Was Emily Dickinson’s Seclusion Social Anxiety or a Practical Choice?
At a party 4 or 5 years ago, a friend of mine told someone I’d just met that it was unusual for me to get out of the house like this because I’m always home writing. She told this person that because that’s what I’d told her.
I have a feeling my friend didn’t really believe that’s why I stayed home so much, but it made for a good introduction – the romantic tale of a dedicated writer secluding herself from the world for the good of her work.
Of course, the real reason I didn’t go out more often was because of my social anxiety.
I wasn’t home because I was writing so much; I was writing so much because I was home.
I’m reminded of this because of the research I’ve been doing on Emily Dickinson’s reclusiveness.
Practical choice or mental illness?
There are scholars who suggest the famous poet’s seclusion in her family’s Amherst, Massachusetts, home was a “practical” choice made for the good of her work. As stated in Emily Dickinson’s bio on PoetryFoundation.org:
“[Emily Dickinson] has been termed ‘recluse’ and ‘hermit.’ Both terms sensationalize a decision that has come to be seen as eminently practical.”
But after reading half a dozen texts on the subject, I find it difficult to come to such a conclusion, as her extreme behaviors seem hard to attribute to anything but a mental health issue.
“Among Dickinson scholars, disagreement exists concerning whether hers was a deliberate choice as an artist to isolate herself so she could focus on her work or whether such unusual behavior as her startled flight from the doorbell, an increasing inability to see or visit friends, and speaking with select visitors from behind a darkened door rather than face to face, had a medical origin, such as an anxiety condition.”
Spare me the fairy tale version
I turned to the life story of Emily Dickinson because I thought she was someone who other women with social anxiety disorder could identify with.
Instead, I’ve encountered a body of work evidently devoted to dismissing the possibility of mental illness in favor of the more romantic, fairy tale alternative of reclusiveness as a practical choice for art’s sake.
I get the appeal.
Back when I was telling people I stayed home so much because I was writing it made me feel better about something that, honestly, I felt really bad about – hiding away from the world.
As much as I love being at home, I start to feel bad about it after a while, knowing I’m not making the healthiest of choices – basically, beating myself up for giving in to my disorder.
That’s not to say I never get out. I do, several times a week, but I always feel like I’m living less than I should.
I wonder how Emily Dickinson felt about that.
Did she want more?
Whether she chose her seclusion or not, how did she feel about what she was missing?
We know how important friendships were to Emily, calling her friends her “estate.” She relied on correspondence for the cultivation of these relationships, writing thousands of letters to friends over the years.
But did Emily Dickinson want more?
I know I do.
There’s only so much of a relationship I can cultivate with people via my least anxiety-inducing communication options — text and email. But often I just can’t bring myself to pick up the phone to call someone, much less make plans to see them.
Up until 3 months ago, nobody knew this about me. I mean, I revealed things in the broadest of strokes, as in “I have social anxiety.” But it’s only in writing for this website that I’ve revealed details of what my social anxiety looks and feels like for me.
At first this kind of sharing was gut-wrenching, but so far it’s accomplishing what I’d hoped – making less shameful this secret I’ve been trying to hide most of my life.
I hate to think Emily Dickinson felt shame about the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors stemming from an anxiety disorder (if that’s what it was) and felt unfulfilled in her reclusiveness.
But what’s more disturbing to me is if the people asserting that her reclusiveness was a practical choice are doing so because of the stigma associated with mental illness.
Just to be clear here, there is a distinction between anxiety and anxiety disorders.
An anxiety disorder is a mental illness that is more intense than normal anxiety, lasts longer, and interferes with your daily life.
These disorders include panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, specific phobias (e.g, agoraphobia), and substance-induced anxiety disorder.
Beliefs don’t make them true
Would it be wonderful if one of the world’s most important poets was wise enough to manufacture the life of seclusion necessary to achieve such greatness?
I don’t think so.
The more inspiring story – and what I believe to be the true one – is that Emily Dickinson wrote some of the world’s most important poetry while living with mental illness.
But it doesn’t matter what I believe or what anyone else believes about Emily Dickinson’s mental state. These beliefs don’t make them true.
No matter the poems, correspondence, or stories we have to go by, it’s impossible for us to accurately diagnose Emily Dickinson with anything more than a century after her death (including any of the other mental illnesses she’s been posthumously “diagnosed” with, depression and bipolar disorder among them).
Hell, it’s hard enough getting accurate diagnoses for people who are alive.
Where does this leave me?
The only thing I’m more certain about after this exploration is how much I want to find women who I can identify with – women who have lived this struggle with anxiety too.
So what if Emily Dickinson isn’t one of them? She’s still inspiring, as a woman, an artist, a friend.
Plus, millions of women have been diagnosed with anxiety disorders (at twice the rate of men, by the way). And millions of other women with normal anxiety struggle with that too.
I have all of you.