Yet again I couldn’t get myself in gear to write my piece for Mental Health Awareness Week – but here we are anyway. The theme this year was loneliness. Something many have faced over the past few years of lockdowns – but which is by no means a phenomenon reserved to pandemics.
What is loneliness? Because it is more than being alone, isn’t it?
It is possible to be alone and not lonely. Solitude, can be a blessing, a gift – something we can cultivate to make it an indulgence – living life exactly to our individual specification.
I was an only child, but I don’t really remember being a lonely child – in my home. I pottered, I occupied myself.
I was sometimes lonely at school. Because I could see what I was missing. Other children with closer, existing friendships which I perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be better than any I had with the few friends I made. Making friends, interacting with other children – was always hard. I preferred adults. Something I believe is not unusual for autistic people.
Humans are made for connection – we learn from our earliest connections, in fact we rely upon them for proper development – absent of connection and love, our brains do not develop in the way they should, and our ability to develop and maintain such relationships in later life is impaired.
Once we know what connection is, if we are able to appreciate it – then many of us miss it.
Loneliness is the lack of connection. Sometimes coupled with solitude, maybe involuntary solitude – but it is certainly possible to be surrounded by people and feel alone. It is possible to be in a loving relationship and still be lonely.
Can we connect? Can we relate? Do we understand each other? Does it feel like hard work?
In the recent incarnation of the Star Trek franchise – Picard, we are reunited with Seven of Nine – the former Borg drone who became part of the crew of Voyager. The Borg – assimilating all species they meet into their collective, all connected via the hive mind – all thinking and feeling as one.
Once separated from the collective, Seven tells us, you will always miss that connection, no matter how much you hated the violation of assimilation. No relationship ever brings you close.
Our attachment style may have a big influence on how we experience connection in our adult relationships. Understanding this helped me to unpick a lifetime of wrecked love affairs. Insecure attachment, Anxious attachment – I fall in love hard, and deep. My most profound relationships have shared the same intense beginnings – feeling like someone sees deep into my soul, understands me, like some kind of star crossed, destined to be together, inevitability. It burns with the heat of the sun. But never for long enough. Because most relationships – will reach a point where we settle down, where the rolling boil reduces to a simmer, still hot but not as excitable. If you have a secure attachment, that’s fine. We might look back on our glory days with fondness but actually we’re maybe glad things are not so intense, it was exhausting. We evolve into a new kind of connection. But with insecure, anxious attachment style – the loss of that fever dream leaves us bereft. It means you don’t love us any more, the validation we received from your obsession with us made us feel worthy, good enough – and the drifting of our connection leaves us uncertain – are we good enough? Do you love us? Will you leave us? In times gone by this danger zone would be where other attractions may form – with new loves who can give that certainty, reassurance -for a while. Understanding attachment means that when I feel that insecurity seeping in, I know i’m being silly. I maybe seek some reassurance, and I don’t run off with the milkman.
That doesn’t mean I don’t get lonely. I do miss that connection. That feeling that someone was fascinated by everything I said, and I them. That hunger, and synchronicity. Connection – like a radio signal – at one point on the same wavelength, our communication and understanding crystal clear, and then it drifts, and the crackling static starts to interfere and bring misunderstanding.
Friendships too – missing those days when I had a bevvy of friends I lived among, shared lives, shared experiences, shared understanding. There are people who the connection will never fade with, no matter how long you are apart. And others who are in your life every day who will never understand you.
I’ve come to realise a lot of the people I really connect with are maybe neurodivergent, or whatever this thing is that so many of us are recognising as we share our experiences. We think differently – our wavelengths are more similar. Sometimes trying to connect with people is like trying to fit a VGA cable in a HDMI slot. It is never going to work.
And that can be lonely.
How do we deal with loneliness? A) Seek connection by finding like minded people or B) Learn to be more comfortable with solitude. Connect with ourselves. With nature, the universe, God, whatever we feel energises us all. Meditation can help with the latter – self compassion, grieving the loss of connection (whether through bereavement, break up or simple drifting of time)
Finding opportunities to do things we love / are interested in / passionate about – in the company of others may lead to new friendships forming. It’s not always easy – I’ve sat on the sidelines of many groups and clubs, feeling more and more alone and alienated as others chat along happily. If you are an easy talker – someone gifted with friendliness and warmth – look around to see if anyone might need your help to make connections. They might be fine to watch, just absorb the hubbub, but they might also welcome someone the help them bridge the gap.
Are there people you haven’t spoken to in a while? Old friends? Family members – reach out to them, send a text or a card, you could call or drop by (though not everyone might be ok with that of course). We tell people who are lonely or depressed to reach out – but actually sometimes that is really hard – so we all need to be doing it – reach in, see if people are ok. Regular chats and check ins are good for us all. And of course especially if people are living alone, are elderly, isolated, or otherwise disconnected from the world. Mental Health First Aid training can help us understand and recognise when people around us are struggling – and gives us a framework to help.
Depression and other mental health challenges can worsen loneliness. Depression is a liar. It can fill our head with negativity, thoughts that no-one likes us, that we’re a bad person, boring, a waste of time, etc etc. It spins everything in the most negative light. If someone hasn’t called in a while, they hate us. If they don’t reply to a message, they don’t want to talk to us. It steals any energy or inclination we might have to go out and do things. Anxiety makes us catastrophise and think that things will go wrong, fear the stress and panic of travel or meeting people. Extreme emotions may make situations challenging for us, may mean people don’t always quite get where we are coming from.
Hopefully we can get help to overcome these challenges – talking to your doctor is a good start to gain access to medication or talking therapy which may make a huge difference to you. But also look out for other organisations in your area which may offer different kinds of help – peer support and wellbeing groups, walks and activities with other people who may know where you are coming from – having their own mental heath difficulties and so being more understanding about why some may find interaction harder than others. Similarly if we are autistic, have ADHD etc – sometimes groups for neurodivergent individuals may be valuable – to connect with people who may see life in a similar way to yourself.
In my local area of Calderdale, Healthy Minds have a range of excellent activities – I haven’t yet plucked up the courage to attend anything myself, but I hear great things from those who have.
However if we’re not ready to get out there for whatever reason – we might still find connection online – social media has a lot of downsides of course, but there are some lovely lovely people out there. Finding your people online can make an enormous difference. Sometimes it’s easier to be open when we feel safe in our own spaces.
Sometimes fictional characters ease our loneliness. TV shows, films, books – the phenomena of parasocial relationships is fascinating, but sometimes in the absence of all else, immersing ourselves in other worlds can fill a void we feel in our own.
But again, as I said at the beginning – solitude does not have to equal loneliness. Try to find a way to enjoy your alone time. Make your space more you – more comfortable, enjoyable. Make it somewhere you like to be. Take yourself on a date – what do you like to do? To eat? To listen to? To watch? Pamper yourself, get to know yourself. Talk to yourself. In my experience it is the best way to get a sensible conversation! It has also been the key to unlocking a lot of my emotional difficulties. Asking myself gently, with compassion – what I need, why I feel the way I do, why I did the things I did. Once upon a time I was very unhappy – with feelings of tremendous guilt and anger about certain periods of my life. Asking myself why – and truly listening, with empathy and compassion, helped me to recognise the pain, the remorse, the lack of understanding, the sorrow at the heart of these experiences – and let go of the guilt and anger, which after all could not change anything, and were only poisoning years which I should have been cherishing. It is important to feel our feelings, to give them space. But only as much as they need. There comes a time for the crying to stop, and the laughter to begin.
Online MHFA Refresher Courses:
Friday 20th May
Friday 27th May
Wednesday 1st June
Friday 10th June
Friday 17th June
Online Mental Health First Aid
30th June, 1st, 7th, 8th July (Thurs/Fri)
13th, 14th, 20th, 21st July (Wed/Thurs)
Online Mental Health Aware
Monday 30th May