This post is aimed at providing some ideas about what a person can do to occupy themselves during periods of time in isolation. This post is based on research I carried out looking at people’s experience of solitary confinement. I carried out interviews with former hostages and political prisoners about their use of imagination and how they got through time spent in isolation. There were common themes in their responses and some of these seemed to me to be relevant to what it is like to get through periods of social isolation.
Part One: Experiences of social isolation
When people first experience social isolation, they tend to feel disoriented for a while. When someone experiences another period of isolation, this early disorientation does not feature. It seems that we can learn how to adapt to such a condition and that this gives us the skills we need to deal with future periods of isolation.
Nevertheless, disorientation need only be a short phase.
During a period of social isolation, a person’s thinking may be disrupted. They may find it difficult to keep track of what they were thinking about. If this happens, it may help to imagine that there is someone present who can act as a virtual listener. In other words, imagine that there is someone else with you as an imagined presence: carry out your thinking with them as if it were an imaginary conversation.
What is important is to use imagination as a way of continuing to gain support from your community of family and friends. The main theme that came out of my research was the importance of social exchange and how this is what normally sustains us. What is important to know is that social exchange can be an imagined conversation and that this will also work. Phones and computers have given us extra means of communication and are a very good way to imagine the virtual reality of our community. Even if you never go online, it is valuable to imagine yourself as part of the community of friends and that this is ongoing. If you speak to someone on the phone, you can continue to imagine their presence after the end of the call. Think of others as continuing to think about you as you continue to think about them. An imagined social contact need never be broken by the end of a phone call or a break in transmission.
It is comforting to think of ourselves as continuing to be part of a community. One of the former hostages who I spoke to about isolation said this to me about being placed in ‘house arrest’:
“The terrible thing about solitary confinement, and confinement of this kind, is the sense of total abandonment, the isolation factor; that you’re alone, unjustifiably, and nobody cares. And that’s a terrible feeling which I think reduces you a lot inside yourself. And to discover when you come back that people have written to you – although the letters haven’t arrived – that they have campaigned; that they have gone to parliament; that there’s been activity; where people have really cared counteracts that and seems to be of enormous importance. … The “No man is an island” idea is really true. And that we are all interlinked. And we all are in some way responsible for the rest of the human family.”
Instead of ‘I think, therefore I am’ we can imagine ‘Others think of me, therefore I continue to exist’. Our minds need not be confined by the walls that confine us physically. We can occupy a virtual social world of friends and family.
Part Two: Occupying yourself
Writers, artists and composers have always been able to sustain themselves in isolation because of the virtual worlds that they create. Mind you, they take care to direct their imagination towards their acts of creation. Self-discipline is needed to ensure that a person doesn’t simply drift. Here, the idea is to draw on their examples to help sustain us.
Writers, artists and composers are used to working behind closed doors and within the walls of their workrooms. Having set themselves a path for their thinking, they let go of the reins and allow their minds to work freely for a while. Setting a period to do this often helps. When acting like a writer, any form of writing will do as long as it gives some scope for imagination. Before starting something like the examples below, try carrying out the exercise in your imagination only. Many of those I spoke to had nothing by way of writing or other materials and so were left to do the whole thing as an act of imagination.
Writing a daily journal can be the kind of exercise. Grant yourself the scope to write about all aspects of your experience so that you can feel unconstrained in your writing.
Putting together a set of photos with captions and comments that you keep in a scrap book (or post online) will allow you to curate your own exhibition with ready-made materials you have to hand.
Working out a set list of musical pieces that you think might be good for someone in your community. Again, the musical choices can be ready to hand. Add some ‘sleeve notes’ of your own that say something of the choices you have made and what they mean to you.
These are just examples and not exhaustive of the possibilities that you have to exercise your imagination.
One of the political prisoners wrote about being placed once again in solitary confinement and how he used his active imagination:
“Knowing all this in advance, I would try, when sent to the box, to smuggle in a fragment of pencil lead, usually by hiding it in my cheek. Then I could spend my time drawing castles – on scraps of newspaper or directly on the floor and walls. I set myself the task of constructing a castle in every detail: from the foundations, floors, walls, staircases and secret passages right up to the pointed roofs and turrets. I carefully cut each individual stone, covered the floor with parquet or stone flags, filled the apartments with furniture, decorated the walls with tapestries and paintings, lit candles in the chandeliers and smoking torches in the endless corridors. I decked the tables and invited guests, listened to music with them, drank wine from goblets, and lit up a pipe to accompany my coffee. We climbed the stairs together, walked from chamber to chamber, gazed at the lake from the open veranda, went down to the stables to examine the horses, walked round the garden – which also had to be laid out and planted. We returned to the library by way of the outside staircase, and there I kindled a fire in the open hearth before settling back in a comfortable armchair. I browsed through old books with worn leather bindings and heavy brass clasps. I even knew what was inside those books. I could even read them.”
Taking an imagined favourite walk along familiar streets and through parks or fields will also work. What’s important is the detail. Take the time to imagine the scene in detail and include sounds and other sensations, such as the feel of sloping ground underfoot.
However small the outlook from where you live, a window can afford a multitude of novel impressions and create opportunities for all kinds of composition.
Defining this activity by having an endpoint to stop for, say, a period of physical exercise, ensures you can let go for a while in the knowledge that you will call yourself back at a given time. What calls you back is the other side of the coin, the self-discipline to carry out regular activities.
There will be difficult days. People I spoke to acknowledged that it’s not always easy to imagine something and get lost in the sideways escape. Sometimes they felt apathetic and lethargic. And this is also their experience of isolation. Nonetheless, it’s possible to keep these to shorter and shorter periods and work on making better days last longer. There is a need to plan your days and to have the self-discipline to continue with a plan on the off days. Writers, artists and composers have these days when nothing much is happening. They come to see it as part of the process. Nonetheless, as all those I spoke to declared, everyone can find an imaginative way through periods of isolation. We can get through with what one person called a mixture of concerted effort and muddling through.
We occupy ourselves as we occupy our minds and we can do this in imagined worlds.