When I was in 8th grade, I used to write notes to the new girls in school.
These notes, with hearts above the i’s and perfectly curved cursive, written during lesson plans I wasn’t paying attention to, were an attempt to distance myself from the misery of my first year of middle school.
That was when I marked the start of my long-standing relationship with loneliness.
During these first few months, I tried to escape loneliness with frequent trips to the nurse’s office, carrying tales of fabricated illnesses – a rouse to get a phone call home and the chance to escape another solo walk down the long and intimidating hallway of my school.
Loneliness convinced me daily of my separateness, chiding me for even considering spilling details of its existence to friends or family. Even when I began to make connections with my peers, I continued to feel the pang of “otherness,” of never fully being enveloped in any one group and only having the temporary relief of surface friendships – ones I would try to hop between in order to avoid the dark abyss of loneliness down below.
After inching painfully through this first year, the clouds parted, allowing a sliver of light to poke through. Surface friendships deepened slightly, and I created a makeshift friend group out of shared interests and utter desperation.
So I began writing notes.
I wrote to alleviate the pain I saw in those who struggled to adjust to a new school while simultaneously working through an undeniably tough season of life. I wrote because I had become so acutely aware of my own suffering and my gradual improvement that I wanted to build a wall to properly protect myself should loneliness decide to return. I wrote because, while extending a hand of friendship, I secretly hoped they could help me reverse the damage loneliness had already inflicted on me.
While friendships formed from these notes, I still never managed to shed light on the intensity of this loneliness, one that has continued to appear after a few brief hiatuses, over and over again throughout my life.
Ironically, I’ve never actually been alone.
Strong enduring relationships are actually something I excel at. Really.
Yet, over the years I’ve learned loneliness doesn’t appear in the absence of relationships. It can appear in the middle of them, in between phone calls and get-togethers. It is just as likely to appear in the middle of a crowded room as it is in a solitary night at home.
I’m just not sure why it continues to find me.
When I opted to leave my regular 9-5, along with the regular potlucks and lunchroom chats, I knew loneliness would be the side effect. Yet, struggling with this familiar emotion seemed far more bearable at the time then enduring another hour in my cubicle and counting down until another vacation day – so I leapt anyways.
Suddenly, self-employment has become life’s way of challenging me to confront my relationship with loneliness and my tendency to pad it over with temporary solutions, breathing a huge sigh of relief when it inexplicably disappears again.
At one point, I thought taking any job with people present – any job at all — might be better than forging this complicated path alone.
But I don’t want to feel as powerless to loneliness as I did when I was 13. I don’t want loneliness to be the reason why I throw in the towel to my creative endeavors and seek the more populated path.
In the past, when I’ve had conversations with those who were brave enough to expose their own relationship with loneliness, it has morphed from a feeling of shame and isolation into one of understanding and connection.
Loneliness is one of the greatest equalizers we will ever know.
Everyone, no matter how successful or famous or brilliant, has felt the familiar stab of loneliness — even if they didn’t recognize it as such.
Google “loneliness” and you’ll find a long list of tips for pushing this feeling down just below the surface. I should know – I’ve spent hours combing through the search results, looking for my own relief.
Yet, tips like calling up a friend or sitting at a coffee shop don’t approach loneliness head-on, they simply skirt the issue, hoping for it to quiet down so we can simply move on with our lives.
I don’t want to quiet it, I want to understand it. I want to know why we have this intrinsic need to connect with others and why we are so clearly steered towards doing so. I want to know why I can have a million people to reach out to, yet still feel isolated. I want to know why my life can be beautifully full and happy and I can still wake up one morning and feel inexplicably alone.
So I’m going to sit with it. And explore it. And allow it to take up residence long enough for me to understand why it’s there in the first place. I don’t believe there is a long-term solution to loneliness but a loving acceptance – one I haven’t reached yet.
This is the beginning of my loneliness journey — one I’m taking less to push loneliness out the door, but accept that it will likely always have a room in my house.
Perhaps the greatest relief is in starting a dialogue – finding human connection in the shared experiences of an emotion that is far more common than we all let on.
Follow this journey through loneliness and towards greater connection here: TheLonelinessProject.com