On Loneliness

It’s my birthday again. I’m 35 today.

I’m not very good with birthdays, I’ve been stressed and tangled all week.

I was a very lonely child, friendless for much of my childhood. Periods of respite usually ended in disaster or betrayal. Loneliness was a great threat to my life for many years.

Birthdays seem to distill that time for me, plunge me back into it. I find myself paranoid and uncertain. Am I loved or merely tolerated? Do people care about me or simply feel obligated?

I freeze and panic. In my efforts to hide the overwhelming fear, pain, and self loathing of being unwanted, I’ve been told I greet friends with anxious preoccupation, react to well chosen gifts and thoughtful gestures with dissociation that presents as indifference. Every year I try incredibly hard to signal appreciation through my fog and I almost always fail.

I can’t stop hurting and I drown in shame.

I’m crushed between opposing needs and desires. Simple dilemmas leave me paralyzed. I want a party (but how ridiculous, at my age) but I can’t bear the risk that no one will come (there were many like this). Almost all my friends struggle with anxiety in large groups, so I want to keep it very small, but I’m overwhelmed by the image of someone not being invited and feeling left out and hurt, as I was, so many times. Half the people I love are not friends with the other half – a common problem made more intense by multiplicity and the wide range of people we connect with.

Each year I try to make sense of it, find a path through. I think I’ve done it but the year after is just as bad. All week I’ve been drowning in a voice that says “I hate myself”. Everything inside me is raw with shame and I can’t stop it. I do not want to be this vulnerable or have these memories. I second guess every decision. I just want to love and be loved, but I can’t trust anything. I can’t resolve the pain, can’t make it go away, can’t embrace and express it.

Nothing that happens now will ever take away the pain I knew then. I had parties that were well attended by children who tortured or could not care less about me. I had parties no one came to, or a couple of kids who didn’t know me bribed to come out to the movies. Birthdays were an annual accounting of my life: had I yet cracked the code of friendship and persuaded anyone I was worth caring about? Was I still the only freak on the planet?

The memory of that loneliness is so strong and so powerful for a week every year as well as the odd bad day here and there I am subsumed by it. I cannot feel touch or bear eye contact or believe in love. I walk about in a gaudy mask of my self, performing social acceptance and friendship, consumed by fear and self loathing and shame. My friends and family reach out with kind gestures I do not trust, and we do not speak of the stones in my mouth because above all I learned one thing, one cruel thing that fuels my current dilemma.

It is suicide to speak of loneliness.

We do not name shame.

You must pretend to be without fear, to feel no pain. To betray your wound is to be forever rejected and cast out. It is like the stench of rotten offal. Unless you learn to hide this very, very deep, no one will come near you.

Humans are cruel. Nature is cruel. The mother duck does not wait for the sickly infant, she leaves it to die. There are wounds that trigger compassion in others, and those that trigger recoil. Loneliness is like the mark of Cain, it tells a person you have been rejected by your kind and found unworthy of embrace. It is the red of a poison mushroom, the stench of a dead fish unsafe to eat.

‘Fake it until you make it’ the advice that leaves you hidden even from yourself. Learn to hide the flinch and the yearning. Don’t embarrass yourself. Some years it was only the doctors who touched me. Some years when a stranger sat beside me on the bus, the unfamiliar intimacy would turn my whole body pink on that side, my skin hot.

I lived inside out, the reverse of everyone I ever met. Deepest feelings on show, longing for closeness. I had to learn to turn myself right way round, to show skin to the world not soft viscera. To be patient with the pain and rebuild the layers of my world slowly, slowly.

My world was poisoned. I was a queer, bookish, freak in a tiny, regimented, religious hell where suicide was an unforgivable sin and nearly everyone I knew was unbearably lonely. They performed community, performed family. They were dying inside. I was dying. I wanted to die, rather than grow into a world this full of secret pain. I was surrounded by people every day of my life, and so lonely I wanted to die. None of us knew or one how to learn how to create safety, how to cross the voids, how to make each other feel seen, how to stop the bleeding and the quiet despair.

I grew up in a world where to grieve was to spit in the face of God. So we were always grateful and only our shadows grieved.

I grew up in a world where sex was sin, and love was duty, and to lack friends was proof of some fundamental flaw in you that you must work to overcome.

I am not lonely like that anymore but the memory of that loneliness is so powerful sometimes it feels like the only unquestionable truth of my life. The foundation of my existence.

I am not the only one who grew up in those places, not the only one to be stung by their own strangeness and the need for conformity and normality as the platform for acceptance.

Now, as adults those of us who survived are trying to knit community and diversity together in our own ways, with tools found washed up on the beach and precious few guides. Is this what it looks like to be loved? Is this the shape of your love? Is it that you touch me or I dream of touch? Am I safe now from rejection or if I show this scar will I be scorned? If I bleed when you hold me, will all the faces turn from me? Are you here because you love me or feel pity? What does your silence mean? What am I not saying in my own?

We question not just ourselves but each other – do I really want you? How much do I care about you? How long do I keep holding a space for you? Are you worth the time and energy I invest in you? All these calculations going on in secret, in a context where we can’t even admit we are lonely. And the loneliness of relationship – I don’t let you in to ease my loneliness, but if I do will you hurt me? I am bound into relationships everywhere and I can’t breathe or remember my name. Intimacy remains a gift out of reach or saved for the rare days – hospital, funeral, loss unlocking hearts for a short time.

The alchemy of friendship is strange. The balance of secrecy and openness, the rituals of sharing, the shift of each character closer to the other. The way we try to steal what we are afraid to ask for. The way we only speak of loneliness in the past tense, an old burden now resolved. Most of my heroes are lonely. I’ve spent my adult years building and then trying not to tear apart my community.

What forms a friendship? Proximity is cited most often, yet my childhood was a hell of bullies and emotional vapidity. Proximity to what, exactly? A hierarchy so brutal otherwise caring children sighed with relief that the position of social outcast was filled? That was my role, and it was essential and more complex than anyone let on. I felt not just my pain but all pain. Not just my horror at rejection but all fears of being found unworthy. I heard the bullies secrets, felt the loneliness of the adults, the secret soft pains of other children who did not fit. The structure that rejected us depended on us, needed us there to bleed for everyone, to feel the forbidden things.

Like ducklings abandoned, those of us rejected often die or self destruct. My early role of social outcast had in truth, very little to do with me as a person. The structure of that social dynamic demands an outcast. The child deemed least precious or most different is the likely candidate. It’s not personal. It’s driven more by survival instinct than malice a lot of the time. It was no more intended to leave life long wounds than when I come home from a bad day and am mean to Rose. Or the time I pushed away a friend who had poor boundaries after crashing with PTSD. Loneliness doesn’t mean we are safe or that we embrace affection.

Connection is strange because we also fear it. We both pursue and run from relationship. We don’t perform community, this is simply the best community we know how to create, with all our ambivalence tangled in. Come close, but not that close.

My Mother used to run classes for very young children. When teenagers would come to help there was one lesson she would teach them. If they could grasp it, they could stay. If not, she did not want their help.

The child who is most adorable is the one least needs your attention. The one you gravitate to, want to hug and sing to, who radiates vitality and affection is a well loved child.

The child who you feel uncomfortable around needs your time. The one with snot on their face, glue in their hair, getting in trouble for pushing the kid next to them. The one who doesn’t know how to signal for affection, who’s nervous system isn’t wired to dance in a feedback loop of connection but makes you feel jangled or frustrated. This is where love is needed, where it doesn’t want to look.

I received an email from a reader a little while ago, thanking me for this blog and telling me that they’d noticed since I was taking on more freelance work I was withdrawing from sharing certain kinds of posts. Drowning in that culture of success worship I was afraid to show my underbelly. How do I show a potential customer or client I’m competent if they’re reading about me weeping and sleepless at 3am before a morning meeting? Like loneliness, it’s poison. We don’t speak of it.

My reader understood, but they also said they’d miss the raw posts. I’ve been thinking about that for months.

In an online business group recently we were asked to sum up our business or work in a single sentence and finally something emerged. The heart of everything I do, the thread linking so many different things is about preventing loneliness. To know you are not the only person to think that, feel that, have been through that. To hurt, hope or need what you do. The common thread of humanity. That is what I do.

This morning I stood naked and sobbing in my back yard while my family slept. There’s a screaming pain in me I can’t speak to, it will not be expressed or comforted. Barraged by inspiration but drowned by doubt I can barely breathe or move my hand to paint. Self hate bleeds the life out of me. I have no answers. I want so much better than this. I will hold on and it will pass again. There’s so much life in between the shadows. Some pain you just wait out.

6 thoughts on “On Loneliness

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