There’s something odd about being socially isolated in a new place. Jana and I have lived here in Two Rivers long enough that we can’t say we’re new — we can drive to Walmart without GPS, ergo we’re not new here — but we’ve not been here long enough to have built new social routines. We work, we work out, we skype with friends, but we're not integrated with the community.
Given the number of social gatherings we used to host, it’s odd to have this much privacy. I'd gotten so used to summer cook-outs and sprawling weekend dinners, that not having five or six people on speed-dial for bratwurst and beer feels strange.
My family visited a while back. I made a guest appearance on a friend's podcast. We play D&D with a friend each week using roll20. I visited my brother in Iowa. We travel, but life is still quiet for Jana and I. We're lucky enough to have people we enjoy and value, but our schedules are packed enough that we can't spend much time with them.
Do we have the right to feel lonely?
That right there is a stupid question; loneliness affects everyone.
We've studied its impact on various populations for years, and to put that research into simple words, we can look at it like this:
Loneliness is influenced by the meaning we invest into our interaction.Even when you interact with a lot of people, your perception of those interactions influences how lonely or included you feel.
You can talk to a hundred people every day, but if those interactions feel shallow or facile, it can lead make you feel isolated and alone. It doesn't matter if you're an introvert or an extrovert, loneliness is an intangible (but readily present) thing.
Few people understand how lonely some people can be. Jana and I don't interact with all that many people, but the conversations we do have are good ones. We talk to family, we talk to each other, we talk to friends. Even though those people aren't here, we still have them.
But for so many more people, It's not a matter of their friends and family being in a different state — they don't have that network in the first place.
So Jana and I feel lonely because we lack that immediate, tangible benefit of being able to connect with people where we are, but we also have the fallback of our friends and family in other states. Our loneliness is transient, and it's something we know how to fix.
Not everyone can do that. For a time, I couldn't.
A Personal Experience of Loneliness
Before I was here — in Wisconsin, working freelance, with Jana — I spent a lot of time alone. In college, rather than rooming with the main student body in the dorms, I stayed in a small academic house for Honors students and I didn't get out much. I was away from home for the first time, I didn't have many friends, and the majority of my daily interactions were shallow ones — getting food, going to class, answering questions. I spent very little time with other people.
And even when I was with people, I felt alone. As a small-town kid who had been homeschooled, I didn't know how to relate to the people around me. I felt inexperienced, naive, like I had to pretend to be someone else in order to fit in.
I tried to pretend that I was an extrovert and that I'd always been an extrovert, despite the fact that I've always been a very quiet person. Instead of being honest with myself, I tried to fake it all.
At first, I did it to fit in. Later on, I did it because honesty made me feel vulnerable. I was afraid that I wouldn't be accepted if I was myself, and because of that I became even lonelier.
I didn't feel like I belonged and so I ended up isolating myself, only leaving my roost for classes and food. I didn't do much and when it came to the things that I did bother to do, I half-assed the bulk of it. What's the point of working hard when there was no product? It wasn't like these people were my friends, I told myself.
I didn't share my goals or my desires or my fears with any of these people, and it became almost impossibly hard to do anything with any of these people. When I did do things (like classes) I'd just... go through the motions.
I spent a lot of time in some very bad places, mentally. I felt like I had no one I could talk to, absolutely no one, when in fact there were quite a few people who cared about me.
I walled myself off from support. I was so lonely it felt solipsistic, and I ended up in a place where I believed my own bullshit. It wasn't until I broke down to the point that I was scared, scared enough to call a stranger, that I allowed myself to be honest about how I felt.
Thankfully, when it got that bad, the people on the other end of the suicide hotline were really nice to talk to.
This is the first time I've written about my mental health during that period of my life, at least in any detail, and it's a scary thing to put on the page.
If you've never struggled with a sense of fundamental loneliness, I'm sure this all sounds a bit unreal. If you've never experienced it or watched a friend go through it, it's easy to see the transition from isolation to depression as an unknowable thing that 'just kinda happens.'
But, as someone who has experienced it first-hand, let me assure you: the slippery slope is real. It's Indescribably easy to slip from transient physical loneliness into chronic mental loneliness when you don't have a safety net you're willing to fall back on.
And once you slip, climbing back up is hard. You don't know what you're supposed to do, or even what you're supposed to feel. You're caught somewhere between numbness and grief without a single explanation that makes sense, and just the thought of opening up makes you feel so vulnerable that you shut down and pull away.
That's the kind of loneliness that's common these days, that people need to learn about. The kind of loneliness that makes everything around you feel fake. The kind of loneliness that saps your motivation to do anything, that leaves people seeking any kind of escape they can find because it's better to do something self-destructive than it is to do nothing at all.
It's been two months since I've posted, in large part due to the amount of time I've spent rewriting this particular piece. This blog has transitioned, in large part, from a lifestyle blog that Jana and I have both worked on into one where I explore the topic of emotional honesty. Which, in some ways, comes to a crux in this piece.
Loneliness is a good bridge to use in approaching that topic directly, as it encompasses many of my own experiences involving depression, procrastination, and mental health. A lot of the advice I give is grounded in the tools that I use to handle all of the above, and as such talking about loneliness is important.
Why do we think that admitting we're lonely is a sign of weakness? It isn't; humans are inherently social animals. Instead, we obfuscate that loneliness in so many layers of justification that we don't even admit to ourselves that we feel out of place. We build up excuses and lies and misdirect everyone, including ourselves, so that by the time we get far enough outside of our own heads to actually talk to people all we project is bitterness and cynicism.
It's okay to be lonely. It's okay to feel sad. It's okay to want to feel like you belong somewhere so that for once you can stop trying to protect yourself and just be honest about how you feel. Because we all want that on some level. We all want to feel like we belong somewhere. Admitting it won't make it go away, but being honest about it will make us all feel a little bit stronger in the end.
And if you don't know where to start, that's okay. Very few people do. It takes time to peel away that defensive anger, the posturing, that so many people surround themselves with. I've spent a lot of time as an angry young man who thought the world owed him something because of how much it hurt, and I can tell you the only thing that helped me was honesty. And even with that honesty and even with where I am today, it still took me two months to put this honesty on the page.
But it's worth it. It's all worth it.
I'd add a clean and pithy conclusion here, but I'm not skilled enough as a writer to take the core of my own experiences and summarize them in a paragraph. People feel lonely. It's a part of life, and it drives a lot of our negative emotions. Some people are lucky enough to escape it, but others end up so wrapped up in it that they lose their essential self-honesty. Loneliness isn't just about being physically alone. It's a chronic, psychological state that can make your entire life feel fake. Escaping it takes a degree of emotional honesty that is indescribably hard to express, and we all need to work together if we want that to change.
So let's make that change.
I'll be making some changes to Illogical Life soon, too. Because right now, the future is an exciting thing.