Being Alone Doesn't Have to Feel Lonely
The last time I slept next to another human being was ten months ago.
Many of us gravitate around people: partners, flatmates, parents, siblings, kids. Even if we are alone, we all know someone that feels equally overburdened with so much company. And even if we are surrounded by people, we can feel deeply alone. We also all need to feel understood in our experience of loneliness.
Long before the COVID-19 Pandemic, the end of a relationship prompted me to ask: Will someone else ever touch my face again? Will I ever have sex again? and most of all Can we still find love during the Pandemic if we don’t look for love online?
My life is still more comfortable than the lives of many - strangers and friends - who have lost jobs, their work visas, partners, parents - to Covid. But I have experienced an increasing desire for change in my life.
I like to joke that I am housewife material. I do wish I could come home to someone that'd be happy to see me. Someone that lets me lay in their lap after I finish scoffing down the dinner they made me and before talking in bed for hours. My career, artwork and ability to make people feel supported is great...but they are not entirely what I wished for. They feel like a substitute for the life I truly want. I would happily swap them for a good marriage and a less fiercely independent lifestyle.
I did a lot to manage my loneliness in the last ten months. I wrote I read, I went to the cinema, - when cinemas were open again - and to restaurants, museums and bars. I took a walk every day, 15.000 steps, sometimes less, sometimes more, my phone tells me. I made breakfast, lunch and dinner, worked, sometimes I even worked out. I self-pleasured. I even tried to make new friends. I’ve let some things go, and some parts of me grow. I did all of this, very much on my own. A week has 168 hours, out of which nearly 158 I spend completely alone.
I doubled my therapy sessions to help myself through this difficult time, and to heal from the all-encompassing shame of being single and alone. The real irony of it all? I’m not the only one.
The Loneliness Pandemic
Studies estimate that, until 2039, the population living alone in the UK will rise to 10.7 million. Similarly, the USA currently sees a dramatic 37 million individuals living completely alone. And at the time of this story, over 80.000 people in the USA live completely isolated from the rest of the world, in loneliness. Skin Hunger (or Touch Hunger) is a term coined by psychologists to describe the basic human necessity for physical contact. We need four hugs per day only to survive. Eight - for maintenance. Twelve - to thrive, writes psychologist Virginia Satir, who observed the effects of touch in reducing cortisol - the stress hormone. It’s one of the elementary ways to operate in the world, and it has the power to heal.
Significant relationships are central to our growth and well-being. As a social species, we are not designed for long periods of isolation. It’s why solitary confinement is regarded as one of the gravest forms of imprisonment.
2020 has been about voicing the many faces of loneliness. A once-suppressed feeling is finally an acceptable conversation. It's no wonder so many big discussions have entered the limelight this year.
Racist and religious hate crime, mental, emotional and sexual abuse, alcoholism and drug addiction developed as coping mechanisms to unemployment, homelessness, mental health on the decline, environmental disaster, and death, are all different pillars of the world in crisis. And they are all being pushed below out of shameful inconvenience.
There is the feeling of loneliness in every aspect of the world that hurts. And that’s the real shame.
Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to ones - Carl Jung
Most people go through loneliness unwillingly. Many of us experience loneliness as lack, as deep disconnection from our natural desire for meaningful experiences and relationships. That is absolutely normal, it’s the baseline for survival as a human: connection and affect. To be able to thrive, we need these the same way we need food and shelter.
Unsolicited advice from that friend
Why don’t you get a hobby? she says, without blinking, as I literally walk her through my daily experience of loneliness, an interactive installation I had created for Berlin Art Week 2020. The installation which explores the human heart in loneliness is something I developed at the peak of my despair, in September. For a brief moment, the encounter makes me wonder whether my passions are less valid because they are solitary. Reading, writing, crafting and studying are things I never thought of as hobbies. They’re simply what I love to do.
We see unsolicited advice offered everywhere, in the Internet support communities for mental health, in self-help books, in discussion groups for immigrants and among well-meaning friends. More often than it’s helpful, it’s hurtful.
Telling somebody to get a hobby is like offering to change a baby’s diaper from the other room. It’s like jumping off a sinking boat and saying, oh yeah, let me know how it goes! Yes, we all have to keep healthy boundaries and blah. But do we even know what we’re doing when we tell someone they should just get a hobby? We’re pushing them away and diminishing their feelings. We’re saying, “please just fix it without bothering me (your pain reminds me far too much of my own feelings that I tell myself I don’t have because I do yoga)”.
You don’t have to help every person that needs it. But if somebody close to you has shared that they are feeling lonely, maybe there is something you can do. Maybe you can send them a picture of you drinking coffee each morning and wish them a good day, or call them while you walk the dog. Maybe you could write to tell them how much you appreciate them. If you can’t do any of these things, you can do something truly incredible: listen.
When we listen compassionately to others or to ourselves, we get to experience what we decided, or got told, was too difficult. If you resonate with this story, allow yourself to experience several types of discomfort and ridiculous things in order to get to the core of what is you. Don't take a hobby. Take time to get to the core of the things you are utterly passionate about. Bake the cake you love to eat, watch the movie you wanted to watch. Indulge in whatever guilty pleasure you have. Trust your heart, allow this place in you to guide your day.
Why Self-Pleasure is Radical
I bought a giraffe as my pre-Christmas present. Buying a stuffed pet was actually some sage advice I got from my acupuncturist, and you know, soft things sound good when someone is poking needles into your back. I was really surprised how relieved I felt sleeping next to a stuffed giraffe, how I can squeeze and wrap around his soft, cosy body when the days are not as gentle.
If like me, you haven't had a romantic or sexual experience in as long as you can remember, you may crave it deeply. You may also wonder if you are indeed ready for new love, and decide to wait a bit longer, while even contradicting yourself a bit in terms of how that love needs to be in order to suit you. Allow yourself to experience self-pleasure as much and as wildly you want. Journal about the relationship you want to build in the future. If you are not sure and worried that you will forget how to even be with someone, know that it’s only natural.
When you work through it, loneliness changes. It is no longer an endless stretch of losses and miserable holidays spent drinking or Netflix-ing yourself to sleep. It becomes an opportunity for gentleness and creativity. There is great vulnerability in choosing oneself and caring for oneself in spite and not because of loneliness.
My own sense of loneliness pushes back sometimes, reminding me of every day when I wished someone was there to tell me “You’re okay as you are. You just need better people around you, people who will unapologetically love you”. Having such people in your life won’t erase everything that hurts. But it will build purpose into your journey.
Loneliness is not easy. It’s packed with ups and downs, sometimes so overwhelming that we must remember to catch our breath. But we grow fundamentally through the soreness of such experiences. What I like to remind myself at the end of each challenging day is that I deserve pleasure. It's a humble, yet empowering thought. Strive for that pleasure. As a friend said, Keep your eyes and heart open, let the world in. It will shake a little at first, but you’ll be you, and that’s all you can and have to do.