In Praise of Solitude
By JoWynn Johns
Note: Before becoming disabled with CFIDS in 1993, JoWynn Johns had developed a management consulting business following 25 years as a corporate executive. She is a graduate of the CFIDS Self-Help course.
Many people with CFS and fibromyalgia suffer from social isolation, from loneliness, and from just no longer being out in the world as much. Our culture teaches us that "real life" is active, involved life, the extroverted life. We're taught that people who enjoy being alone are somehow a little abnormal. That makes it all the more difficult for people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or fibromyalgia to accept the fact that we have to spend more time by ourselves than we want to.
All my life I felt that I didn't have enough time by myself. Yet I resisted doing anything about it until CFS forced me into seclusion. After two years of soldiering on with worsening symptoms for which neither my doctor nor the psychotherapist to whom she referred me could find any cause or remedy, I was forced to stop working. I thought that maybe a year off, practicing meditation in a quiet place, would relieve the overwhelming debilitation and bizarre symptoms. Ten years later, though, I still have CFS and I'm still living mainly in seclusion.
A Forced Decision
Initially I was very conflicted about choosing solitude. On the one hand, I believed I needed to do so to get well and, sick as I was, I really wanted to get away from the stress of all my responsibilities. But on the other hand, I had no proof and no professional advice that going into retreat would restore my health. I felt guilty about being absent, maybe without justification, from family, friends, associates and clients who counted on me. I felt somehow that it was wrong for me to want to be alone. Moreover, I knew that I would miss my loved ones, especially grandchildren, and I was afraid they would no longer need me or feel that I was important to them. Frankly, I feared becoming Nobody and being forgotten. While I needed and wanted solitude, at the same time I questioned my right to withdraw from my world, and I feared the consequences.
Thus, I did not embrace solitude whole-heartedly at first. Over time, however, I came to love it. And it's a good thing that I did, because my disordered, malfunctioning autonomic nervous system and depleted adrenal glands require it. Initially, I was so disabled by CFS that I was completely housebound and had almost no contact with anyone other than my husband. Since 1999 I have been receiving naturopathic treatment that has increased my functionality and made it possible for me to be out and about and to visit with family and friends. When I exceed my limits and symptoms return, I recover more quickly now than before. Thus, I am no longer as isolated as I was for several years. To feel my best, however, I still must limit my exposure to "the world."
And I have come to welcome the blessings of solitude.
The Gifts of Solitude
First is freedom. For me solitude brings freedom from the needs, demands, and expectations of other people. Because I have a strong will to do what I want, it's not easy for me to accommodate others. Solitude frees me from having to do so. Not having to take care of, pay attention to, or adjust myself to others, I can do as I please! Within the limits set by CFS, of course.
Second, solitude is the prerequisite for those activities I can pursue--reading, studying, thinking, writing, needlework, and meditating. In my over-active lifestyle before CFS, I didn't realize how much I missed intellectual, spiritual, and creative work. Enjoying my career and family life and the rewards they brought me --recognition, a sense of competence and accomplishment, appreciation, good income, and many pleasures-- I had a rich, full life that I didn't want to give up. By forcing me into solitude and inactivity, CFS has given me the opportunity to find out how starved my soul was. I am by nature a contemplative, introverted type who may need more time alone than others do.
Third, solitude has brought me a new intimacy with myself--my physical-mental-spiritual self. Besides recognizing my contemplative nature, I've become acquainted with my body, its processes and systems, its needs and signals. I have learned to pay attention to it, to befriend my body, poor workhorse, and to take care of it. In doing so I'm becoming more compassionate, more aware of the physical suffering of others, and more patient.
Through meditation practice in solitude, I've seen how my mind works, how it fools me with baseless thoughts that I mistake for reality, how its conditioned and conventional views lead to habitual responses, automatic attitudes and behaviors, and needless suffering.
By becoming more aware of my spirit, I've realized that I'm not just the separate body-mind personality I think of as myself. I'm also radically, wholly, immersed in all that is, totally integrated with the universe, partaking of the energy that vitalizes everything. Through my spirit, I am in constant communion with the Source; I'm not alone, not separate. My little self, though a unique and precious individual being, is also at-one with Spirit. I've found in solitude a me with whom I was scarcely acquainted in my previous life.
My relationship with my beloved husband has also become deeper and closer. Because we spend most of our time alone, separately, I enjoy togetherness as I couldn't when my life was so busy. I appreciate our bond more than ever.
Even though I have always been a lover of the arts, in solitude I've developed a more profound appreciation of them. I respond more wholeheartedly to familiar and new literature; to the pictures, wood carvings, and pottery in my room; to the prints, photographs, reproductions of paintings, and needle art I study in books and journals; to music, coming to me through broadcast and recordings; and to plays, films, and dance seen on mail-rental videos. Experiencing these works alone, without distraction, I find they touch me more deeply, transforming my way of seeing and inspiring my imagination.
My senses, too, have become sharper and clearer. It's as though a film has been removed so that I touch, taste, hear, see, and smell with greater acuity and vividness. The lustrous silky feel of my new satin bra, the succulent deep-red flavor of local tomatoes, the faint sound of doves cooing at 5:30 in the morning, the shades of gray in a stormy sky, the "eat-me, eat-me" aroma of onions sautéing sweetly in olive oil--these sensations fill me with wonder. It's not that I didn't appreciate them before, but that in solitude the pleasure is more intense.
In solitude the non-human world speaks to me, and I now hear it. Air with its clarity or haziness, stillness or motion; water streaming in rain down my window pane; trees into which I look through my windows; flowers in the courtyard and houseplants in my room; birds alighting on the ledge outside my sixth-floor window--all are eloquent, full of meaning, ever interesting.
Things made by people, as well as natural phenomena, capture my attention: the faucet at my kitchen sink reliably delivering drinkable water; the ergonomic recliner supporting me in comfort; the computer, telephone, and postal service connecting me with the world. I am awestruck by these wonders of human ingenuity.
Seeing Myself as Others See Me
Another gift of solitude: becoming acquainted with my shadow. As I lie awake for hours every night, unwanted memories of my past life arise repeatedly. I see myself being overly aggressive, insensitive, arrogant, much too sure of my ideas and views. I cringe with embarrassment at my way of interrupting others, talking over them to make my point; attracting attention to myself; ingratiating myself with powerful people; seizing opportunities to promote myself. I weep with regret over my ignorant actions and thoughtless failures to act. I am humbled, as I acknowledge these disagreeable, unlovable qualities. With this view of myself, so contrary to my usual high self-esteem, I wonder that people care for me and like my company anyhow.
Finally, to my amazement, in solitude I've found a creativity I never suspected. Before CFS, I was an organizer, entrepreneur, manager, and consultant. I was proud of my productivity, of how much I could get done. In the solitary, slowed-down life CFS has forced on me, I have found the joy of needle art, designing and stitching original work. I have become a creator. Once a woman who made things happen, now I'm a woman who makes things, slowly, one stitch at a time.
My life in solitude is a rich life, blessed with gifts of wonder, humility, gratitude, sensual pleasure, a new sense of me, a more profound partnership with my husband, a stronger consciousness of belonging to the Whole, and of my own creativity. More awake and aware, I experience everything--even taking a shower--more deeply. While it's true that my outward life is much less than it was before CFS --less mobile, less involved, less varied-- my inner life is much more --more full of meaning, more intensely felt, more deeply satisfying. In solitude, I have Life more abundant. Amazing!
No longer missing the identity I once had, no longer afraid of being invisible, no longer driven to accomplish anything, I am content. What I long thought I wanted, more time by myself, is exactly what I needed. I have been transformed by CFS and I am grateful for it.