I Don’t Need Meditation Apps. I Need Real, Genuine Solitude.
I’m losing it. My parents’ house, where I live, feels stuffed with people. People and noise. People in need. My mother is asking me to sit with her — she gets out of bed late these days, a victim of COPD and mild dementia — but I’m on deadline for a big story. My father, at 86 healthier than my mom but nearly deaf, is hollering up the stairs to me about something. That’s how we communicate now, by yelling, usually over a blaring TV turned to the news, which I can’t bring myself to watch. The phone starts ringing. At the same time, the caregiver emerges from Mom’s room with a question for me.
I’ve just walked in the door from running errands — I haven’t even taken my coat off yet. Telling everyone I’ll be out in a minute, I slip into my room, although the walls provide little relief from the din. My blood pressure has got to be soaring. I love my parents so much. But at 52 and single, the stress of trying to care for them and keep my freelance journalism career going, while living virtually without privacy, is overwhelming. I sit down and ask on Facebook, “Do you ever wish you could disappear to a cabin all by yourself, deep in the woods?”
The responses I receive shock me. Dozens and dozens of friends comment on my post over the next few hours. Almost all are women, and almost all of their replies are a variation of “Hell, yes I do.”
I’d thought there was something wrong me with for craving solitude and silence so much I dream of running far, far away to get it. Curious, I began to reach out to the friends who responded to my post, asking if they ever manage to find any peace and quiet in their daily lives, and if so, where? How? Baltimore, Maryland resident Carolyn Turgeon, 47, who somehow manages to juggle writing novels and non-fiction books while editing Enchanted Living tells me she’s discovered silence, and a strange measure of solitude, at the local pool.
“I try to swim every day, wherever I am, and I find myself looking so forward to that one hour when I’m in the water,” she says. “I was visiting a friend in Omaha recently and went to the pool at his gym and there was a sign ‘You Shall Not Swim Alone,’ and even though I understood what it meant I couldn’t help but laugh. How do you not swim alone? It’s such a lonesome activity, even if every lane around you is filled with swimmers. It’s silent, magical, just your body moving through the water, the only sound the gurgle of water, that splash of your arm breaking the surface. It’s such a powerful escape.”
My buddy Lindsey Keesling Hoffart, 36, is just as busy as Carolyn. An eighth-grade language arts teacher and mom to six kids in Yakima, Washington, she’s also working on a master’s degree in sociolinguistics. “My husband is super at helping out with the housework and spending time with the kids,” she explains to me, “but I have to have moments of quiet where there are no demands on me or I really do completely lose my mind … I shut the door between classes and try to do some yoga breathing in those three minutes and often turn off the lights for the first five minutes of lunch to let me brain reset. But there have been times with deadlines looming when I’ve had to go way more extreme. Once I got a super cheap motel for a weekend so I could have a few days uninterrupted.”
Curious about what I’ve been hearing, I started to do a little digging. I discovered that while many studies warn against the disastrous effects of loneliness — a very different state than being alone — there is also plenty of scientific research supporting the benefits of choosing to spend time solo and in silence. I found article after article on news sites, in medical journals, and from opinion columns trumpeting the ability of peace and quiet to relieve stress and depression, power up creativity, empathy, and productivity and even increase overall happiness.
As I continued chatting with my friends, women raising kids and working long hours and going back to school and caring for their aging parents, I began to see a pattern. They make time — whatever little bit they can in between all their duties — for silence and solitude. But there is yearning in their words, as if it isn’t quite enough. I hear from Laura Meister, who’s 68 and a personal assistant in Napa, California, that she’s “getting better” at finding “just some minutes for myself. That might mean walking the dog in the cemetery … sometimes it’s calming just to lay in bed for an extra hour.”
My longtime friend Beth Gosnell, a 53-year-old certified teacher and art therapist, meditates and makes art to reboot in the New Bern, North Carolina, home she shares with her 94-year-old father. Maeve Kelley, 45, lives in Omaha, Nebraska, where she’s a single mom to two sons, ages 13 and 9, as well as a grown daughter. She tells me that to alleviate anxiety she’s “learned to allow myself to sit, to do nothing. I adore silence. It’s my favorite way to relax. I can hear my own thoughts, the ones that come from the deep-down me, not the mom or the daughter or the employee.”
Experts agree that to maximize the benefits of solitude and silence, it’s crucial that you leave your cell phone behind; time spent with technology that connects us to other people isn’t really time spent alone. Meditating, doing something creative, and journaling are all valuable solo pursuits, as is getting outdoors. Nature can help soothe depression and anxiety and relieve stress all on its own. We know exercise does too. It stands to reason that, on many levels, taking a walk in the woods by yourself might be one of the healthiest things you can do.
This is something I know intuitively to be true, even if I haven’t used that knowledge to help me feel better in a while. I love to hike, so much so I hiked right to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, all 19,341 feet, a couple years ago. But since then, consumed with caring for my parents and concentrating on my career and all the other responsibilities that go into making a life, I’ve barely taken a stroll around the block, much less trekked through the forest. For my own well-being, and thanks to the encouragement I’ve gotten from my friends, that’s going to change.