On Loneliness

You know you are in trouble when you find yourself welling up after a friendly encounter with the phlebotomist.

She inserted the needle, asked me how my weekend had gone. I was lost for words – I couldn’t even remember when the weekend was let alone how it had gone. She made a commiserating sound, a little ‘Ah’. And then, don’t ask me how, we found ourselves talking about how we hated cleaning. I told her of a long-ago job as a house-cleaner, how I was very good at making a house look tidy, books patted into place, vases placed just so, a chair shifted slightly… but dust and grime remained in great swathes if you looked close enough. ‘So,’ she said, ‘You were one of those cleaners,’ and we laughed.

I left the office, and that’s when my eyes welled up. It had been days since I had a conversation with someone that wasn’t via text or Skype or cell phone.

I’ve lived a remarkably solitary life for the past nine years. Almost an extended silent retreat, but one I didn’t consciously plan.

For some of those years my partner and I lived in the countryside and, when he was away for work (which he is for 4-6 months of the year) two weeks or more could go by where the only direct contact I had with another person was the postman. We are now living in a town, on a busy street lined with little shops, but nevertheless when my partner is away, other than Skype and phone calls with friends in other countries, I have very little meaningful interaction with others.

A number of things contributed to this situation – travelling the world and living in several different countries in the past 15 years – wonderful, but not conducive to setting down roots or building a local community. Not having children. My 25+ year long chronic illness (M.E./ CFIDS/ late-stage Lyme type). In fact my health has deteriorated to the point where it’s a rare day I can go out and be engaged in activities with other people.

And, there is the fact I’m a writer, a necessarily solitary occupation for the most part.

In the first years I tried to use the time alone to my advantage. Dozens of short stories fled my fingertips, I began my novel. I developed my online community. I even started a Facebook Bosnian stray dog and cat rescue group. I wasn’t lonely. It wasn’t a problem. Perhaps I had a natural inclination towards solitude: my mother used to tell me that as a child she’d often find me in my room happily ‘contemplating my navel’. I’ve often described myself as an “anti-social social” person.

But I have become increasingly aware that I am not just frequently alone, I am lonely. Perhaps I have always been lonely, but due to the ‘well-developed coping mechanisms’ a therapist once told me I had, I have avoided this realisation.

When my mother died two years ago, sadness was so all-encompassing it was almost a friend. Over time the sadness receded, always there yes, but in the background, no longer filling my every moment.

I focused on finishing my novel. I finished my novel. What was I left with? Myself, shorn thin of coping mechanisms.

Writing can be a lonely business. Having a chronic illness is a lonely business, especially an ‘invisible’ one. Life is a lonely business. Dying is certainly a lonely business. And yet, and yet. We are together in our alone-ness and we are surely together in our desire to connect deeply with others, to feel ‘met’ and seen and understood.

So, what to do? Perhaps it begins by acknowledging what is. I started writing this blog some weeks ago, and since then there has been a delicate, tentative shift, something I can’t quite put my finger on, but it feels like a beginning. Sometimes simply letting others know how I am feeling, rather than just soldiering on, changes things. Letting people see the dust hiding behind the furniture, letting them know that while things may look OK on the surface, they are not so OK underneath. And in doing so, in taking this risk, I feel not quite so alone.

There are many articles on the “epidemic” of loneliness, so in fact I am not alone in my experience.

Here, for example, is an interview with John Cacioppo, director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience: Chronic Loneliness Is a Modern-Day Epidemic

And another in the New York Times, which is mostly about the loneliness that affects the elderly: Researchers Confront an Epidemic of Loneliness which quotes Emily Dickinson on loneliness: “the Horror not to be surveyed.”

About Sandra Jensen

I am a writer. I live with my partner, David Crean and my foundling cat, Rónán. I was born in South Africa and have British and Canadian citizenship. I have over 40 short story and flash fiction publications, including in: World Literature Today, The Irish Times, Descant, AGNI, The Fiddlehead and others. My work has received a number of awards including winning the 2012 bosque Fiction Competition and the 2011 J.G. Farrell award for best novel-in-progress.. I have been awarded Professional Writer’s Grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Arts Council of Ireland and Arts Council England. The novel I have recently completed, Ten Virtuous Acts, is a literary adventure set in Sri Lanka during the civil war. I was a guest writer & panellist at the 12th and 13th International Conference on the Short Story (Little Rock, Arkansas and Austria); an invited participant at The Galle Literary Festival, Sri Lanka in 2011 and a six-time participant of the Sirenland Writer’s Conference in Positano, Italy. I attended The Banff Centre’s Wired Writing Studio in 2011/2012. I administer the In Memory of Vučko and AWABosnia websites, raising awareness and funds to stop animal suffering in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
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8 Responses to On Loneliness

  1. debyemm says:

    I live a rather isolated life on 500 acres of forested land in a sparsely populated rural area of Missouri. And my daughter has one of those “invisible” chronic illnesses (hers is a primary immune deficiency). She comments similarly about not necessarily looking ill, while often being very much so and unable to contemplate a full time career (she has 20 years in real estate).

    I know you because of the same blessing of having the internet to connect us. I am fortunate to have now lived in the same place for 30 years and not long ago helping someone political meet people at an annual fair, was surprised how many I actually “know”, sort of. I am more connected to my physical neighbors by FB than otherwise. Mostly due to differences of growing up urban (both my husband and myself) and these rural people all being interrelated with interests we don’t share there is no socializing between us for the most part.

    Generally, I am outgoing when in public and online. I am my own best friend and companion. HUGS

    • I sometimes feel that if I lived in a rural area it would be easier – in some ways. When we did live in a quite rural area, it was easier when I was ill, as it was nice just to look out onto the green fields (I’d loved to have some forests near…). But here, it’s just houses for the most part. Sending hugs right back xo

      • debyemm says:

        Being able to look out is absolutely necessary to my own well-being. I sit at a window with my computer. My husband faces a wall and seems quite content but I don’t know how he stands it. Maybe being in an isolated rural area one expects solitude ?

      • I think it’s more that it’s easier to be in ‘communion’ with nature, with the trees, and to feel their presence – to feel presence, if one is in a rural area. The system quiets down, and feels more at ease. At least this is the case for me – and of course we still need people in our lives. But I expect loneliness is more of an issue in towns and cities…

  2. Thanks for this post, Sandra. I really enjoyed listening to the interview you posted. Sending good thoughts your way.

  3. Julie says:

    This is beautiful and moving, Sandra. Like your stories. So many love you. You need to be with them. ❤

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