Michael Harding: Isolation can overcome me like a great wave
All the Lonely People: It was one of those years that was going so well I thought I’d live forever. But then one day I got out of bed and the world had moved away from me
It will soon be winter, I thought, as I walked on the dry hills with the heather yet in bloom and the meadow pipits limping through the grey September air. It will be winter and I may fall again into despair if I am not careful. When it comes to the abyss of depression, I am always close to the edge of the cliff. Although I don’t know how I got here.
It was one of those years that was going so well I thought I’d live forever. After doing a theatre show in Dublin I went home to the garden and began clearing the woodland, taking out the weeds and nettles from beneath the oak trees, and sometimes I would stand there thinking, I’m happier than I have ever been.
But then one day I got out of bed and the world had moved away from me. It was like when I was a child and I would wake up in a sweat, worrying that everyone had left the house and that I was alone. And in those long-ago days, sometimes I would go downstairs and find that indeed there was no one else in the house. For one so young the house was a vast universe and it seemed eerily empty without mother, who was perhaps gone to town on her bike to shop.
A dark place to be
It’s the same feeling that overwhelms me now, in late middle age, when I least expect it. It’s a sense that the world is an empty room, and that those who lived in it, those billions of other humans and other sentient beings, have all gone away. That kind of solitude is a dark place to be if you are a child, and the feeling is no less terrifying as I get older.
And no matter how many people I bring close to me, I still dread the feeling of personal isolation and sadness that can overcome me like a great wave, even when I am in company.
I have two ways of dealing with this solitude. One is to imagine a mother who enfolds me: a Christian or Buddhist construct, or just something existentially poetic, such as Rilke’s reliance on beauty. It’s comforting to feel there are arms holding the universe together, even if it’s only something that we make up. And I often rely on a phrase my therapist used one day when I was digging my way through the box of tissues beside the armchair in her consulting room.
“Very often,” she said, “you need to mother yourself.”
The trouble with all those constructs, or with conventional faith, is that in the light of science the idea of a transcendent being becomes more and more preposterous. To imagine a mother holding us, or to fantasise about being enfolded in the gentleness of the universe is not quite as easy as it used to be, especially after Auschwitz, Hiroshima and other bleak events of the 20th century.
So I suppose the only alternative is to commit to an existential path, to accept my feelings of aloneness and to savour the terror of being unconnected to anything. To accept that my inchoate bundle of fears and disturbed emotions can never be soothed, touched or comforted by external gods, and that what fills the cosmos is only chaos and the relentless savagery of the universe dying. Certainly the wrath of Islamic State or the cold revenge of drone bombers, or the gluttony for oil, or the pain of the homeless poor would all tend one to that opinion. As Kojak used to say to the hookers on the streets of New York: “You’re on your own, baby.”
Even in this solitude I find occasional moments of consolation. Moments of unexpected bliss. Because even now as I write I see a bird outside the window, gorging off the feeder. And she hops about the patio. She sits on the back of a garden seat. She looks at me. From millions of years ago the tiny remnant of her dinosaur mind embraces me and I gaze out to her. It’s a realisation with the heart rather than any knowledge of the bird. I cannot even name her except to say that we are a grand pair of dinosaurs, the two of us. And she is exquisite in her own solitude, and for a second I feel like I have stepped over a cliff and am walking into something timeless and beautiful.
- If you have been affected by loneliness, Alone helps older people who are homeless, socially isolated, living in deprivation or in crisis, 01-6791032, alone.ie. Jigsaw works with young people aged 12-25, jigsaw.ie. The Samaritans are available 24-7 on freephone 116123