I was a lonely child. My brothers were a lot older than me so I was like an only child in a crowd. At school I was bullied constantly and I found it hard to fit in, having only a few friends and at times none at all. I was content to play alone and I read voraciously but I was never parted from that ache of loneliness. I was not alone, but I was lonely.
So how did things turn around? How did I go from being lonely in a crowd to being solitary but not lonely?
It was a process that took me well into adulthood. Although I got married and grew a supportive circle of friends, I didn’t lose the inner loneliness for some time. I didn’t feel OK as a person and there were parts of myself and my struggles that I never shared with anyone. Therapy helped but it wasn’t enough on its own.
My marriage ended and after a time I began a relationship with someone who really did understand me. I felt loved and accepted in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. When we were together I felt more whole. But there were difficulties we couldn’t surmount. I was relatively new to Sheffield when the relationship ended and, while I love the city and had begun to put down roots, most of my close friends lived far away and I felt lonelier than ever.
One thing had changed though. When my marriage ended I confronted the need to live alone for the first time. Initially I was frightened but very soon I found that I love to live alone. I have always had a rich inner life and I find that I need alone time to replenish myself for the times when I’m busy and interacting with other people. Living alone works well for me because the alone time gives me much more energy and the opportunity to really look forward to and enjoy my time with others.
The other thing that changed is that I started doing things I love. Whilst still in the relationship I started an HND in Fine Art. I’ve always loved making art but life led me in other directions until my mental health made so many things impossible that I more or less ground to a halt. Doing the HND part time was a challenge but because I loved the work I was motivated to continue and complete it even though my illness and visual impairment made it hard. This helped me to build stamina.
I also joined a walking group and walked in the Peaks at weekends. Again, an activity that was a challenge but enjoyable. I got to know more people and had more to think about than my troubles. I had ways to express myself creatively, I had more of a social life, and I lived alone so I could replenish my energy. Gradually, without me really noticing, the loneliness started to ebb away.
It hasn’t been plain sailing. When I get ill I struggle to look after myself and can feel quite alone. And my activities have changed – the HND came to an end and so did the walking group, for me. But I have continued to do things that I love, and through them widened and deepened my circle of friendship. I have also gone back into therapy, and this makes me feel more whole and less like there are parts of me that can never see the light.
I think a lot of what loneliness is about is not feeling OK with who we are. If that’s not OK then however strong our connection to others may be we will continue with that inner loneliness. I think the love and acceptance I found in the relationship that brought me to Sheffield, echoed by that of good friends, has made a big difference to how I feel about myself. So has doing things I love and that are useful to other people, and the inner work I have done. All this makes up a me that I feel more comfortable with and so I am happy to spend time with myself. That, ultimately, is why I am alone but not lonely.