I have always loved reading memoirs. I find that one person’s deep journey into her or his personal experiences uniquely informative, all the more so if those experiences are vastly different from my own. Memoirs offer us an opportunity to think — sometimes for the first time — about how different lives have been lived. Lonely is a perfect example of reading a memoir that brings into focus something that I never thought too deeply about before: loneliness. Lonely is raw, vulnerable memoir that brings the author’s battle with chronic loneliness into the light for intense examination.
“Given the choice, [loneliness] is not a journey I would have gone on. I would have preferred to have lived a life of connection, one in which loneliness did not assault me on a daily and yearly basis. But we don’t get to choose the main facts of our lives. Loneliness was something I was born into, something that claimed me as its own. The only thing I could do in response was to try to follow and understand it, to chart it as fully and cleanly as I could. If it was clutching me, the last I could do was twist in its grip and really look at it. If I couldn’t ward it away, I could at least see it as clearly as it saw me.” 6
Like everyone, I have suffered from bouts of loneliness on and off through my life, but my experiences are what White terms “situational loneliness:” short-lived moments of loneliness that arise out of a huge life change, such as a move or a new career. White’s affliction of chronic, lifelong loneliness is vastly different; a state of living that is physically and emotionally dangerous and puts the sufferer at great risk for illness, depression, anxiety, and (paradoxically) even more intense bouts of social disconnectedness. This work opened my eyes to a struggle that so many face, but that I was largely unaware was such a huge and lasting challenge.
White’s book is a honest description of her own battles with loneliness; first as a child of divorce, then as a college student battling depression, and finally as an adult lacking in deep and meaningful relationships. From the beginning, White disputes the common belief that loneliness is a “punishment” for social awkward or inept people, but rather a sense of social disconnection that causes the person to feel unhappy and isolated. She paints a picture of herself — and a cast of fellow sufferers who populate the book through interviews conducted and reported on by White — as people with adequate social skills but who nonetheless find great difficulty in forging deep and lasting social bonds.
It is also further noted that solitude and loneliness are not the same thing. Even though those who identify as lonely do admit to being comfortable with a certain amount of solitude, there is a line in which lonesomeness is no longer nourishing. White writes, “the relationship between loneliness and solitude can be hard to delineate: the former is often seen as canceling out the legitimacy of the latter, as though a lonely adult or child is simply not entitled to want or need time alone. But the feelings of isolation that accompany loneliness are entirely different from the more sated and creative feelings that accompany solitude.” (13)
“What lonely people find is that they are drowning in absence. They have to struggle with the unnerving sense of being too much on their own, and having to rely on themselves in an effort to meet their own needs. And once the self has been searched and patted down for a sense of companionship — which is something it can’t provide — the the lonely person is left with is a worn out sense of insufficiency.” 28
White’s book draws not only on her personal experiences, and that of her interviewees, but from a vast trove of data from research studies and social-psychology experiments which back up her claims of the risks lonely people face. These risks include impaired physical health, mental and emotional strain, anxiety, stress, and fear. She notes that the human need to connect with other people — to share, touch, talk– is a deeply rooted, biological need that has serious consequences for those who are lacking. The longer the state persists, the greater the risks and the harder the sufferer must work to overcome their fears to reach out to others. “Loneliness can start to feel rooted in your life, as central and definitive as your work or your marriage.” 81
Although she does not spend too much time on making distinctions between the types of loneliness — lonely for a romantic partner; lonely in a new city; lonely for someone to have deep conversations with; lonely for a person’s ‘quiet presence’ — they are mentioned through out the book as separate but equally important connections to restore. White highlights all of the ways we need to find like-minded people to share our lives with in order to remain healthy and happy
“What I needed was someone at home with me, some whose breath I would hear as I sat reading, whose footfalls would sound in the hallway, whose voice would reach me from an adjoining room. I needed the strong, steady companion that a friend, lover, or family member could offer and without it my loneliness persisted.” 73
A truly thought-provoking discussion of a problem so deeply stigmatized it is almost overlooked, but one that is clearly an enormous challenge for millions of people suffering without being able to voice their need for fear of social condemnation.
The podcast that brought Emily White’s memoir to my attention, Episode #110 of “Happier with Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Craft,” can be found here: http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2017/03/podcast-110-lonely/
A thought-provoking examination of the different strategies for battling loneliness, by author Gretchen Rubin, can be found here: http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2013/11/feeling-lonely-consider-trying-these-7-strategies/ and here http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2016/01/lonely-5-habits-to-combat-loneliness/