but there is something in this time of social distancing and lockdown that feels comfortingly familiar. Over the years I’ve spent vast swathes of time indoors, avoiding contact with the outside world wherever possible. At times I’ve lived with heaps of unopened mail, an unplugged phone and a congested inbox. My default setting is one of withdrawal, drawing a protective screen around myself so insulating that even seeing a voicemail on my phone feels like a jarring intrusion. In recent years, though, things have changed. So much so that those who don’t know me very well often assume I’m confident, extraverted and fully comfortable on stage and being out there in the world. I am all of those things, and yet I am not. I am also incredibly insular, craving solitude and space. Like many of us I am a contradiction. I live in multiple worlds. In one breath I’m talking with my CPN about my difficulties leaving the house, and in the next I’m telling her about my upcoming work trip. I’m a dialogic practitioner – my work is all about human connection – yet I struggle to answer the phone and my inbox is bulging with unopened emails.

Since the early days of lockdown, I’ve been struck by the ingenuity and creativity of people to establish connections with each other. From the safety of my home I almost imagine the world to be full of people who are making that special effort to reach out to friends, family and allies – having skype parties, google hangouts and chatting with neighbours over the fences. People who relish the ‘clap for the NHS’ moment for the opportunity to look at their community, wave and experience a sense of solidarity. Hell, I’ve even heard people say that this is the most connected they’ve felt in years. On Social Media the sheer number of lists sharing snapshots from people’s personal lives gives me the impression that many of us are creating connections wherever we can find them. Yet, in some ways I’ve been left feeling like a voyeur. I’m on the outside, looking in. I don’t feel this drive to connect, to reach out. I’ve been retreating to a more comfortable space … one where the distance between me and the world is wider. It’s not lonely – quite the opposite. I feel strangely at peace. The only nudge I feel to this is my internal battle to turn up to the Zoom/skype calls I’ve got booked in and not cut my ties altogether.

Am I antisocial? Do I have no heart? These are difficult times, I know, and traumatic for so many. Yet here I am, feeling calm and comforted in so many ways. Occasionally I feel a stab of guilt – like I’m somehow doing this lockdown wrong. Then, a few days ago, it hit me. My life has, in some ways, become much easier of late. Being a sociable anti-social who loves to connect yet relishes solitude, is ever-vigilant yet constantly sticks her head above the parapet and feel likes a fraud yet makes a name out of being open – it’s exhausting. I’m constantly, on some level, pushing against my default setting. I’ve been doing this so long that it’s as if there are two of me (I say that as someone who identifies as multiple … and in this sense I means two of ‘me’, I am not referencing my parts or voices). It’s as if I’ve been doing my best to push the solitude loving me into a tiny box marked ‘retirement’ and given the pro-active sociable me free reign to get out there and make things happen. Of course, stuffing oneself in a box is rarely a good idea … and therein lies the rub. Since having a baby I’ve struggled even more with my version of madness as the spaces I allow my solitude-loving self to reside in are growing ever smaller.

This period of lockdown has given me the space to look at that. As the ‘get stuff down’ side of me has had her wings clipped and been borderline obsessed with reading news feeds, articles and trying to find a way of being useful – the part of me that relishes the space has come out to play. In my first draft of this I wasn’t so complimentary about that part, but the more I think about it the more I remember it as a welcome friend. Years ago I was stuck inside my own messy and destructive madness. I was tormented. Then, when I was on high doses of medication, my madness quietened and left this vacuum. An empty space. An inertia. I had no responsibilities (other than feeding my cat). No-one expected anything from me other than life-long institutionalisation. The days, weeks and years passed in a blur.  It broke when I began to open up and let the world in a little – the women’s mental health group, the Hearing Voices Group, friends, partners, karaoke. These connections carried me away from my safe isolation and brought with them so much complexity and responsibility that at times I felt like I was drowning. Step by step I acclimatised. It got easier. Yet, I equated these social connections and roles as evidence of being OK in the world … and spent more time strengthening those muscles rather than valuing my ability to be alone.

I don’t regret opening up. OK, sometimes I do – but that’s another story for another day. What’s been interesting in this lockdown is that I’m having a go at letting both worlds run in parallel. I am relishing my solitude yet had a google hangout with my husband’s friends and really enjoyed seeing them all. It was like nectar for something that I didn’t know I was missing. I really really don’t feel like organising things, yet I’ve got a fundraising campaign up and running for the National Hearing Voices Network (the charity I’m chair of) and am coordinating a film night. Half an hour before it starts I will, I am sure, be listing all the reasons I should cancel it or pass it on to someone else. Rather than push that down, I will listen to it and recognise being out in the world sucks (even virtually) and that people can be horrible … and hope that perhaps there will be some people who will be kind, generous and accept the shambolic imperfections I am sure it will have. Yeah, I would prefer to be in my bubble – but that would mean stuffing the other part of me in a box and we already know that doesn’t work.

Activism, community organising, survivor-led whatevering … these are often synonymous with burnout, pushing ourselves too far and trying to fill a whole that is an open wound in the fabric of society that we simply can’t tune out or turn off. I know I can so easily yo-yo between periods of connection and hiding … productivity and inertia. Finding a balance is an ongoing conversation, and one I am not sure is possible for me to resolve. Someone today mentioned radical freedom … a concept I’m struggling to grasp seeing as so much of my life is about responsibility; to those who helped me get through the worst times, to those who are still struggling; to my loved ones; to the opportunities; to do something with this life I still have (despite my best efforts); to the people that we have, individually and collectively, lost. This responsibility is part of the fire that gives me a mission. It drives me forward. Yet it also creates a trap that eventually paralyses me. I am guessing that radical freedom, for me, might be loosening some of those cords. Relishing periods of isolation and not expecting so much of myself all the time. Seriously, if I can have a personal crisis and not turn it into an opportunity to wider learning or a reflective piece – that’d be a sign I’m getting there. Typically, in writing this piece I’m showing very visibly that I still have a long way to go.

Thanks for listening to me think out loud. I’m wondering if there are others who relate to this, or whether this experience of lockdown is different for us all. In my next piece I’ll be looking at the impact of living through a pandemic as on my beliefs (which tend to centre on toxicity, contagion and feelings of shame – so, as you might imagine, Covid-19 is a smorgasbord of eeks). So, whilst I’m loving the solitude there are definitely aspects of my experience which are anything but simple.