Let's smash the stigma around loneliness; it's more common than you think

[Photo: Agnieszka P/Unsplash]
[Photo: Agnieszka P/Unsplash]

Nobody brags about loneliness. We can barely admit it to ourselves. Doing so comes with a sense of shame and embarrassment. The tacit consensus is, if you’re lonely, you’re a loser.

Humans are by nature sociable animals. It stands to reason that in order to thrive we need to feel connected. If we’re deprived of that, if we feel isolated or that nobody ‘gets’ us, we suffer, we can’t thrive – we feel lonely.

Yet this universal experience is still taboo. Admitting we’re lonely comes with a stigma so we keep shtum, heaping responsibility on ourselves for the way we feel as if it were a shortcoming. This is more dismal than loneliness itself.

Research by the Red Cross revealed over nine million people in the UK reported feeling lonely in 2016. And those are just the folk willing to talk about it. Loneliness and isolation are damaging to our health. According to a report by Nesta and the Cabinet Office, loneliness is as harmful as smoking and obesity.

The same report found lonely people are 3.4 times more likely to suffer depression and 1.9 times more likely to develop dementia. On the physical side, two thirds are more likely to be inactive which could increase the likelihood of diabetes by seven per cent, stroke by eight per cent and a 14 per cent increased likelihood of coronary heart disease.

I’ve felt lonely many times in my life and not just fleetingly. Those periods were bleak and I suffered in silence because I thought it was my fault. When I was 14 I experienced profound loneliness. My core group of friends stopped speaking to me. Overnight my school life turned into a recurring nightmare spanning several years. The isolation I felt had a lasting impact on my mental health. I made other friends but I often felt alone because I still pined for the girls who rejected me.

I realise now that exclusion is a form of bullying. Possibly the worst kind. Understanding this helped me make peace with what happened. I’m certain the social anxiety I’m prone to nowadays is the result of the experience I had during those formative years.

After university I felt a different kind of loneliness; a new circumstance loneliness. The community I’d become accustomed to dwindled. My best friend moved to the US, my relationship ended and I struggled to meet the demands of living in London. Seeing friends and family became an event that took time, planning and money.

Slowly the loneliness kicked in. A string of temp jobs compounded my feelings of isolation. I’d spend the day superficially communicating with people who never bothered to learn my name, come home exhausted and repeat ad nauseam. I’d still see friends but quality time and meaningful connection became harder to get. I was single and trying to figure out my place in the world with nobody to lean on. Sometimes I’d go to the supermarket just for something to do. I lived in the heart of London’s vibrant east end, surrounded by activity and yet I couldn’t have been more alone.

Would I have confessed any of this at the time? Hell no! I had expectations for my life, I wasn’t going to admit I was losing at it. This is obviously insane; I was young and experiencing something normal, I just didn’t have the wherewithal to realise it. Plus everyone else seemed to be winning at life. That was the highlight reel they were sharing anyway.

If I could go back in time I’d tell my younger self it’s okay to be lonely. It’s safe to reach out to others; they’ll be able to relate. Perhaps if I’d felt able to share my burden I could’ve avoided spiralling into depression.

So, with the wisdom of experience, I share my story in the hope of normalising loneliness. Several people have joined me in this endeavour.

[Picture: mind.org.uk]
[Picture: mind.org.uk]

Loneliness affects all ages and manifests in many different ways. Alysha, a new mother, told me about her struggle with the mental health and loneliness. “My non “mum” friends had busy lives from which I felt erased. Having postnatal depression made all of this worse. Some stopped inviting me to stuff; they assumed I wouldn’t come because I had a baby. They were right, but the invitation would’ve helped. Having postnatal depression made all of this worse as well as fuelling it because I felt lonely.”

Alysha doesn’t feel she has an ally in her struggle which makes her feel more isolated. “I don’t have anyone I can talk to about things that really burden me. I don’t feel anyone can relate to it. When my son is sick, which is a lot, my anxiety gets triggered and it’s unbearable. Its hard to tell someone I want to hurt myself because my son has a cold, for example. This creates a pretty isolating circle.”

According to Mind, “Having a mental health problem increases your chance of feeling lonely, and feeling lonely can have a negative impact on your mental health.” Rather than reaching out, this toxic cycle can often cause people to retreat and isolate for fear of being stigmatised.

Loneliness and isolation in early motherhood are common, yet so many women suffer in silence. Olivia felt plunged into a darkness when her newborn suffered agonising reflux which went undiagnosed for weeks. “I had to steel myself for hours and hours of crying at night which nothing could soothe,” She says.

Being told to “toughen up” by her GP because “babies cry”, only made things worse. The very people she went to for help made her feel insecure. “Health visitors and doctors make you feel you’re always one step away from being sectioned for being an overly anxious mother and the midwives want to diagnose every mother who sheds a tear with post natal depression.”

Olivia says she didn’t feel depressed, she felt unheard. It was the lack of understanding that made her feel lonely. “When the reflux was diagnosed and treated, I felt better again. I realised I was lonely because I felt I was having to deal with it by myself and because I was made to feel I was an inexperienced, ‘weak’ mother.”

It’s entirely possible to feel lonely even when you’re surrounded by people you know. This is especially true after a life-changing experience. Rebecca says she felt incredibly lonely after discovering her husband’s affair. “I remember clearly taking the children to the paddling pool on a hot summers day and the place was packed. Normally I felt connected to other mums – we’re all in this chaos together – but that day I felt like I was in a glass ball looking out at carefree happy families,” She recalls.

Rebecca didn’t suffer in silence. Reaching out to friends and family she discovered she wasn’t alone in her ordeal. “I realised my mum and some friends had experienced similar things. That made a huge difference. I think it’s made me stronger, more self aware and therefore for more self confident. And definitely more human.”

Feeling like you don’t truly belong can elicit a very painful type of isolation. Monica was born in Zimbabwe but left when she was six. Her family travelled extensively across three different continents. “I had siblings who were older. Moving around meant they stayed at different places as the rest of us moved on,” She says.

“My family structure was ever fluctuating. My home country no longer existed due to political changes and the sense of belonging that one can have to place and people was weak, confused and turbulent. My own culture was already different from that of my siblings, as was my experience of our parents and of family structure.”

She adds, “Being of no particular culture or people means that wherever you are, you don’t really belong. This creates an isolation, which is difficult to communicate. I don’t believe it can be truly understood if you haven’t lost your home and been separated from your family.”

Monica identifies “in-relationship loneliness” – the feeling of being in a relationship but feeling unseen and unconnected to your partner – as the most depleting on her health. “It can take years to get out of this kind of relationship, especially if you have children with that partner.”

For Monica, the physical manifestations of this loneliness were in weight loss, tummy problems, headaches, joint inflammation and muscle weakness. “I’m aware I need to work really hard to stay healthy and physically resilient. This only happens when I have the resources around me – a counsellor, a few good friends and a structured lifestyle that incorporates good food and regular strength building exercise and lots of warmth!”

Writer Gretchen Rubin describes one type of loneliness as “quiet-presence loneliness”; the pining for someone else’s quiet presence. She says “You may have an active social circle at work, or have plenty of friends and family, but you miss having someone to hang out with at home.”

Helen is in her 60s, has a busy work and social life, and identifies strongly with this type of loneliness. “For the most part I live with it and get on with it but the loneliness that sometimes jumps up and bites me makes me feel tiny and vulnerable and is actually a physical ache somewhere behind my breastbone.”

Grief is perhaps the most desolate type of loneliness. Shiona lost her baby Saro, shortly after giving birth. “I’m surrounded by loving people, warmth and endless goodwill, daily calls and messages checking up on me, but none of that makes being the mum of a dead baby less of a lonely thing. It feels good to be able to say this and take ownership of it,” She says.

“It’s so important to find a way to articulate these things, to make them visible to yourself so you can deal with them. But if you don’t feel you have the right to say you’re lonely then that is very hard. It often takes something big and, perhaps, catastrophic, for us to permit ourselves to do it, which is a sad shame.”

Loneliness is part of life and as such we must allow ourselves room to be human. This means being able to reach out to others so we can, if not eliminate our burden, at least identify it without fear of shame.

Shiona agrees: “Amen to that. That right there is work we all have to do, all through our lives. We lead deathly lives if we don’t make room to be human.”

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