Many folks I meet tell me they are lonely. It’s a condition not easily remedied. It can persist independent of the circumstances of one’s environment. Sometimes it is diagnosed as depression or anxiety, but I have come to see loneliness as its own experience. Loneliness finds itself wherever it goes, and it often looks away from opportunities for companionship. It seems that loneliness has plans that others don’t understand, sometimes not even the lonely themselves. Sometimes loneliness yearns for others while simultaneously blocking their approach. Sometimes lonely people feel that they are actually alone.
I look back on my own life, and I can see the periods of depression, distinct from periods of grief, which I also clearly see. But I can pinpoint moments of loneliness too, different in quality from either depression or grief. I concur with those in the mental health field who are beginning to consider loneliness a condition rather than a symptom, except I do not see it just among the elderly. I suspect that many of the people who are lonely now have been lonely at many junctures during their lives, maybe always.
When I press my memory to retrieve that feeling of loneliness, versus the thought, a sensory charge travels into my chest, fluttery and hollow. It feels like a tiny animal skittering up and down the walls of my chest — and simultaneously I am that tiny animal shivering in a corner of the too-huge world. In those periods, loneliness was swaddled in isolation, a thick-walled cell that kept me safe even as it choked my optimism.
This feeling that I can recall so easily is old, from childhood, even before. When I close my eyes, I can see my mother, and I can feel her, skittering. And when I close my eyes, I can see my father, yes, can feel him, shivering. I don’t pretend to know all the all of who they were — I don’t know why — but there it is, loneliness. Something shared. How do I love thee? In every possible way. “I love thee with the passion put to use. In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.”*
What has changed? It’s true I can easily tap into that shared space, even these years later, but I must deliberately invite it in; it doesn’t swallow me up unexpected. How odd to be more alone in some ways than ever in my life and yet not be lonely. It’s difficult to delineate the steps that led me here; I do not know how many there were. But it seems it was one foot in front of the other, nothing fancy — some stubbornness and curiosity, some insistence, sleepless nights, gratitude for the dawn. I taught when I didn’t feel like it. I wrote when I didn’t want to. I painted though I couldn’t. I walked though I was tired. I showed up when all was lost. And somewhere along the way, I was found.
I close my eyes and see my mother and my father again, and I think they are pleased to see me fading into the future.
* Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1806 - 1861