Tuesday, 19 January 2016

What I learned from living in isolation

A year ago I was so overwhelmed by stress and anxiety that I chucked it all in and moved to the wilderness. I rented a cottage alone in the New Zealand bush with spectacular views, no internet or cell reception, and a five-hour bicycle ride through the mountains to the nearest shop.

It was the best year ever.

Here's what I learned...

I'm exactly who I thought I was.

I've always suspected that I'm the kind of introvert who would flourish in complete isolation, but I never knew for sure. Turns out I am, and living alone is awesome.

My stress is from people.

I can't talk for anyone else at all, but it turns out my stress and anxiety come entirely from social interactions.

When I moved into the wilderness I went abruptly from being an anxious and stressed-out wreck to a sedate blob in a constant state of low-level contentment. Suddenly my only concern in the whole world was whether I cleaned my cottage too much to damage the balance of bacteria in the septic tank.

What I care about.

It was important to me that I didn't force myself to do anything. I told myself that if I wanted then I could just spend my days reading books and looking at trees.

Yet I didn't go a day without writing. Maybe that's force of habit after years of daily writing, but even that's awesome. I needed to write to feel happy.

Turns out writing is definitely what I care about and an essential part of my life.

What you do with your day changes how you think.

This sounds obvious but I've never seen it as clearly as I did when I lived in isolation. My mind got slow and relaxed and I'd only think book thoughts.

But when I cycled into town and got phone reception, suddenly I'd be back to thinking about people and social concerns or whatever I read on the internet. It was like a stain that seeped into my way of thinking for hours afterward.

If I know about gigs that I'm not going to, I feel bad for missing out. But when I didn't know anything that was going on I never felt lonely or like I was missing something. You truly can't miss what you don't know you're missing.

You get used to things quickly.

I know plenty of people who say they couldn't live without the internet, but after a few weeks you don't even think about it anymore. Habits are easy to break when there's no opportunity.

Not talking to anyone? Not a problem when it's your choice and you're used to it. Weekly cycle ride to buy supplies? Goes from a big deal to taken for granted.

Who we are and what we care about is shaped so much by what we're exposed to every day. I was incredibly fortunate to get this chance and I found out who I am for real and what's important to me—and I like that person.

Unfortunately it's not financially viable to keep living in the bush and reading books full-time, otherwise I would still be there today. But even though my year's up and I'm returning to the world of social stress and job stress, I'm glad that I got this chance to look at beautiful scenery every day and worry about nothing deeper than cleaning supplies.

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