How to be alone: I feel most alive when I’m with my own thoughts

Does the idea of left alone fill you with fright, or seem a luxury? Erica Buist speaks to five people whose lifestyles leave them in splendid isolation

What’s the difference between solitude and loneliness? We may confuse the two because we’ve been developed since we were young to be considered them as the same government. By sending children to their chambers as punishment, we teach them the idea that aloneness is a privation.” It should be a reward ,” tells Sara Maitland, writer of How To Be Alone.” It should be:’ You’ve been so good that now you can go to your room to be by yourself and do anything you like !'”

It’s true that social lonelines is a risky business.” If you look at it epidemiologically, it’s a surprisingly powerful bad thing ,” says Steve Cole, genomics researcher and prof of drug at UCLA in California. His research determined it to be a substantial risk factor influencing whether people get sick and die.” Everything seemed to eat up the body of a lonely person faster .”

But loneliness is simply being alone and not liking it, says Maitland. And while over 9 million adults in Britain say they are often or always lonely, she doesn’t believe we have, as scientists say, a loneliness epidemic.” An epidemic means communicable diseases, which is inaccurate and stigmatising .” Rather, Maitland believes we are ” underskilled ” when it comes to being by ourselves, and “that were” deprived of those skills as children.” Everybody mentions it is natural for the human species to be social ,” she says,” yet we put enormous amounts of endeavor into qualifying our children to be sociable. We tell them,’ don’t combat, say thank you, share your toys … ‘, we send them to playgroup. We’re depriving them of the skills for left alone .”

There is also, tells Maitland,” something weird” about a culture that encourages high self-esteem yet discourages us from spend time with the person we ought to like best. Living in a rural village 70 miles away from the nearest railway station, Maitland mentions people feel sorry for her because she never goes to any parties.” I don’t feel sorry for me. We should be listening to people who enjoy aloneness more, and not presume they’re mad or somehow selfish .”

For some, solitude is the ultimate trophy, the key to happiness. So what’s the artwork of being alone? I asked five people who love nothing more.
Erica Buist

‘I enjoy having the freedom to dream ‘: Sarah Drummond, flame tower policeman, 48, Western Australia

Sarah
Photograph: Nic Duncan for the Guardian

Every weekday morning I clamber Mount Frankland to a tower at the granite peak. There are windows all around and I can see miles and miles of forested mounds- on a clearly defined day, I can see the Stirling Range 145 km away. I use binoculars, or merely my eyes, to spot flames during the bushfire season. When I ensure smoke, I plot it on the map and radio in the coordinates to the agency. They then send out a spotter airplane or a truck to check it out. If it’s serious, they’ll call out the sea bombers.

Hours can pass without seeing anyone. I live alone and when I’m not on lookout, I expend my time writing or reading. I enjoy having the freedom to dreaming. I feel as if I can create worlds in my brain and on paper without interruption- although the space between boredom and panic is fairly small-scale. I make sure to mentally check in on my own thought processes so that I don’t drive myself crazy. I love interacting with people and having meaningful dialogues, so sometimes I fear my social skills are suffering through deficiency of practice.

I like to listen to classical music: it’s thinking music. Occasionally, pals or family will visit me, but unfortunately, after that clamber, they don’t often come back. It’s only about 700 metres, but up steps and ladders most of the route- people are typically gasping by the time they get to the top. I would like a boyfriend, but this lifestyle doesn’t seem conducive to meeting person special.

Sarah
Photograph: Nic Duncan for the Guardian

There are tourists, but they don’t stay longer than 20 minutes. Sometimes I’ll have a chat, but if I’m feeling as if I’m a photo opportunity, I’ll hide. There are highs and lows- apparently people get photographed with their kit off at the top of the mountain is a thing; it’s a moment when I wish I wasn’t holding binoculars.

But nature is my salvation. The mountain and the sea thrum with life. There is a pair of young wedgetail eagles that cruise by the tower every day. Nankeen kestrels slice through clouds of bright orange butterflies. I read the climate constantly, and I’m learning about fire and country. Fowls, animals and trees are all around me.

Sarah Drummond is the author of The Sound, and Salt Story: Of Sea-Dogs And Fisherwomen

‘You need to have some creativity to keep your psyche running ‘: Alexander Kumar, expedition doctor, 34, London and all over the world

Dr
Photograph: Borja Sanchez-Trillo for the Guardian

I work under the umbrella of world health, mostly in low- and middle-income countries. In Ghana, I was assessing telemedicine; before that I was in Vietnam working on hypertension. My next project is still in far north-east of Cambodia, tracking down the contacts of people with leprosy to give them antibiotics as part of an ongoing trial to see if we can eradicate it. It’s very isolating to be an expedition doctor. When I was a student, I lived in the Arctic to do the first piece of HIV research among Inuits. It’s very expensive to live there, so I put an ad in the local paper, and I aimed up living in a lady’s cupboard- there was a mattress on the flooring that I had to move to open the door. I soon got used to a lifestyle where I travelled alone, operating on my own steam.

Later, I invested 11 months in Antarctica for the Concordia mission to Mars. I was working towards understanding the psychology and physiology of mailing humen to and from Mars, utilizing the Arctic and Antarctica in wintertime as a space analog context. It was -8 0F sometimes, and we had three months of darkness. You watch the human mind unzip at the seams. One in 10 people who are in Antarctica over wintertime have a psychiatric illness.

Keeping busy was important. You need to have some creativity to keep your mind going. I do a lot of photography; during the Antarctic winter that was the equivalent of art therapy. I used to wander around outside at 1am taking photograph; candidly, I’ve never been more alone. But I enjoy solitude. I envision I’m so happy in my own company because I was the youngest sibling by four years and I was often left to my own machines. I inherited my dad’s very social, outgoing nature, but I’ve always found that solitude deprives and stretches you in a way that attains you more creative.

Sometimes you can feel more isolated around others than on your own. One of the most lonely experiences I’ve had in my job was at an Ebola treatment centre. My first day in Sierra Leone, I sat across from a woman about my own age, lying flat on a couch, taking her last breaths. As a doctor, you’re trained to think about the person in front of you more than yourself, but I was overwhelmed with sadness. I couldn’t reach out and touch her, yet she was just 2.5 m away. We lost half the ward every night.

The key to being alone is having things to do: a sense of a quest and a purpose. Being alone in your flat with nothing to do is probably more isolating than being in the Antarctic with nobody around for miles.

‘I recharge when I’m alone, and I never get bored ‘: Rathika Ramasamy, wildlife photographer, 47, Chennai, India

Rathika
Photograph: Jyothy Karat for the Guardian

If I’m photographing a tiger, I have to sit on my own, waiting and watching for it to come out of the bush. It could be half an hour, an hour, or several hours. You need a lot of patience. But I desire nature, and I likewise enjoy my own corporation. I’ve always been like that- perhaps because both my mothers run while I was growing up.

When I am in the field, the day starts at about 4.30 am; national park in India typically open around 6am, and I need to be the first person to enter. In some places, there’s no phone connection, so I’m totally cut off. People ever ask me how I cope with investing so much hour on my own, but I adoration it, it relaxes me. I sometimes find being around people depleting. I recharge when I’m alone, and I feel most alive when I’m with my own supposes- and nature.

If I have time in the evenings, I read- it gets my thinker willing to work again. Thinking of new places I can visit or hit maintenances my brain active. I think it’s important to have time away from people and TV and the internet. I never get bored- there’s always books, or my own photo to check.

From October to March I have a very tight schedule. I might get one week in township with family- although after merely 2 week with them all I start to miss my birds and the wood, become restless and want to go out to shoot.

Rathika
Photograph: Jyothy Karat for the Guardian

When I am in township, I have to go through the news to catch up, because when I’m in the field I have no idea what’s going on in the world.

Sometimes it’s been days without talking to anyone at all, though if I have a phone connection I like to call my mother and my husband. If I can hear their voices then I don’t get too homesick. The longest I’ve gone without talking to them is 10 days. That was really hard.

I’ve had so many memorable instants. Once while hitting tigers I arrived across three cubs. It was the first time I had learnt cubs in the same place together without their mother. So I invested half an hour with them and truly seemed a connect. Once, in Tanzania, in the Serengeti national park, I visualized more than 17 lions sleeping like babes in a tree. It was beyond astonishing. I tell I enjoy solitude, but frankly, I never feel genuinely alone: I’m with nature.

‘I don’t really feel lonely, except when I miss my kids ‘: Jordan Farmery, lorry driver, 32, South Ayrshire, Scotland

Jordan
Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

I spend most of my periods driving across Europe by myself in my lorry. I do 11 nighttimes away in a row, and then three nights at home. When I’m driving, I think about family and what I’m planning for my periods off, but I mostly think about the job; where I’m going next. Your concentration’s taken up by driving; you can’t let it slip.

I work for P& C Hamilton, a company based in south-west Scotland. We do European and UK temperature-controlled transport. I carry anything from hanging meat to cleaning products, and project all over Scotland, the UK, France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland and Germany.

I come from a agriculture background, which is a lonely chore as well – you rarely ascertain people. So I’m used to being alone, it’s never bothered me.

In the lorry you can only work for six periods, and then you have to have at least 24 hours off. On my breakings I park up at a truck stop or services somewhere, go for a meal at a inn or a pub and watch the sport, and have my evenings with a tablet I can download TV programmes on to. I try to keep fit by getting a walk in every night, because you don’t get a lot of exercising otherwise, but that’s harder to do in the winter.

I spend my three free periods with my kids: three sons who are 10, eight and four. I also do a bit of DIY like everyone does with the working day off, and I try to get a few pints in the local saloon if I can- but mainly I invest it with their own families. My wife doesn’t seem to mind my work, she’s got used to it. I do at the least a phone call a day. I miss their own children when I’m away, especially after I’ve been home. The first two nights away are especially hard.

Jordan
Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

But I do enjoy my work life. I like driving. I’d likely prefer to have a driving undertaking that got me home at night, but then the money isn’t as good. I wouldn’t say I’m an introvert, I’m fairly sociable, but there are maybe two or three days throughout the fortnight when I merely don’t speak to anybody. I don’t mind that. If I want a chat, I can speak to other motorists when delivering and dropping off. There aren’t many quiet spells when you get two or three drivers together.

I’ve been doing this job for nine months, and at the minute I’d mention I’d like to do this for the rest of “peoples lives”. I’d like to have my own lorry at some degree, if funds allow and I can find the job. I look forward to my phone calls and being home, but I’ve just got totally used to being alone. I don’t really feel lonely, except when I miss my children- but I know I’ll soon be home, so I just look forward to that .

‘Solitude is a privilege. It’s really hard to experience that in the modern world ‘: Ian Williams, highland ranger, 57, San Miguel Island, California, US

Ian
Photograph: Marcella Klein Williams

For 25 times, I was the sole employee on San Miguel Island, the westernmost of the Channel Islands. My stance was law enforcement- we get a little trouble with narcotic smuggling, but mostly people would hunt for relics. There are archaeological sites that are close to 13,000 years old and there’s a lot of exposed prehistoric archaeology. I was there to educate and discourage people from taking things that can’t be replaced. Every day was different, which is probably why I bided at it for so long.

The National Park Service has mandatory retirement at 57 in law enforcement. My 57 th birthday was a few weeks ago, and the latter are gracious enough to let me stay in another capacity. I’m now a security specialist. I’ve got an office cubicle and a desk. It’s a very different environment.

San Miguel is about as remote as you can get here; the mainland is about 25 miles away. I’d fly out on a Tuesday, weather permitting, any other staff would fly back on the plane that fell me off, and I’d work by myself for a week. Some weeks I never ascertained another human being, or even a craft close to shore. I’m not sure I ever felt I had to “cope”- solitude is just a part of being on an island. You accept it. The farther west you go, the rougher the weather gets, and that contributed to the isolation. There were many days and weeks when the weather was never good enough for any barges or airliners to make it out there, so you could be pretty far removed from civilisation a lot of the time. Nature set the terms.

I never seemed totally cut off from other people- even though I was physically cut off, we were still cooperating with each other on programmes and logistics, talking via radio. We could call in the morning and they would check up on us afterwards and make sure we were still alive. When my spouse and I were first dating we had amateur radio licences and would talk in the evenings- it was a party line so everybody else was in on the conversation, but that was the only lane we could keep in touch. Over the years, we got internet connects so we had email, which induced it easier. I satisfied my spouse when I was already working on the island, so being away for a week at a time is the only life we knew. Coming home after being away made us acknowledge being together even more.

If I had spare time it was great for read, or playing music, or merely taking a walking and enjoying the position. I felt the solitude was a real privilege. It’s really hard to truly experience that in the modern world.

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