“I never thought I would feel the kind of loneliness that makes my heart ache”
I’m a 44-year-old professional woman, very happily married with two lovely children. Lucky, eh? I never thought I would feel the kind of loneliness that makes my heart ache. But I do.
I’m originally from Ireland. I moved to Wales twenty years ago for work, met my husband (who is also Irish) and settled into life there. I had a large group of female friends acquired through baby play groups, school and work.
Two years ago we made the decision to return to Ireland to live, so that we could be closer to family and so our children would grow up in Ireland.
I’ve no regrets about that decision - we as a family have settled well and I realise that I never felt that I truly was at home in the UK.
However, I’ve left all my female friends behind me. I have one close friend who is Irish but she no longer lives in this country. My university friends are scattered around Ireland.
I work full time so I don’t have much time for hobbies.
My loneliness takes me by surprise at times. I can be driving along and I see a group of women out walking for example; just walking along and chatting, putting the world to rights.
Or I might be out with my husband and see a group of women in the pub, howling with laughter about something silly.
I don’t have that close female friendship anymore, someone to go for coffee with or go for a walk with, and I crave it and miss it so much. Even writing this email is bringing me close to tears.
I don’t know how to go about making new friends; at my age everyone seems to have established their groups of friends.
I know I should put myself out there, as it were, but it’s easier said than done.
- Name with editor
“I sent out a group text via Whatsapp and didn’t get a reply”
I’m a 33-year-old guy. I’ve a great group of friends, both lads and girls. I’ve a huge circle of acquaintances too. But a lot of my main group of friends are getting married and having kids. I’m single.
It does get very lonely. There was a time about two or three years ago when I suffered from depression and if I sent a group text via Whatsapp and didn’t get a reply my mind would race: “Were they all out somewhere and didn’t want me to be out with them?”
Even now that I’ve come through that, it’s still lonely at the weekends. I work in a small office and while I get on with my workmates it’s not a sociable job. I’m from a small town too so if I went out alone to meet new people I’d stick out like a sore thumb.
It’s definitely hard to meet new people as you get older. I still see my mates but not as often, but life evolves and moves on.
- Name with editor
“Other types of loneliness are legitimate, but not this one. How, after all, can you be married and lonely?”
There is a peculiar type of loneliness that blooms when you are married to someone who doesn’t love you.
This is not a periodic loneliness, it is not a loneliness that creeps up and puts a hand on your shoulder when you’re at a party without your spouse, and you suddenly miss them. This is not the type of loneliness that washes over you at night when you’re alone and your spouse is overseas on a weeks-long business trip. It’s not even the loneliness that manifests when your spouse dies, and you are left without their physical presence.
No. This is a constant loneliness that accompanies your every waking – and sleeping – hour. It is the loneliness that arrests the blood flowing to and from your heart when you share your deepest feelings, only to have them disregarded, disparaged or derided.
It is the loneliness that sees you craving physical contact so much that you scoop up the odd smile sent your direction, and try to turn it into a loving caress. Even if that’s only in your mind.
It is the loneliness that pervades your soul when you make yourself as vulnerable as you know how – taking a gamble and exposing your fears and hopes and dreams in equal measure – and your husband responds. Not, however, as you had hoped, with kindness and understanding; but with a story about how he wanted to bat for India but it never happened. And you bite your tongue so as not to remind him that he doesn’t actually play cricket.
It is the loneliness that sees you, at a dinner with several other people, playing your part: Artfully presenting yourself as half of a united, happy couple in the hope that life will imitate art. In the hope that your affectation of a connection will be rewarded with an actual connection.
It is the only type of loneliness that cannot be named for the shame it brings on you. Other types of loneliness are legitimate, but not this one. How, after all, can you be married and lonely?
It is the type of loneliness that, in order to combat it, you try to ignore it. You give away pieces of yourself in silent exchange for acceptance. If you can be less you and more something else, then you will be accepted and, therefore, less lonely.
Until, one morning, you wake up and realise that you have given away so much that you are a shadow of the shell of the woman you once were.
And then you’re lonely for yourself. You want the old you back. You realise that the peculiar type of loneliness that blooms when you are married to someone who doesn’t love you has taken root inside you and choked you out of yourself.
Every loneliness has its cure, and the only cure for this type of loneliness is to leave. The cure for this type of loneliness is to be alone. Hazel Katherine Larkin
“This silent persecution inside persisted in the former of mental torture”
There has always been an aura of simplicity about my presence in character. Despite the ambivertedness and often detailed observance in my outlook around people, the role of “happy-go-lucky Dave” was a recognised and rarely challenged fairing amongst family and friends.
Bubbly, outgoing, sporty and active; all resounding traits of a self-promoting bio with the mood swings, drama and bitter excerpts merely regarded as the impulses of teenage angst.
I’ve always enjoyed company, revelling in chat and laughter. But the hidden scorn of paranoia and insecurity could easily spoil the anticipated gladness of socialising and connecting. Talkative, engaging but quietly doubtful. Apprehensive about personal viewpoints on the basis that someone might not like me because of what I thought or what I said.
This silent persecution inside persisted in the former of mental torture; a daily routine of mirror goading tagged with insults and reminders that I was worthless, no one liked me and that I was better off alone.
Subsequent moments by myself allowed me to revel disturbingly in the triumph of forced solidarity; ignoring text messages, avoiding nights out and meet ups with the belief that I would not be missed, that family and friends would be glad I chose to stay away.
The peak of depravity in forced withdrawal from social circles came when reluctantly agreeing to join friends on a weekend away. Citing work as an excuse for late arrival, this made sure I could travel alone. I also booked separate accommodation with a comeback of financial constraint at the ready should anyone raise a query.
Upon returning to my hostel later that night I realised I has forgotten my access card. Unable to get inside I avoided contacting nearby friends, opting instead to sleep in the car.
One friend, who most likely picked up on my subdued demeanor that night, rang my phone. Despite having a towel as a blanket, a jumper for a pillow and a hardened carpet beneath me, a place on his hotel room floor that night was perhaps the greatest comfort I had ever known.
These experiences of depreciation and mindless punishment are just few from many clouded moments of confusion and misunderstanding in my very being. However they have played a vital role in my eventual willingness to discover a grasp in managing doubt and fear that rises when life is interrupted.
The study of mindfulness has helped greatly in finding guidance to living. Acknowledging that whilst nothing in life is absolute, everything is relative. Gaining awareness of my emotions and reasoning with the experiences I have been through gives me strength and confidence to persevere and compassionately embrace the value of myself and of equal importance the value of family and friends.
- David O'Connor, Dublin
“Loneliness, if it was a colour, would have to be a dark grey, slimy colour”
I am a girl, I suppose a woman really now, in my forties with a big family of five children. Loving husband, two wonderful sisters, lots of gorgeous friends and a busy fulfilled life. So how would you ever imagine that I could suffer from loneliness?
But yes since my father died six years ago I miss him so much sometimes that I get very lonely. I wonder when I am going about my day doing my shopping, going for a walk, illegally putting on my lipstick in the car on the way to work or typing an email – why does loneliness just hit you?
It could be someone who walks like Dad ahead of me on the street, the tilt of someone’s head, watching an old man fumble for his credit card in a supermarket queue the same way Dad did or a meeting of eyes in a traffic jam with someone dark and black haired that looks a teeny bit similar.
Loneliness if it was a colour would have to be a dark grey slimy colour because that is what it feels like when it hits you right in the stomach a horrible gut wrenching feeling. I often wonder when I go about my business how many people are feeling the same and do they feel the same relief when the feeling lifts?
I would always have thought loneliness was exclusive to people living alone with no one around but sometimes loneliness is more acute when you are in a crowded place because no one knows how you feel inside and it’s amazing to see people going about their business not knowing that someone within reach is hurting so much inside.
Be kind to other human beings. No one knows what private turmoils people have and if you know you can alleviate someone’s loneliness just do so - maybe when we ask someone the overused question “how are you?” we could stop and actually listen to the answer because loneliness is a horrible, horrible feeling and I believe everyone feels it at some stage of their lives.
- Claire Ronan
“With two little ones I was never alone but desperately lonely every single day.”
Being a young single mum meant I stayed behind when my peers continued with their lives through travel and study. With two little ones I was never alone but desperately lonely every single day. I think that’s an important distinction and it’s certainly something that people parenting, especially parenting alone can suffer through.
When the boys were school going age I went back to work but colleagues don’t always equate to friends and while that took the edge off, I was working, studying, raising the boys and running a home. My needs were quite literally bottom on the list of those to be met.
Five years ago, when my friends began to have newborns of their own I set up my blog, CherrySue Doin’ the Do as both a creative and a social outlet and it has changed all of our lives for the better. I was able to not only let off steam through blog posts but to interact online with people in the same situation.
While the boys are now 18 and 19 I fully credit my social life and a large majority of my social circles now with the people I have met online and through my blog work. It most definitely helped with my mental health and as a direct result with my sons’ mental health and mentality too.
I couldn’t recommend reaching out online more.
This is a fantastic conversation to have openly and inclusively, a huge well done for getting it started.
- Sue Jordancherrysuedointhedo.com
“As an adult gay teenager I wonder if it would all be different if I were young now? I wonder if I’d feel less lonely.”
1999 I’m 13, living in a small town that hugs the Atlantic coast, and my greatest fear, the one that makes me dizzy if I accept its truth too long, is my sexuality. I agonise over it, ponder it from every angle, deny it. Funnily enough, my schoolmates are not prone to such navel-gazing: queer, fag and gayboy are part of my daily background noise. I can practically conduct an academic study on the rise, fall and resurgence in popularity of particular homophobic slurs among teenagers.
I isolate myself and wonder how others can so easily intuit what I don’t even admit to myself. Anyway, I think, the insults don’t really apply to me, but they still sting. They make a strange sort of sense, like listening to a foreign language and recognising some words as close to your mother tongue.
My only gay frame of reference around this time is a thumbed copy of Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, a pop star who was forcibly outed, and the odd subtitled movie on late-night Channel 4. (I assume all foreign movies contain at least one gay subplot, so I stay up late one night to slug bleary-eyed through a three-hour French movie about a retiree and his dog.)
The bullying gets worse. I regularly wait behind after school to avoid a group of boys, feigning something forgotten in my locker; during an afternoon walk, someone throws a Coke can at my head from a passing car and shouts ‘queer’. It doesn’t occur to me to tell anyone. I fear people knowing that I’m being called gay more than I fear the bullying. The metalwork teacher calls boys faggots in class; the science teacher tell us about men and women, “the natural order of things”; in a sex education class, the teacher claims that homosexuals do not use sex as God intended. No one thinks any of these remarks are strange. We don’t report them. We don’t make a fuss. It doesn’t even occur to us to do anything. This is just the way things are, and, anyway, everyone seems to be mostly in agreement.
I grow more anxious and the anxiety feeds the loneliness and the loneliness feeds the depression. I know real gay people exist, but they exist in the abstract way that gravity does: irrefutably there but invisible.
Then, everything changes. With a creaky, 56 kbps dial-up internet connection, my small room, in a small town, in a small country, is suddenly connected, via a whirring phone-line, to the world, and I spend my time, hours upon hours of time, in gay chat-rooms.
I tell guys in France, Texas and South Africa things those who are physically closest to me do not know. I give no identifying details about myself, but I’m less alone. I can be known without being known, and it’s thrilling. I talk to BloodyValentinex088, who lives in Connecticut. He likes rock bands and writes gay sci-fi stories, which basically makes him the coolest person I’ve ever (almost) met. Other times, when the loneliness threatens to fill my chest so full that my ribcage feels like it’s going to explode, I make dates I know I cannot keep: promises of coffee with boys in Iowa or walks in the park in London. Anything to feel close to intimacy.
I chat with a guy nearer to home who’s vague about his identity: he lives in Sligo, Roscommon, Galway or Mayo (definitely NOT Leitrim), is medium height and build, has either fair or dark hair, and is somewhere between 14 and 19. The e-relationship doesn’t last long: his proximity enforces the unlikelihood of us ever meeting. The idea of being intimate with a man still feels like visiting a faraway and strange country: tangible, technically possible, but a place I know I’ll never go. The idea of a relationship with a man may as well be another planet: one in those outer galaxies that are light years away.
Age 29, I’m back in Ireland, the sky threatens rain, and I’m going door-to-door to campaign.
‘Hi, I’m John. I’m here on behalf of Marriage Equality. Have you considered how you’ll vote on May 22nd?’
A few teenagers perch on a wall watching the well-meaning volunteers. One boy nudges his mate, smirks, and shouts, ‘Queers! Vote no!’ No one laughs. His friend says, ‘Vote yes!’ A girl tells me, matter-of-factly, that they held a mock referendum in school today and everyone voted Yes.
Later I ask myself a question that gay adults inevitably ask themselves when they’ve spent any length of time with teenagers: Would it all be different if I were young now? I wonder if I’d feel less lonely. Would my parents still tell me, age 17, to keep it to myself and warn me I’d lose all my friends? Would I never feel so alone, age 18, that I’d think suicide is my only option? Would I not spend a decade incapable of opening up, drifting away from my family and friends and anyone who knew me before I went to college?
From the comfy retrospect of 16 years later, I ask myself what I was so afraid of, but I know the answer immediately. I was scared of the (very real) threat of physical violence and I was terrified of losing everyone around me if they knew I was gay – a fear, essentially, of real, true loneliness. Both these fears are very rational, and, in 16 years, we’ve collectively done a lot to make sure that gay teenagers no longer feel fear or loneliness, but there’s further to go.
The truth is, I have no how different things would be: those teenage years are as distant now as that strange, faraway country I once thought I’d never visit. I know being a gay teen must still be hard, still immeasurably and painfully difficult, still profoundly lonely, but I hope it’s easier now. I really, really hope so. No one should have to go through that. I hope that young LGBT people know they can contact organisations like BeLonG To, OutWest and the National LGBT Helpline, which all do great work.
I’m happy now. I live abroad in a liberal city and my job is unstable but fulfilling. I have loved men and men have loved me. I’m happy, and how distant loneliness feels when you’re happy. But if everything has worked out so well, why do I feel I missed out on so much? Name with editor
This week on the Life pages we will be exploring loneliness from every angle in our series All The Lonely People. We want to hear from readers about their experience of loneliness. Are you lonely? Have you ever experienced feelings of isolation? What has helped you overcome those feelings?
Email your stories to email@example.com
We may use some of the stories in print. Please indicate if you would prefer to remain anonymous
If you have been affected by these issues ALONE is an independent charity that works with the 1 in 5 older people who are homeless, socially isolated, living in deprivation or in crisis. 01 679 1032 alone.ie Jigsaw runs a network of programmes across Ireland working with young people between the ages of 12 and 25. jigsaw.ie For The Samaritans, the 24 hour Free Call number is 116 123
In January of 2012, I woke up alone. For a host of reasons involving children in higher education, looming eldercare, and an uncertain job market, my husband now worked in a different country. He would visit every few months. This arrangement was supposed to last a year. Owing to a series of unforeseen circumstances, as I write this it's been nearly four.
After a brief period of adjustment, I learned that I wasn’t alone in my aloneness. Never before have there been so many “single” women in India, unmarried, divorced, widowed, separated or in long distance relationships. A recent survey showed that there are now 71 million single women in India, a 39 % increase over the past decade.
And yet nothing about our culture, or the way we live, teaches us to be alone. Bollywood’s heroines rarely have characters or conversations beyond their relationships with men – Bechdel test super fails. They so seldom have professional ambition that when they do, it’s considered subversive. Queen was revolutionary for having a female protagonist who embraced being alone. TV ads show us men purchasing insurance and cars and homes, while women are marketed oils for their husband’s health, detergents for their kids’ clothes, and chai for the family. Everywhere, domestic couplehood is emphasised as the happy way for women to live. Indeed, the only way to live.
I had to find a different way.
I didn’t have to look far for role models. I come from a line of women who lived well into their late nineties, outliving husbands by decades. My mother was 64 when my father passed away six years ago. She is contemplating, very possibly, 30 years on her own.
She fills her days to the brim with gardening, music, family, charity and, recently, the internet. Every few months, she travels across India, often with other single women, to remote places like Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. She took a tragedy and turned it into an opportunity. I know there are days she misses my father deeply. I also know that this is what it means to seize life by its throat, with or without a companion.
This, then, was what I wanted to do.
The initial stages of being alone were much like the stages of grief. First, there was denial. I simply refused to accept my dependencies, refused to learn the household tasks that had fallen in my husband’s domain. Then there was anger. Why do I have to go to a goddamn PTA meet on my own? Then bargaining. If the job market looks up, I will donate thousands to charity. Then Bridget Jones-style sadness, singing “All By Myself” with a bottle of wine. And finally, painfully, acceptance: I am alone, and you know what, there are worse things.
First, I had to concede that I was far less independent than I’d imagined. I knew nothing about car insurance, was baffled by printer cartridges, and had no idea which TV service man to call. There was a whole list of chores I had dismissed as “computer stuff” and never bothered to learn.
For a year, I was distressed. “Nothing works!” my children shrieked. By the second year, I had begun to accept that there would always be something in my house that needed fixing – a leaky tap, a defunct printer, a loose TV connection – but I was learning. “Deal with it,” I told the kids. They did.
Around me, I saw several women struggling with the effects of having gone straight from their father’s homes to their husband’s. My elderly neighbour had to borrow money from me when her husband was away; having spent 40 years taking money from her husband’s wallet, she didn't know how to get cash from a bank. Another friend confessed that she had never travelled alone. “First my father, then my husband won’t let me,” she said. At the bank, a young student away from her family asked me how to fill out a cheque deposit form. “Usually my father does it,” she said. I came to realise that men and women are taught select skills, bound into codependence with shackles called “love” and “family” and “culture”.
In your forties, friends your age have less time for you. It’s nothing personal. People are hemmed in by PTA meetings, jobs, elderly parents, traffic, doctor’s appointments, weekend brunches. You can feel resentful about this, or you can learn to enjoy your time with yourself.
Still, even when I learned to be alone, it seemed to disconcert other people. Relatives began to drop worried hints about how married couples should be together. “Separating the family is not good… Not a good idea at all.”
Bank managers were most bemused. “Madam, you have husband?” they’d ask, and look horrified when I responded that I do, but I handle my own finances. What sort of man leaves his wife to manage the finances? It has taken me four years to get them to email me, and not just my husband, on important financial communications.
There were whole weeks I would go without talking to an adult. Three is not company when two of those are sulky teens. I discovered Twitter. Here were my people: wise-cracking, cynical, sarcastic, so different from the sugary sentimentality of Facebook. After a brief dalliance with outraged political Twitter, I found folks who tweet on books, music, food, travel – the solaces of singlehood.
Now, I enjoy solo-eating. Initially, I would put up with being seated at a noisy table near the kitchen. Now I don’t. I demand a decent table, and stare down waiters who stare at me. Rather than try to bolt down my food as quickly as possible and leave, I make an occasion out of it. When you think about it, a lovely, languorous afternoon meal is a luxury. I discovered the pleasure of cheap mid-morning movies in completely empty theatres. No screaming kids, no rustling packets of popcorn.
Of course, there were times when I would really, really, have liked company. When staying in a budget Delhi hotel (mistake), I was alarmed by the leering manager’s constant enquiries. “You are alone, madam?” He looked like he might turn up in the middle of the night. It was too late to find another hotel, so I dragged a chair across the door and spent a fitful night with one eye open. Nothing happened, of course. But I now travel with pepper spray and a padlock.
At other times, solo travel opened me up to huge discoveries. Travelling alone in Sri Lanka, I decided at the last minute to strike out for hill country on my own. In my former life, I would have waited until the man in my life was free. Or at least consulted him about itineraries. Now, there was no man and I began to find that freeing. I did things my husband would probably have not enjoyed, exploring back streets, visiting temples, eating dubious and grimy food from street vendors.
You can do all this, of course, and still have the long evenings to fill with the children fast asleep. It frightened me. Was there enough trashy TV and wine to fill them all? It took a while for me to realise that time and silence were gifts to cherish.