Privacy, noun: the state or condition of being free from being observed or disturbed by other people.
I have been thinking a lot about privacy lately. It started as a feeling, a desire to hide and push the world away. I have lived my life as an open, transparent and social person (even though inwardly I was a suffering introvert). I have volunteered, served on boards, belonged to circles, groups and clubs. I had my first job at 14 (a junior correspondent for the local newspaper) and haven't stopped working since then.
I have always been surrounded by communities of other humans. Well, not always.
I grew up in a rural area in South Central Pennsylvania. After my sister was born and my mom was preoccupied with her care, I spent most of my time alone, wandering the streambed or in the backyard. My companions were our family dog, the feral cats, crayfish, water snakes, the black maple, the snowball bush, the yucca plants, the trumpet vines, the rose of sharon, the songbirds....
When I had to start kindergarten and spend hours away from my friends, the birds and plants and animals, I developed migraines. My migraines were so severe that I would vomit regularly. The doctors couldn't diagnose a cause, and so I would just chew the disgusting pink Tylenols and then vomit them up and lay in a dark room, waiting for it to pass.
Those migraines built and intensified over the years until one day in my twenties, I lost my vision temporarily while at work, and needed my husband to come and drive me to the doctor. I had developed ocular migraines, another flavor of distress being sent as a smoke signal from my nervous system.
Imitrex, beta blockers, anti-seizure medicines, antidepressants, therapy, job changes, relationship changes, and always migraines. Later I discovered yoga, meditation, acupuncture and diet changes, and I finally started to get some relief in duration and frequency, but they never went away.
I started to deeply listen to the migraine, to watch and feel the energy. What I noticed was that the energy of my body would flee up into my over-thinking brain and out into a world of fantasy. The muscles of my head and neck would constrict (along with the blood vessels) in response to the rising energy. It felt like my head put on a tight lid to try and keep me down in my body. I would push through this initial phase of response (due to the belief that I "had to") and it wouldn't be long before a pinpoint blood vessel in my temple, or deep in my inner ear, or behind my eye, would start its sickening, throbbing assault that blinded all else and reduced my world to just one narrow focus. I would retreat to darkness. To cool air. To stillness and quiet. And I would be fully present to the pulsing of life in that one vessel of my head.
The only response to the migraine, was privacy. Sensory deprivation. Retreat. Solitude. Aloneness. The nervous system would violently reject any stimulation. I was forced into privacy. Hostage to this desperate need from a nervous system gone rogue.
But had it gone rogue? Or was it truly doing its best to deal with circumstances it was not equipped for.
Our brains sort, sift, prioritize and process all of the information that we encounter in our internal and external environment. Sounds, smells, tastes, temperature fluctuations, humidity fluctuations, movements (internal and external). Every single stimulus registers on the nervous system, but only a small amount of stimuli make it to consciousness. Each nervous system has its own set of codes and programs for what information is prioritized. These codes develop through epigenetics, through social conditioning, through lived experience, current needs, and trauma. The stimuli that register for one person will register differenty or not at all for another person. If a group of people experience the same event, they will all remember it slightly (or wildly) differently, depending on what they have registered as important about the event. Or how that external stimuli triggered internal stimuli, etc.
The body language, gestures, words and presence of other humans requires a lot of sensory filtering. We are all coded to prioritize signals from fellow humans. We are social creatures, and apex predators. There are not many other species that are dangerous to us, but our fellow humans certainly are. When we are in the presence of other humans, we are constantly reading cues about our approval or our missteps. For those of us who tend toward an introverted processing of stimuli (meaning we need time alone to digest our experiences), the endless stream of stimulation starts to congest and congeal, unable to be metabolized. This may be true of extroverted processors as well to some extent.
The amount of time we are required to spend in communities of other humans who are not a close-knit family or village, has increased exponentially in the past hundred years. Then we added on the ever-present eye of social media, text messages, facetime, Alexa notifications, television. We are constantly being bombarded with messages, communications, information and suggestions from other humans. These bits of information are highly prioritized by the brain, and an addictive cycle ensues. The lesser prioritized stimuli become ignored, and we find ourselves overwhelmed, with tired brains, aching bodies, neglected housework, abandoned hobbies, and a growing loneliness for real connection to self and others.
The definition of privacy as the freedom from being observed or distubed by other people really struck me. Anytime there is another human near, I feel observed. I feel the need to notice and attend to their slightest signals. This, in itself is disturbing and disruptive to the nervous system. I love humans, and I love the company of dear ones. And I need privacy. I need it like oxygen. Like water. This need is something many of us discovered during the long quarantine times. We tended gardens, reconnected with hobbies, and started to feel a slight down-regulation in our nervous systems. I don't think we will fully understand the implications of that body-level learning for years.
Since I have learned to prioritize my solitude and privacy, my migraines have been increasingly rare.
Digital privacy is the next frontier for me to reclaim my sense of solitude. I had a dream this week of a beautiful Crane that transformed into a Dragon. I was watching her eat a shimmering, silvery fish. She glanced my way and I raised my phone to take a picture, even though I knew I should stay present in the moment with her. At the moment I raised my phone, she lunged at me, mouth agape. It was the last thing I saw through my phone screen.
The wild dragon power comes with a message of boundaries. The silvery fish symbolizes the salmon of wisdom in my Druid tradition. The Crane is the wise crone. Digesting wisdom requires full presence, and it requires solitude and privacy. I do not owe the world my attention, or a constant window into my life. I owe myself the freedom from disturbance and constant observation. I can't tell you what to do, but I think you owe it to yourself, too.