The medicalisation of loneliness mystifies a condition for which there is no cure. Loneliness often expresses the difficulty that we have in understanding our place in the world.
Loneliness is a hot topic at the moment. There's even an appointed minister for loneliness in the UK. It's brilliant that this vital conversation is finally happening, and that more people are feeling confident about expressing their feelings of loneliness and isolation.
I've had many conversations with people over the last few months about their feelings of loneliness, from single folks living alone to those who appear to be in solid relationships, with loving families and surrounded by friends. It could be because I have been very open about the bone-deep loneliness I felt after my Dad died – sharing opens a conversation. Or it could be that at long last, people feel they can open up about it without being stigmatised. The funny thing about being lonely is, you're not alone – many, many people feel the same.
The loneliness I experienced after Dad's death was excruciating. Mentally and physically. It was exhausting and overwhelming. I'm open to life after death and keeping 'in contact' with my Dad. But physical Dad, the Dad who always had my back, the Dad with vast palms that glowed with warmth is not here to give me a hug and tell me everything will be ok.
Loneliness is not the social or emotional abnormality it is often presented as, with stereotypes of lonely older people or live-alone singletons (like me!) heating ready made meals for one in a microwave. It's not something to be solved in six sessions at a socialisation group. Yet, it is being medicalised and pathologised with solution-focused approaches and interventions to 'tackle' loneliness in Western society. Well meaning voluntary sector organisations are lining up for funding to 'tackle loneliness'. It's the big new fight and also big business. Your loneliness has a price tag attached to it. Loneliness masked as depression is currently big business for psycho-pharmeceutical companies.
This troubles me because after decades working as a Social Worker, too many interventions, including medical and psychological are individualistic, loading the burden of change on the individual, not society. They lack imagination. Medicalising loneliness deflects the intersectionality of the person experiencing loneliness. It 'others' people. The clue is in 'society'.
In the Chambers Dictionary, society is defined as, 'fellowship, companionship, company, association, a community...'. When I speak with others about their loneliness, this is often what they feel is missing, a sense of belonging to a community. Belonging. Feeling like you belong somewhere and to something. 'Society', despite government rhetoric is something that has slowly been attacked, split and marginalised by harmful policies, funding cuts, lack of social housing – the list goes on.
I originally started writing this blog post back in March, when loneliness felt like all over psychological toothache. Especially after the longest winter. Would the light ever come back? I wasn't depressed but I was lonely. I had lots of friends but I was still lonely. My family had become incredibly fragmented after my Dad died and the sense of isolation was vast, despite us never being a close or particularly sociable family unit. I decided to experiment with loneliness, to stare it right in the eyes and see what would stare back at me if I didn't avoid it.
Right now, I am struggling to get the words out to describe those few weeks of being 'in loneliness' and completely opening myself up to it. I feel a shield across my chest and an intake of breath thinking about it. I can only describe it as brutal. It stared back at me unrelenting and hardened. There was no epiphany or big 'aha' moment. Just brutal. And painfully awakening.
Yet as the days and weeks passed something inside me did shift slowly. By staring the blood red monster in the eyes I saw that loneliness had the softest gaze veiled in tears and sadness, beauty and light. That to be lonely is to be gorgeous and vulnerable and 100% real and thoroughly in touch with the deepest parts of yourself. That I never feel lonely when I'm in nature or near a tree. But I do feel lonely when I am de-natured. In the city. In my family. My family de-natures me. The ever deepening realisation that I needed to re-construct my own 'society' of like-minded souls, landscapes, music, books and activities that fuel my soul and deepen my belonging, to both myself, the wider world and the unseen world.
Tell me you are lonely
and I will tell you
how beautiful you are,
soft soul creature.
Feeling lonely is as normal as feeling grief, sadness, joy, anger. Because it's not been highly publicised by the movements of happiness, joy and positivity it's been demonised alongside less glamorous emotional states such as anger, jealousy, anxiety. Something to be corrected or fixed. Like so many emotions loneliness is tidal, reacting to the weather, the actions of human beings, the planets and more. It is deep, unruly and complex. Sometimes loneliness will disappear for years, sometimes it is a gentle stroke of the shoreline and sometimes it's a destructive tsunami or a long cold winter. But rest assured, loneliness is full of potent poetry and medicine if we dare to sit with it, brave it out. Loneliness feels like a void. Dark and unbearing. Yet it is rich and fertile.
Darkness is where the magic happens. May the poets and the seekers be our guides.
In a Handful of God by Hafiz
Poetry reveals that there is no empty space.
When your truth forsakes its shyness,
When your fears surrender to your strengths,
You will begin to experience
That all existence
Is a teeming sea of infinite life.
In a handful of ocean water
You could not count all the finely tuned
Who are acting stoned
For very intelligent and sane reasons
And of course are becoming extremely sweet
In a handful of the sky and earth,
In a handful of God,
We cannot count
All the ecstatic lovers who are dancing there
Behind the mysterious veil.
True art reveals there is no void
There is no loneliness to the clear-eyed mystic
In this luminous, brimming
LONELINESS: an excerpt from Consolations, by David Whyte
is the doorway to unspoken and as yet unspecified desire. In the bodily pain of aloneness is the first step to understanding how far we are from a real friendship, from a proper work or a long sought love. Loneliness can be a prison, a place from which we look out at a world we cannot inhabit;loneliness can be a bodily ache and a penance, but loneliness fully inhabited also becomes the voice that asks and calls for that great, unknown someone or something else we want to call our own.
Loneliness is the very state that births the courage to continue calling, and when fully lived can undergo its own beautiful reversal, becoming in its consummation, the far horizon that answers back.
In the grand scale of things, loneliness is a privilege. Human beings may have the ability to feel aloneness as no other creature can; magnified by the power of intelligence, longing and imagination. Loneliness asks us to speak and specify a life we feel we might be missing.
Loneliness is the substrate and foundation of our belonging, the gravitational field that draws us home and in the beautiful essence of its isolation, the hand reaching out for togetherness. To allow ourselves to feel fully alone is to allow ourselves to understand the particular nature of our solitary incarnation, to make aloneness a friend is to apprentice ourselves to the true foundation of vulnerability from which we make our invitation others. To feel alone is to face the truth of our irremediable and unutterable singularity, but a singularity that can kiss, create a conversation, make a vow or forge a shared life. In the world or community, this essential singularity can even join with others through vision, intellect and ideas to make a society.
Loneliness is not a concept, it is the body constellating, attempting to become proximate and even join with other bodies, through physical touch, through conversation; through the mediation of the intellect and the imagination.
Loneliness is the place from which we pay real attention to voices other than our own; being alone allows us to find the healing power in the other. The shortest line in the briefest e-mail can heal, embolden, welcome home and enliven the most isolated identity. Human beings are made to belong.
Loneliness is the single malt taste of the very essentiality that makes conscious belonging possible. The doorway is closer than we think.
I feel alone; therefore I belong."