Only connect: loneliness in lockdown, before and after

As we close in on the one-year anniversary since social distancing measures were introduced, most of us would agree we have experienced a collective loneliness on a scale and depth hitherto unimagined and unfelt in our lifetime. From children ostracised from their peers, to individuals of all ages living alone or separate from loved ones, and the older generations many of whom were already living with chronic loneliness pre-Covid. Even in this age of hyperconnectedness, we have all had a crash course in the effect loneliness can wreak on mental health thanks to the great leveller that is Covid-19.

As someone who is habitually alone, it took a while for me to understand that I too wasn’t spared. The term ‘lonely’ had never quite resonated with me; it seemed too simplistic and even facile. It wasn’t until I took part in a voluntary communal forum where participants have the opportunity to discuss issues they are struggling with that I understood although many of us were grappling with diverse anxieties, the majority were overshadowed by a cloud of loneliness.

I was particularly struck by one particular topic, as a middle-aged woman explained that being isolated was her first taste of regret at not having children. No doubt many of us have been faced with this question: would I be happier with the buffer of a family to protect me? Her fears were assuaged when several participants affirmed parenthood is by no means a guarantee against loneliness – at any age. As one woman put it so succinctly: to be a parent is to suffer a continual sense of loss. It is the loss of each stage that went before; and the loss of the child you have nurtured as they shift into the adult they will become.

Another woman felt so alone trying to hold her family together while her child battled with mental illness and her husband consumed himself with work. Who was looking out for her? Who was trying to keep her together? Well, that was her job too.

If you’ve read my last blog post, you’ll know I’m working on a novel. Loss and loneliness ripple under the surface of it, though I hadn’t fully realised this until recently, and the pandemic has given me plenty of room to think about my characters from different angles.

My protagonist, Erin, is in a perpetual state of self-imposed loneliness which she has misconstrued as introversion, not fully comprehending how two-dimensional her life has become without others in it. As a wise woman once said, even introverts need someone to be distanced from.

In contrast, her sister Annie is the gravitational force holding everything together. She is on the cusp of experiencing the loss of her child to adulthood; a loss and crisis Erin is able to predict having made it her aim in life to distance herself as much as possible from others. It is Erin’s job to show Annie just how much she stands to lose from diverting her own attention into her family. Yet it is Annie’s job to make Erin realise that she must find something outside of herself to put her attention on if she is to develop any meaningful connection in life.

It is with some relief I have never been a mother, but I have studied the dynamics of parenthood and loss from afar and feel that for all its benefits it must be one of the most painful experiences in life, and one that unlike most other concerns never runs its course. Maybe to come to terms with my own sadness at being lost to adulthood, it is something I wanted to explore in my novel – the way this loss is experienced by both child and parent.

Although Annie is yet to put herself first, she is nevertheless already acutely aware of her loneliness. The way I see it, her’s is a mother’s loneliness, of someone who must simply go on being: strong, nurturing and in control. Who always puts themselves second to preserve the greater integrity of their family. Yet Erin’s short-sightedness fails to acknowledge that Annie could have an emotional intelligence all of her own that exists beyond simply being a barometer of her family’s emotions, all because she (like many mothers) doesn’t express it outwardly.

Both are stunted in their emotional expression, conceptualised in the cold and aloof figure of their own mother, now something of a family relic, divested of any real voice or influence in her old age, yet all the same exerting a kind of trauma that both daughters are doomed to keep playing out.

It is easy to underplay the role of mothers and even make comedy out of their neuroticism and daily slips we roll our eyes at. You know: the roll call of names before they settle on the right one; the exasperation as they tidy around us constantly. You can see it in Pam’s vulnerability in Bridget Jones’ Diary when she says, “I do realise what I’m like sometimes. It doesn’t help that you and Bridget have your lovely grown-up club of two and always say, ‘What’s silly old Mummy gone and done this time?'”

But we never ask where it comes from. From being so switched on mothers risk subsuming part of themselves to sustain their families? My lack of experience notwithstanding, it seems to me the pain of being a mother must surely leave very visible scars if only we were thoughtful enough to recognise them. But we very rarely do.

Loneliness and loss can strike in any relationship of course, whether familial, platonic or romantic. In fact, sometimes our relationships with others are the loneliest place to be.

How do we know what loneliness is? For me, it feels like I’m stuck in an underground warren of tunnels, none of which ever deliver you up to the surface, to the greeting of air and sunlight and faces. It is when you are so beyond your own salvation but no look of comprehension and compassion is returned.

Loneliness does indeed seem to come from a place of loss – of not being able to reach another. It’s a breakdown of contact whether emotional, verbal or physical, but usually all. You can live side by side with someone, but if they don’t see you for who you are, or what you have endured – are enduring – you feel robbed of your senses. Attempts to connect become numbed. It is little wonder those who lose their sight or vision are prone to loneliness and mental health disorders such as depression. A 2009 study found adults under 70 were 5% more likely to experience depression with each drop in ‘incremental hearing ability’.

Being lonely in any kind of relationship is basically the internal you screaming to be heard. So do you need someone else to hear you to be cured of your loneliness? Maybe not. From my own experience, it can be lonelier to be trapped in a situation where communication has broken down for whatever reason than to be alone, simply because you have less freedom to give vent to your feelings; for your words to tumble out honestly and decorate your walls in their unedited outrage and joy. In instances like this, you may be physically alone, but at the very least being open and honest – even if heard by no one but you – yields a kind of relief as the barrier between communication and acknowledgement melts. So often when you are trapped in an uncommunicative space with another, you never actually have the room to express yourself even to yourself.

As E.M Forster put it so succinctly in Howard’s End, the key to a more harmonious humanity and contract with the self is to “only connect”:

“Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

So does it stand to reason that if we are lonely in a relationship dynamic, then the other person is too? How would we know without asking. But if questions aren’t asked and emotional expression curtailed, you can probably assume the answer is yes.

I can’t let this topic pass with reference to the character Leo Fish’s monologue in a hugely underrated film directed by Jodie Foster, Home for the Holidays, which takes place when a dysfunctional American family gets together for Thanksgiving.

Leo is the mysterious outsider introduced to the family. When his love interest and the film’s protagonist Claudia asks, “When you go home, do you look around and wonder ‘who are these people? Where did I even come from?’”, Leo responds:

“Oh sure. Par, par, bogey, bogey, par, par. That’s what I get all summer.

“My dad plays golf, and I ask him, ‘how’s your game dad?’ And he tells me his latest round was, ‘Par, par, bogey, bogey, par, par, son.’ Like I’m picturing every hole. I don’t even know how to play golf. I don’t even know what kind of expression to put on my face. I swear to God I want to scream…

“But… I just smile… Because I figure he wants to scream too.”

‘Par, par, bogey, bogey, par, par, son’ has increasingly become my mantra when I feel the drawbridge of communications close, in the same way a yogi might salute ‘Namaste’ and get on with their day.

In essence, if you’re screaming inside, chances are the other person is too.

That’s not to denigrate others simply because they don’t understand you. As Leo points out, we are just as out of step with them. It is painful to hear it from someone you love, just as it is to admit it. Instead, we should seek to experience the kind of love which is beyond language and communication. To develop unconditional compassion.

…and respectful honesty in our exchanges. A lofty aim maybe, but let’s face it, no good ever came from keeping schtum either.

A friend recently lent me a novel called Dear Mrs Bird, set in WWII London. The similarities between the collective experience we are going through now – albeit with much less physical and mental trauma – and then are startling. Still, it’s clear to see the pandemic has forced a number of our vulnerabilities and fears to the surface and I think we should all feel a sense of relief in that. In the same way that the book’s protagonist Emmy seeks to make plain and soothe the internal suffering of a nation – specifically the women on the home front – in the face of the ‘buck up’ culture of British stoicism, we should be prepared to embrace our more complex sides if we want to be happier and more connected to each other. Yet for all our last 100 years of modern psychotherapy and for all our newfound eagerness to ‘open up’, we all still struggle with believing we are permitted to feel this way.

The heartening news is nowadays GPs are turning to ‘social prescribing’ to cure loneliness. A great leap forwards in understanding many roots of mental illness but by no means a panacea. The way I understand it, loneliness is simultaneously a disease we can treat the symptoms of, but not one we can cure. Loneliness is endemic in the human condition. Sooner or later we must all face our loneliness in facing ourselves; the only person we come into this world with and the only person we will leave it with. Connecting with others is what makes us a social species. But when you boil right down to it, we must connect first and foremost with ourselves if we want to be able to accept rather than fear that gnawing loneliness within us once the laptop cameras turn off, when the light goes out. We must do what we can to take responsibility for our own happiness and aspire to live in fragments no longer.

Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

Liminality, character and identity in 2020

Blackpool prom tide out

For the past year, I have been chipping away at a novel I am writing, and after a while of dissecting my subject I realised one of the major themes I wanted to explore is liminal spaces. A subject which seems as relevant for discussion now as ever.

“A liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, a season of waiting, and not knowing. Liminal space is where all transformation takes place, if we learn to wait and let it form us.” (1)

Liminality crops up a lot in critical theory because so many artists are obsessed with those gaps between definitions. It can be a source of immense creativity; think androgyny, fluid boundaries of sexuality, time, space and the carnivalesque. It is the intersection of tradition; the space where expression is free, if we let it be. As such, it’s a great place to play.

The liminal space I explore in my story is the town I grew up in: Blackpool. To me, our seaside town is the ultimate liminal space. Before the pandemic, it was a town of stag and hen dos; the place which not so long ago had the highest teenage pregnancy rate; a town of rich entertainment history which has largely been forgotten as those generations become muted.

Before that, it was a resort hugely popular for working class holidays during Lancashire Wakes Weeks. And prior to that it was the place where Victorians came to take in the sea air. But it was something before that too and before that and before that. However, we have scant history to work from because its identity really came to the fore thanks to the industrial revolution and rise of the railways.

I have heard Blackpool discussed in so many guises, but they are all so extreme: faded grandeur, ailing seaside resort, area of deprivation. These are terms the locals are all too familiar with. To the point that they don’t just become identifiers of the place; they become by extension part of your identity too. But the problem with all this layering of labels, especially during the past forty years since the town’s decline has been especially marked, is that no one on the inside is sure what its identity is.

You could say, it occupies a liminal space.

This becomes more self-explanatory when you understand its unusual context.

In my opinion, even the most obvious icons of Blackpool’s culture continually occupy a liminal space. Fairground rides that suspend you in the air. Entertainment that traverses the fine line between tragedy and comedy. Clowns that wear two faces. Fortune tellers who stand between the present and the future. Piers stretching out into the sea that are onshore yet off. Rocks that lie in the littoral zone purporting to be of a lost town or civilisation.

We are also the place that caters to political party conferences one week and the world’s largest magic convention the next. The place where pigeon fanciers and punks convene. We have always attracted the people on the fringes, the transient population, and I think that is because we are both a physical extremity (out on a limb at the end of the M55) and a place of mythical status. We can be whatever you want us to be, all things to all people. Our identity is fluid.

Elements of this used to bother me. I didn’t understand where the council’s plans for regeneration fit with the history I knew and the way I experienced the town for myself. But now I think I’m starting to understand. I suppose I was worried that throwing up the kinds of glass and aluminium structures you find in any town or city would rob us of our ‘identity’. That it would change us by overwriting some previous definition of ourselves. But I see it’s probably not even possible, for better or worse, because Blackpool is the archetypal liminal space. The more it evolves, the more its identity becomes muddled, which is probably what makes it a place of richness. Let’s not forget the most interesting identities are the ones which defy definition.I think that’s why we find it such a magical place too. Many people from all walks stored their dreams here, even if they didn’t always deliver.

In my story, the physical liminal space I am seeking to step into isn’t just the town itself, it is, more specifically, the geographical littoral zone between the highest water mark and the furthest reaches of the tide. The place where two groups of rocks are situated: Pennystone Rock and Carlin Rock.

But as with any hero’s journey, the liminal space for novelists and readers also exists within the self; that which was previously unknown, unseen or unacknowledged about the protagonist’s character is drawn out through the story’s developments. In actual fact, novel writing or any kind of story occupies a liminal space in itself: the uncomfortable in-between stage before what author and readers will know can be known.

This past year has been crucially interesting because Blackpool will have to redefine itself once again. But beyond that, leaping from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic, you could say 2020 itself is the archetypal liminal space:

“During liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt. The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established.” (2)

We have seen those members of society who were once operating at the fringes – undervalued – become the key workers upon whom we depend. Delivery personnel, care givers (largely women), supermarket workers… By inversion (a classic trope of the liminal space), those we once placed more highly as a society became redundant overnight. Personalities, celebrities, the higher classes. They have had to reinvent themselves to survive in this the ultimate year of liminality: 2020.

No doubt we have all also undergone our own hero’s journeys over the past year, perhaps triggered by this momentous event on a global scale. I know I have. However, my journey into the unknown began in Autumn 2019, before anyone knew about the pandemic. But even at that point I knew I was standing at the edge of a threshold. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew my scenery, while being exactly the same, had shifted. I believe we know when we are on the edge of the precipice even if we can’t see it. We can feel the updraft of the gulf of change beneath our feet.

Of course, the liminal space is supposed to be uncomfortable. That’s because it is a waiting, a transition that will ultimately leave you changed. But perhaps we can also find liminal spaces sources of relief. It’s during periods in my life such as these that I look to learn more about the inherent disorder of life, and increasingly quantum physics, whose beautiful chaos is a revitalising example of the liminality of something we often view as unchangeable and fixed: science. The potential for alternate realities, of something being and not being at the same time, grants, I suppose, a sweetness that nothing can ever be known with any kind of certainty:

“Like Quantum Mechanics, liminal reality is also characterized by ‘spooky action’ that defies rationality. And yet, somewhere deep in the mysterious code of it all, the chaotic seeds of what comes next are present and operating.” (3)