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.