In the last year and a half, I’ve learned the difference in being alone and being isolated.
Being alone looks like a quiet house, a fat book and a full glass of wine. It feels full but also spacious.
Being isolated feels like no one can hear me, not even me. It looks like 3 a.m. and bad TV infomercials.
Isolation is a frightening feeling. I would characterize it as depression’s best friend and anger’s favorite third cousin. What we do in isolation is even scarier than what we do in the dark or behind closed doors. Feeling isolated is scraping the floor of the emotional ocean, bottom-feeding on the worst of the worst: insecurity, resentment, madness.
But being alone – and traveling alone – is one of my favorite things. At 19, I ditched my group of classmates during my study abroad and proceeded to take the train all across London. Alone. This was 100 percent against my professor’s instruction and university policy, but like usual, I said to hell with the rules. Because I know and believe in the things that lie beyond the parameters of conventionality and rule-following: creativity, exploration and self-discovery. Taking that train to Picadilly Circus and back again was exhilarating, but never, ever scary. I vowed to take more solo trips in the future.
Then I read Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild,” a book about a 22 year old and her decision to hike over 1,000 miles across the Pacific Crest Trail alone in an effort to find her way out of intense internal isolation. I read this book during a time where I as feeling most isolated and incredibly sad. You wouldn’t think the cure for isolation is time alone, but it is. It’s about shifting your thoughts – not your physical surroundings.
So I took off to McCurtain County, Okla. to visit a friend. When she was off to work, I’d spend the day hiking alone in Beaver’s Bend State Park. I packed my backpack, grabbed a water bottle and trail guide and crossed my fingers I wouldn’t get lost or mauled by mountain lions, Sasquatch or meth heads. And behold, I didn’t. I hiked for hours without seeing a human, and traded the company of people for that of deer and toads and minnows and crawfish.
And I never felt so safe, or full.
I know a lot of us feel isolated…classmates in new jobs and in new cities, newlyweds, the newly divorced…pretty much anyone and everyone under the age of 30. But we aren’t alone in feeling isolated. We are just a road trip, a phone call, an email away from each other.
And, maybe, just a long walk in the woods away from ourselves.