In these times of Covid, more and more people are coming forward to report mental health issues. Some people see this as a weakness, a crisis in and of itself, just as pernicious as the pandemic. Others see it as a process of destigmatisation: an open sharing of vulnerability and pain that unites and enables us to heal through support, empathy, and encouragement.
I fall into the latter camp, so this month I’d like to take a look at an issue which is close to my heart. (The clue’s in the title.) Loneliness is something that everybody feels from time to time, but the ubiquity of that experience brings no comfort. By definition, it is suffered alone.
I have previously alluded to the mute pain of my childhood, but I don’t think I’ve ever been able to truly communicate the helplessness I felt at the time, nor the depths of my gratitude to those who helped me break through my shell. I’m going to try to do so here, today, and I will almost certainly fail.
My earliest perception of isolation came around the age of 6 or 7—son to a struggling single mother, and spinning in the wake of a lively foster-brother for whom everything *seemed to come naturally. I had a few pals I could race around with in the playground but I always felt tolerated rather than sought out. I didn’t really understand how people worked, you see – how friendship groups were formed, what people thought about or talked about.
There was an absence. A disconnect. I felt alien.
Silence pretty much ruled me in those early days. Here’s a sense memory: having my lips pressed tightly together. It always felt more…comfortable somehow.
So I watched, and I wondered, and I tried to learn how to be human.
It’s notable that I didn’t actively reach out. I didn’t talk to other people about this. There was a…certainty inside that such a basic understanding of my peers should be instinctual. That confessing its lack to anybody would mark me out even more. No. Better to learn. To mimic. To at least try to camouflage my differences.
I felt the loneliness bite deeper in primary school, growing ever more aware of being on the outside looking in, yet feeling powerless to effect any change. The more I think back to it, the more it feels like a kind of sleep paralysis. I’m angry I didn’t push myself forward more. Make more of an effort, as it were. I lacked self-confidence but it feels like there was more to it than that; it was like I was numb—all the time.
Numb and dumb.
Except inside my head of course, where I raged and wept, debated and despaired. Melancholy became my default state, anxiety and fear the ever-ready alternatives. And so the situation may well have remained, had a father figure not entered the picture.
My step-dad came into our lives when I was about 9 years old. He was the first boyfriend I’d been aware of my mum having, and the only one to move in. I don’t think he’d mind me saying that our relationship was awkward back then, and increasingly fractious as time went by. (Until I went to university, anyway.) Chalk and cheese doesn’t cut it, but he turned out to be the role model I needed.
Eye contact was a huge lesson he gave to me, posture another. (Chin up, back straight, shoulders back, chest out, stomach in.) It felt like I was walking in a cage at first, but people did start to look at me a little differently when I tried it out in public. Instead of acting like the perpetual victim, hunched over, ashamed of my own existence, I began to walk with a sense of pride—No, not pride. **Defiance, damn it.
Over time he managed to shake me out of myself, bit by bit – prodding and pushing me, expanding my horizons. It was his playful side that gave me a life-long love of word-play and silliness, whilst his less sympathetic moments taught (and provoked) a degree of self-reliance and self-respect I otherwise lacked.
I had to know my own mind and be prepared to fight my own corner because, as he so often said, no other bastard would.
Some of this came through active teaching, some was passively absorbed, and many lessons were learned, shall we say, in spite of him—but it was all important: a sense of solidity, of stability, and even something to kick against. Vital stuff for the bewilder-boy. I can never repay the debt I owe.
Now, secondary school was pure purgatory. Just fucking awful. I was by this time almost entirely focused on avoidance, because it seemed that every tutor group, every lesson, every break presented some arsehole with the opportunity to feel powerful at my expense. Bad enough when it was the bullies, worse when it came from so-called friends. No adult could protect me; their few attempts were clumsy and counter-productive. I was assured this was just life – to be expected and endured.
Jesus. 5 years. It felt like a prison sentence.
The library became my daily lunch-time refuge. I’d always been a bit of a reader, but books took on a meaning and a power beyond mere entertainment: they offered me new ways to understand people – to see the world through different eyes and recognise life’s possibilities, if I could just find the courage to seek them.
And, bringing all my various lessons to bear, clumsily, I began to try, quietly tapping away at my shell, finding ways to communicate and to take some control over my life. School was school, but their lessons seemed incidental. All this – learning to be human – that was the important stuff.
Over time, I started to reach out to other people who were withdrawn, just as helpless or hopeless as me. I had some successes and one notable, horrible failure in which I became a (bizarrely un-self-aware) bully. As the seeds of self-assurance finally germinated, I began to develop my wit and social masking. I gained some degree of acceptance, a small group of friends and, at long last, a sense of self that I could start to kind of like.
I wasn’t free yet, but the shell was definitely cracking.
It’s not the whole story—of course it isn’t. But I’ve wallowed in this for too long. I’ll be returning to the subject of isolation in the first week of April, and also in the first week of May, in a far broader fashion: Part 2 will look at how we can spot signs of other people who are secretly suffering, whilst Part 3 digs into what we can do to empower and include those who feel trapped outside the world.
If you managed to get this far – thank you for bearing with me. It’s been hard trawling through my memories of childhood, harder yet to hold my course steady.
Huge thanks and much love to Steve Bradshaw – my step-father – and to Sheila Bradshaw – my beloved mum. You did all you could to give me a stable and a loving home. I may not have fully understood or appreciated it all at the time, but I very much do so now.
Big hugs also go out to Becca Gear, Lucy Chapman, Helen Boothby, Julian Nailard, Malcolm Warner, and Julian Owen. Lights in the darkness, all.
If you have had similar experiences of isolation and loneliness, you may find it beneficial to talk. Some people prefer to talk to friends and family, others find it easier to talk to a professional – somebody who can advise you dispassionately. You can also talk to the Samaritans at https://www.samaritans.org/ or call 116 123.
Feel free to post a comment below or reach out on social media. You know how to find me.
Love to you all.
* For ‘everything’ here, read ‘good at sports’ and ‘being popular.’ I had no idea what he’d already been through, nor did I realise just how tough my brother’s struggles were both in and out of school – not until many years later. That shames me. Solipsism, guys – don’t get sucked into it. Everybody has a story.
** A swing too far, on occasions. I could be shitty too.
If you want to dig deeper, you can skip straight ahead to Spotting the signs: (Cracking Isolation, part 2) and Breaking through (Cracking Isolation, part 3) for practical ways to understand and help – whether that’s yourself or other people.
If you’d like to see how my journey continued, you can follow me to college and university in Reinvention (Finding Me, part 1).