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The Horror of Isolation

Why is solitary confinement considered torture? Groups ranging from Amnesty International to the American Psychological Association have declared it such, and they ought to know what they’re talking about. It’s torture because we humans are highly social animals, dependent on one another not only for the smooth functioning of society but for contact, touch; reassurance that we are not — in the end – in this thing alone. To be cut off from all of those ties and locked in a box with nothing but one’s increasingly deteriorating thoughts… well. Dante may have had his fantastical interpretation of what true torture is, but I think he was a bit more dedicated to grand guignol than he needed to be. True torment is locked inside of all of us, locked deep inside our minds where – if we’re lucky – it will stay, benumbed by novel stimuli and soothed by the loving social attentions of our fellow humans.

America – and in particular the American West – is liberally laced with various mythologies ranging from that of the lone, heroic cowboy to the mythical figure of the scrappy entrepreneur. Many of these tropes are based on the common theme of heroic individualism. While it is undoubtedly true that individuals (supported by communities and social institutions of all kinds, of course) have accomplished great things, strip an individual of their community and their context and leave them well and truly alone. Now watch as the horror begins to set in.

What happens during a slow-moving apocalypse of isolation? We must learn to cope with horror, of course*. First, there is the horror of the world outside of our little boxes – the horror of the plague that drove us into hiding. In our current circumstances, the horror outside our door is a nasty virus, but the threat could just as easily have been (indeed, might still be) war, or famine, or (I suppose) a thrumming cataclysm of locusts. Whatever it is that drives us apart, separates neighbor from neighbor and brother from mother, that first horror is amplified by the act of hiding, necessary though it be. Thus begins the second horror of isolation.  

Stripped of social contact, the human mind begins to cannibalize itself. Conversations with one’s self, laughter at one’s clever jests, even anger or the occasional sob – these are the hallmarks of what may, at first, seem like a lively solo social life. Do not be fooled: these are actually the telltale vapors produced by the gradual decomposition of a human psyche. Step by step, as the rot intensifies, one’s cognitive and emotional states become fragile things of paper and smoke, hardly the stony foundations of a solid self. Remove our friends, our families, our cities and towns and are we anything more than shadows, rumors, memories of our former selves?

Robbed of live music in a raucous bar, stripped of touch, we’ve been given Zoom and Skype by the bloodless, dead-faced Great God Tech. Those who envisioned futuristic calamity for mankind dreamed up cannibal hordes and fallout-ravaged mutants, but they never imagined the simple, inescapable severity of isolation.

And yet, in the midst of horror there is usually great beauty and, if you know where and how to look, hope. People have become achingly aware of their need for each other during this time, and that has led to a consummate revaluing of things. We’ve decided that human contact, human love – human life, in particular – have values that are far beyond monetary. Without the horrors of isolation would we know the true value of community? I think that a glance at the last few decades of life in the USA gives you the answer to that question.

They say it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, and so in that spirit if you or someone you know are struggling with self-harm, please call 1-800-273-8255 or reach out via the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s website. If you are experiencing acute mental distress, you should call the SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline at 1-877-726-4727 for help. Remember; this too shall pass, and although thing s may seem grim now, we do have each other to rely on as human beings. That’s more reassuring than most people realize.

*: NOTE: In no way do I mean to actually compare the situation of stay-at-home orders to actual solitary confinement, which is an epidemic in American prisons and a disgrace among disgraces when it comes to our corrections system.

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