When people think about loneliness, they often think about something trifling, about a feeling that passes in hours or days. My experience of loneliness wasn't like this. It didn't lift. It lasted for years.
In my early 30s, as my friends became parents and partners, and after I'd watched my father die of cancer, my life, which had previously been quite social, began to tilt. I started work at a small law firm where I was often on my own. I lived alone. I could spend evening after evening cooped up in my flat, and I was often faced with weekends that offered little or nothing in the way of company.
As my isolation persisted, my feelings of loneliness began to change. I think it's this long-term, intense loneliness that many people don't understand. They don't realise that loneliness can come alive, that it can start to snap and hound at a life.
By the end of my first year of loneliness, I had voices running through my head. It's said that everyone talks to themselves, but not like this – not with rapid-fire conversation giving way to arguments giving way to tears. To tone down the imagined conversations, I kept a journal, but my journal-keeping collapsed into sessions of self-scrutiny, as I tried to understand just what it was about me that was leaving me so lonely.
I felt a certain dumbing down in the midst of my loneliness. I couldn't read as quickly or as well as I used to. I wasn't as imaginative. I said less. Without people around me, I began to feel as though I were taking up less space. I sometimes felt so ungrounded, so immaterial and unreal, that I thought I might just drift away.
There was a relentlessness to my loneliness. It haunted me. I felt lonely on the tube, where I'd overhear women gossiping about their boyfriends; I felt lonely at work, when my boss's young daughter came rushing in; I felt lonely as I left for home, knowing that there would be no one there to greet me. I'd dream of isolation – I'd be calling around, trying to find the address of a party no one could tell me how to get to – or wake from dreams of togetherness only to find myself alone.
I changed. This was the hardest thing to accept – that I couldn't be lonely and remain myself. I became less spontaneous, less confident and secure. Interacting with others, I had to hide my feeling of marginalisation, and since marginalisation had come to define my life, I wound up hiding most of myself. I wanted to turn back into the former me, the connected me, but I couldn't find my way back. Loneliness seemed to have dropped me somewhere deserted, without compass or map or much hope of return.
That sense of being lost, of having to do daily battle with loneliness, lasted for four exhausting years. Those years saw my sleep go haywire, my body grow fat, and my sense of self shatter.
And what bothers me most is that no one asked me what was happening. Friends and relatives probably had some sense that I was lonely, but they couldn't peer inside the state and appreciate what was really taking place. My life was unravelling amid constant, unspoken suggestions that loneliness didn't matter, that it wasn't really "real".
It was real. My loneliness swallowed me up. I fear it descending again. And what I fear is something substantive, like fearing a car crash. I know what happens when you're lonely. I know about the voices, the sense of vanishing, the horrible envy of others. No one should have to endure years like that. No one, especially, should have to endure years like that when everyone around them thinks that loneliness is something trivial, something that hardly affects you at all.
Emily White is the author of Lonely: A Memoir, published by HarperCollins.
There’s sharp difference between being alone and being lonely. Personally, I love being alone; it’s when I’m at my funniest, my sexiest, my most powerful. It’s when I can collect my thoughts without anyone needing to hear them or annoyingly ask “what’re you thinking about?” I can analyse and dissect my life and the problems I’m currently trying to solve in peace and solidarity. Alone, I can lock myself in my room, dive under the covers and create a world where I am Rhianna and the cheese toastie I just made is my Drake. I can indulge in a wealth of unhealthy snacks, eating them with the gusto of a feral animal – why? Because by my own choice nobody is here to judge me. Then there’s the flip side; when being alone morphs into feelings of achy loneliness. I can go from being perfectly content in my own company, to suddenly feeling an apocalyptic seclusion; as if the whole world has suddenly vanished and I’m now its sole resident. Days, or moments, when it’s just too much and no matter where you are, or who you are with, you feel completely isolated. That cottoned off feeling from the world; that hole-in-your-stomach constantly expanding sensation. That’s what I hate.
Loneliness is a by-product of depression, and the symptoms and I have been fuck buddies for years; it’s only over the course of the last year that we’ve really became monogamous. Now each day, at some point, I am exclusively lonely. We were introduced during the first year of high school. Everyone thought I was just shy, quiet; you know, the sort of kid that kept himself to himself. I had geek glasses and a weird beach-ball shaped head with a penchant for bleaching my hair, so nobody was really lining up to make friends with me anyway. What those guys didn’t see was that I was unable to talk to anyone, because I feared they’d get so sick of hearing it. I pretended not to care. I started writing notes to myself; addressing every overwhelming emotion and thought and jotting it down in a word document or a pad of paper. I wrote about my fear of masturbation, of being ashamed of my body, and how a boy named Lee had slammed so hard into my side during interval that the bruises on my ribs lingered for over a week. The letters were totally train-of-thought, there was no linear direction; but when you’re a 13-year-old gay kid, who believes gay is wrong, and thus is unable to trust anybody, then sometimes rants scribbled onto paper is all you can do. Each school day was occupied with questions like: “What girl do you fancy?” and “Who are you kissing at the school disco this Friday?” Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t stumble into the throes of a full dissociated meltdown. I couldn’t say that I actually wanted to kiss Ross Graham on Friday, instead of finding some desperate girl and employing her as my beard. That was a very lonely period of my life; trying to work out who I wanted to kiss and who I was meant too. Every week my dad would ask when I was going to bring my girlfriend home. These questions, although probably standard in terms of parental inquisition, really hammered in a sense of not-belonging.
The years went on and I began to form friends, albeit very few of them, that I could bestow a certain degree of trust in – and thus I started feeling a little less lonely and isolated. This one girl, with whom I’m still close with now, was probably the first person I never felt lonely around. She was the sort of best girl-friend you hit it off with right away. Your sole purpose at parties is to keep each other company. The one you get drunk with and sing ridiculously cheesy songs; cementing memories you can look at years down the line and shudder. The sort of girl a gay kid is able to be free around. The one you can make obscene jokes with and chat about how if you have a kid together it’s going to have great skin and be the right kind of slutty.
These days this feeling, for me, is most acute when I’m surrounded by people who don’t want to, or can’t, see me. In clubs, I’m just another body that has paid entry. Whether-or-not people think I’m attractive boils down to alcohol consumption, and despite being all aesthetics, that isn’t completely irrelevant. They don’t see me as a writer; they don’t see my empathy or insecurities. They just see someone they do, or do not, find attractive and 80% of the time the latter is what stops conversation from happening. At work, people don’t want to see me, they just want me to do my job. It’s very much a leave your problems at the door kind of deal, which I guess is rightly so. It can still make you feel pretty alone, especially if you’re in a role where you work by yourself a lot of the time. I’d be surprised if anyone’s problems didn’t sneak up on them at work, forcing them to talk about it or it manifesting in other ways, like getting annoyed at petty, irrelevant things. I try to keep grounded whenever I feel myself teetering on the edge of psychotic break. I remind myself that it’s fleeting and it’ll have completely vacated my mind in a few hours’ time. You work in retail, you sell t-shirts for a living, perspective goes a long way.
It also occurs when friends don’t really act like they are suppose too. I always reply to whoever, whenever I can. My replies are always long and overwrought. With showy, sugary gusto I offer concern and advice. Some of the time I don’t want to; sometimes I just want to yell at them because this is the third month in a row they’ve been coming at me with the same batch of bullshit. I never do though, yell that is, because I hate the idea of anyone suffering. I hate the idea of anyone feeling isolated and alone with their problems. So, I listen, I reach out, then I get nothing back – and that is what makes me feel lonely. Sometimes I grow so frustrated with one-sided friendships that I want to open my mouth and let whatever thoughts creep into my mind flood out unfiltered.
We all have those friends; the ones you plan a lunch date with because you really need to talk to them about something. You spend hours building up the confidence to verbally articulate what’s eating away at you. This is the friend that loves talking about themselves a little bit too much, so much so that they probably can’t get a proper erection without discussing their day first. Then they turn up, in last night’s jeans and an oversized parka. Their hair bed-worn, greasy almost, as they slump themselves down before you, giggling like a dickhead every two-to-three-minutes. Then, finally, after their fifth exaggerated yawn you’re forced to take the bait. “Where were you last night?” Reluctantly rolls off your tongue; their well being isn’t a chore, but you’ve heard this story 47 times before and we are here to talk about you. The friend dispatches a tale of this month’s ‘bae.’ They tell you how they were ‘fucked so good last night’ and inject other dubious details into the story. Rodger, or whatever this week’s penis owner is called, soon becomes the centre of the conversation. This makes you feel shitty, then that lonely feeling creeps back in and you’re left to pay for lunch and feel even crappier about yourself than you did an hour ago. Life hack: The best way to deal with these people is for you to mute them on social media for a minimum of three weeks, until this latest love affair explodes in a flurry of lies and indiscretions involving your friend and a random hook up. Fuck Rodger. Keep it on mute until Rodger is no more.
Then we have, and we all know someone like this, the token brat of any social circle; that person who, despite being really nice, is so inherently spoiled that you know there is enlightenment to be gained from telling them how easy they’ve got it. The moment their parents act like your parents, or any normal mother and father for that matter, and make them pay for something themselves, then their whole world explodes. On the scale of things that matter, you having to pay your own car insurance this year sits somewhere between burnt pizza and tiny dogs. And finally, the friend that perhaps makes you feel the most alone, is the friend that is the most ‘caring’ person you know. The one that’s overly concerned with accidents and tragedies involving people they’ve never met, in a place they’ve never been. They cry about these horrible world events and make you feel guilty for not crying as you try and eat your tuna sandwich. You then reach out, touch their hand, and tell them about your problems – problems that, if they are going to get upset about anything, should be relevant to them. “Can I get real for a moment” they say, pushing your hand back. What follows next is always something inexplicably offence, so much so that it’ll needle its way into your brain for the next few days. Since when is ‘keeping it real’ a badge of honour? Do me a favour, stop keeping up with the Kardashians and start keeping up with some manners. The only cure for people like this? Straight up Kill Bill-style katana-ass murder.
Friends, unknowingly, may amplify that feeling of. Loneliness. By not replying to your text, but being active on Instagram: ‘User_name45’ liked a photo of Carly’s second baby-shower, even commented, ‘wow, baby, you look great, sorry I ain’t there.’ That shit annoys me, because it takes literally seconds to reply. This happened with the last guy I dated, he would never check his texts (apparently) yet somehow managed to organise and arrange his life – it was just me that was left hanging out in limbo, whilst he ventured out to see if he could make better plans. I guess that’s the sort of energy you don’t in your life; if it isn’t going to better or benefit you, then you should just cut them loose. The feeling of loneliness triggered by a slew of online activity is potently ironic. Instagram, Twitter and other platforms are a sea of people all expressing their loneliness 140 characters at a time – they all feel alone, collectively, yet I never see anybody reply saying ‘you’re not alone.’ We have a platform to express our deepest hurts and stingy loneliness but we still feel unheard. It’s funny how we are more connected to everyone in the world in terms ability to communicate, yet we’re the most isolated we’ve ever been. Taking time out from tech is helpful, I think. There’s a lot of negativity thrown in your face online, and that can impact your mood. Half the time when I go from content and alone, to miserable and lonely, it’s because an external factor has flipped the switch. I’ve learned to accept that loneliness is just something that happens though, like jury duty or floods. Whatever the trigger, or catalyst, it can’t be avoided. The most relatable oxymoron of all time: We all feel alone.
Confessions of the way we really feel aren’t the answer though; support is. If a friend’s neglect gets too much, or the dynamic is thrown off balance by self-centred behaviour, then walk away. Never say or do anything that would make anyone feel isolated or lonely – even if sometimes you really want to. I guess what I really want, beyond affection, is to feel not just needed but valued – as that’s all anyone really wants isn’t it? A place, a calling, a purpose? That’s why whenever someone approaches me with a sense of hurt, I want so badly to help them. It’s just difficult to juggle other peoples’ problems whilst drowning in your own.
The lonely thoughts are the worst: the ones where in a busy, crowded room, seem to scream like a spoiled child demanding to be heard. There’s a difference between those thoughts and the ones I have when I’m alone – like just now, when I am writing. I can translate those thoughts into something positive and understandable; the others, lonely thoughts, I can’t. Like when I’m cuddling into someone I am dating and I wonder to myself how long until he quietly retreats back to dating guys with six packs. The ones that tell me I’m going to be alone forever, or that something bad will happen to me and it will go unnoticed. I guess I’ll always feel lonely at times, but loneliness isn’t synonymous with being alone. I will always enjoy my own company, there’s comfort in that.