I just read a fascinating news item yesterday about loneliness, based on a study on 55,000 people launched by the BBC in February 2018. What really amazed me in reading the article is just how pervasive being lonely is - and how it is a growing epidemic. There are so many complex reasons for this and if you want to know the research findings it's worth reading the article for yourself. As I read it, my mind cast back to the times of intense loneliness that I experienced throughout life.
My earliest memories of being lonely are from my childhood. I do have very clear memories of playing with neighbourhood and school friends. And there were 7 of us in our household so I was always around people. Nonetheless the predominant memories of my youth are filled with images of myself by myself. I had a strong sense that the person I was inside was very different from the person I was perceived to be. I was 'in here' and everyone else was 'out there'. This generated a real sense of isolation that worsened as I entered teenage years for a number of reasons and lasted well into womanhood.
As an adult, I can think of clear periods when I felt really alone. When my first marriage broke down, I slept with the TV on from the first night he walked out and for years afterwards. I couldn't bear the sudden silence that came from no longer having a partner around. After a while, the sounds of the TV - night and day - were a constant, comforting companion. I can recall feeling incredibly alone on each occasion (and there have been several) that my daughter has been admitted to hospital. Every single time the loneliness felt outright oppressive... inescapable and overwhelming as I sat silently crying in A&E, looking at my daughter who had yet again been sedated and covered in tubes... it was awful. You feel like the only person in the world in that situation. I was a single parent during much of those episodes and knew that going home alone after those admissions would always translate me into a different type of loneliness... persistent, relentless, sometimes depressing... I found the nighttime as a single parent to be the hardest part of the day. In the daytime the little one made life loud, with squeals and giggles, children's TV and music and the noise of play. Also, I usually had my own activities that filled the time. But in the evening after she was gone to bed, the stillness would just hang in the air. The quiet and darkness would fill my room as I lay in bed under it. The sense of being alone was profound.
The fact is, though, that for the most part no one I engaged with would have known that I was experiencing these feelings of isolation. Because I have always come across as self-contained and in truth for the most part have been. Nonetheless, there is obviously something within me that makes me prone to loneliness, as it has followed me since childhood and presented itself regardless of my social disposition. Anyone who knows me would tell you that I smile and laugh a lot and do so genuinely. Yet, despite this at any given time I would have been suffering from one of the incidents of loneliness I described above. This is still the case, despite being happily remarried and having a beautiful, growing family. Most of us women are super-hyphenates: wife-mum-daughter-sister-carer-professional-taxi for the kids-manager of the house-cleaner- ... the list really could go on. People usually don't realise how exhausted, frustrated, helpless and demoralised we feel at times because of the relentless duties of life that are unique to us as women... or from external pressures and expectations... or from ailing mental health. People usually have no idea just how lonely and isolated we feel as a result. We often fear being judged or misunderstood so we don't open up about how we are feeling. We just get on with it, with a smile on our face. And we suffer in silence... and loneliness.
What is the face of the lonely woman? She has many faces. She is smiling, weeping and stoic. She is from every demographic, in every type of relationship and of every parental status. She is employed and unemployed, rich and poor. She is old, young, surrounded by people and no one. We can never assume, just from how a woman looks, or how confident she appears, whether or not she is lonely. Because regardless of her circumstances, loneliness is ultimately a state of mind. It isn't merely the product of our circumstances; it is the complex outcome of how we process and are able to respond to our circumstances. The solutions are sometimes simple and sometimes not. On some occasions it may be as simple as joining a club or reaching out to rekindle an old friendship. Other times the solution involves working through the inner emotional and mental entanglements that make it difficult to connect with others. Whatever the case, loneliness is real. We should take it seriously when we experience it ourselves and be compassionate when realising it in others. And we should talk about it. Because there's no shame in it. It happens to all of us.