Suleika Jaouad: How Can We Transform Loneliness Into Creative Solitude? As a cancer patient, Suleika Jaouad spent years in and out of hospital rooms, isolated from the outside world. She shares her insights on finding creative solitude during periods of forced isolation.
NPR logo

Suleika Jaouad: How Can We Transform Loneliness Into Creative Solitude?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/842682581/843626446" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Suleika Jaouad: How Can We Transform Loneliness Into Creative Solitude?

Suleika Jaouad: How Can We Transform Loneliness Into Creative Solitude?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/842682581/843626446" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

On the show today, loneliness and how we can navigate it, especially now when so many people are so isolated.

SULEIKA JAOUAD: I don't consider myself an expert on many things. But isolation is something I know very well and very intimately.

ZOMORODI: This is Suleika Jaouad.

JAOUAD: I am a writer and, most recently, the creator of a project called The Isolation Journals.

ZOMORODI: You might remember hearing Suleika's story the last time she was on the show. When she was just 22, Suleika was diagnosed with leukemia. And the next few years meant being isolated from the outside world during her cancer treatment.

JAOUAD: You know, in addition to the actual cancer itself, it was a battle against boredom. It was a battle against loneliness. My nickname for myself was bubble girl because when I was in the hospital, no one was allowed to enter my room without suiting up in a full surgical gown and face mask and gloves. And I was not allowed to leave my room at all.

ZOMORODI: Oh, wow.

JAOUAD: And it's not until you're confined to a small space that you really start to think about the implications of that isolation. And now, of course, isolation is a reality that we're all living to varying degrees. So for me, I'm having this strange sense of deja vu as the world retreats inside and as I retreat inside because this, you know, in a very different context, feels like a very familiar experience for me.

ZOMORODI: So how did you stay connected to the world while you were sick?

JAOUAD: So for me for a long time, I felt really frustrated. I didn't, you know, really see a way that I might be able to do something creative, let alone productive, within this space. And I felt very much stuck. And it was around that time that some friends and family came up with the idea of doing something called a 100 Day Project. And the premise of the project was really simple. We were each going to pick a creative project and do that creative thing once a day, every day for 100 days. So my mom, who's an artist, decided to paint a small ceramic tile every day. My dad decided to write a short childhood memory about growing up in Tunisia. And I decided to return to what I'd always sort of done from the time I was a child but especially in difficult moments, which was journaling and, you know, that, months later, ended up becoming the material that I used to start my column in the New York Times, "Life, Interrupted."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: So the good news is, eventually, you were discharged. And when you were finally done with treatment, you describe walking into your empty apartment. And there you are alone. You describe it as a moment when you should have felt the most free. You ever felt and yet you felt kind of trapped.

JAOUAD: Yeah. You know, the image I kept returning to is this famous line from Susan Sontag's "Illness As Metaphor," where she describes how we all have dual citizenship in the kingdom of the sick and in the kingdom of the well. And I very much felt suspended between the two in this sort of no man's land wilderness where I wasn't technically sick anymore, but I felt so far from being a healthy, normal 27-year-old girl. But maybe more than anything within that wilderness of survivorship, I felt truly isolated. And so what I ended up doing was kind of returning to this idea of the 100 Day Project. And I decided to embark on a 15,000-mile road trip around the United States.

ZOMORODI: Woah.

JAOUAD: And I decided to seek out some of the people and unexpected strangers who'd been writing to me about their own sort of in-between experiences in response to the column.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. Like, in your talk, you describe one person - one of the many - who responded to your column and who you actually went to visit on your road trip - Lil GQ, an inmate on death row in Texas. He wrote you about how much he related to your experience of being quarantined in the hospital. Can you tell us about that?

JAOUAD: Yeah. So Lil GQ was one of the first people to write to me. And at that point, he had been on death row in solitary confinement for almost half his life. And he wrote to me about the unexpected parallels between our circumstances and about how, in very different contexts, we were in these small, confined rooms. For me, it happened to be a hospital room. And for him, of course, it was a cell - and about this experience of staring down your mortality and, beyond that, trying to figure out how to hold on to a sense of self and a sense of sanity within these tiny confined spaces.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JAOUAD: He'd never been sick a day in his life.

ZOMORODI: Here's Suleika Jaouad on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JAOUAD: But he related to what I described in one column as my incanceration (ph) and to the experience of being confined to a tiny, fluorescent room. I know that our situations are different, he wrote to me, but the threat of death lurks in both of our shadows. I went to Texas, and I visited Lil GQ on death row. He asked me what I did to pass all that time I'd spent in a hospital room. When I told him I got really, really good at Scrabble, he said, me, too, and explained how even though he spends most of his days in solitary confinement, he and his neighboring prisoners make board games out of paper and call out their plays through their meal slots - a testament to the incredible tenacity of the human spirit and our ability to adapt with creativity.

I think that when you find yourself in these circumstances, you have to get creative. You have to find work arounds. And that's very much, I think, the time that we're all living in now - all of us is trying to adapt to these new restrictions and this new way of moving through the world that we're all having to kind of take on.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. It feels like there's nothing like a crisis for people to put aside their differences, not entirely but in many ways to find common points of humanity. And I guess I'm wondering, like, do you think people today are connecting more over the fact that we're all confined and isolated? We are all experiencing a sort of collective loneliness.

JAOUAD: Yeah. I think that we're all in this moment where we're grappling with the same themes and the same fears...

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

JAOUAD: ...Even if we're coming at them from different perspectives. And I think that there is an opportunity within that to be connected. So I'm, you know, talking to you right now from my parents' house in upstate New York. And within a few days of arriving here, I opened the mailbox one day, and we had a note from a neighbor who we'd never met before that said, I just want you to know that I'm here if you need anything, if you need groceries. Here's my email. Here's my cell phone number. We're so grateful to be in this community, and we want you to know that we're here for you. And that neighbor left that note in every single person's mailbox on our block. And it struck me that, likely, I've lived a few blocks away from this person for years and that it's not until this pandemic that we've had the opportunity to actually come together.

ZOMORODI: I want to ask you about what - the project that you've launched this spring. It's called The Isolation Journals. Can you tell us about it and what inspired you to start it?

JAOUAD: Yeah, so because I am very immunocompromised due to a bone marrow transplant, I moved into the attic of my parents' house. And so I found myself in this attic alone. And I began to kind of reflect on how familiar that isolation felt to me. And so I came up with this project very much inspired by the 100 Day Project. It's a 30-day creativity project where I decided I would tap in to my network of writer, artist and musician friends and ask them to each contribute a journaling prompt. And we launched, and within 24 hours, we had 30,000 people signed up for The Isolation Journals.

ZOMORODI: That's awesome.

JAOUAD: So I think, you know, there's the solidarity of committing to a creative practice with tens of thousands of strangers who are doing it alone and together within this surreal and strange time that we find ourselves in.

ZOMORODI: You know, as you're explaining how this project works, I keep thinking about this idea of transforming loneliness into enjoying solitude because I think there's a big difference between solitude and loneliness. Do you think - do you agree with that?

JAOUAD: Yeah. I - you know, I think loneliness is something that often feels not just difficult but involuntary.

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

JAOUAD: And I think the shift from that to solitude, which - you know, solitude is something that can feel not just extraordinarily generative and empowering, but it's something that we choose. And so I think this project is just one small way that people are trying to figure out how to make that transition from isolation and loneliness to solitude and creative solitude.

ZOMORODI: That's Suleika Jaouad. She's a writer and the creator of The Isolation Journals. You can hear her whole story on our episode Moving Forward. Or watch her full talk at ted.com.

Thanks so much for being here with me for this week's show on loneliness. If you'd like to find out more about who was on it, go to ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Cala, Kiara Brown and Hanna Bolanos, with help from Daniel Shukin and producer Lisa Gray in Seattle. Our intern is Matthew Cloutier. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.