“Alone, I often fall down into nothingness. I must push my foot stealthily lest I should fall off the edge of the world into nothingness. I have to bang my head against some hard door to call myself back to the body.” –Virginia Woolf, The Waves
The first time I lived alone, I had an apartment in what had once been the attic of an old house. Three stories up, my windows were brushed by the branches of burr oak trees that murmured to me on summer nights, as I lay across the mattress on my Murphy bed. I was often afraid in my aloneness, of things both seen and unseen.
One night, I woke to bats swooping around my living room – by the time morning light shone in my windows, I had captured and released three of them. It took a week of bat visitations before the landlords discovered that they were getting into my apartment through the exhaust fan in the bathroom.
I thought the bats were the worst I would contend with, high up in my secluded little studio apartment. But then there was the night a knock came at my door at 2:30 a.m. Looking out my peephole, I saw a man I didn’t know. He said, “Open the door, I baked you some cookies.” I said, “No thanks. Please leave.” But he wouldn’t leave, pounding on my door and shouting at me to take the cookies I didn’t see in his hands. When he finally left, I was shaking; I remember thinking he had to really go out of his way to end up at my door, winding up three flights of stairs and through two security/fire doors.
Another time, a terrifying storm made the whole house shake around me. I had nowhere to go to take refuge (the basement was divided into two apartments). As I huddled on my sofa, wishing the worst might be over, lightning struck an electrical pole right outside my window. A deafening crack, a blinding flash, then darkness everywhere except for a column of sparks being thrown into the air like the scariest Roman candle firework ever.
When you’re young, most of what frightens you about living alone comes from outside yourself: invaders of many stripes, emergencies that you don’t know how to resolve on your own, events that call for strength or skills you just can’t physically muster. But, if you’re lucky, you move through each of these without undue scarring. In fact, being forced to face these things that frighten you makes you feel stronger, more confident. You begin to think you can be self-reliant. You begin to breathe through the fear, and its aftermath is often a form of elation; you say to yourself, “Look at me! Slaying another dragon – third one this month!”
It has been many years and many homes since I folded that Murphy bed into its cabinet for the last time. Living alone is different now. When I lie awake at night, I am rarely afraid of intruders or how I will open the jar of pickled beets I brought home from the grocery store. Instead, the fears that arise living alone in my mid-fifties have less to do with the outside world and more to do with me.
I find myself stumbling into a habit of bifurcated sleep. I fall asleep for a couple of hours, then wake for several, before falling back to sleep. And in that middle-of-the-night wakefulness, my fears multiply. What if I fall down the stairs/have a heart attack/pass out and am knocked unconscious? How long would it take for anyone to notice I’m not around? I worry about the world and whether I’ve done enough…AM doing enough…to make a positive contribution or a difference.
Accompanying these conscious thoughts is an emotion I couldn’t identify until I came upon this concept:
It seems the word dates back to the middle ages when folks literally feared being shut outside of the city at nightfall, when the gates were closed and locked against marauders. Personally, I’ve had this anxiety that time is running out and I’ve somehow just missed making it through the gate.
To complicate my personal sense of age-induced panic, since the recent election I’ve experienced what many people have reported (and comedian Rachel Dratch coined on Twitter) as “trumpsomnia”. I lie awake worrying about the world – our earth itself, the many forms of suffering, how we do or do not support humanity versus inhumanity. It doesn’t help to know I am not alone is this. There appears to be a a sort of societal torschlusspanik, a feeling that we’ve somehow entered not only a new era in history, but a critical closing of the gates on many of our brothers and sisters. And it is growing, this panic.
Lately, every day has been difficult to get started, and I am beginning to realize that I can’t hold both my own and the world’s gate-closing panic. I’m realizing that I have to let go of it – all of it. As Joy C. Bell says, “You will find that it is necessary to let things go; simply for the reason that they are heavy.” I don’t mean that I must let go of caring about either my own life or the world’s. But I must let go of the panic.
Facing my youthful challenges is what made me stronger and more independent – made me feel like I had slayed dragons. Here, I need a new approach: I have to stop looking at it. Looking at the dragon of torschlusspanik only feeds it and makes it stronger, further diminishing my sense of personal efficacy. Each act of self-compassion, each step on behalf of social justice, each moment of human kindness, is a movement toward taming the panic rather than feeding it. Each of these actions is a way of acknowledging that I am not the gatekeeper, that my level of panic does not affect the gate’s rate of closure. Neither does the fact that I live alone.