#38: In Ohio, part two: On Loneliness

My wife and I attempted to come up with a list of things my 25 year old self would find least believable about my current life: that I’m married? that I am a parent? that I work in insurance? that I still live in Ohio? I thought this would be difficult; it isn’t. If my younger self found out that going on 12 years later he’d still be in Ohio, he would punch me in the throat. Then probably do a Jager bomb.

I suffer from something I still refuse to believe can be an actual thing: Seasonal Affective Disorder. I know it’s scientifically documented, but having a disorder called SAD feels absurd. However, I can’t argue with it because G. can predict the amount of cloud cover based on my mood swing. Apparently reduced sunshine can cause reduced amounts of serotonin which leads to depressive thoughts and behavior. This is a thing. And I’ve chosen to live in area that is in the top 10 cloudiest places in the United States. Combine this with a very long, ongoing battle with depression in general, and, well, let’s just say Thanksgiving to May can be a motherfucking battle.

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Things 25 year old Joel didn’t know about Ohio when he came here: that the sun doesn’t shine; that Columbus is actually quite huge; that he wouldn’t be living in Arizona within a year.

Things 25 year old Joel did know about Ohio when he came here: it was part of the United States.

Things 25 year old Joel learned about Ohio when he came here: when a bar serves $5 pitchers of beer, you can get hammered by breaking a twenty if you have no qualms about what you’re drinking.

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When you never imagined a place being more than a stop-over on your way to somewhere else, it can be difficult to assess your relationship with it. I have made my home and life in Ohio and while I don’t always succeed at accepting that, my decisions have led to good things: I am married and she is great; I am a dad and he is great; I have a job and I don’t hate it. Those are wins. But, it doesn’t prevent the existential misery that at times consumes me because I feel wildly out of place.

This is nothing new from me; I am an awkward person who feels out of place in most situations that involve other human beings. G. and I have lived in this area for over 5 years and I have successfully built solid friendships with an incredible number of people: 0. I would say I struggle mightily with the following trifecta of isolations:

  1. out of place politically and culturally in my town, county, and state. This does not inherently mean that I can not develop friends with people who don’t think like me; instead, it means the people I am surrounded by typically view the world in a way I don’t relate to and that means even more effort is needed to establish a bond, something I find incredibly difficult in the best situations as verbal communication with humans makes me anxious and exhausted;
  2. introversion, as defined by the Meriam Webster dictionary: “the state of or tendency toward being wholly or predominantly concerned with and interested in one’s own mental life.” This can best be described, negatively, as navel gazing. This can best be synthesized as, an inability to connect with other people on most planes of existence because I don’t understand conversational parlaying, and any extended amount of socialization tires me out (and extended is used loosely here);
  3. an inability, based entirely on my belief that this was supposed to be a brief residency, to establish attachments, despite the clear indication that my family and I are not going anywhere.

Continued studies on loneliness and isolation show that elderly people who maintain friendships and a sense of community live longer and healthier lives. The internet, according to a rough estimate on my part, has 2 trillion articles dedicated to how to make friends, especially as a new parent. I just read one on The Week’s website with a tagline along the lines of “parenting is lonely. Here’s how I found a friend.” The entire article can be summarized as: lady randomly encountered another lady once on the subway and then later at lunch. 14 years later they are best friends. I did not find this to be useful.

Most “guides” to finding friends tell you to find groups of people with similar interests. Sounds reasonable, until you apply points 1 and 2 of my Isolation Trifecta to the equation. Also, I don’t like to leave the house.

What loneliness does is infect your self worth and your ability to reason with yourself. Objectively, I’m aware of the following things: 1) I’m not social; 2) I don’t engage with people; 3) I’m uncomfortable establishing bonds with other people; 4) I’m a difficult person to get to know (and also a difficult person in general); 5) I have a child who I gladly will allow to take over my time; 6) I don’t like talking; 7) I’m quite comfortable only having 2-3 friends; they just happen to live nowhere near me. However, subjectively, when I’m alone on a Friday night after putting the little dude to bed because my wife actually has social interactions, I realize how isolated I am: a man, on a couch, without a single option to change that ratio, or, at least, that is what my brain tells me as it flaunts my failure at building relationships with other people.

Let’s say that you have a rather diverse assortment of interests, something along the lines of: college football, big blockbuster movie failures, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, baseball, golf, Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, Australian Rules Football, British comedies, Hugh Grant movies, the music stylings of both Free Energy and the Zac Brown Band, and hot dog-centric restaurants. That throws a wide Venn Diagram. But let’s also say that your ability to relate to other people depends on their ability to relate to all of those things, as opposed to only select ones. And the reason you can’t relate is because you can’t process the typical human interaction wherein likes and dislikes are established by conversation and understanding, but, instead, you inherently develop a rigid calculation of how there is no way to build a friendship, and, don’t forget, you don’t like talking and, more importantly, you really aren’t good at the whole human interaction thing.

Let’s say, then, you are this person: how much blame do you assume? How much of yourself do you accept? How much do you lament and attempt to change? Are you ever satisfied with yourself?

Life as I understand it depends entirely on choices. There is nothing profound about that; we constantly make decisions on a daily basis that in whatever fashion shape our existence. Gwyneth Paltrow made a movie about it; I don’t remember what it is called. I know it had something to do with getting on a subway or something. Often the decisions we make don’t feel like choices; they are, instead, part of a routine where the decisions are on autopilot: brushing your hair, brushing your teeth, etc. We can often pinpoint large decisions that did or did not greatly impact our lives, but, in all likelihood, we overstate, to ourselves and to others, the fictional outcomes of those “other” choices. I can look back and feel that electing to not pursue my PhD was, personally, the wrong choice, in that, such a pursuit would have truly suited my academic spiritual needs; it ignores, however, the inevitable hardscrabble existence that G. and I would have had to pursue once school ended and doubly ignores that said decision only factors in my view on what was the appropriate choice. Could I be a tenure track professor right now? Sure. But we could also be on our 10th move while I scramble to yet another visiting professor position or, hell, I could be in the exact same role I am now. G. wouldn’t have the job she currently enjoys and, most likely, we wouldn’t be parents.

The glorification of the non-decision is because we create an optimism over the choice we didn’t make because there is no reality to it. I know how my choices turned out as I have lived them, which, fucking duh, but at the same time, reveling in the fantasy of Dr. Joel suits only the Fantasy Joel in that (non)memory. I can be anything so I’m successful in the spiritually fulfilling field that I imagine is my calling: teaching horror movie classes and yelling about poetry at the college level.

What this means, though, is my discomfort with where we live and what I do for a living and my isolation in that locale is entirely my responsibility. But, strangely, I can’t tell you a choice that I would change. That, in essence, is the difficult part of acceptance: I did everything in a way that felt appropriate, and, yet, I still don’t get to live somewhere with 300 days of sunshine.

The irony is that this is not a lament; it is, instead, a struggle of adaptation and a struggle of proper provision. Without Ohio, I do not have a wife, who, in numerous ways, has helped to mitigate my depression and has found an inordinate amount of patience to handle my various breakdowns. Without Ohio and without my wife, I do not have my son. This is so obvious that I almost feel blind to it. But what I wonder is, am I providing enough for him? Is this a good place to raise him? How much will he be affected by my SAD? How much can I control? Will my inability to connect with other people be passed down? Will he pull an Alex P. Keaton and worship Paul Ryan? I’m inevitability going to wonder if his life would be better somewhere else because I imagine my life would be. And that’s not fair.

Isolation and loneliness are not intertwined, necessarily; nor does their existence inherently indicate unhappiness. That is by far the weirdest part of struggling with all of this. There are times when I don’t feel like getting out of bed, and there are times when I realize how well things are going in my life and what I’m looking for is a way to feel like my life is fuller. There are even times when it’s 50 degrees and sunny in January in Ohio.

I’ve read increasing number of articles that say social media actually adds to our sense of loneliness and creates a type of life malaise. This happens for two reasons: we see other people sharing what appear to be better lives and feel jealous; and we feel pressure to create a life worth sharing, which means when we don’t have a life “worth” sharing, we feel as though we are failing at life. We are at once judging and judged, without actual context. And our connections have no depth without that context.

This is not some anti social media screed. I just find it interesting that we as humans continue to create ways in which we isolate ourselves, going against our base communal selves and the very things in which we attempt to create community in turn make us feel worse about ourselves. It’s somehow very ironic, very stupid, and very human.

G. tells me that my existential misery is a philosophical term called, anomie. Popularized by the sociologist Emile Durkheim, it is, generally speaking, a mismatch between personal standards and wider social standards. It creates a type of insatiable desire to find a purpose as your purpose can’t be defined within the community around you. It is not so much depression as it is displacement. And it is, in many ways, frustratingly indefinable.

What anomie / isolation / displacement / loneliness all equate to is a disruption in personal understanding because, even as I can grasp to whatever degree, why I am the way I am, the internal struggle with those feelings does not abate. As such, the mental fight itself becomes a part of my self-definition, just as SAD and sarcasm and everything else are. But self-understanding partially defined by an ongoing fight is not real understanding; how could it be when a fight implies some sort of resolution and understanding demands as much.

In simplest terms: when I’m around other people, especially those I don’t know or don’t know well, I’m wildly uncomfortable; I wish Ohio was sunny and warm; and I wish I fit in better. But I’m also lucky enough to greatly enjoy the people in my very small circle. I could use better weather in that circle, though.

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