I’m not unaccustomed to loneliness. It feels like it’s been a friend of mine for a while. Social isolation plays a big part in my own personal experience of loneliness. Living alone, being 36, single and childless forces me into a weird in-between world. One where I’m happy and grateful for my independence and freedom but disconnected from my peers who have gone down the family path.
Every day it feels like I walk hand-in-hand with grief and loneliness on either side. The definition of loneliness, the simplistic assumption is that you just don’t have any friends or company, but that’s not always the case. Loneliness for me is a gaping hole. It’s an absence. An absence of a person who can never return, an absence of meaningful connection, an absence of emotional intimacy. It’s certainly not something that can be solved by a room full of people. In fact, those rooms and those people often make it all the more painful.
My own experience has guided me towards work which tries to tackle loneliness. Working with charities like Age UK Northamptonshire, Eden Project Communities, Action for Happiness and The Lewis Foundation has given me a well-rounded perspective. One that feels quite unique and an insight I am privileged to have.
So when I was invited to work on the campaign which Linking Lives launched; their Loneliness Lock-In, I knew I wanted to not just promote the concept, but to take part in the challenge itself. The idea was simple, 24 hours with no phone, no internet, no company and no access to the outside world. The aim being to raise money for Linking Lives befriending service and awareness of what millions of people go through everyday, all over the world.
I have spent long periods of time in my flat, alone. One Christmas, I was alone from 23rd December all the way through to my return to work in January. I chose to be alone because I just couldn’t face the world. It was a dark time. But, I did leave the house. I did have my phone at hand and the internet at my fingertips. This challenge, I knew would be different.
So, I picked a date. A Sunday as it happened. I watched as the word “Samsung” disappeared from the screen of my smartphone and the light went out. I unplugged the internet and put my devises in a cupboard. It became very quiet.
I knew that without the ability to stream podcasts and music, to watch Netflix or to mindlessly scroll through social media, I would get very bored, very quickly. So I planned a project in advance: to re decorate my bedroom. I had everything I needed and I got cracking. Mercifully, I was absorbed in the task and a couple of hours flew by.
But I soon started thinking about the people I’d met through my work. The people that are limited in their options and ability to change their circumstance. People like Enid, who, with failing eyesight and limited mobility, sits in her armchair at the window all day, every day. The stories she shared with me about her life were of her being hard-working, active, always busy. Now in her 80’s, her body isn’t keeping up with her mind. She openly admits to feeling desperately lonely.
Then I started thinking about all the things I needed to do once I was back online. Not having the constant interruption of my phone allowed me the head space to think about the unsent messages, the people I needed to get back to both professionally and personally. I normally resent the relentless stream of emails and messages from people who need stuff from me. The friends who badger me about meeting up. The Whatsapp groups that expect immediate responses. It can feel like a never-ending intrusion.
The chance of interruption is something that some people long for. Like Evelyn, who was also in her 80’s when I visited her each day during my 2-week holiday. She was the last remaining person in her family. She didn’t have anyone left. Imagine knowing that everyone you loved had died. All your friends. All your family. Without exception. I’m not sure anything could take away that feeling of loneliness. She was so grateful for my daily visits. I’d always stay longer than my obligatory hour. She called me her friend. I’m proud that I was able to make her last weeks that little bit lighter.
I first wrote about loneliness in The L Word. I have never had such a huge response to a blog. Loneliness isn’t just experienced by older people, although arguably, there are fewer solutions that older people can enact because of health, mobility, finances and vulnerability. But it really is a universal human condition. The Loneliness Lock-In reminded me that I have so much more work to do in this area. It made me grateful for the “intrusion” of people needing me. Maybe the gaping hole, the ache of loneliness that I feel is useful? It provides me with a lived experience, a sense of compassion and motivation to improve other people’s lives. If I’m honest, it led me to writing, to working with charities and everything I do to serve others. So maybe I’ll let loneliness walk with me a while longer….