“Oh! I thought you had someone in here with you,” Gram said. And then, after a puzzled silence, “What are you doing?”
What I was doing, hours after my official bedtime, in the dark, was acting out one of my countless dramas with my collection of stuffed animals. This was a frequent occurrence for child me, after I reckoned that everyone was asleep and I could safely open Kristene’s Nighttime Theater. I was writer, director, star, and audience in these productions. In later years, Nighttime Theater would give way to books, then to a combination of reading and writing. But no matter the materials, the common thread was always…stories.
What I now call my Story Brain was relentless. It hated everything that got in its way, including sleep. Insomnia was a constant companion in my youth and into young adulthood. Story Brain needed either to be consuming stories or creating them. The longer it was deprived, the more it would keep me awake at night to vent.
I didn’t call it Story Brain back then because I’d never experienced life without it. To me, it was simply “my brain”, my thoughts, my personality. I was sometimes lonely but never truly alone because there were always stories locked in my brain, dying to get out. Too many stories, at times. Even the events of my life became fodder, going into my brain as banal facts and coming out as high drama.
Working with Fred, on the jobsite, where I was supposed to be focused on the very physical labour in front of me, Story Brain would take over. “What chapter are you on now?” Fred would often call, to snap me out of my daydream.
As much as Story Brain interfered with daily life, and sleep, it was also an unappreciated blessing. I would learn this the hard way.
I’ve never understood people who can’t be alone. Yes, there have been some times in my life when I’ve been sad on my own but that was always because of external events—a breakup, a financial disaster, a death, the loss of a friend, etc. When everything was good in my life, and I had time alone, I was perfectly fine. In fact, I loved those times! Story Brain would be let off the leash and whether I was writing, reading, or just cleaning the house, I was free to let all those voices in my head whisper, talk, scream, and sing all they wanted. Eating alone in a restaurant? No problem! I’d bring a book or eavesdrop on other conversations (more fodder for the stories).
Once Fred and I had solidified our relationship and were cohabitating full time, I certainly missed him when he’d go away for work or for short trips with his buddies, but I never sulked or protested his leaving. That was my chance to indulge in all the movies or TV shows he didn’t like, read books uninterrupted for hours and hours, write, take life at my own pace, and spend lots of quality time with Story Brain. Oh, and I usually had real life friends to spend time with, too… just in case I’ve painted myself as an anti-social hermit, which I am most definitely not.
I never imagined a day when I would not enjoy, or at the very least tolerate admirably, time on my own.
Until this year.
Since 2020, Fred and I have had to rethink our vacations. First it was Covid that changed the rules and kept us at home. Then, I got a job that I loved, which also meant a limited amount of time away from home per year. When we were fully vaccinated and cleared to fly in 2021, we sucked up the cost and annoyance of the Covid tests and planned two weeks on the Big Island of Hawaii. By renting a condo with a full kitchen, in a place where we could be outside and safely distanced from others, we figured we could mitigate the risks. Two weeks was a far cry from the two to three months we usually spent south of the border in California and/or Mexico but after two years of isolation it was better than nothing and we counted ourselves very lucky for the privilege.
For 2022, we planned a return to the same remote cays in the Bahamas where we had lived and worked 20 years earlier. Due to the expense of renting a house and boat (yes, you need a boat in that part of the world, trust me), we were once again down to only two weeks away. We flew east with high hopes.
The vacation was…okay. We got to spend time with some good friends, which was amazing, but the wind made boating less than fun most days, and boating is pretty much all that you do in the Abacos. My new constant friend, anxiety, made the unpleasant conditions even worse. Fred did his best to be the kind and understanding partner he has been since my mental health took its own vacation three years ago, but this was supposed to be his fun and adventure time after a season of incredibly hard work, and I was a human wet blanket. The kind of ocean conditions that would barely faze me ten year ago, now leave me a panicked mess. Yay.
So, after that trip, back home again, in the middle of winter, in the darkest, coldest, and most depressing time of the year (no, we don’t ski anymore and we’re not going to start again so just leave that whole “go skiing!” advice right there), with nothing to do and half our few local friends off on their winter getaways, Fred said that he was going to head south for a few weeks to stay with friends, play tennis, play some poker, get some sun, etc. I had to work and care for the cats (we’d already blown the budget on cat sitting for a week in November), so I would man the fort while he was gone. No big deal. I mean, as mentioned, I’ve always been fine on my own, no matter the weather. We booked his flight and rental car, and he was on his way.
It took less than 24 hours for me to realize how drastically things had changed since 2019.
We moved to Campbell River in 2021, at the height of the pandemic. There was no opportunity to get out and socialize in our new community. I still work on Quadra Island, which means all my work friends and other connections are…on Quadra Island. Oh, and I have only just begun to feel “normal” again, with my mental health, so that hasn’t exactly engendered a ton (any) new friends or acquaintances outside of work. My one available local friend had just completed her move to Quadra Island and was knee deep in unpacking and organizing. I did the math and what it showed me was that I have exactly zero friends where I live now.
But that wasn’t the worst part.
Story Brain? Vanished. The ever-present voices in my head? Silent. The imaginary friends I have lived with since before I can remember? Absent.
For the first time I can recall, I was utterly and completely alone.
I want to tell you I was brave and found an inner strength I didn’t know I possessed but that would be a lie. I fell apart. My anxiety and depression hit like a hurricane. I spiralled. I didn’t sleep. I cried. A lot. I cancelled the few commitments I’d made and retreated into a well of self-pity and despair. I forbade Fred from returning home early—it was the least I could do after raining on his Bahamas parade and it would only have made me feel worse—but those two weeks stretched until it felt like months.
The silence ate me alive. Silence…how strange, how unnerving. My whole life has been a cacophony of interior conversations, story ideas, character voices, writing plans, and fully realized “movies” created by Story Brain. I’ve never known actual silence.
A few flesh-and-blood friends sensed my unhappiness (thanks, Facebook) and checked in on me by phone or internet, but I was lost in loss yet again. I thought I had grieved the loss of my desire to write but this was something else. This was the difference between a phone call to let you know a loved one has died and staring at their corpse right in front of you.
I did seek out medication to calm myself and eventually Fred returned. I have settled down and as depressing as the darkness and cold and rain continue to be, at least there are other voices in this house besides my own.
I’m not sure what to do next but I decided to write this post as a way to perhaps, somehow, through some remaining dregs of magic, remind myself of the voices that were, and of the imaginary friends that may return someday…if I don’t stop believing and if I’m lucky. I know that this year I need to focus on meeting real people in the place where I live. I need to continue building on my strengths to keep my head above water. I also need a Plan B, C, D, E and even F, in case I find myself alone again.
To quote Mark Watney from The Martian:
“At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you… everything’s going to go south and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem… and you solve the next one… and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”
I have problems to solve. It’s time to begin.
I was captivated by your writing which struck a deep cord in me. I hope we meet again one day Christine it has been far too long…
Awww, thank you John. And I agree!