A Story of Overcoming Loneliness, Isolation and Feeling Defeated
About ten years ago, I was living a very different life to the one I have now. I was living in a hostel. Not the kind you stay in when you are travelling across Europe with a backpack but the kind you stay in when you have nowhere to go.
The room was not much bigger than a family bathroom and had a very musty smell; dust hung in the air almost like a fine fog sometimes. The furniture was very basic, and instead of a bed I just had a very old, very used futon with a mattress so worn and thin that the metal from under it left bruises on my body each night. There was a large non-opening panel of glass at one end of the room with a tiny opening section near the top so high I had to stand on things to reach it that tilted only about 3 inches wide. The room had lots of heat but little ventilation. There were no proper cooking facilities, just a nook with the kind of fridge you get as a minibar in a hotel that never smelt clean no matter how much I scrubbed it and a bathroom with so much black mould I felt new species were being born.
The walls were thin, and the neighbours were either screaming or crying most of the time… Sometimes the arguing of those couples would become so scary that I would sing to myself to try and tune it out. As a single person, I was one of the lucky ones; below me was a family of 7 in a fairly similar room.
I had no money and I was in a town I did not know at all. I felt like the walls were closing in and in a way they were. All I had was a bag of clothes and my phone for company, I never realised how much comfort a TV and books bring until that point. I never realised how much I relied on things like a proper washing machine or opening a cupboard to see an abundance of food choices.
I started to feel very low, which given how I ended up there was lower than most people have felt. I missed my family, even though it was them who had kicked me out and I missed comfort, safety and choices.
I was angry. I was scared. I was alone.
The days got longer and longer, and my mind started to unravel. Eventually, I got very, very ill. Poor nutrition and living conditions left me with fluid on my lungs and Pneumonia. I had no money to get anywhere, and I could not get any doctors to see me as I was not really of a fixed address. I just lay there praying each day that I would wake up the next while feeling so isolated from the old life; I suspected I was already a ghost.
I knew that, if I ventured out much, I would infect the entire building which was not clean, this would probably make me reinfect myself too, as it is the nature of a virus. I was very weak, so in the end, I just stayed put. I lay there frail and alone, sometimes coughing up blood and occasionally close to delirium, wondering how many days had passed.
By the time a neighbour knocked I had to drag my body with arms that felt like jelly and a chest that felt bound by ropes to the heavy fire door, just opening it took every ounce of strength I had. She gasped at how bad I looked. My lips were starting to go blue and I could barely see straight, I fell to the ground from the amount of energy it took just to get to the door. She could have just left me as I was. She did not know me. If she had not wanted to borrow a lighter, she might never have come. She was alone with her 3-year-old in a room the same size and had little to share, but she didn’t walk away. She gave me food and care; she made me feel less alone than I had in what felt like forever. It was the kindest thing in the world, and I am eternally grateful for the compassion she showed me.
The days went by, and eventually, I started to get stronger, I was taken to the hospital and had x-rays done and got prescribed some much-needed medication. Little by little, I felt human again, not the one I was before, these things change you; to be reborn through trial is a magnificent thing but I still had to spend 90% of my time in that tiny room. I had no money and could not drive. So, where the hell would my weakened legs and lungs get me anyway when so remotely located? That box that had started to feel like my coffin was now my lifeline. If I left it for too long, I would lose my place on the housing register and be back at square one, and without it, I had no other real shelter.
It was at that moment that I realised I would need to change my attitude.
It can be so easy to focus on what we do not have in life… We live in a world that tells us to want more. More to do, more to see, more to buy, more from others. We confuse our wants with our needs and seek outward experience instead of inward awakenings.
At a time when the people I grew up amongst were at uni and worrying about exams, where to go on holiday, what car to have, which beauty treatment to get and which bar to drink at, I was now worried about how long I could make a dry box of value range cereal last and if I had enough money left to buy some bleach for the bathroom. I now understood what I needed: I needed merely to get through this.
I had to assess myself and commit to survival. This is easier than you would think. Nobody ever died from a feeling, not now and not ever. A day is only 24 hours long, and nothing lasts forever.
I clung to these statements like a religious mantra, and I got on my knees daily. I do not know who I was praying to, and there was no real format to my ramblings, but I knew what I was asking for: Hope and Forgiveness. I needed to forgive myself for ending up in this situation; first, I had to become accountable for my part in it, but then I needed to forgive. I also needed to forgive and let go of resentment towards those who put me in this situation and the former friends who faded out of my life. I realised it is too difficult for most people to take on sadness; they do not need to. I needed to have compassion for that. If a person is in a bad way for a few weeks, it’s easy to be there for them. However, the longer it goes on the harder it is to look at.
How did I find hope? Through faith and choice. I chose to believe that what I was going through had a purpose. I chose to believe that I had a purpose; what was happening would be for the greater good. It was not just for myself; it would help me have compassion for others, gratitude for simple things and self-awareness. I became intensely aware through the isolation that I was connected. Not via words or touch but by life and humanity. An unspoken connection between myself and every other person suffering something, everyone alone or in pain. Unified.
I created a structure in my world of chaos through routine. Get up, pray, make the bed, brush your teeth, wash, eat. Sounds simple, sounds like it doesn’t matter. It matters a lot. It is your sanity. I dug deep in my mind to remember every piece of wisdom I had ever heard and tried to look at my life and the parts of me that needed improving.
Who was I? What did I want? What would I need to change in myself to get it?
I realised how lacking in gratitude I was. I had taken for granted so many things: I had neglected to notice how lucky I had been. I had been unhappy for so long, for reasons which already seemed so stupid. Bad things had happened to me—time to get over it.
Do not waste the rest of your life feeling self-pity. Do not let a few bad moments become the rest of your time. The first item on the list was to cultivate gratitude, contentment and happiness.
Once you start to look close enough, pretty much anything can be a source of happiness. Do not just eat – savour, appreciate, taste. Treat a meal as an experience. It will last longer, and you will derive so much more joy from it.
Washing. You have arms strong enough to wash; you have hot running water and soap. These are not small things, these are essential things and being clean is a wonderful feeling when you take the time to think about it.
Breathing. Pneumonia had felt like drowning underwater while being punched in the chest. It was agony and scary, and every minute was an eternity. The first day I could draw air into my lungs without feeling like I had been beaten reduced me to tears, quiet, joyous, deeply felt tears. I was so happy, so thankful to breathe. This took me off guard. How had I gone my entire life without realising how beautiful this thing I did all day every day was? How vital was it? How without it I would not be here?
You can learn a hell of a lot from how you breathe. If you breathe inward shorter than you breathe outward, you are probably in a state of hypervigilance, fear and anxiety or trauma response. If you are trying this now and going “OH MY GOD I AM HYPERVIGILANT” then chill. It is good to know yourself for better or for worse. You can only fix something once you see it. Train yourself, experience your breathing, inward 1, 2, 3, 4. Outward 1, 2, 3…
Do this daily. Make time for this. Your anxiety will go down in ways you thought only achievable with pills.
Try to remember that nobody ever goes from 0 – 10, with anger, with sadness, with everything. There are always 10 points along the way that you can pause, reflect and calm down within. Try to take the time to slow down, and with time it will get easier to jump off the ladder before hitting the top. I have been practising this for a long time which will come as a shock to many who know me but shows just how quickly I used to break down in tears. It also shows that the journey of personal growth is a very long and wonderful one.
We can rarely control what happens to us, but if you train yourself to limit how much of your day and energy gets consumed by feeling negative, then life will be a lot easier.
Your worst day in isolation will be a gift when you have any day out of it—Christmas alone with dry cereal; birthdays spent staring at a wall. Remember how great they will make life feel at the other end and be thankful you are in a state of growth. To have good things happen to you, without knowing how good they are, is the most significant waste of the greatest gift I know.
People are beautiful. Often stupid but mainly beautiful. Remember that when you next see them. Have love for them.
Music. Get lost in a song and your day will be good. Dance like nobody’s watching because nobody is. You have limbs and strength and a body that serves you, rejoice in it, not everyone does, and it does not last forever. Sing because you have lungs that work, so use them and smile because joy is infectious.
Remember that you are your own best friend. Get to know yourself; you may find more stuff to like than you realise.
People only grow through pain, I wish I could tell you why that is the case, but it just is what it is. Growth pains are a massive part of life, so try to find comfort in this. The worse things are now, the better a version of yourself you will be at the end. It is time to evolve.
The outbreak of Covid-19 has reminded me of this time in my life; it has also made me grateful I went through it as it gave me the strength to face whatever comes next. It makes me look at where I live now through the eyes of a person who once had very little. It has made me breathe a sigh of gratitude every time I open a cupboard and see tins and boxes of food. It has made me appreciate so much, the abundance of people I can call and feel close to and the fact I am strong enough to support others.
In art, you are taught to treat the space in between objects as a thing in and of itself. Positive and negative space are both valuable, both of value and both vital to create full beauty. Having nothing to do is a thing, harness it, embrace it, learn from it.
The bad times sculpt you. Do not wait to tell people you love them or that they are wonderful, do it now because they deserve to know how great they are. Stand together with gratitude and compassion. One day you will wake up realising that these trying times have been the makings of us all.
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