On Loneliness; a disease of the blood

Loneliness is like a disease of the blood, dispersed throughout the body so that one cannot locate the matrix, the spot of contagion.

As always Sylvia Plath so eloquently expresses the feelings I carry with me. The woman has a quote for my every mood.

Loneliness.  A latent state brought to the surface more and more the further I progress into adulthood. A state I did not even realise I was in until years later. I did not realise how prevalent loneliness is, and just how many people are struggling with it. Hell, I did not know I was lonely until a little while ago. I knew I was unhappy, and I wished I had more friends, but I did not make the connection to loneliness. I was still spouting the “I’m alone not lonely“, and “I love being alone” mantras. I still appreciate my own company, but gradually solitude has turned into its ugly twin- loneliness- and I have come to realise that (wo)man is not made to be an island.

“How we need another soul to cling to, another body to keep us warm. To rest and trust; to give your soul in confidence: I need this, I need someone to pour myself into.”

Once I realised I was lonely, I started noticing it everywhere; article after article popped up about loneliness and lonely people.  Even the UK government launched a national strategy to tackle loneliness.  Loneliness is a big deal. How did I ignore it for so long? I look back now on all the “weird” people who sit too close on the bus; strangers who who strike up uncomfortable conversations, and I empathise with them. So many of these strangers are simply lonely with no one to talk to.

By far the most interesting thing I learnt is the impact of loneliness on one’s health. It never occurred to me that loneliness could result in physical symptoms.  An excerpt from this article on Psychology Today:

Humans are a highly social species. Having close, meaningful relationships is essential to our well–being. When we feel cut off from the people around us, our health suffers. We become more susceptible to anxiety, depression, and anguish. We hurt. We don’t sleep well. We get sick more easily and take longer to recover.

I read this and went aha! It all makes sense now.  The constant feeling of discomfort and unease. The omnipresent feeling that something was wrong with my body, the constant racing of my heart. All those trips to the doctors who constantly found nothing wrong (although time will tell if this is loneliness or negligence on their part).

Just as with a physical illness, diagnosing loneliness (or simply admitting it) is the first step to recovery. Once I figured it out as loneliness, I started to seek out means of alleviating it. I tried to plan more moments with my friends. I told myself to stop rushing home everyday and to take up opportunities for socialisation. It is so difficult. Sometimes I just cannot be bothered and I retreat into my cocoon.

I recently came across a book titled Lonely City: Adventures in the art of being alone by Olivia Laing. I had seen a quote about loneliness that I related to a whole lot, and when I later realised it was in fact from this book, I had to get it. The book explores loneliness-it’s causes, and effects- through an in depth analysis of several notable creative figures, and the writer herself.  The writer takes us through the lives and works of these artists, illuminating their (often dreary) childhoods and linking the resulting loneliness to their work. It was interesting to see these seemingly larger than life figures be stripped down to the bone, and to see how loneliness affects everyone, even those who are constantly surrounded by others; how in fact having a lot of people around could be a conscious attempt to shield oneself from the overarching hunger for intimacy. Ms. Laing  provides this beautiful description of loneliness:

“What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged. It hurts, in the way that feelings do, and it also has physical consequences that take place invisibly, inside the closed compartments of the body. It advances, is what I’m trying to say, cold as ice and clear as glass, enclosing and engulfing.” 

This book introduced me to artists that I was previously unaware of (Edward Hopper, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, Klaus Nomi); and provided more depth to artists I was already familiar with like Andy Warhol. Before reading this book, I had no idea Andy Warhol was shot, had never heard of Valerie Solanas or the SCUM manifesto; I did not even know that he wore wigs! I also learnt a lot more about the AIDS crisis that ravaged the gay community in the 80s and 90s. It was a powerful read. 

I identified with all of them to varying degrees, and I particularly identified with Henry Darger-how he essentially spent his entire life alone and never got to exhibit his creativity. I read about the 15,000 page story he left behind and I was uncomfortably reminded of the tens of stories I have started on my computer but cannot bring myself to finish. Darger could have gained prominence in his lifetime for his work, if only he had been able to show it. I feel this will be my story too. At least he took it a step further than me and actually wrote and painted. I just keep it all in my head, too lethargic to do anything with the wonder in my mind. 

People may simply say to the lonely- go out and make some friends- and sometimes to me who rarely leaves her house the answer seems that simple. But by God it is much harder than that.  To quote Ms. Laing:

“The lonelier a person gets, the less adept they become at navigating social currents. Loneliness grows around them, like mould or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact, no matter how badly contact is desired.”

I laugh when those fortunate not to be lonely say flippantly; “Why don’t you just go out and socialise?” Ha ha ha.  You see loneliness is a vicious cycle, the longer you are in this state, the harder it is to come out of it. The lonelier one gets the more they lack the social skills needed to “cure” this loneliness.

“Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorise. Like depression, a state with which it often intersects, it can run deep in the fabric of a person, as much a part of one’s being as laughing easily or having red hair.” 

I reckon loneliness is quite like solitary confinement, and It cannot be cured by occasional conversations or “hanging out”. I find that I need quality time with loved ones on a constant basis to feel whole. Little vignettes of company ease it a little but are not nearly enough.  Even in times when I am with others and deeply relishing their company, all I can think about is that this will soon be over, we will have to part and I will be lonely again. There is no permanent solution, just little temporary respites here and there. It is not enough.

Another book I read that deeply reasonated with me is Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. I was drawn to the title, and without any expectation I picked it up to read and I was not disappointed. The book follows Eleanor Oliphant, an odd, socially awkward woman as she navigates her lonely life. She follows the same routine religiously, never has any one over and never goes out with anyone. For the most part she is fine with this, until she is not.

“These days, loneliness is the new cancer–-a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.”

The part that most resonated with me is when the protagonist muses about the little human contact she gets and how she never really feels connected to anything.

“There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar. A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and I’d lift off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock. The threads tighten slightly from Monday to Friday…” 

I felt that so deeply because that is my life. Most times I feel like an outsider looking in, intruding on everyone else. I feel like air. I go through the motions but rarely feel a part of anything, rarely feel grounded. Just like Eleanor, I was fine with it, until I wasn’t. The older I got, the more dissatisfied I got. It dawned on me that this lifestyle was not “normal”, it is not okay to go days without speaking to anyone, let alone have a proper conversation. I realised this is probably the reason I talk to myself most of the time.

“When the silence and the aloneness press down and around me, crushing me, carving through me like ice, I need to speak aloud sometimes, if only for proof of life.

I had relished my solitude for so long, but now I was saddened at the lack of emotional connections in my life.

“I was thirty years old, I realised, and I had never walked hand in hand with anyone. No one had ever rubbed my tired shoulders, or stroked my face.” 

And after years of being an island, it seems impossible to fit in.

“I’d tried so hard, but something about me just didn’t fit. There was, it seemed, no Eleanor-shaped social hole for me to slot into.” 

Life is beautiful, despite its confusions and tribulations it is such a thrill to be alive. I know myself better than I did two years ago, and I am more proactive in seeking out things that will make me happy. Still I fear that I will always be reading and writing about loneliness but never overcome it. I fear that another ten years will pass and I will still be here, battling with the desire for companionship and reconciling this desire with the contradictory need for me to be by myself. I fear that I will always be searching for home, and will never find it.


5 thoughts on “On Loneliness; a disease of the blood

  1. Pingback: Outside is open and I am lonely again. | Gobbledygook

  2. Pingback: Don’t worry, be happy. | Gobbledygook

  3. Insightful post. Sometimes it helps to have a good cry. Studies have shown that crying can have many benefits for our health and well-being; experts believe that it is actually an important part of processing emotions and overcoming traumatic events. I have written a blog about the benefits of crying – Why do we cry? The art of shedding tears” – authorjoannereed.net/why-do-we-cry/ – Check it out

  4. Pingback: Like Air. | Gobbledygook

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