Only the Lonely

By Kerry Neville 03/13/18

Loneliness is a feeling, described as a want of intimacy, the forever longing for but inability to feel anchored to another person.

A man sits alone at a table, maybe in a restaurant
Even now, I am often lonely inside my mostly happy, stable, sober life, one of the genetically afflicted, it seems. Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash

Charlotte Brontë wrote, “The trouble is not that I am single and likely to stay single, but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely.”

Loneliness is now officially viewed as an epidemic that leads to earlier and greater mortality rates. Recently, the United Kingdom instituted an official Minister for Loneliness after the Commission on Loneliness found that that over 20 percent or 9 million British adults report being “often or always lonely.” In the United States, research shows that more than 20 million people suffer from pervasive loneliness, a doubling since 1980. Those of us who are lonely already know the effect on our psychological health: shame, isolation, and a persistent feeling of not mattering at all to anyone. Invisibility: I feel lonely; therefore, I am lonely. A subjective, internal state of being.

However, new research proves that loneliness enacts changes in our very cells, so not just an affliction of the soul but of the body, too. The actual effects on our physical health? The equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Indeed, in an 2013 essay in The New Republic, “The Lethality of Loneliness," Judith Shuelvitz writes, “Psychobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack…A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.”

The rise in loneliness is often ascribed to our reliance on virtual communities over in-person communities, but loneliness is a heritable trait —14 to 27 percent genetic—which means that for many, loneliness will be a life-long affliction and not one merely generated by a change in circumstances such as divorce, loss of a job, the death of a partner or pet, or too much screen time. And it's not just us singles who feel lonely, but the elderly, people in unhappy marriages, teenagers, LGBTQ+ people, the mentally ill, the disabled, young children…anyone.

It’s hard to talk about our loneliness because we are conditioned to feel shame for being lonely, as if loneliness is our moral failing, as if we just haven’t tried hard enough and for long enough to connect with people or with our Higher Power or with our dogs or cats or hamsters or goldfish. Try Meetups for Wine Lovers! Meetups for Hikers! Meetups for Nudists! Try OkCupid! Try knitting circles, book clubs and Soul Cycle! Try therapy!

So, we join up but never truly feel part of these groups, once again alone in the crowd, just like we have always felt since the days of Girl Scouts or Little League or summer camp. We try online dating, but all the infinite swiping leads only to superficial connections and a realization that we are forgettable faces in the Swipe Left crowd. Or we find an empathetic therapist, but as that billable hour closes, realize we are paying someone to listen to us talk about our loneliness which feels, as we swipe our debit card for the copay, lonelier still. Loneliness is a feeling, described as a want of intimacy, the forever longing for but inability to feel anchored to another person.

Just last week, I was listening to an NPR episode, “The Loneliness Epidemic,” on my long return drive from the airport after sending my children back to their father’s home hundreds of miles away: a complicated custody arrangement which means they live with their father during the school year and with me on school holidays and during the summer. This saying good bye to my children over and over does not get any easier with time: when they are with me, even though they are teenagers and often in deep hibernation in their bedrooms, I feel their presence in the house, their shiftings, rustlings, and breath. All feels (yes, feels) right with the world. When they leave, I am decimated, though I try to pretend that my loneliness is a simple matter of changing one letter—“v” to loveliness—and that I'm okay living this Fabulous Life as Independent Writer.

I am not often convinced. Loneliness: it's the silent house; it's waiting for someone who loves me to sit next to me on the couch at night; it's having...what's the phrase—"my person"—someone who is a companion on the great big journey. Texts and phone calls from friends and family help, but no substitute for the warm bodied presence of another person beside me, yes, even inside me.

Loneliness is hard. Solitude is easy. In solitude, I sink into my thoughts and ideas, relishing the quiet, wandering at will. Sacred solitude. But loneliness is an empty echo chamber, a terrible house of mirrors reflecting my isolation. A simple online game, Loneliness, captures the simultaneous yearning and thwarting of our attempts at connection and intimacy. In the game, you control a solitary black square and, almost as if instinctual, navigate the square towards moving groups of black squares, attempting to link together. However, each time you get close, so very very close, the group scatters and is again out of reach. For several minutes you extend yourself towards others only to fail with each attempt. By the end of the game, you are the only square left on the screen, disappearing into a black background as if cast into a dark void. I played the game several times over, and ended in tears each time: Yes, this is exactly how it is.

For those of us doubly cursed both with loneliness and with a mental illness or addiction? When I was in the psychiatric hospital, an often-necessary panacea to keep me from suicide (so damn effing lonely in bipolar hell), I met lonely people. Lonely, lonely, hopeless people. New research tells us that loneliness is not just a heritable trait, but tends to be co-inherited with neuroticism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorder. We are lonely because we “are” lonely, but, too, because of the stigma of having a mental illness. Mental illness isolates us from love and joy, from feeling like we matter to anyone in the world. We are seen not for our human loving-lonely selves, but as failed selves when we stumble in stability or sobriety.

I thank my Higher Power that I had friends and family who stuck by me, who reminded me day and night that I was loved and necessary and helped me feel a little less alone, but even now, I am often lonely inside my mostly happy, stable, sober life, one of the genetically afflicted, it seems. And yet, I keep extending myself, like that black square moving forward and forward still, towards you—a more hopeful panacea than my locked room on the ward. I extend myself here through words, too: if you are lonely, know that you are not alone, and if you are able, reach out to someone in our Tribe of the Lonelies who may need to know they matter and are necessary to this world. Necessary to you.

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Kerry Neville was raised on Long Island, New York and now lives in Georgia where she teaches at Georgia College and State University. She is the author of two collections of short fiction, Remember to Forget Me and Necessary Lies, which received the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize in Fiction and was named a ForeWord Magazine Short Story Book of the Year. Her work has appeared in various journals, including The Gettysburg ReviewEpoch, and TriQuarterly, and online in publications such as The Washington PostThe Huffington Post, and The Fix. Follow Kerry on Twitter and LinkedIn.