Embracing a Life of Solitude

By SARAH MASLIN NIR
Published: April 14, 2010 - NY Times


FOR the last 16 years, Nick Fahey has been living on an island in the San Juan archipelago north of Puget Sound, in Washington state, where his only full-time companion is a 26-year-old quarter horse called Ig. Mr. Fahey, 67, lives in a cabin on 100 wooded acres that has been in his family since 1930; it has no refrigerator, but there is electricity generated by solar panels, so he has light and can charge his cellphone.

Nick Fahey’s cabin on Cypress Island, Wash., is an hour by boat from the nearest town. He uses solar panels to charge a cellphone to stay asconnected as he wants to be
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There are few amenities of the material kind, but his days are his own. Time, he said, is “one of the real luxuries of living out here.” With the exception of cutting wood for fuel and to support himself — occasionally he makes a trek to neighboring islands or the mainland, to sell the wood or buy groceries — he is free to do as he pleases. Most days are spent rambling around the rocky island and drinking coffee, his favorite French Market brand with chicory.

“I don’t worry about whether I am clothed or not,” Mr. Fahey said. “But the weather is such that it’s a good idea to wear some clothes.”

Getting away from it all: it’s a common fantasy. But for some people, fantasizing isn’t enough. For whatever reason — the desire for peace and quiet in an increasingly frenetic world, an attempt to escape the intrusiveness of technology or the need for an isolated place to recover from heartbreak — they feel compelled to act out the fantasy, seeking the kind of solitude found only in the remotest locations.

The compulsion to live in isolation can be attributed to any number of factors, said Elaine N. Aron, a psychologist and the author of “The Undervalued Self” and “The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.”

Nick Fahey, 67, keeps a neat kitchen and sleeping loft at his cabin on Cypress Island, Wash.


Some people might “really need their downtime,” Dr. Aron said, and seek out “isolation that avoids all social intercourse.” Others may have developed an “avoidant attachment style” in childhood, resulting in “a need to prove to themselves that they don’t need anybody,” she said.

For many people, though, the desire for extreme solitude may have simpler roots, she noted: “It could be because they want a mystical experience. You can’t pathologize that.”

When it comes to striking out alone in the wilderness, however, men may be more inclined to do that than women, said John T. Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. “In our culture, there is this mythic individualism that we cherish,” said Dr. Cacioppo, who studies the biological and cognitive effects of isolation. “That’s particularly true for men — they are supposed to be an island unto themselves. They take that myth more seriously and try to pursue it.”

For some, he added, a divorce later in life or another equally jarring event may trigger that impulse. “Losing connections during that period of your life becomes very traumatizing,” he said. “One way to deal with that is to prove that you don’t need anyone.”

In Mr. Fahey’s case, he moved to the island full time in 1994, several years after he divorced, not because he was traumatized, he said, but because he liked the “feeling of freedom when you’re by yourself. You don’t have to answer to anybody.”

His daughter, Anna, 36, now visits about once a month, and his son, Joe, 39, who lives in France, comes once a year. There are a handful of other residents on the other side of the island, but Mr. Fahey prefers not to socialize with them.

“I’m not a misanthropic recluse sort of guy,” he said. “I just know that I’d rather be here by myself.”

Once a week, though, he does venture to Anacortes, a town on the mainland, 10 miles away by boat, to visit his 99-year-old father in an assisted-living home and to see his girlfriend, Deborah Martin, whom he has been dating for 15 years.

Ms. Martin, 56, explained: “We are both pretty independent, and I imagine that’s partly why it works. We don’t have the same expectations that other couples might, like, ‘I need you to be here every night.’ ”


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Replies to This Discussion

In other words they get a little some-some once a week and that's fine by them.

Sounds good to me. Though not having a fridge? Maybe that's taking it a little too far.
Really interesting. I have found myself growing more and more solitary lately. Not that I am an antisocial, but I just genuinely enjoy solitude. There is a certain freedom in being alone and only responsible to yourself.

I'm not sure if I could handle living in total isolation, though; I would still want the option of seeing people regularly if I chose.
When it comes to striking out alone in the wilderness, however, men may be more inclined to do that than women, said John T. Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. “In our culture, there is this mythic individualism that we cherish,” said Dr. Cacioppo, who studies the biological and cognitive effects of isolation. “That’s particularly true for men — they are supposed to be an island unto themselves. They take that myth more seriously and try to pursue it.”

Why a myth? Maybe there's something with the Y chromosome. Male deers have a lonely life while females are gregarious.
I can understand the desire for solitude. In my later years, I have become quite reclusive myself, and rarely meet with people other than my wife. I do try to meet with my friends every month or so, and I can't survive without the internet.

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