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On learning self-isolation is not a solution

By Oleen Florendo, The Philippine Star Published Feb 19, 2021 5:00 am

At some point in the beginning of my 20s, my version of friendship was basically emails with intents to catch up sent sporadically over periods of time. They were birthday greetings to remind us we remembered, messages of apologies on my end, and photo attachments that summarize get-togethers I wasn’t present in.

This wasn’t exactly new to me. Whenever an opportunity arrived to distance myself from friends, I'd hop on it as if my life depended on it. So, for the most part of my summer breaks, I’d be branded as a missing person in my friend group until we were counting down the days before classes started and it was a cue for me to reconnect. 

It all started from a need to temporarily find time for myself outside the circles I was constantly with, until withdrawing turned into a force of habit. I learned in high school that once there’s no longer the trusty convenience of seeing your friends every day, retreating for a while becomes an easier choice than availability. This distance offered me measures to escape the pressure of constantly being in touch, which the internet had brought to anxiety-inducing heights. 

Then came life after college. And with it, unfamiliar storms I wasn't prepared for. It seemed like coming out of a shell of my jaded self, full of idealism for what was to come.

Life after university convinced me that relying on myself would be the most practical coping mechanism. As soon as the educational structures crumbled, it felt important to find my own rhythm first, without pressure from anyone else. Or at the very least, just escape that feeling that my decisions were under someone else’s scrutiny. 

It all started from a need to temporarily find time for myself outside the circles I was constantly with, until withdrawing turned into a force of habit. This distance offered me measures to escape the pressure of constantly being in touch, which the internet had brought to anxiety-inducing heights. 

As I grappled with the changes and adjustments that came with adulthood, I was also faced with mental battles I struggled to seek help with. It didn’t take long before I crawled back and fell deeper into the rabbit hole of detachment. And now, without any more impending classes, I have no formal reason to reconnect with my friends, aside from the sole reason of keeping up friendships, which in hindsight should’ve been reason enough. 

Detaching from people around me was a reliable form of escape. Self-isolation was a tool I used to learn the ropes of where I’m at, and it was a choice that required effort. Growing up on the internet means there’s no absolute way to dodge people unless I go offline forever, which isn’t exactly feasible. But digging a hideaway spot and settling there for a while until I felt like popping my head up again was my way to deal with the unfamiliar. Socializing also began to feel like a responsibility on top of everything else. 

It’d be absurd of me to say I never felt any guilt, but I also didn't want to trouble anyone with struggles I myself was incapable of comprehending. I knew they would see what I was dealing with, with just as much importance as I do, but it wasn't some bad day I could just sleep away or write off. So, with an indefinite time alone, I found a bit of consolation.

Gradually, life began easing up on me to the point where I felt myself again, so I sought the friendships I’d abandoned. By the time I thought I was ready, then came a fear that I wasn’t previously aware of, growing larger by the day. 

I was afraid that my inability to maintain connections had created social gaps I'm now unsure how to bridge. Did I have any business asking people how they were doing now?

I knew it was unfair to just resurface in their lives and continue where we’d left off, as though I hadn’t left them hanging. There wasn’t any form of falling out. It was just me plainly disconnecting without the courtesy of saying why. I didn’t even bring out the “It’s not you, it’s me” card, which might have been better than disappearing without a sensible explanation.

Our friendship became like the paradox of the Schrödinger’s cat, that’s both dead and alive. I couldn’t bring myself to know what was inside the box, so the simultaneous idea of our friendship being both ways was the type of uncertainty I learned to live with. Because, for a time, it was easier that way anyway.

There are apologies that are already due to be sent, but the amount of willpower required is enough to paralyze me into not reaching out. I fear all attempts would just come out as insincere because even I have gotten tired of my miserable versions of an apology. I get cold feet just thinking how much damage I’ve inflicted on friendships that had no visible or underlying cracks. 

There is comfort in solitude, but it's short-lived. Self-isolation, while necessary at times, comes with a price of failed relationships and dying friendships.

But the longer I avoid diving into “the talk,” the more I second-guess what my intentions were for descending into self-isolation. The last time I had a decent conversation with these friends, I still had an abundance of hope in me, plenty to spare for those who might find a piece of it handy. I may not be the same person they once knew, but I’m sure they’ve all grown, too. 

So, I catch myself thinking of the potential connections I could have made if I’d rekindled what we had before. To be with these people, there was no force or need to bend myself in a way that I have to with others. Most days are reminders of how their presence allowed me to get through life’s rough patches.

During my favorite holiday, I received another familiar email. It was from a friend asking how I have been. She shared her struggles like old times and concluded by assuring me that she’s still there, once I’m ready. I built my walls too high and I failed to see we’re all going through this life, but in varying versions, struggling in varying degrees.

There is comfort in solitude, but it's short-lived. Self-isolation, while necessary at times, comes with a price of failed relationships and dying friendships. Who knows when “figuring things out” will actually end? I might as well not face it alone.

In Normal People, Sally Rooney writes: “No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depend on people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not.”

To go through life is never a solitary experience, and it’s misguided of me to think that’s how it should have been — at least when you're in a state of confusion. It’d be nice to catch up with them again over coffee. Whether the outcome will now be just remainders of an irredeemably lost friendship or it will be rekindled and renewed connections — at the very least, I now have answers to bring with me.

Banner art by Katie Chua