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Sarah Fay

On Solitude (and Isolation and Loneliness [and Brackets])

Illustration by Homestead Studio

Sarah Fay | Longreads | March 2020 | 18 minutes (5,122 words)


This Longreads essay, published in 2020, evolved into a chapter in Sarah Fay’s book, Pathological: The True Story of Six Misdiagnoses, published in March 2022 by HarperCollins.

The change came less as a chrysalis moment, an instant of emergence and blossoming, than after weeks of distress. My apartment at the time was in the rear of the building, away from the street. Even by studio standards, it was tiny — the kitchen too close to the bed, the bed practically touching the bookshelf and the desk. It had a slight view of the Chicago skyline but mainly looked onto a brick wall. My immediate neighbors kept to themselves. They were presences, a series of doors opening and closing. I’d lived contentedly in that remove. It suited me. Then it didn’t. 

Naturally, I blamed my apartment — the claustrophobic lack of square footage, the oppressive brick wall. The moment I walked in the door, I felt a crushing weight on my chest, followed by a pit in my stomach. My environment had to be the cause.

In his essay on solitude, the 16th-century essayist Michel de Montaigne disagrees: “Our disease lies in the mind, which cannot escape from itself.” Finding contentment in solitude requires self-reliance. (Ralph Waldo Emerson would later agree, though he remained very much engaged in public life.) Montaigne advises us to keep a “back shop,” a private room within the self, where others can’t enter. Plaster and wood have nothing to do with it. We must have “a mind pliable in itself, that will be company.” My inner back shop had somehow transformed from a place of solitude to one of isolation and loneliness.

The ideal of solitude is strength. It’s a skill to be mastered: the ability to be alone without feeling lonely.  Read more…