Into The Wild: 4 Women On Why They Chose To Live In Isolation

Cats, dogs, introverts, extroverts; whatever you want to call it, most people would agree that there are two types of person in the world: the ones who can spend hours alone, reading books, ignoring their messages, content with their own company, and the ones who crave outward stimulation and rely on social situations for their fun. According to experts in personality type, extroverts are the happier bunch, but that might just be because society (by virtue of being social) conditions us to think that it’s the better way to be.
I’ve always aspired to be a “cat”– self-sustaining, aloof – but find that I am, hopelessly, against my better intentions, not just any dog but a spaniel. I need attention and distraction to thrive; more than 24 hours alone and I become listless, bored of myself. For this reason, any lone holiday I have ever been on was conducted as a sort of test. It usually ends up the same way: I spend half of the trip chatting on the phone to my friends, or else drunk by mid-afternoon – a salve for the quietness of being in my own company. I don’t enjoy it. It feels like a fail.
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This condition of neediness has led to a fascination with introverts. I always date the introverted personality type, as though I might contract some of their independence by proximity. I read about introverts incredulously – Olivia Laing’s book of isolated artists, The Lonely City, for example, or the writer Hayley Campbell’s much-shared recent Observer piece on the pursuit of loneliness. And when I can, I talk to people who have done it, people who have sought out isolation. Why do they do it? Do they get scared at night? Bored? Can extroverts turn themselves into introverts? Could I ever be one?
Below, four women answer these questions, explaining why they swapped a life of busy socialising for a life of self-exile.
Photo: Simon Bradfield/Getty Images.

Penny, 27, Cumbria

Where and what did you leave behind when you decided to move?
I’d been in London seven years when I decided to leave. I left in December 2016 for a small village in the Lake District. I was worried about leaving friends, social circles I’d worked hard to create and nurture, especially coming to a place where the opportunity wouldn’t exist to create anything resembling that. I’d spent time here with my family and I’d never seen the kind of social stuff happening that I was interested in. So it’s not like I could map my London life onto a life here. It just lacks the diversity. I only knew the 92-year-old woman who lived across the road!
So why did you decide to make these sacrifices?
I lost my dad and London had become unbearable. I was having panic attacks on the Tube. It’s really unbearable for something like that to happen, then to come back to your city and be faced with hundreds of people who seem like they don’t care. No one is stopping their day. You want to stop people and say, ‘Don’t you realise this thing has happened?’ but you can’t. I had come back to my old life and everything around me was the same but everything in my life was different. I felt I needed to make a change that would fully represent that, something that would match the scale of what had happened. I chose the Lakes because I wanted to be somewhere that I’d have the headspace to process this massively traumatic event. In London I think it would have taken me years of counselling to do what the Lake District has done for me in 10 months. When you’re experiencing grief it’s difficult to be surrounded by people who feel like they have to say something when everything they say is irrelevant and annoying. It’s nice to come somewhere where you can go on walks, look at the landscape and just think. Or if you want to, just cry in open spaces.
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How has the move surprised you?
In lots of ways. Maybe I was worried about losing out on culture but the experience I’ve had has changed my opinion on that. I’ve got more time up here to engage with the things that interest me, to read more articles and books rather than flitting around doing social stuff. I guess I also felt afraid I’d never meet anyone ever again, move here and die alone. But actually, I feel like a better version of myself when I’m up here, so it feels like there’s more chance to meet someone I’ll be with and actually stay with, because I’m doing stuff that makes me feel more fulfilled.
Do you get lonely?
Of course you get lonely. I had a dark day yesterday of feeling lonely. You have a reckoning with yourself. But I’ve also really got to know myself, how I spend my time when I have more of it, what makes me happy. I don’t think I’d be able to do it without my dog, though. He’s like a security blanket and has definitely made it easier – you socialise more with people when you’ve got a dog, and you’re never truly alone because you’ve got this animal.
Is it forever?
I’m not going to stay here forever, I can’t, I wouldn’t be able to. I need my people and they aren’t here. But I will say that everything I was doing in London, it was like you were meant to produce something from it, achieve progress or have an output. The best thing about being here, among all the mountains, is that you can go on a walk, see everything around you and success just means getting back to your car. Other things matter.
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Photo: Phung Huynh Vu Qui/Getty Images.

Josie, 26, Vietnam

Where did you move to and why?
I moved from Glasgow and London (I’ve kind of flitted between both of them since graduating) to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam at the end of January this year. I’m from interlocked wreaths of really overachieving friends (obviously exacerbated by social media perceptions). I felt relatively immature for my age, I’m super dyspraxic and inept at a lot of things – cycling, understanding bitcoin, reloading staplers and most basic life skills. I think I felt like I needed to go somewhere where I would have a chance to catch up with this for a bit independently. I went straight from school to art school, I never went travelling or had a gap year or job abroad so maybe living somewhere else, alone, felt it would be a good way of making me practise being responsible for my own boarding pass.
What’s your living set-up now? What are your days like?
I moved here for a full-time job, which was almost a comforting framework. I’m really disorganised so knowing I had a purpose here and fairly stringent structure was good; unlike a vague promise to go and travel for a while, I had a start date and ‘reason’ for being here. But I’ve just handed in my notice at my job, I want to find something that allows me to see the country as I’ve started to feel a bit groundhog day and frustrated. On my days off I’ve really enjoyed doing day trips, it’s such an overstimulating country that I want to be able to see more of it.
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Do you get lonely?
Yes, I’m coming home for a month to try and alleviate that a bit. My social life here is virtually non-existent. I miss going out but on the upside I barely drink here so I’ve probably paid alms to my liver and that’s been good for my mental health as well. Being hungover in 36 degree heat with capricious 360-degree motorbike traffic is unwise. I really miss Cava, my dog, a social life, the Guardian Weekend magazine, All4, kissing.
What have you learned about yourself?
That my face sweats more than I ever thought possible! I guess I’ve always had a contradictory relationship with sociability – in certain scenarios I can be really over-dominant and extroverted, shrill and trying to interject. But equally I'm incredibly socially anxious, overly concerned and sensitive to perceptions of how I'm coming across. Here I have heightened versions of both. My current job is devising and delivering visual art workshops, mainly for children. Often I'll feel a bit starved of adult conversation – not having the friends or partner to recite or unravel daily events to means that in rare social scenarios I talk unrelentingly and forget to ask enough questions about the other person. Conversely, I now shrink away completely from forced sociability, I enjoy eating by myself and spending days off by myself. I sulk a lot if this itinerary is compromised by what someone else wants to do.
How long is this for? Is this permanent?
It is doleful seeing Brexit play out from a distance. Britain isn't a very inviting place to return to!
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Photo: Manfred Vollmer/Getty Images.

Juno, 53, Andalucía

Where do you live?
In the middle of nowhere, in the mountains in Andalucía. I’d never been to Spain before I moved there. I was taking my mum there on holiday and I’d just sold my house in London, so I had money in the bank. My mum said, ‘Why don’t you buy a house here in Spain?’ and I thought, ‘Why would I do that?’ I’d been living in or near London my whole life except for when I went to university in Brighton. I had been looking to buy something on the south coast and every time I’d gone it had been grey and raining. I woke up one of the mornings in Spain in January, looked out the window and it was warm, people were walking dogs into the mountains and I suddenly thought, ‘I have to live here, I have to be able to do this, this will chill me out'.
I went to an estate agent and they asked what I was looking for. I said I wanted to be not too near to any people and, if I had to, could they just be Spanish people? And could it be in the mountains not near the sea. At that time of year it’s almond blossom season and it was so beautiful. That smell permeates your lungs, like drugs. Swims over you. I bought the house in two days. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to move on my birthday’ and I did, as a present to myself. I sent my stuff ahead and got my dog transported, but then when I went to go myself, I realised I had forgotten to ask where exactly it was. I hadn’t thought to ask the address!
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What made you leave London?
I felt like I couldn’t be brave here. I wanted to be brave and I couldn’t be in London. It was bringing out nothing in me. I’d lived through the '80s and '90s, been a junkie here. I’d pushed and punched at the edges of it like it was a paper bag. And I was starting to write a bit, talk a bit, but nothing was gelling. I thought if I had a room with a view it might change something for me, make me feel tiny as a person. Admittedly it’s a lot cheaper than London to live but I didn’t buy the house itself to make money – who else is gonna want a fucking house on a mountain in the middle of nowhere? I don’t have children or a partner so I have no reason why I shouldn’t just do what I want to do. It was really an experiment. An adventure with olive trees.
How alone are you?
When I go back in the winter, the whole village – which is four houses – will be empty. When people come and visit they say, ‘Is there a coffee shop?’ and I’m like, ‘Um, no, I did tell you'. I could go a few weeks and not really see anyone. There might be background noise, maybe at the Spanish supermarket. But I didn’t speak any Spanish when I came. I wanted to be somewhere where I didn’t understand anything. I wanted to know what that would feel like, and it’s quite freeing.
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Do you think you could have done this at any other point in your life?
At 26 I couldn’t have coped. My life revolved around clothes, nightclubs, and other people. It was about never being on my own. I could never have done this. But I’m in my 50s now and there comes a point where even the need to need stuff is tiring. I’ve always had a noisy head and London exacerbates it massively. It can be hard to face the silence sometimes but I have routines of collecting wood and building fires and writing. There are rituals. I have always admired other people who are disciplined. I like the discipline of being able to sit under an olive tree and just think, to write for three hours, and to learn to deal with silence.
Photo: Richard SOBERKA/Getty Images.

Karen, 22, Guadeloupe

Where and when did you decide to go?
I decided when I was 21 to go to Guadeloupe for a while. I’d always loved Francophone culture, and always wanted to go. I would have gone sooner but had been ill with parasites, so both my parents hadn’t let me go because they thought the healthcare wasn’t good (although actually it is). I wanted to go with uni but they didn’t offer it for my year abroad. When I was ready to do it on my own, I booked an Airbnb that was listed as “Back to Zion”, seven months in advance (I was that keen). I booked it for six weeks but ended up staying in the country a few weeks longer.
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What was it like there?
I was living alone down a dirt road, 20 minutes off the motorway, in the middle of nowhere. There was a waterfall just up the road, and then I had a stream behind my cabin where I’d wash all my clothes and shower. I had Wi-Fi so I’d make videos of me swimming with the fish. I watched a lot of Netflix. It was an hour's walk to the shops. I’d go to market and buy a lot of rotisserie chicken and mangoes. Cycle around on my bike. I decided to start doing research at the slavery museum in town to keep myself busy. So sometimes I interviewed people there. That would be my day.
Did you get lonely?
I was but also wasn’t. I was so excited to leave London, I hated it. It was overwhelming and I just wanted to be with nobody and talk to no one. But I guess also have the luxury of Wi-Fi so I could see what everyone else was doing. I got FOMO but also had lots of weird experiences where I was like, ‘Well, no one in London would have this… this is way better than a night out in Dalston’. Plus, I wasn’t totally alone. Meeting people came instantly. On my first night I went to dinner with my taxi driver and his family, because he invited me and I thought, ‘Why not? I don’t have plans’. I went straight to their house before the Airbnb.
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At one point, I stayed in another house for about three nights, which was all white French people who were in the country on an exchange scheme. They would say things about black people like I wasn’t there, even though I’m mixed race. We went on a couple of excursions together, but they weren’t the best people. I think that was one of the main things I learnt: that when you’re alone you’ll hang out with people that aren’t your kind of people for the sake of it. Or that people are accommodating and try to help you when you’re a stranger but it can definitely become a bit smothering.
Why did you leave?
Partly because my brother was ill. Ironically, I booked the trip to escape some of that, to cleanse, but then it wasn’t really the best timing as my brother got sectioned right before I left. At the end I felt like I needed to go home and help my mum. I was also running out of money – it’s quite expensive in Guadeloupe because of import tax. I was ready to leave after a few months – there were too many village dramas and warring families I had befriended. My house was on contested land and at one point someone smashed my windows and I had to stay there another two weeks with no windows. I guess that was quite scary.
Did you learn anything about whether you’re more introverted or extroverted?
I think both. Actually, an introvert trying to be an extrovert. Going away alone made me get my confidence back after difficult things that were going on at home. It made me remember I can be outgoing with strangers, although I don’t like to talk about myself. Being in a different environment reminded me of my ability to acclimatise, and travelling reminded me of my ability to get on a plane or get in a taxi – just really basic things we forget we can do.
Would you do it again?
Yes, but for a longer period and alone. Making new friends is good for a night but then when you’re somewhere for weeks you end up with the same guilt saying no to people as you would at home. But it’s even worse because the people you’ve met are technically still strangers. Next time I’d probably try to avoid making friends!
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