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The alone you want, and the alone you don't

Those of you who know me personally know how energized I am by my interactions with other people in any type of situation, professional or personal. I’m constantly being dragged out of a gathering by my children as I try to finish up several dangling conversations. Even when I’m alone, my brain is often humming with thoughts of people I want to check in with. I am a card-carrying “people person.”

Funny how a crisis can change how a person functions and what a person needs. Starting when I received my cancer diagnosis, I found I needed more quiet alone time than usual. Often I didn’t realize I needed time to myself until I wasn’t getting much of it. Sometimes when I was home recovering from chemo and talking to someone who came by, I would “crash” as if from fatigue and have to cut the visit short. I had trouble returning phone calls in a timely fashion. Often I would miss messages entirely because I wouldn’t remember to check my voice mail. My energy was radiating out less and pulling in more, and I felt it curling around my center, as if to regenerate through stillness.

My need to spend time alone increased after my brother died. I have found myself frequently retreating to a sort of “cocoon” of quiet solitude – physically, when I can, and mentally, when I cannot physically remove myself from a situation. In general, I am talking with people less often and for shorter amounts of time. I am sure that I’ve become even more unreliable in my communications over phone and computer. I look forward to driving or flying alone. I still need to connect with people, but right now I am less inclined to seek out or plan social occasions, and when an invitation comes my way I’m not as likely to stay as long or to attend at all.


I wonder if friends and family have noticed the change. I wonder if they have thought, “She needs to get out more.” I wonder if they have been annoyed at having to wait weeks for a return phone call or e-mail response, or if they have worried about how I’m reacting to the loss.

I have two things to say: One, I apologize for my inconsistent communication – it’s me, it’s not you, and I’m doing what I can. And two, I can tell you for sure that however I’m behaving, it’s exactly what I need.

Think about your own needs when you are in crisis: How much connection to others do you want? When and where and for how long do you want company? When do you need to retreat into a cocoon of personal space and quiet? You may have heard opinions and “shoulds” such as these: Someone deeply depressed should not be left alone. Someone who has lost a loved one should be given time and space. Someone who has cancer should not be at chemo alone. Someone in a relationship crisis needs time alone to process.

As often as such “rules” apply, there are as many times when they do not. A grieving spouse or parent may feel abandoned by friends who think he needs space. A cancer patient can become overwhelmed by too much activity. Someone separating from a partner may wish more people would reach out. A depressed person can feel hemmed in by the constant presence of a well-meaning family member.

So what is the “right” type or level of connection? I wish I could hand you a definitive answer that would save all of us from the challenging work of deciphering our needs. However, those needs are so unique to each person, circumstance, and even moment that one best answer for all cannot exist. I believe the right choice is whatever level of connection makes you feel better in any given moment. This might sound simplistic, and at the same time disturbingly complicated, as it requires effort to constantly check in with yourself and evaluate different choices. But I have found that when I am in crisis, making that effort is the only way I’ve been able to meet my ever-changing needs.

For example, during the first four rounds of chemo I had following my mastectomy, the drugs were tough to handle, and I needed a caring human presence to distract me from what was going into my veins. But for later rounds of a different chemo drug that I found easier to tolerate, I was occasionally on my own, and found that I sometimes preferred it. While this surprised me at first, I realized that I craved self-sufficiency after months of leaning heavily on family and friends.

In grief as well I have been surprised by how my needs have gone against my assumptions. I had no idea I would need so much time alone. I guess initially I imagined that I’d crave more connection than ever before. But I have discovered that my connection to my brother feels strongest when I am by myself, and I need that time. Alone in the cocoon I can set aside my defenses and my public face. I can remember, communicate, grieve, question, and sit with whatever comes up.

People managing a crisis, think carefully about connection. Do what you can to get the alone that you want, and to avoid the alone that you don’t. This includes communicating, if and when you can, these needs to others so that they can give you the support you need. People supporting those in crisis, ask questions and listen. Know that the answers may not be what you expect. Try not to take it personally if something you want to provide is not what the person needs right now. Tomorrow, or next week, or next year, it might be – and even if it never is, that is no reflection on you. Know that one gift is welcome in every moment and connects you always: The presence of your love, with no strings of judgment attached.

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