“Obama administration urges states to curb the use of solitary confinement” is the headline in The Guardian. It captured my attention so much, but why? I’ve never been to prison or been affected by somebody being incarcerated.
The article continues that Obama has hopes of “reining in a practice that is still widespread despite having been denounced as potentially amounting to torture”
Juan Martinez, the UN special rapporteur on torture has “called for a global ban in all but exceptional cases”
Scientific research has “revealed the adverse psychological effects of locking away prisoners in segregated cells, with some individuals suffering serious depression, suicidal thoughts and behaviour, hallucinations and paranoia within a matter of days “
I started to draw a parallel. From the age of 4, I started to feel isolated and alone. Although I had my family around me there were invisible walls forming. At times I felt distress, separation, something that led me to feeling ‘different’ and often in my own ‘solitary confinement’. I sought comfort through connection and I gained connection through being well mannered and charming. I was the child that adults couldn’t help but pick up, talk to, joke with. In this attention I found temporary relief from the distress of my isolating difference.
As I grew older the parallel with solitary confinement becomes pronounced. As a teenager I spent not days but years looking from my bedroom window out over the playing fields below as boys and girls my own age jostled for attention from each other in a giggly display of teenage courtship. Often the tears would roll down my face as my heart splintered some more from the desperate isolation I was feeling. My ‘shameful secret’ were the four walls of my confinement.
So, as I read this article that likened a few days of solitary confinement to ‘torture’ ( with the attributing impact of depression, suicidal thoughts and behaviour, etc ) I begin to see clearly how my own experience of isolation from age 4 to 17 has contributed to my sense of self. I say ‘up until the age of 17’ because that was the first time in my life that I had ever knowingly been in the presence of somebody else who was like myself. This was the moment the cell door was left ajar. Like a timid, caged animal I was apprehensive at first to push the door open and venture out – uncertain of what lay beyond. Critically I had learned by this point that my life was essentially one I had survived by being alone. My self sufficiency was so well tuned it had saved me from these lonely and desperate days, months and years.
Whatever lay beyond my cage may be interesting but was by no means necessary for my ability to live. I had transformed loneliness into self sufficiency armour.
A month or so ago I read another article that detailed research indicating loneliness significantly shortens life expectancy. Another article appeared showing the relationship between the quality of life and life expectancy of those in healthy relationships with those without. Same conclusion. Combined, it all makes sense to me. If we believe the idea that as humans we are ‘wired for connection’ then surely one of the most damaging, tortuous even, experiences would be to find ourselves alone or feeling alone for sustained periods of time.
Recently I was confronted with a dilemma. I could not afford to continue living in London in my 1 bedroom apartment and cover the ever spiralling cost of living. I’d lived alone in this apartment for over 5 years and it was becoming obvious that I was something of a ‘dying breed’ – most people I knew spread the overheads with flatmates, partners or family members. This was a crisis for me. I loved my space and I felt the prospect of shared living was not only retrograde but also evidence of a personal failure. Rather than move out of the home I loved I settled on the idea of sharing it. A platform space in the living room would become my sleeping space and the bedroom could be rented out. I had no choice, I had to bite the bullet. I asked a friend to move in, which he did, and what emerged was totally unexpected. Far from feeling an imposition or bitterness at the ‘invasion’ of another into a relatively small space, I started to experience contentedness. I returned home to cups of tea and chatter, I awoke with a ‘Good Morning!’ I was asked “Would you like some food? …theres enough for 2” and I relished the opportunity of sharing the daily trials and tribulations of life.
The revelation that sharing my living space enhanced my life belied my ‘self sufficiency script’ To my own surprise I started to mutter the words ‘I wished I’d done this years ago’ Someone had moved into my ‘cell’ and was inhabiting the bottom bunk and it actually felt good!
There was a slogan that was used so powerfully by the HIV/Aids activist group ACT UP in the 1980’s: Silence = Death. They radically shattered the silence that surrounded much of the trauma of the tragic epidemic of that period. Today I can see how Silence = Death can be attributed to social isolation and shame. While my family were heterosexual and could not join me in the difference of my sexual identity – the door out of my confinement could have been discourse. If they had had the tools, the confidence or the awareness to engage me in conversations I may have felt different but included. My experience was I felt different and excluded. If I had felt included then the grip of self sufficiency may have been less critical. I may have learnt to ask for help, to explore my difficulties with others, to have seen the similarities with others, to have been comforted by someone other than myself. I may have learnt the skills of interdependence and relationship. I may have recognised that time can be spent alone not to find comfort or solace but to enjoy the experience for its own sake.
Instead I unwittingly made a virtue out of a necessity.
The parallel between solitary confinement in prisons and my experiences of growing up gay may seem ‘stretched’ but the data and the work I undertake with Gay Men in The Quest Program strike very similar tones. As I listened to the psychological impact on prisoners by specialist psychologists I was able to apply the same reflections to my observations of the impact of growing up gay in a heterosexual family. Apart from the specific hallucinatory effects of solitary confinement, all the other symptoms present themselves in the psychology of many (if not most) gay men.
In much the same way that there are calls for the end of isolation policies in prisons I think it is imperative that parents begin the hard work of talking and listening to their children in order to learn from them. Only by learning about the unique attributes of a childs’ identity, concerns and experiences can their elders help them to avoid feeling isolated and alone. The silence around sexual identity, as with gender identity, is pervasive. Parents often have never considered let alone feel equipped to discuss and explore such matters. This leaves the child in a distressing and vulnerable position with some exhibiting the obvious and destructive signs of distress while others slip under the radar, become self sufficient and survive.