I’m not one for vomiting a personal sob story onto the internet but, fuck it, this is important to talk about.
It’s important for myself, and it’s important for anybody else going through the same shit. The truth is, I didn’t realise how important it was to discuss what is a growing social epidemic until I watched a video on Youtube with Karen Dolva – CEO and co-founder of the organisation No Isolation – talking at a Tedx event in 2017 about loneliness, and how it is more dangerous than most of us realise.
“Loneliness is not just a sad feeling that we need to get rid of because we want people to be slightly more happy. Loneliness is dangerous. People suffering from loneliness are in a constant fight or flight mode”Karen Dolva
Some of the statistics that Dolva brings to the audience’s attention are shocking, and actually a little frightening to hear if you are a long-term sufferer of loneliness. The constant state of stress that your body is under (even if you don’t realise it) can lead to a 29% increase in the risk of developing heart disease (equivalent to smoking fifteen cigarettes every day), and a 32% increase in the odds of suffering a stroke. I don’t know the exact scientific reasons behind this, but I would presume that being in that fight-or-flight mode for so long, over a long period of years, places extra strain and wear-and-tear on a person’s heart, thus increasing these risks in the long term. According to Dolva, and the studies she quotes, loneliness is actually a larger contributer to heart disease than that big, bad monster of Western society that we know as obesity. Even more frightening, loneliness apparently doubles your chances of getting dementia.
Loneliness can also lead to depression. I know because I have been there, and I continue to go there on-and-off. I’ve had the thoughts of, “what is the point in going on?” and, “I just can’t do this anymore,” and I’m sure that I will have these thoughts again. Fortunately, I have not suffered to the same harsh degree that many others (who cannot function in society and go as far as to take their own lives) sadly do, and I somehow manage to find ways to pick myself up, but depression is still a serious problem that – ironically – is taken less seriously even as the focus on mental health increases. But why is this?
Depression is “normal”
While I have no official stats or sources to back my opinion (they are probably out there but I don’t want this post to be all about figures), I personally believe that the term “depression” has been abused by people who are simply having an off day, or are feeling generally sad. The trend in Western society is to go around telling people about how you are “so depressed”, or to take to social media and tell the world about it – fishing for sympathy, attention, or validation from peers. Furthermore, it has become incredibly easy (at least here in the UK) to use depression and stress as reasons to take long periods of time off work that can’t be scrutinised by employers due to how it is now deemed incorrect to challenge an employee’s mental health claims. Obviously, there is a genuine uptick in depression and stress throughout our society, due to various social factors that I won’t go into here, but it is also true that countless people abuse depression to get out of work, or to never work a job in the first place (and sponge off of state benefits).
The result is that this most serious of mental health challenges is no longer taken as seriously as it should be in the real world (despite what the media and TV documentaries on depression may imply). It has become normalised, and we – as a society – have become desensitised to depression. I can tell, from experience in my own workplace, that depression is abused and not taken seriously. From the comments of, “oh, everybody has it; you just need to get on with it,” to outright condemnation of anybody out of work due to depression because they MUST be lying. The latter is perhaps most frustrating to see because the very same people passing judgment have taken time off for “depression” themselves…
What I take from this is that a lot of people like to over-dramatise and confuse sadness or a low mood with depression. The reality is that people who are really struggling bad with the bona fide deal DON’T go around telling everybody about it. They hide it and put on a front because they don’t want sympathy and don’t want special treatment, or for people to walk on egg shells whenever they are around them. There’s a reason why there are so many videos and pieces of guidance online to help people spot the warning signs of concealed depression in loved ones. There’s a reason why so many people had no idea that a family member or friend was feeling suicidal before they took their own life. Recently, I saw a quote in the comments section of a Youtube video that perfectly sums up depression for me:
“Depression is like cancer: it eats away at its victim until there is nothing left.”anon
I don’t talk about depression whenever I’m feeling that way, in the same way that I (and most sufferers) don’t talk about loneliness. I know that may sound ironic given that I AM about to get to the “My Story” part of this post’s title, but let’s be realistic: it’s infinitely easier to talk about this stuff in a blog post, to people that I don’t know, and will never have to meet face-to-face, than it is to speak to a family member, friend, or co-worker about it. For reference, I have never spoken about this to anybody. And, as outdated and irrelevant as it may sound, I would find it doubly difficult to speak about loneliness from my male perspective. So, before I get into my own story, I thought it might be a good idea to briefly look at why loneliness is such a taboo subject; why we feel so ashamed to admit to being lonely and seek help.
“The first rule about loneliness is that you don’t talk about loneliness.”
Personally, I believe that the answer is simple. We live in a superficial society that equates loneliness with failure. We are all judged by the covers of our books, with the success and vibrance of our social lives seemingly worth more than our actions as human beings. We live in a time where it is so crucial to carefully curate our social media profiles and find ways to make our lives look so amazing for everybody else on our friends lists. We feel obliged to show people that we have “made it” or that we always have something exciting going on. It’s literally Keeping Up With The Joneses for the digital age, and not being able to have a profile picture where you are cuddled up with a partner or your children, all beaming smiles immediately makes us feel inferior. Not being able to constantly update your feed with check-ins from days out, a slew of snaps from a holiday, or updates on who you have had lunch with also makes us feel inadequete.
The truth is that this is all a fallacy and just as authentic as a pair of huge, silicon-augmented breasts. Consistent exposure to social media conditions us to believe that this is reality, and that we don’t measure up, when the reality is that what we see on our feeds isn’t, er…reality. We are merely viewing the highlight reels of others – all the happy, exciting moments that are actually only a small portion of those people’s lives. We don’t see the bad stuff or the boring, mundane everyday because it isn’t worth posting, and doesn’t make us look attractive to everybody else. The worst part is that we know this to be the case, yet we still take the bait and allow ourselves to be manipulated by social media giants, and allow ourselves to feel like the dirt on the bottom of a shoe if we can’t compete with what we see.
But this isn’t just limited to social media. Our worth in society is also being judged away from our screens. We are judged on whether or not we have a girlfriend/boyfriend; we are judged on how many friends we have; we are judged on whether or not we did anything at the weekend; how fun we are to be around; we are even judged on the age of our fucking smartphones for fuck’s sake. As men, we are also judged on “man” stuff such as how much sex we get, the number of women we have slept with, or even the amount of pints we can down before becoming incapacitated. And I’m sure you ladies feel the pressure too: of feeling the need to keep up with fashion or have children when all of your friends are having them, amongst other things that I – as a man – won’t pretend to know about or understand.
The point is that none of this stuff really matters, and it shouldn’t define our worth as human beings, yet it does in the eyes of society as a whole. As I said, we live in an incredibly superficial society, and a failure to follow the flock and meet the social expectations of the group makes us feel of lesser value and credibility to those who are successfully keeping up with the Joneses. It also makes us loathe to share or admit weakneses that we perceive will further enhance that devaluation. It’s why people used to find it so difficult to admit to being gay. It’s why people lie to conceal the fact that they are still a virgin. And it’s why admitting that you are lonely is such a big no-no. And so we suffer in silence, risking becoming acquainted with depression, and – apparently – those awful statistics of the physical health risks that loneliness contributes to.
I want to preface this with a simple disclaimer that I’m not trying to seek attention or sympathy here. In fact, I’m not entirely comfortable with writing this at all but maybe it will help to get it down in words that I can personally return to at any time. And yes, I am making this public, but sharing could be a good thing (because sometimes I think it’s okay to give the finger to the macho bullshit concepts of men holding it all in, something I agree with to an extent, but recognise is impractical and harmful to do ALL of the time).
I also feel that I should explain that, even though I fully accept that choices I have made (consciously or subsconsciously) and actions I have taken/not taken have led me to where I am today, I had always been a lonely child to some degree. For instance, I have heard the story multiple times about how, as a very small pre-school child, I would absolutely refuse to go near playgrounds when there were other kids there, and how I wouldn’t mix with other children at play groups. I also have a vague memory, of being taken to a friend’s birthday party when I was five or six years-old and bursting into tears, refusing to be left there even though these were my friends from primary school (even thinking about this now is embarassing…I still can’t understand why I was like that!)
To this day, I keep returning to these moments and wondering, “why?”. For the longest time, I assumed that people were born with certain personalities, but now – after reading various bits ‘n pieces about psychology – I lean towards the accepted knowledge that we are simply a product of our experiences and how we were raised as children during those highly impressionable years. But if this is the case, why did I behave that way? It feels as if I was born an introvert but, is that even possible? I cannot claim to have had a bad upbringing by any means. My parents were great. However, there are a few potential influential factors that stick out to me. One is that neither of my parents have ever had what you would call real friends that they did things with outside of their marriage, and that remains true to this day. Sure, they have acquaintances, but nobody that they would go to pubs with, or have days out with. When I consider this, I wonder if that lack of a social circle rubbed off on me as ‘normal’. My sister is much the same, only having had a few close friends over the years who betrayed her/messed her about and now she too only has acquaintances. Basically, nobody in my immediate family has what you would call “real” friends, and I have to wonder if that environment affected both of us as we grew up.
Neither of my parents ever pushed us to socialise either. They didn’t attempt to work on me, for example, when I refused to mix with other children at playgrounds or play groups. I simply refused and that was that. It also didn’t help that we went to a school that was far away from our home, so we were never close enough to our school friends to meet up. The area we lived in was fairly rough too, and neither of the neighbours had children, so our life was a case of being ferried home from school and staying in the house. At weekends we would go out as a family, and my sister and I would spend a lot of time with our Grandparents (who would also take us for days out), but there was no socialising with other kids. Nor do I recall it ever being raised as an issue by anybody.
But what stands out the most is that I don’t recall any desire to hang out with school friends, or any disappointment that it didn’t happen. I was happy to be at home and do things with my family and that seemed okay. I had a group of close friends at primary school (the one time in my life that I can say that I felt truly “happy”) but I would have zero contact with any of them during the holidays. I wouldn’t mourn it, and my parents made no attempt to arrange anything for our sakes. Conversely, I remember the day that I finished primary school and our group of friends was broken up as we all went to different secondary schools. I remember that day because it was one of a handful of times in my life that I can remember crying and wishing that life didn’t have to change, so I must have cared to some degree.
Please understand that I’m not blaming my parents at all (because they raised us both to be good people, and must have spent an absolute fortune on days out, holidays, treats etc.) but I have become aware that our upbringing was not “normal” in many ways – certainly not compared to other children my own age – and I have to wonder whether this influenced and amplified my introversion in later years. I have to accept the strong possibility that we were sheltered by our parents, and that this would ultimately lead to big problems. Certainly, not knowing how to interact with other people my own age wouldn’t do me any favours in my teenage years.
I view secondary school and sixth form as the worst days of my life. I started there as a loner, since all of my primary school friends had gone elsewhere, while other kids had arrived in bunches from the same schools and so already knew one another. I had no proper friends, just people I hung around with to get through the day, beginning a trend of having acquaintances rather than true friends. I got bullied for being smart and getting on with my work, couldn’t find it in me to trust anybody (especially when kids I got on with would turn on me if it meant they could get in with the “popular” kids), and gradually retreated further and further into a shell. Sometimes I think that it was a culture shock that I never adapted to, for my primary school was a nice place, where pretty much every kid in the class got along regardles of their background. Secondary school was immediately different on the first day and I’ve since wondered if primary school had been too nice.
It didn’t get any better the further I went through school. Girls never took any interest in me, and I was too quiet and shy to change that. Also, each day felt like an exercise in survival – trying to stay under the radar as much as possible and be on the receiving end of as few put-downs as possible. I was constantly in that fight-or-flight mode and having to focus on this at all times meant that I invested no time at all into planning for the future or working out where I wanted to go once education was done. When I got home, I just buried my head in a videogame to escape. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Once education was done, I just started applying for random jobs. I had no direction; I just wanted to be away from education and all the people I’d known for those years that I never wanted to see again. I suppose I hoped that I could start over afresh in the workplace. Unfortunately, I left sixth form in 2008 during the financial crash and even basic jobs were difficult to walk into. Of all the CVs I sent in and applications I made, I only ever received two interviews, both of which came to nothing. My confidence and self-worth took a massive hit as I spent eighteen months on unemployment benefits, and just sitting around at home whenever I wasn’t job-hunting. I’d scored good grades at school and had exemplary attendance and behaviour records, yet I learnt the hard lesson that none of it counted for anything. This was probably my first experience of true loneliness as I didn’t even have social interaction with acquaintances during those eighteen months. It was just job applications and numbing the pain with videogames and other insular hobbies. It was a tough time that made me question a lot of things. After all, our education system (which I have now come to see as incredibly ineffective at preparing children for REAL life) always drilled into us that good grades would get you places. Yet, they weren’t worth the paper they were printed on for me during those eighteen months.
Eventually, I found work through a job placement, where my efforts paid off and the company hired me as proper, contracted employee. For a while, I can honestly say that life improved. I got on with everybody there, and there was the kind of friendly respect that I had never experienced at school. I genuinely enjoyed going to work and feeling my social skills grow. Sadly, I found that the shit from your past never completely leaves you. For example, I went on a few work’s nights out but I shunned most of them, especially when they were about pure drinking and touring the pubs/bars in town. That introverted side of me grasped the reins once more and the very idea of spending time outside of work in some club or the other with people from work felt like the very worst thing in the world ever, and so I turned down invite after invite, making up false excuses for some of them. Sometimes I’d agree to go then back out at the last minute, using a cover story as my exit strategy. I began to feel genuine fear and unease whenever a night out was being planned, and always found a reason to avoid somebody whenever I felt they were about to ask me if I was coming. Pathetic, right?
I KNOW that I should have forced myself to go, and that the choices I made at those points have no doubt contributed to all the anxiety and stress I regularly feel today (and the loneliness), but you have to understand how powerful that need to run in the opposite direction was. It was like being at war: the logical side of my brain would tell me that I needed to go, and that I got on with these people, so there was nothing to be apprehensive about. However, the introverted side of me – that little boy that refused to go near playgrounds if other kids were on the swings – instilled some sort of primal fear in me, and set off all of the danger alarms. This war between logic and irrational dread would rage inside until I was so exhausted and tired of fighting that I said “no” to a social event just to feel the overwhelming relief that came with knowing I wouldn’t have to deal with it. Believe me, I know how ridiculous it all sounds but this was years upon years of no experience with social situations coming back to haunt me. The irony of course was that I fitted in perfectly in the workplace and was very adept at socialising with colleagues and customers in that environment, just not when it was pure socialising away from work.
Of course, I’m just talking about social anxiety right now. Choices I’d made during my teens and the circumstances of my upbringing (perhaps being shielded too much by my parents) brought me to the situation I described above. It was then that I got stuck in a nasty loop. You see, one huge reason for avoiding social occasions was the fear of people asking questions, seeing through my facade, and realising that I was such a socially inexperienced loser. So I carefully avoided any such possibilities in order to save face and protect my image which of course lead to not gaining any experience and so the loop was created. Ultimately, I didn’t forge any strong social bonds – and still haven’t to this day – and I remained alone. For the longest time however, this didn’t bother me at all. I enjoyed my own company and just doing whatever at my leisure. I didn’t feel lonely. It’s only recently, as I’ve hit the age of thirty, that loneliness has really hit me, and that I finally made the link between it and the bouts of random depression that I suffer.
As for romantic relationships, I’ve only had one semi-serious relationship which concluded with me being dumped with no explanation. Let me tell you, THAT did me no favours, especially when all of her friends rallied to her side on Facebook to publicly console her as if I had done something to hurt her, one of them even referring to me as a “fucker”. Even worse, it wasn’t long before she started dating one of my co-workers and I had to see that every day at work. On top of that, I was involved in an armed robbery soon after, and the first thing we saw when the police finally got us out of the building were the other staff members, who had yet to come on shift, waiting outside including my ex and her new man comforting each other as if they had been the ones face-down on the locker room floor with a bar held to the back of their heads.
There have been other romantic pursuits but none that came to anything. Most ended in utter disaster if I’m being honest, and I think I began to develop a damaged goods complex as I convinced myself that I wasn’t worth it due to all the time I’d spent alone, and all the social experiences that I hadn’t had.
So that’s my “story” though, truth be told, it reads more like a load of tragic waffle and a description of somebody with self-inflicted social anxiety. I must stress however, that I’m not looking for sympathy, and that I do recognise that I’ve pushed people away over the years and brought this loneliness on myself to a degree. Looking at my past as a very young child however, I do feel – regardless of the fact that I believe in our personalities being shaped by our environment and experiences – that I was born an introvert, because there’s just no other way for me to explain why I was already vetoing socialising from such a young age. People always said that I would “grow out of it” but that hasn’t been the case, and it’s a fact that it is supremely difficult to exist as an introvert in this extrovert’s world.
The bottom line is that I didn’t realise it before, but I now know that I am lonely, and that it is slowly consuming me from the inside out.
So why now?
As I have said, being alone hadn’t used to bother me so much. In fact, you can find many people on the internet who will tell you that living alone or being alone is a good thing, and I can certainly see why they would say that. Being alone allows for plenty of self reflection, and for a person to focus on themself, and to become more self-aware. Additionally, there are many people who claim to have never felt so alone as when they were married or in a relationship. And, as I spoke about above, being alone genuinely didn’t bother me for such a long time.
And there are genuine benefits. Firstly, you don’t need to worry about pleasing other people or altering your schedule for anybody else. Secondly, I found that it makes me appreciate my family more than I might have done. Being lonely has made me appreciate their presence and all they do moreso than I used to, especially my sister who I would have to say is my best friend – certainly the only person who understands me. Lastly, realising how alone I feel, and how it has slowly affected my mental health, has only opened my eyes to how important human relationships are, and how insignificant material pursuits and other recreational distractions (such as numbing the pain with movies, videogames etc.) are. I know, I know…it shouldn’t have taken me thirty fucking years on this planet to realise these things!
All of that said, the pros certainly don’t outweight the cons – not for me personally anyway. I have big respect for people who choose to be alone of their own volition and enjoy it but, after looking back at my life and the things that have shaped me, I can’t say that I willingly chose loneliness. It was a sad side-effect of some poor decisions and certain circumstances.
I decided to write this mammoth sob story for three reasons. The first is in case anybody in a similar situation can relate to me and see that they aren’t alone. Secondly, as I have already said, I wanted to get this shit down in words to see if it helps as I’ve never spoken to anybody about this or written it down before now. And, third of all, I really want to put all of this behind me and move the fuck on. I can’t live like this anymore. I want to actually feel rather than “feel” empty and hollow. I want to grow rather than stagnate. I want to feel the warmth and affection of a partner. They say it’s never too late to start afresh and I guess I want to try that out. We are all products of our past, and our past defines who we are. It needn’t dictate our futures, however.
Very recently, I made a bit of an attempt to step outside of the comfort zone. Without going into specifics, I’d felt myself unexpectedly growing closer to a woman in my life. We had a lot of amazing back-and-forth, spicy banter, and I genuinely enjoyed simply being around her, despite the fact that nothing about her would have been what I’d described as my “type”. Unfortunately, it transpired that she would be moving away, so I made the decision to make a gesture to show her that I cared. As I said, I don’t want to go into details, but the situation between us wasn’t so straightforward that I could simply ask her out because, believe me, I would have done that if it had been possible. She promised to stay in touch and, while I don’t expect anything to come of it, I am at least glad that I did something and that I will still be able to stay in contact with her, so who knows. For a lot of people, this situation wouldn’t have bothered them, but I can’t tell you how shot my nerves were in the week leading up to when she left, and the day that I went out of my way to go and see her. I decided however, that this severe unease and stress was actually a good thing, as it meant I was forcing myself out of that dangerous comfort zone, and putting a part of myself on the line.
As the words from the song Beached by Orbital go “…if it hurts, you know what? It’s probably worth it”
That said, doing things like this proves monstrously difficult for me, and I feel – even though it should probably belong in a separate post as it isn’t strictly to do with loneliness – that I should try to give you a brief snapshot of how putting myself out there utterly ruins my mind and physical health. While I’m actually IN the situation (such as when I was physically with the above-mentioned lady), I find that I am quite calm and relaxed, but leading up to it? An absolute wreck. That build-up to doing something outside of my comfort zone results in LOTS of sweating and, if the situation is stressing me out in the days leading up to it, severe nausea, bad stomach, loss of appetite, panic attacks…you name it. It’s why I have, more often than not, found it impossible to attend social gatherings, and it isn’t something you especially want to explain! If you have read Stephen King’s 11.22.63, you may recall the way in which the past attempts to resist being changed by the protagonist. Well, this feels something like that. I might want to do something, and I might know that it is the right thing to do for me, but when all of this shit (the nausea, feeling ill, panic attacks) hits, it feels like trying to push through an increasingly-thick barrier of jelly. Most times, the jelly gets so thick and resistant, that I get forced backwards and retreat, exhausted.
I appreciate that this has been a loooong post, and a very sappy one so, if you made it to the end, you’re a real trooper. It’s also been (I feel at least) a very open and raw post that perhaps doesn’t match the tone that this blog has tended to convey in the past. I was simply inspired by that hard-hitting Youtube video I linked at the outset of this post, which appeared on my Recommended feed just as I was really starting to pay serious attention to loneliness and how fucked my life has felt for so long now. Also, I want this to be a book-end of sorts on who I have been as I try to move forwards…