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Some Thoughts on Solitude

by on April 29, 2021

“Over the years his wife had come to understand and accept his strange ways; above all, his intense need to be alone.  At first she thought this was rejection of her.  Perhaps another woman.  But after a time she came to know, if not understand, that the ‘other woman’ was a quest for wholeness, a holy grail, a journey which could only be traveled alone.  In fact, she saw him quickly develop the ability to be very appealing to crowds of students and colleagues, but close only to a handful.  Even in that closeness, he was to everyone, alone.  Not unkindly so.  Just alone.”

Marco M. Pardi

“Reflections” 

(Death: An Anthropological Perspective, 1973, University Press of America)

Note:  The aforementioned passage is from a treasured short story the author wrote, which is also available on this site.  My own ideas regarding solitude and the need thereof do not necessarily reflect the author’s needs and feelings.  As we know, every human being is different.  Since I have mentioned this beautiful and meaningful story, I do hope readers will take the time to visit it as well.  I promise you will not be disappointed:

A few weeks ago a friend and also one family member called me reclusive.  I haven’t known this friend very long; in fact, it’s been just over one year since we met.  They seemed to mean well.  But, as they opened a discussion about my “reclusive” ways, I determined the accusation was probably out of loneliness, not out of concern for my well-being.  I don’t blame them for feeling lonely or desiring my company, but I do wish they would listen to what I need, and accept who I am. 

When we met, I warned them that I require a lot of time alone, and that I’m also not one to talk on the phone very often.  I typically prefer quieter methods of communication such as email or text messaging.  I urged them “never to take this personally” because I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings.  Yet recently I’ve decided much of my life has seemingly been spent trying to prevent hurting feelings, while rarely caring for my own.  And it seems I can no longer do that at the expense of my own emotional and physical health, particularly since I have knowledge about myself in the past two years that I never before possessed.  Knowledge is power, and today I’m on a quest to use that knowledge to my benefit.  Sadly, I’m still encountering the same obstacles I always have before, even from those who seem to know me well.

Not only do I need a large degree of solitude, but I also seem to require more quiet than most everyone else I know.  I cannot change this about myself.  It’s founded in a disorder I’ve lived with all my life – ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder).  I should note that when I write about ASD it is purely from my own perspective because all human beings are so different, even Autistic humans.  ASD is a spectrum never to be viewed in a linear or black/white manner, but more as a wheel of traits, challenges and symptoms from which to pick and choose.  Further, some days I am entirely different from the person I was the day before.  This must surely confuse others, because for decades it absolutely confused even me.  Who I am can even change from moment to moment due to external stimuli, particularly given how specific stimuli might currently be affecting my neurological system.  

While my friend’s “observation” didn’t seem to be intentionally cruel, in my world, words do hurt.  For most of my life related and hurtful words about me have run the gamut.  Bitchy. Anti-social.  Self-centered.  Stand-offish.  Loner.  Recluse.  Hermit.  And this:  “Why are you so quiet?”  

Sometimes it seems I can’t win.  My default setting is “Mostly Quiet,” although my elementary school records show otherwise.  My teachers wrote comments in my report cards that wound me to this day, “Dana needs to find more appropriate times to do her visiting.”  What could be a more appropriate avenue for visiting with others than in a classroom?  The words especially hurt because I always viewed my teachers as demigods, the people who knew all the answers to life and could unlock those answers for me.  Yet even as a gifted student tested for “skipping a grade” in the 1970s, I had glaring social deficits that I will carry the rest of my life.  Thankfully grade skipping wasn’t approved, probably because of these social deficits. I would have found myself in a more dire situation than I was before with children my own age.

Naturally I do not have those deficits when I’m alone.  Not only that, solitude for me means much-needed quiet.  Quiet helps me to survive in a world that for the most part feels completely alien to me.  The most challenging of my Autistic traits, the ones that hurt me neurologically and emotionally are caused by other human beings.  I don’t fault them, because there is no possible way for others to know what upsets my system the most, when even I’m just learning what those things are after decades of masking who I am.   

Reflecting on my teachers’ comments, I do feel they meant well.  Further, I was generally well-liked by them, even though I was often bullied by the other children, mostly from 4th through 6th grades.  Although I’ve blocked out large portions of my childhood due to excessive trauma, I’m still innately the same human being.  When I do unearth myself from solitude, it always feels I’m being punished for personality traits I cannot help, such as oversharing or “talking too much.”  Human beings confuse the hell out of me, and sadly, those assigned biologically female are the most confusing of all due to their complex social structure. So when I finally do have a female friend, which is rare, I wind up being more confused than ever by their needs and expectations.  

While the passage from “Reflections” is not meant to speak on behalf of the author, I can certainly relate.  I’ve been advised my entire life to “spend more time with people.”  Early in my teenage years I would eavesdrop on my parents’ conversations about me, and I would hear them discussing the amount of time I spent alone in my bedroom.  They meant well; they simply didn’t understand who I am and what I need, and how could they?  Even I didn’t know what and who that was until recently.  

But perhaps more than words hurting, the absence of active listening in others can be really frustrating.  As an Autistic person with some additional needs, I’m finally learning to advocate on my own behalf regarding what those critical needs are.  And the two things I need above all else are pretty simple:  solitude and quiet.  Why should I have to fight so hard for the things that help me the most?  I’m trying to define my needs and clearly state them, yet I’m still encountering the same opposition I was before my ASD diagnosis in 2019.  

We can never actually “understand” another person.  I never gave the concept of understanding others much thought until I set foot in a college classroom with the author of this site.  And it makes so much sense now that I’ve had the opportunity to give “understanding” others the thought it deserves.  However, even though we can’t really understand what another is feeling or thinking, there is always room for improvement in our active listening skills.  Hearing and listening are entirely different concepts, and to some I would like to say, “You might have heard what I said, but are you really listening to me?”  

I’m not angry at anyone for accusing me of being reclusive.  Yet admittedly I’m writing this from a place of frustration.  Frustration with myself for feeling I’ve yet again failed to communicate my needs adequately, and some frustration toward others for ignoring my requests altogether.  For me, solitude and quiet mean time to think, reflect, create, regroup, and recharge (among other benefits).  We live in a world where it seems perfectly acceptable for the most talented artists to escape into solitude to be creative and produce the art we all enjoy.  That includes all mediums, even music.  

So why isn’t it acceptable for people living with a challenging disability, ASD, to escape in an effort to heal their system and recharge their batteries?  When I’m ready, I’ll spend time with you.  When I’m not ready, spending time with you may add to the buildup of triggers and sensory overload that may lead to a meltdown.  Meltdowns are no fun and can sometimes hurt everyone involved.  Once they begin, they cannot be stopped.  Meltdowns must instead be prevented, which requires a lot of effort in determining just what the triggers are.  That last human expectation or behavior may indeed be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

So if someone tells you they really need time alone, please respect their request even if you miss having contact with them.  The request may be out of self-preservation, and it might even help someone survive and thrive.  Even if those ways might seem foreign and even weird to you, that person may also be seeking acceptance.  True friendship means not merely tolerating other people’s requests, but accepting and even encouraging them.  

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6 Comments
  1. This is so insightful and complete I hardly know what to say. I realize that some readers may sit back and ask, What does this have to do with me? To them I would suggest they direct that question inward, not outward. They might well find that they, irrespective of whether they are also ASD, have been distracting themselves with externals to the complete loss of understanding who they really are. We are too often encouraged to do just that. Can’t buy a car unless it contains a media center. Can’t sit down in the house without turning on the television.

    On a trip I had dinner with a woman who provided me with such detail about her work I told her I felt I could step in for her at any time. Then I said, But you have told me nothing about you. She appeared shocked. She said no one had ever directly asked her about herself. For the next half hour she seemed to work hard to find things about herself to say. Perhaps she gained some self understanding in the process.

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    • Dana permalink

      Marco, thank you not only for your reply, but also for encouraging me to write and express my feelings and thoughts through this site. Working through the feelings helps me tremendously. In turn, this may help me interact more productively and compassionately with others.

      As for the woman with whom you had dinner, I have known countless people like that. They seem to discuss anything outside of who they really are, which makes socialization almost impossible for me. If I’m going to put aside much-needed alone time for others, I need to know who they are and what they need, not what they ate for breakfast or whether or not they’re enjoying a rainy day. So-called “small talk” is something I do with people I already know intimately. Otherwise it is completely exhausting and feels like a waste of my time and energy.

      It is really difficult for me to relate to people who never spend any time alone. I know one person who works full-time and even quite a bit of overtime, and then they spend every spare second with their romantic partner. It is no wonder they’re experiencing some alarming relationship difficulties, but neither is ready to implement my suggestions for productive and needed time apart. Even extroverted, actively social people probably need time alone. I’ve observed solitude in other social animals such as dogs. The two senior dogs in my care today are often literally joined at the hip, but other times they nap and exist in solitude separate from one another in completely different rooms and away from humans.

      It seems by my observation those who seldom discuss their true selves spend the most time immersed in noise and staring at screens. Perhaps it’s an effort to escape their thoughts, but it can make meaningful engaging all the more difficult for me. And in order for me to listen effectively, I cannot be distracted by unnecessary, intrusive external stimuli. That’s one reason I’ve been forced to leave jobs where there is too much noise; I cannot hear myself think and I can’t actively listen to others. “Mute” buttons and volume controls are some of my best socialization tools, and I wish others viewed them the same say.

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      • Dear Dana, I’m listening. You and I are more alike than you know. While I expect your “symptoms” are more severe than my own, I also suffer from “too much input”. More than anything, I need quiet and solitude. I’ve worn a social mask for most of my life, sometimes leaving me to wonder who I really am. Who I am is your friend. Rose

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        • Dana permalink

          Thank you, Rose. I’m confident you’re listening, and that goes both ways. To an extent everyone must wear a social mask of sorts. But for me as an ASD person, I wear so many that I have no who I am so much of the time. This is from decades of mimicking other people (mostly girls and women, in an effort to fit in), and from masking who I really am.

          Today I constantly remind myself, “You’re who you are before society tried to change you, so return to who you remember being at around four or five years old.” For at least forty years I’ve been buried under a pile of masks that look like other people. This can mean many things, even uncomfortably laughing at a joke I find truly offensive. Since I learned over the years speaking my mind wasn’t acceptable socially (being blunt is a very common ASD trait), I instead did what others do, so I wouldn’t be ostracized.

          You can imagine the cognitive dissonance this creates in a more “aware” individual; for me it produces defeating feelings that I’m the world’s worst hypocrite. When all along I’ve really just been trying to survive like an alien suddenly dropped on Planet Earth. That’s exactly what I feel like when I’m around many people of my own species.

          I’m so very glad you’re my friend; I can’t thank you enough or properly express what that means to me. In my elementary school years I had very few real friends but I did have some “pen pals” from all over the world – other children I had never met face-to-face. Isn’t that interesting? It feels eerily similar………

          But I do wish we could sing karaoke together, too. Who knows – maybe one day we will.

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          • I’ve been wearing social masks since elementary school, so much so that wearing fabric ones now feels almost like a relief. I can stick out my tongue at people without them knowing it LOL. My current “friends” think my bluntness is amusing, and I love to make them laugh with (not at) me.

            Singing karaoke with you has been a fantasy for me ever since I knew you also indulge. Do you think we’ll need earplugs to block out the noised? After all, we can’t all be divas (again LOL).

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            • Dana permalink

              Hi Rose! Somehow I missed this comment. Sometimes I’m also relieved I can hide behind a mask, although at my last job I also had to wear yellow sunglasses indoors to block out painful fluorescent light. Foggy glasses are the worst! But, sometimes the air of mystery is a relief when I just don’t feel like smiling at the world or engaging with humans. In fact, I have a T-shirt given to me by my daughter that reads, “No, YOU smile.” It does have a happy face printed on it, and “smile” is the mouth. Very clever.

              By the way, if I’m enjoying myself and the music is what I appreciate, I don’t need to block noise. One of my favorite genres of music is progressive metal. People on the Spectrum get asked how they’re able to listen to electric guitars and percussion. My answer is: I like it; I chose it, and sometimes I need the intensity of metal music. It can actually help reset my nervous system, releasing the chaos within from sensory and social overload.

              We would definitely have a marvelous time singing karaoke. Even if it never happens, I can still imagine how much fun it would be.

              Like

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