In our Covid-19 world you might not be surprised to learn that I am suffering from loneliness. My wife, three year old daughter and new born baby are thousands of miles away on another continent and we still don’t know when they can come back. Most my friends mean well but they are pretty clueless understanding what it means to be lonely. They think going for a walk on your own would be healthy and enjoyable. It might be healthy but you come back sadder than when you walked outside. Reading a book or playing a computer game does not help, it just wastes away some time of being alone. I find writing poems, or blogs helpful as you are communicating with something even if there is no immediate response back. Who knows if anyone will read this post or a stupid poem but you can pretend that someone may click on it and possibly understand what you might be going through – there is some connection. The best way to get through loneliness in my opinion is not to be lonely. This week I have jumped at the chance of cleaning someone else’s home together just because I would be able to get some interaction somewhere.
You end up doing things you might not normally do, or might even be socially harmful. It’s kind of attention seeking but if you are lonely and no-one is talking to you, spending time on the internet, asking questions, sending stupid messages, sharing Trump memes, making Twitter polls are all ways in which you actually get interaction with other people. It can be manipulative and annoying but you would think that there would be some understanding of what it means to be lonely in the wider population. The reason it can be socially harmful is you get exasperated by some people and end up doing something which is self-destructive. So, after a friend of mine made excuses for the hundredth time for going out for a cup of coffee I just blocked him on WeChat (Chinese Facebook for those who don’t know what it is but it is way, way better). The rejection is just too painful. I know he is busy and Chinese culture means people don’t pop round to people’s houses. I do get it but you think to yourself – come on man you are a pretty shit friend. You know I’m thousands of miles from my family, you’ve had yours there 24/7, you live two apartments down and don’t want to spend any time with me and this has been going on for five months.
However, in my experience and trying to be as charitable as I can, I do recognise that very few people I know have any idea what it means to be lonely and worse still have absolutely no idea how to deal with people that are lonely. If you are lonely some of the worst things you can suggest are activities that you would do alone. It seems pretty obvious, but if you know someone is lonely, it is pretty insensitive to say you should go out for a bike ride on your own. I guess people are trying to be helpful but it just feels as if you are being palmed off and pushed to one side to get things done yourself. If you know someone is lonely you don’t normally tell them to do some cooking at home alone. It’s one of the weirder attitudes that I have come across; there does seem to be this idea in society that lonely people need to become less lonely by doing stuff alone. Bonkers isn’t it!
It’s been over five months since I have seen my immediate family. Most of my other family members have died long ago and I am not particularly close to others. I have some cats to keep me company but they are not the greatest at having conversations. I tried talking to Rocky the Cat about existentialism but Rocky’s answer was to pee on the mattress and demand more food. Summer the Cat is currently gnawing my armpit. I know it is disgusting and this is not behaviour that I should be encouraging, but it’s about the only physical contact I’ve had for months. There is the internet and FaceTime but when your family is sixteen hours behind and your wife knackered from giving birth there isn’t always a good time to converse. I read stories to my daughter Miranda, it is one of the only things that keeps me going. I’m currently trying to play Civilisation on my Playstation but this does not cure loneliness, it just buys time to try to forget for a small amount of time that you really are alone.
The other thing people seem to not understand is that if you are lonely just go somewhere where there are people. Now, I am lucky in that where I live there are almost no restrictions and I can go to bars or coffee shops and I am rather good at starting conversations, although my Chinese is pretty poor. But this certainly does not cure loneliness – in fact it can make it worse because it just amplifies how alone you really are. If you are lonely, going to meet someone you don’t know does not always help.
You do feel guilty for being lonely. There are so many things I need to do. I have a bass guitar that needs fixing, a curtain pole to put up, a driving test to apply for, learn Chinese, getting all my documents ready to go to Canada in a few year’s time. But when you are lonely, these things don’t really mean much. Human beings are not designed to be lonely but we seem to have an attraction to the Lone Ranger – it seems stronger, more attractive, more capable to do things alone. I see my new curtain pole and I know that I can probably put it up myself. But if I was to put it up with someone and talk to them at the same time I would actually enjoy putting the curtain pole up. It would make me happy. Putting the curtain pole up on my own will make me sad because it will amplify the feeling that I am alone. Do I feel guilty for not wanting to put up the curtain pole on my own? Yes, of course I do – it also looks pretty bad, people might think I’m incapable of putting it up on my own. And it is pretty pathetic to ask someone for help just because you want to have a conversation but not tell them the real reason why. But it’s even worse to tell people the real reason why, because it is not socially acceptable to be lonely – it’s considered weak.
Other people may have another idea which is understandable but not actually very helpful. They may be aware that someone is lonely and think the solution is to get loads of people together and do something en masse. Now, I can’t speak for other people but I don’t think I am talking rubbish by saying you can be lonely in a large group of people. The old adage, two is company, three is a crowd is pretty accurate, although I find three is OK but four is crap. Many lonely people will still jump at the chance of interacting with multiple people but in my experience it is the face to face contact and sharing between two people that is most valuable and takes away the feelings of loneliness. And the feelings do subside when you are spending time with someone, it is therapeutic and it is helpful. That’s not to say a night out isn’t something to look forward to, it is but probably won’t stop you feeling lonely.
When I lived in West Wales I spent quite a lot of time with an 80 year old lady called Wally who lived in a cottage near me. I was only about 13 at the time but I used to sell duck eggs to her. She probably didn’t even eat them, it was an excuse for me to talk to her. She told me all about going to the Savoy in London and seeing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas with the D’Oyley Carte company. She introduced me to some great classical music that she had recorded off the radio – my first hearing of Khachaturian’s “Spartacus” and Bruch’s famous Violin Concerto came from Wally turning on her tape recorder. She was lonely but I really enjoyed spending time with her. Something I find hard to understand is that some people don’t want to spend time with people who are lonely. I guess there are lots of busy people out there but I really enjoyed spending time with lonely people. Having grown up with my grandparents and spent a lot of time with pensioners, I think I do understand what it means to try to be with people who are lonely. Trying to speak Welsh to my next door neighbour Doris (which I was terrible at) turned into listening about what the village used to be like fifty years ago and it was fascinating to talk to someone who genuinely had never travelled further than Swansea in her life and married someone from the neighbouring village. Talking to lonely people is reciprocal, it’s not one way therapy and does not need to be burdensome – it’s a relationship.
But we do get the idea that loneliness only applies to old people and this is a myth. When I was in West Wales there were no other kids my age around and I would spend many days on my own. Some people think it was idyllic – climbing trees, making dams in streams, making dens in the bracken – but when you are on your own these things aren’t always that great. I would have been much happier playing the Sega Megadrive or piano duets with a friend. It’s not the silence, it’s not the lack of things to do, it’s a feeling. It is difficult to describe this feeling – some people say it’s an empty feeling but it isn’t exactly like that for me. For me it is a sadness, an insignificance and a feeling of being a problem that needs to be solved rather than a human being. I would like to think that we all get this feeling from time to time but I am not so sure – one thing I can definitely say is that it affects some people deeply and some people barely seem to mind. I hate being alone, I have never wanted time to myself or “space” and I don’t want to feel guilty for feeling this way. It’s just the way I am and I am past lying about my feelings in an attempt to be socially acceptable. I don’t think there is a cure and I don’t think that learning to spend time alone is the answer. Quite simply I like spending time with people and I don’t like spending time on my own.
Anyway, this post has not been easy to write. I guess if it does any good, just have a think of who should be lonely under these crazy circumstances and who might be lonely. Just a message, an invite for coffee or even time weeding flowers together could help someone feeling sad.