Tuesday, April 16, 2013

On Loneliness

(Don't forget Blogging Against Disablism Day!)

A masculine hand and a feminine hand, holding.
I can talk about loneliness because I have passed beyond it.  It's very hard to admit to at the time, because there's something a little pathetic about the admission. Because successful loveable people have soulmate partners, plus close friends and family around them, and would never feel that way.

The loneliest period of my life was my twenties, especially my mid-twenties. I was in an abusive relationship and not the kind that's sometimes very bad and other times great. As well as the isolation of living with someone who didn't really want me to interact with other people, illness stopped me getting out and reduced my capacity to keep in touch.


I think I have a lot of equipment which helped me cope better with loneliness than I might have. For one thing, I was never without decent friends or family, it's just that my contact with them became complicated, muffled by physical distance, caution and dishonesty. I have always had a complex fantasy life. It's less complex, now I'm happy - and that's good: I can focus on the stories I'm writing, as opposed to being whisked off into the stories I want to live. It used to be very strange to me to think that some people, sitting on a train, walking along the street, were not imagining themselves as someone else, in a different situation, on another mission entirely. I didn't even know that you could have sex and your mind stay in the same room. When I wrote about my imaginary friend, we were still in regular contact.

Plus, it helps that I have this. I don't mean this blog, which really did help enormously (despite the fibs I used to tell). But when I have thoughts, I am inclined to write them down. I still occasionally write letters that I don't intend to send to people, just so I can clarify my own feelings.

It also helped to make things and paint things - portraiture is pretty good. Making gifts, imbuing them with love for someone elsewhere. And helping people, in some small way. Anytime I felt useful, I didn't feel lonely.


One way I was less well equipped than some was that I was brought up to believe that you never do anything that isn't for a purpose and there are no purposes that don't involve other people. I was criticised as a child for my story-writing because it wasn't for school, I often started epic stories which could never be finished, so never read by anyone else and no-one was interested anyway. I was wasting my time.

This made me - makes me - not so good at looking after myself or entertaining myself, outside music and my own imagination.


Fiction allows people to be very alone at the beginning of a story. Few adult protagonists have both parents, and unsiblinged orphans in their twenties and thirties are so commonplace it's rarely remarked upon. But here, solitude is a useful thing. As well as being character-building, it allows a person tremendous mobility - without anyone to worry about them, a lonely person can take off when they like, go where they like, interact with others on their own terms, walk into all kinds of situations of peril, responsible only to themselves. I couldn't do that.

Meanwhile, loneliness is usually temporary. The lonely protagonist has no problems interacting with people and by the end of the story, they've often found their one true love who will fulfill their every psychological need and made a few good friend-for-life along the way.

And loneliness in stories is often a false construct.  Having missed it all in my teens, Stephen introduced me to Buffy The Vampire Slayer and now we're watching the selected highlights of Angel. The character of Angel isn't just another loner PI; he knows the loneliness of immortality, of being a vampire with a conscience, hated and feared by humans but condemned to conflict with his own kind - the actor's face seems locked on constipated brooding, so it must be pretty grim.  But Angel hardly has a chance to be alone, let alone be lonely. He has good friends, he has all kinds of friendly acquaintances and almost everyone he meets appreciates and reaches out to him. He perhaps just needs to read this excellent post about bowel health.

I can't think of another fictional supposed-loner with such a vast and positive social network, but the majority of supposed loners are not, in fact, alone. Plus, they're generally men - and fairly macho men at that, isolated, in part, by emotional... well, constipation. Women are rarely placed in even the most romanticised heroic position of solitude (even Ripley, having been frozen for decades as the sole survivor of Alien, is given a child to save (Aliens), then a man to have a fling with (Alien 3), then an alien to have a weird and mucussy maternal relationship with (Alien Resurrection)).

In any case, a lonely person in a story is never truly alone, because you are there. You are with them all the time. And happily, for the duration of the story, they are there with you.

Of course, I was being abused. I would have been much better off had I been single and lonely, because (a) personal safety, (b) it would have freed me from the paradox of being lonely whilst "in love" and (c) I would have lived life very differently and may have been less lonely as a result. It is difficult to separate the effects of the abuse and the loneliness, but I'm sure I would still have been lonely if the marriage had been unhappy in a more banal way, or if I had been single and sick in a bad geographical location.

Two empty chair backs in silhouette.
But loneliness begets loneliness.

These days, I assume that people who talk to me like me and people who don't take much interest are either disinterested or have too much else going on.  I'm sure that I irritate or offend people once in a while, but in the absence of any clear evidence, I give us all the benefit of the doubt.  In fact, I imagine that a lot of people I interact with a little bit would like to get to to know me better, if only there were a few extra hours in the day - because that's how I feel about many people.

(It's not that I never wake up in a cold sweat, thinking, "Oh bloody hell, I said the wrong thing there!", but it's not often now. I know it doesn't matter all that much, even if I did. People are forgiving.)

Back then, I assumed that I irritated the people who talked to me and that I deeply offended people who didn't. Other people's problems were about me; if people were in a bad mood, it was because I had pissed them off. I used to think I was paranoid (and I was, a little), but I was living with someone whose every bad mood, whose clinical depression was my fault. My words, my attempts at love, made other people ill.

And this was the greatest pain of my loneliness; I had a heart swollen up with love and nowhere for it to go. So, in my mind, it fermented and oozed out, inappropriate and toxic. I held back from my friends and family, except when I gushed to them. I lied to them, putting a positive spin on my marriage to rival any Thatcher eulogy, but I was also dishonest about my health, I hid my sexuality for a long time and I wasn't very good at simply talking about my life, because my life had to be as dull as I was.

It's a dreadful New Age cliche that you can't love another person until you can love yourself, and I can't say it's true, but self-loathing is a slight obstacle. I didn't love my kith and kin as much as I could have (as much as I do now) because I felt I couldn't afford to; my love was dangerous and everything was fragile.

This is loneliness. That jagged rock in your chest, that inarticulate need for other people (What is that need even for? Love? Company? Physical contact? A sense of belonging? Just enough of the right kind of social interaction?) makes you quite bad at this stuff. You clutch at people, only to hold them at arms' length. You mistrust their intentions and you mistrust your own feelings. You lay awake thinking you must have overstepped an unseen mark, you must be feeling the wrong thing, you must be manipulating the people who bother to be nice to you. Then you fall asleep and dream about it.


Nobody gave me the advice, but I knew that lonely people are told to seek out the love they're missing, to find those new and brilliant people who are bound not only to exist, but to be hidden in plain sight, just around the corner, with a similar person-shaped hole in their lives. Not only are neither romantic love or friendship easily sought out, (do we, any of us, know anyone who has found a friend or partner by putting on a pith helmet, clasping a big net and hunting them down?) but the seeking, the feeling around in the dark for a profound connection, is  bruising. Because you know John isn't your soulmate, so the fact you get along so well means nothing. And Jessica is lovely but doesn't seem instantly smitten with you, so best move on. If you set about looking for friends - let alone lovers - then all social interaction becomes about desperate hope, disappointment and rejection, sometimes on both sides.

It gets hard to be charming. Your desperation may not show, but you can get defensive and snappy (I like corduroy - you got a problem with that?), or self-deprecating to outlandish adolescent degrees (I'm a terrible, terrible person and if you don't hate me already, you soon will!). You blurt out how much you like someone when your actions were happily speaking for you or, afraid to hint at your feelings, you do nothing and show nothing and nobody ever knows.


My happy ending was complicated and largely accidental. It wasn't about romantic love or assembling a new cast of better friends - I was and still am very lucky with friends.  It wasn't even about escaping my abusive marriage - I escaped  after I stopped being lonely.  By then, I knew I had friends, I knew I would be loved, and I had noticed the difference between how my friends made me feel and what was happening at home - the difference between conversations that concluded Go fuck yourself and Keep smiling.  It was a combination of things, which enabled me to trust myself and to trust others. I became a better friend. Less clutching. Less distance.


People vulnerable to loneliness, through introversion, illness, sensitivity and intellect, are my people. So I know - and love - people who express loneliness and even though I've been there, I don't know how to help. I was about to talk about a friend who described herself as having no friends, but two different people have done this in as many months. And I think, "But I am your friend." and I want to say that, but I can't.

After all, a lonely person doesn't want increased contact with just any old person, perhaps especially not someone who has noticed their loneliness - how could they trust that, even if it was, in principle, welcome?  Love is not a favour you can bestow on a person because they are in need of it, and loneliness can make even the most genuine spontaneous interest feel like that; they just feel sorry for me, or worse, they're just doing their good deed for the day to feel good about themselves and even, most shamefully if they like me, there must be something wrong with them.

We have the opportunity to be kind, to pay attention, to take an interest, to bother with the people around us, to make ourselves available for connections we might not be aching for, but would consider welcome. But loneliness is something folk need to find their own way out of - not because it is an act of will, but because it is private tangle, with cutting threads and complex knots that can't even be seen from the outside.

I suppose we can talk about it.


An Unreliable Witness said...

I don't comment much - well, at all, really - on blogs anymore. Additionally - and this is highly hypocritical considering the number of revealing posts I've written over the past thirteen years, I always tend to avoid somewhat confessional material. But I can't read this post and not offer some kind of response.

I've tried writing about the subject of loneliness a number of times, going over similar truths, thoughts and ideas to the ones you express above. I've never managed to do so, however, without twisting myself and the words in complex knots. Some of that is self-loathing, but large part of that is because, I think, I'm always implicitly (sometimes explicitly) apologising for the simple fact that I'm frequently lonely. I know I'm one of those typically apologetic people who says "sorry" to a door for opening it a little too forcefully, but even I recognise the hilarious irony of saying that we shouldn't be ashamed of our feelings of loneliness while frantically apologising for my own.

One aspect I've never really considered, and which you discuss superbly, is the use of loneliness in literature. It is a hugely popular motif, you're right, but it's so often an 'artistic' loneliness representing the character's otherness - rather than showing the true effects of such a condition - and, as you also correctly point out, they never stay that way.

I also admire the way you talk about how it's not simply a case of wanting 'more company' just for the sake of company, I certainly recognise that in myself. I've always found the "join a club or society" solution proffered in so many worthy newspaper articles about 'the modern disease of loneliness' to be vaguely insulting - it's as if lonely people are being told that they shouldn't seek to have friendships that mean something to them, but just be content with any old human presence. In fact, I find such articles hugely annoying because they try to offer simple solutions to something where there aren't simple solutions, and they tend to narrow lonely people down to one character type. That's why I found the Radio 4 programme you point so very refreshing, especially the contributions of Andy Kershaw.

In the few close, face-to-face friendships I currently have - and, in truth, have always had - I value those people, enjoy seeing them, want to see more of them because of who they are and how they make me feel, and not just because they're 'company'. I sense, sometimes, that those friends don't understand that.

Thank you for writing this genuinely insightful piece.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this. My favorite part is the paragraph below, which encapsulates just about everything I think about, and have experienced, regarding loneliness:

"This is loneliness. That jagged rock in your chest, that inarticulate need for other people (What is that need even for? Love? Company? Physical contact? A sense of belonging? Just enough of the right kind of social interaction?) makes you quite bad at this stuff. You clutch at people, only to hold them at arms' length. You mistrust their intentions and you mistrust your own feelings. You lay awake thinking you must have overstepped an unseen mark, you must be feeling the wrong thing, you must be manipulating the people who bother to be nice to you. Then you fall asleep and dream about it."

Matthew Smith said...

Carly Findlay (an Australian blogger with a chronic skin condition) wrote this about a particular aspect of loneliness yesterday - the longing for touch or as she calls it, "skin hunger":

This skin, it's hungry

Jon Bateman said...

Hi there. I just found your blog tonight but thought you might be interested in the post I wrote on loneliness...


Carly Findlay said...

Hey there
While I am not lonely per she, I do miss physical contact - touch. As Matthew posted, I write a lot about the concept of skin hunger.
Great post.

Anonymous said...

I think loneliness can be a big problem for people who have difficulty attending gatherings in the physical world. I appreciate the internet for helping with this problem. I do get the impression that the people who write about Angsty Loners in fiction often have only the most vague idea of what loneliness, solitude and solitary personalities are.

By the way, my listing on the blogroll for BADD 2013 has at least one html-breaking typo.

Nichole said...

This is am amazing post, I really identify with what you are saying here. I struggle most with wanting so deeply that connection with other people, and yet being terrified of establishing it.

I'm not looking for traffic to my site, but I did write something that touches on this and might resonate with you: http://veganspin.com/food/fun-with-my-omni-friends-plus-a-vegan-potato-salad-recipe-512/. I shared this post on Facebook with all my friends and it was the scariest moment of my life, to let the people I know inside my head. To let them know that they matter to me deeply and that I need them, love them.

I've been trying recently to go vulnerable in my life, and at every step am finding myself less and less lonely. It turns out the key to being strong really is to be vulnerable. Scary and thrilling!

Truly beautiful post, honest and heartfelt. Thank you so much for writing this and sharing it.