Isolation in Fiction and Reality
Many of us are having experiences with isolation as we experience various degrees of shelter in place and quarantine measures. Some of us live alone, experiencing contact with others only from a distance. Others live like a group of astronauts in a spaceship, relying on each other for social contact but also infringing on one another’s space. What does the experience of real people tell us about isolation? How have characters in science fiction and fantasy coped with similar circumstances?
Mark Watney, The Martian, by Andy Weir
Mark Watney was a fictional astronaut who was stranded on Mars for 543 sols (approximately one and half Earth years). During most of this time he had no contact of any kind with other people. Eventually he had contact with Earth and his crew over computer messaging before ultimately being rescued.
Mark had practice with isolation prior to being stranded on Mars. As an astronaut, he was in the odd position of being both isolated and overcrowded—trapped in a small space with a small group of people, but with no social contact beyond that small group. In this kind of setting, tempers are likely to flare over small things without careful conflict management. Astronauts are prescreened for certain personality factors, including emotional stability, an openness to new experiences, adaptability, and team orientation. Unfortunately, almost everyone is now having to live under similar conditions without any screening to see if we are suited to such living conditions (most of us aren’t).
For all of us who didn’t sign up for this, real-life astronauts have been generous in sharing their tips with the public with regard to sharing a small space with a small number of people for a long time. Sleep is important because sleep deprivation contributes to irritableness and a weakening of social bonds. Astronauts speak of the importance of keeping a schedule and routine, and of staying mentally and physically active. They also talk about how important it is to have some kind of privacy and boundaries if you are isolated in a group, as Watney was, en route to Mars.
In his book, Deep Survival, journalist Laurence Gonzales makes a list of twelve behaviors displayed by a broad cross-section of real-life survivors of extreme events. They are (paraphrased):
- Perceive situations accurately
- Stay calm, using anger and humor to focus
- Take correct action
- Celebrate successes
- Count blessings
- See beauty
- Believe in success
- Surrender with regard to uncontrollable elements of the situation
- Be determined
- Always do one more thing
Mark Watney displayed all of these characteristics at some point during his solo time on Mars, proving himself to be emotionally and mentally resilient. For example, Mark made a point of celebrating small successes and special days. He did not waste time in denial or in obsessing over issues he could not control. He had a wry sense of humor, which he utilized in the face of triumphs and setbacks. He was able to see the beauty and absurdity in his surroundings and situation. He also had the ability to break down challenges into small, workable units, “working the problem” one step at a time. Without the ability to break down an overwhelming situation into small steps, Watney may well have succumbed to fear, depression, and apathy, leading to death.
Perhaps Watney’s most powerful emotional coping skill was logging journal entries. Even when no one was able to see them, the journal entries reminded him that people cared about his fate. Through these journals he hoped others would benefit from his experiences, and he was able to find an outlet for his emotions and thoughts. He used his journals to communicate and took some solace in doing so even though he thought it likely that no one would read the entries until after his death, posthumous communication being preferable to none. These journals also helped him process each problem one step at a time—which eventually became not just a coping skill but its own mission.
One gets the impression that Watney was incapable of giving up and dying because he could not stop looking for solutions to puzzles, an infinite number of which were laid out before him. When he framed his mission as the “Mark Watney Doesn’t Die Project,” he turned it from a life-for-life’s sake instinctual avoidance of death into an active mission, as though the problem of how to save his life had a meaning outside of himself.
Colonel Christina Eliopolis, World War Z, by Max Brooks
Colonel Eliopolis was stranded in southern Louisiana after surviving a plane crash. She spent two days in isolation hiking out of a zombie-infested swamp to a stretch of elevated freeway where she could be spotted by a rescue helicopter. While two days is not a lengthy period of isolation in comparison to many other survivors of isolation or the present situation, it was significant for Eliopolis because of the intense danger she found herself in from zombies as well as other hazards.
Like Watney, Eliopolis had previous experience with isolation (as a military trainee). However, where Watney coped with being isolated with others by being even-keeled and agreeable, Eliopolis coped by becoming intensely self-contained. Despite being surrounded by other people in training, she felt isolated by the extreme competition and depended on being “self-contained, self-reliant, and always, unquestionably self-assured.” However, her guilt at having survived the crash that killed her crewmates undermined her sense of self-reliance and left her in a panicked, disoriented state.
Eliopolis was saved by a voice from her radio, a woman who climbed to be a skywatcher (a civilian with a ham radio who watched for downed planes) code-named Mets Fan. Mets coached Eliopolis, helping her orient herself and determine the best route to a pickup location and reminding her to stay focused. When Eliopolis wanted to give up, Mets goaded Eliopolis into anger, knowing that this would be a better motivator for Eliopolis than a gentle approach.
After being rescued, Eliopolis was told that there was no record of a skywatcher in that area or any record of anyone named Mets, and that her radio had been broken during the crash. While Eliopolis continued to assert that Mets was real, accumulated evidence suggests that Mets may have been an aspect of Eliopolis’ own subconscious.
Creating an imaginary companion, assuming that was what Eliopolis subconsciously did, is not unusual among isolated adults. People in a variety of survival situations hallucinate helpful companions so often that the phenomenon is known as “third man syndrome” or, more broadly, “the sensed-presence effect.” This phenomenon has been reported since at least the early 1800s among mountain climbers, explorers, shipwreck survivors, divers, and survivors of the 9/11 attacks. For instance, real-life survivor Yossi Ghinsberg, who survived three weeks alone in the Amazon jungle in 1981, believed that he was accompanied for part of the time by a woman who needed his help. Her presence pushed him to survive when survival for its own sake was not enough of a motive.
Let us respectfully assume, for the sake of argument, that these visitations are not divine or supernatural in origin. For our purposes, perhaps what is most interesting about this phenomenon is that it illustrates how deeply people need other people. We need to make connections with others so badly that under certain circumstances we will create people to have connections with out of our own minds. The biological mechanism may involve oxygen, sleep, and stimuli deprivation, as well as stimulation of the temporoparietal junction area of the brain and disrupted signals related to movement.
Psychologically, these experiences may be thought of as the angels of our better selves talking to us—the selves that are calm, determined, highly motivated, and able to problem solve though a haze of adrenaline. In these cases, the brain is not only summoning up the idea of a presence, but also summoning up a presence that provides what the survivor needs, be that comfort, motivation, or guidance. We are capable of, so to speak, being our own best friends.
Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
Offred was a handmaid (a reproductive surrogate) in the patriarchal Republic of Gilead shortly after the overthrow of the United States of America. Offred lived among other people, but because of her precarious social status and the repressive regime, she could not communicate openly with any of them. While her physical fate is, as of the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, unknown, we do know that she survived as an intact personality when many others in her position succumbed to fear and brainwashing, and for this reason, is regarded as a triumphant survivor of an extreme sociopolitical environment.
Handmaids were stripped of their personhood in a multitude of ways. The name “Offred” simply meant “Of Fred,” meaning that Offred belonged to Fred. Upon transfer to another family, her name would be changed. The handmaids wore uniforms, were prohibited from reading and writing, and had very limited communication with each other. Some handmaids rebelled to the point of committing suicide or being exiled or executed, while others became lost in their new roles.
Offred displayed many of the survival behaviors noted by Gonzales. She had a dry sense of humor. She acted out in ways she deemed reasonably safe to assert her own autonomy. Her circumstances demanded endurance more frequently than action, but when allowed the opportunity to take action she took it.
Like Mark Watney, Offred took great solace in keeping a journal, which she recorded on tapes (possibly after her escape). This journal, even if only kept in her own head until her escape, allowed her to speak all the thoughts that could not be safely shared with another person. While she did not create a “sensed-presence” companion, she did, in a very sanity-saving manner, “talk to herself.”
She also had a mission, which was to escape from Gilead and rescue her daughter. While she realized that both outcomes were unlikely, she kept living, and preserving her sense of self, every day, just in case an opportunity presented itself. In this sense, she was always doing “one more thing” simply by continuing not only to live, but to preserve her memories and her sense of autonomy, independence, and self. While Watney and Eliopolis struggled for physical survival, Offred struggled, and succeeded, in mental survival.
People both fictional and actual have lessons to share with us in quarantine. Mark Watney shows us the importance of humor and of taking problems one step at a time. Colonel Eliopolis reminds us that we can access the best part of our brains even, perhaps especially, in times of crisis. Offred reminds us of the importance of enjoying small victories and having the endurance to wait for long-term outcomes.
The story of Offred introduces a new theme, which is that survival depends not only on the mental health of individuals, but on the civil health of communities, and that includes resisting misinformation. In America, survival during this time depends on seeking out reliable sources of information such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, using critical thinking skills, and preparing to vote in local elections as well as the national election on November 3, 2020.
One factor that seems to be crucial to mental health in situations of isolation is having a mission. Both real and fictional astronauts believe that their experiences in space will further human knowledge. Some survivors, both actual (Ghinsberg) and fictional (Eliopolis), manufacture a person to live for from the recesses of their own minds. This imaginary person not only guides them, but also gives them a mission other than simply staying alive for the sake of living.
During the days of stay at home, lockdown, quarantine, and other social distancing measures, our mission is to protect each other from illness. In service to this mission, we can use the same tools as fictional and real survivors. We can structure our days, leaving ample time for play. We can use humor and consideration to ease interpersonal conflicts. We can set goals for ourselves. For many of us, that simply means getting sleep and accomplishing basic tasks: the shower as a triumph! For some people, coping with this new reality means learning new skills or completing old projects. Bully for them! We can also make a conscious effort to appreciate any positives about our situation and enjoy the small beauties around us. And, of course, we can read a lot of science fiction.
Astronaut Cady Coleman, who spent approximately six months in space, constantly reminded herself that even her most routine, dull tasks contributed to the mission of human exploration. She reminds us to focus on our mission of keeping our communities safe:
“The steps may not be . . . exciting. We may not be able to stand up and say: oh, I figured out the vaccine for the virus. But the fact that we stay home, the fact that we figure out how to help other people? Every one of those actions counts.”