Chronic illness is isolating. Spending hours alone every day can be lonely. Here’s what I have learned about embracing solitude and learning to be comfortable in my own company.
Before the pandemic, I went out for lunch with friend who had just transitioned from her office to working from home. She described dreading the long hours on her own, and the resulting cabin fever of spending so much time in one place. As I listened, I realized what a significant transformation my own feelings about solitude have undergone during my illness experience.
As an extrovert, I’ve never looked forward to spending an entire day by myself – never mind a succession of days. I prefer to be around people. I’m happier spending an afternoon in a café than my living room. When chronic pain forced me out of grad school, I was at a loss of what to do with myself at home all day.
But I think it’s about more than being an introvert versus an extrovert. Looking back, I don’t think I ever distinguished between loneliness and solitude. I wasn’t comfortable with my own company. As I reflected on what I have learned about embracing solitude, I came to a few conclusions about the lessons my experience has taught me and what I’m still working on.
Being Present For Simple Pleasures
The first step on my path towards becoming a reformed extrovert was learning to value being present. A year or two after being diagnosed with fibromyalgia and endometriosis, I was referred to a Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction course at my hospital – an eight week program on using mindfulness meditation to manage pain. I often credit mindfulness meditation for maintaining my sanity, but one of the most important lessons that I’ve learned is that there are many enjoyable moments in ordinary life that can enrich our lives if only we pay attention in the present moment. The sun on your face, bird song out the window, a great cup of coffee, or a snuggle with your pet are all examples of simple, everyday pleasures that are available for us to enjoy if we learn to tune in to the present moment. Being on autopilot most of the time meant that I was oblivious to these experiences. It’s often easier to savor these times on your own rather than in company, and that’s one of the reasons I have come to value my alone time.
Exploring New Horizons (From Home)
A second change in my perspective has come from exploring my interests and finding new hobbies. In other words, unleashing my inner geek. From reading, and watching and listening, I’ve discovered that I love historical murder mystery books, political news, blogging, archaeology documentaries and calligraphy. I feel fortunate to live in an era of podcasts, online libraries, free e-courses, audiobooks and streaming. If your illness keeps you at home much of the time, being able to explore new horizons from your couch is fantastic. Whether or not you are crafty, artistic, musical or nerdy, there’s something out there for you to geek out on. I honestly haven’t found anything else I prefer to do on my own as much as to feed my curiosity. In the process, I have learned about myself. Learning more about the world helps you understand your own place in it better. Discovering new interests, and new talents is deeply rewarding. Spending time that way really transforms loneliness to solitude.
Making Time For Meaningful Self-Care
Finally, seeing the dividends of investing in self-care has made me more open to making time for myself. This isn’t an easy thing to do. You often see advice about self-care made out to seem like it’s as simple as lighting some candles and taking a bath now and then. I think it’s really about changing your relationship with yourself. Who wants to spend time with someone they don’t like very much? No one. If you have an inner critic with a megaphone, of course you don’t want to spend alone time together. The prospect of spending time by myself months that I was always looking for another distraction. In the age of scrolling through social media and binge watching TV, I think enjoying me-time is almost a lost art form (not that I like binge watching any less than the next person!).
It takes a change in mindset to identify negative self-talk, challenge it and replace it with a kinder and gentler perception of yourself. Self-care is really about self-compassion, and accepting that you’re only human, just like everyone else – it’s okay to be imperfect and make mistakes. For many people there is a lot of worry, guilt, frustration and self-blame tied up in developing a chronic illness. Cultivating self-compassion in the face of difficult circumstances is a long process, and I’ve found that many lessons need to be re-learned over time. Journaling, meditating, CBT, and therapy are all ways to improve your relationship with yourself. Learning to be more comfortable in my own skin has made me enjoy my own company much more than before. And now I’m much more likely to enjoy a quiet cup of tea, listen to music, meditate, or actually do any of the self-care activities by myself that are listed in the lifestyle magazines!
7 thoughts on “Overcoming Isolation: How to Enjoy Alone Time Caused by Chronic Illness”
It was a joy to read today’s article. Thank you so much for sharing.
I have slowly came to so many of the same conclusions as you have found. Unfortunately so many people just Cannot comprehend or relate, so it was like having a share on the couch with a friend today.
I enjoy seeing you show up in my email. Just had to say thanks.
Thank you so much for your sweet comment, it really means a lot to know what I write is helpful or validating to someone. It also works in reverse when knowing an experience I share is relatable to a reader makes me feel less isolated by living this odd life with a chronic illness. Thanks again ❤
Oh, I really needed this reminder today. I’ve got cabin fever (another snowstorm coming through tonight, then back into the polar vortex) and your post is helping me to be more positive about being stuck in the house. Thank you!
I’m so glad it was a helpful read! The polar vortex is also keeping me inside at home and it’s testing my patience too 🙂 Hopefully it passes soon and in the meantime we can enjoy the time alone!
Thank you for this post. I have been housebound for almost two years. I can usually step out on the porch for a minute or two everyday but that’s it. The isolation is awful and is a real struggle for me. I have such a hard time accepting my situation. I use as many mind-body techniques as possible to deal with it. I agreee that living in the age of the Internet is a godsend. So much to take advantage of. Blessings to all!
17 Ways to Cope With Chronic Illness If You Don’t Have a Support System
1. “Literally take one day at a time — some days are better than others — if it’s a bad day and you make it until the end, you’re stronger than your illness.”
2. “Learn to advocate for yourself. Try to find one friend even if out of the area who is willing to stay informed and aware of what is happening. Search out agencies to assist as needed.”
3. “I am someone in this situation — no real family support or local friends to speak of, etc. I try to make the most of what small things I do have. Keeping myself distracted by focusing on hobbies or interests. Finding interests that can be done with minimal energy expenditure. A big thing for me has been trying to focus on helping others, even if just online. For me this has been the biggest reason to keep going when I’m feeling my worst.”
4. “Become a member of a church or some other community in your neighborhood and start ‘giving’ to others, so they will, in their turn, become your family and function as your support system.”
5. “That’s me. I would say go out there and find what services are available to you. I am on the Nursing Home Diversion Waiver in my state. I have a service coordinator who checks on me to make sure I have what I need. I have a home health aide to help me with personal care and housework, as well as being a friend. I would also recommend having a pet. I tell my cat all my deepest feelings about being sick.”
6. “You begin to build one. General practitioner, therapists, physio, psychologist, exercise class/group, community group, online and friends. Ensuring there is somewhere to have a voice, be a voice, keep accountability, somewhere to give out too and not just get from. I found I have times that I can be very selfish and the more selfish and inward looking I become the more I hurt, so I have found a key is to, no matter how much or little, always be giving out and looking out for others. It keeps me moving and motivated even in my worst. Just because pain/illness is invisible doesn’t mean I have to be… this is what I tell myself.”
7. “Reaching out to an online community (choose wisely). Have a few ‘hobbies’ that are workable with your illness or teach yourself something new. Even if it’s just watching a video about something you’d love to do. It’s so hard to not feel useless and unloved, but you have to be strong for yourself and fight for yourself. You are stronger than you give yourself credit for and the only one you can fall back on is yourself.”
8. “I find visiting sites like The Mighty and reading about others’ experiences very helpful. While you feel for those people, it’s a reminder that you’re not alone… A pet is a must. Having a big fuzzy cat climb up your chest and onto your shoulders while purring away instantly lifts you up and dries your tears. If/when you’re able, do the things you used to enjoy. It may not be as often as you’d like, or for as long as you’d like, but it will certainly improve your mood. And know that even those of us who have a support system get lonely.”
9. “Find something you are passionate about and capable of doing and do a little when you can. Be your strongest advocate. Being ill is hard and lonely. I try to make myself do one thing that I am capable of everyday to feel productive. And love yourself! You are worth the fight that you are fighting!”
10. “I have a therapist I really trust who I’ve been with for many years and most of the time that’s my lifeline, the knot at the end of my rope. She knows I’m tired of it all, tired of feeling awful all the time, of just existing, of doing it all alone.”
11. “Try to find something that once brought you joy to do, and do it… even if it’s in a small or lessened capacity, it can do wonders to lift your spirits. For me, it’s music. I find peace in my music. The same is true for reading or even a favorite tv show. It doesn’t make the pain stop, but it helps me to be able focus on something else other than the pain.”
12. “Plan ahead to work around your consistent challenges. I always make sure to keep basics around (extra TP, wipes, Icy-Hot, heating pad, acetaminophen and a spare dose of a narcotic pain killer just in case). I try my best to lay out my clothes the night before so I have a little extra time in the morning, waking up is a real challenge. I try to deal with my everyday well-known demons head-on so I am not blindsided when something goes wrong. Not a fool-proof system but it helps to get through the day-by-day existence.”
13. “I find it helps to strive to achieve one thing (or more) per day, beyond my own care. I realize that for some this is really difficult but even the smallest act (i.e. watering one plant to keep it alive, feeding the birds or making a comment on the internet) can bring about a feeling of connectedness and well-being.”
14. “Just keep breathing. Take it one minute at a time. When things get too tough for me I try and get as comfy as I can and just concentrate on my breathing. Remember that your success rate of surviving to this point is 100 percent and if all you can do today is breathe, then that is OK.”
15. “Live in the present. Don’t worry about how bad you felt yesterday. Don’t worry about how bad you will feel tomorrow. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. Live today like it is the last good day you will have. If it is the last good day you will have, you lived your life today.”
16. “Try to utilize social media. It can be a great source of support. If you feel comfortable I find it helpful to comment about my experience when I read some posts such as those on The Mighty. It feels nice validating to me knowing others go through the same things.”
17. “My friends are all states away. My boyfriend has his own chronic illness to deal with. I live in a very rural area. So I advocate for myself. I read, a lot. I use an online support group. And I talk to a therapist. I think that if we don’t have support nearby, we have to make our own. Friends at a distance are better than silence. Staying informed is better than ignorance. And therapy is better than isolation.”……..Thanks