Loneliness isn’t my favorite topic or life experience – not by a long shot.
But it does sometimes seem loneliness particularly enjoys my company.
I say this because it visits me regularly.
I can look back over my nearly five decades on this planet and see so many times when loneliness has decided to just spontaneously “drop by” – sometimes staying for hours, days or even weeks before packing up and moving along again.
I can see other times when loneliness made more of a planned visit, so to speak – like, after the demise of a 15-year connection with my longtime love late last year – it wasn’t like loneliness called up and made a reservation, but it might as well have. I could see (and hear) it coming for miles away.
Several years ago, I had the great good fortune to work with a gifted life coach for a full year. While initially, I sought her help to navigate through a suffocating and relentless workload, what actually unfolded went far deeper than that. In short, I began to understand more about how “I” operate in this world, what makes the entity I call “me” tick.
For example, I learned that there is a “me” and that I have a rather recognizable persona, pattern, heartbeat, brain wave, whatever you like to call it – in this world that is unique to me. For example, I often go through periods of rather intense connection with others in the world, whether through a deep personal relationship or through an intricate work challenge or for some other reason.
And then equally as often, I will often cycle through that time and into a period of intense solitude, aloneness, or what I’ve often termed “loneliness.”
During these times, while I might struggle against what feels like enforced solitude, even blaming myself for being “too introverted” or “anti-social,” when I try to blast myself OUT of the house and back INTO the world again, what I experience is misfire after misfire. No matter what I try, at the end of the day there I am once more, alone on my couch watching Netflix or reading or typing away late into the night all by my lonesome yet again.
Working with the life coach helped me realize this is part of my makeup.
She likened it to having a shell – a particularly apropos analogy that predated by several years the process of welcoming one and then two actual shelled beings into my life. She said I would come out of my shell for awhile, have experiences, connect to the world around me, relate, learn, upload, download, and then go back into my shell to process, learn some more, rest, reconnect within.
She was quite emphatic in affirming I shouldn’t worry about these cycles – such as by thinking when I am in one of my “in shell” periods that I will never come back out again. She told me that as a creative and an empath and a natural introvert, the retraction into my shell is very necessary and healthy – natural and beneficial.
But I will say that, even though I think of her guidance often and as frequently repeat it to myself for reassurance, during this current period of loneliness and disconnection, I have worried. A lot.
The other day my mom and I were out thrifting – our favorite activity. As we browsed through the racks of dollar tops and bottoms and jackets and the rest, one of those “lost love” pop songs wailed through the speakers above our heads. I said to Mom, “No matter what I try, there is always this part of me trying to sneak off to into its little cave of misery, believing as it does that I will be single and alone forever. I always have to stay alert so when that part starts sneaking away again, I can go after it and pull it back.”
At that moment, she plucked a t-shirt from the rack and showed it to me. The words on the front said “STRONG.”
As I continue walking through this time in my life, more and more I feel like loneliness is an experience we can all relate to. Perhaps even animals – if we could all get together and talk in some common language, and we could ask the animals we share our lives with “do you ever feel lonely?” – they might nod and agree that yes, they know exactly what loneliness is and they feel it sometimes.
One day several weeks ago I woke up feeling extra-lonely and hopeless and so I decided to go online to see if I could find some type of support group. Browsing around, I only felt more lonely as I found groups for loss (death), breakup (divorce), trauma (abuse) – but nothing tailored to a loss that isn’t death or divorce that has caused trauma that isn’t abuse-centric.
“I just don’t fit here,” I thought to myself. “No wonder I’m single and alone.”
Then, in a brilliant move I am still thanking myself for, I opened a fresh browser window and typed in “loneliness.”
In a few clicks I found myself at Transforming Loneliness, a free eight-day course created by therapist Laura Parker and featuring 16 speakers on the topic of – wait for it – human loneliness. The course was starting in just a few days and of course I signed myself up right away.
Since then, what I have learned from listening to the podcasts is there are plenty of other people who feel like they don’t fit here, don’t fit in, can’t quite seem to go with the flow or get with the program of how today’s modern culture or schedule works. From “quirkyalone” creator Sasha Cagen to dream-worker Toko-pa Turner, I discovered that there are lots of people in this world who want to – are eager to, even – talk about loneliness.
Perhaps the most important take-away I am gaining from listening to each interview is that loneliness is valuable. It has a purpose. It isn’t always pleasant (although I am learning that potential also exists). For me at least, the experience of feeling lonely is a lot like the experience of feeling congested as my immune system tries to fight off a germ attack. I am not at all grateful at the time, but I suspect I sure will be later when I’m healthy and feeling good again.
Strangely, it is starting to appear like loneliness can be as therapeutic as together-time. For me, feeling lonely has felt not-optional after this relationship split – absolutely necessary if not welcomed or appreciated. If I want to heal, I must feel lonely to get there.
And since it is clear loneliness and I are going to be keeping close company for awhile, I have decided for once to welcome it in, ask it lots of questions, bribe it with tea (or wine) to get it to open up and speak freely.
In this process, I am learning that keeping company with loneliness sometimes makes me feel like a superhero. I mean, I am STRONG. Staying steady, remaining productive (someone’s gotta pay the rent), seeking the highest, taking another step forward….all these actions can feel a lot harder when loneliness insists on coming along for the ride. So the more of these basic tasks I manage to continue to do each day, the stronger and more superhero-ish I feel.
Loneliness is also teaching me that seeking outside doesn’t seem to help ease it at all. I sometimes catch myself thinking that what I need is to just “get back out there” – life is short, after all, and I don’t want to “waste” it pining or grieving or feeling lonely. But then I mobilize and try to choose an activity, and it just isn’t happening. Everything I consider brings up a distinct and solid “no.”
So I stay in. Again. And then somehow discover I feel the better for it.
What I find most strange about loneliness is that I am really quite busy. I just happen to have a number of creative projects that landed in my lap right around the time my former partner and I separated. From launching the new cookbook my mom and I co-wrote to a re-write of my first book, to the ever-present stack of articles due for work each week, it is not like I am sitting around twiddling my bored thumbs while stewing in grumpy miserable loneliness.
Quite the contrary, as a matter of fact.
In fact, if it weren’t for this portion of my mind that seems to insist on worrying about how solitary, how lonely, how very single I presently am, I probably would be going along just fine and not even much noticing loneliness sitting over there quite quietly in the corner, observing it all.
I have a lot more to learn about loneliness, clearly. Driving it all is this growing awareness that lonely is something that happens to me regularly and I will be missing out on a part of my own humanness if I don’t get curious and investigate what this “lonely thing” is all about.
Today’s Takeaway: Have you ever had a period in your life where loneliness just arrived with suitcases and insisted on bunking in with you for awhile? What was your reaction? Did you learn anything that now makes you glad you had that experience? I would love to hear your stories!