It’s the year of the pandemic, and we are all now acquainted with the thought of a pathogen slowly spreading through our streets.
Shielding ourselves where possible, we try to evade it, much like its older brother, the Plague.
Through the ripple effect, another affliction has been brought to light: loneliness.
With social distancing, we all found ourselves craving the days of trivial human contact. Mandatory lockdowns and physical isolation can do that to a person. Even a non-hugger like me found myself yearning for a warm, friendly embrace into which I could squirm.
Globally, we are lonely, isolated, and seeking innovative ways to connect in the manner of Zoom parties and six-feet-apart visits. However, loneliness isn’t a new societal problem. Former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy labelled it an “epidemic” during his term from 2014 to 2017 and said, “we live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s.” This was before COVID-19 became a part of our lives in 2020. Since then, he has been appointed co-chair of Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board, and loneliness has become more widespread and common.
He also highlights that one of main issues with loneliness is the shame attached to it.
If a person feels lonely, they also feel a lot of shame coming to terms with it, let alone calling it out and seeking help. Our societal image of loneliness is of a solitary person sitting in a dark room filled with despair and sadness. No one wants to be thought of like that, which makes acceptance of loneliness extremely hard. Who wants to be Dan Humphrey aka Lonely Boy before he met Serena Van Der Woodsen? Nobody. You’d much rather put up a front and hope you run into a beautiful blonde someday who makes all your lonely problems disappear.
Loneliness also has a quicksand effect. As you feel lonelier, you begin to isolate yourself more. Just like quicksand, you sink deeper into it. It’s a vicious cycle you get sucked into, and soon you find yourself in a pretty dark and dismal abyss.
A way to alleviate it is to change the way you look at it.
In his book, Dr. Murthy illustrates that loneliness is a signal that our body gives us when we’re lacking a survival need—just like hunger or thirst. It’s our primal, instinctual need to feel connected. So, if this unpleasant feeling is your body’s way of telling you there is a need to be fulfilled, would shaming it be the best way to do it? Doesn’t seem to be.
I’ve dealt with stretches of loneliness at various points of my life. I’ve also tried numerous ways to run away from the distressing feeling. Our societal structure is pretty great at allowing you to do so. With the unpredictable year of 2020, I decided to change my strategy. Like most people, I found myself feeling lonely and isolated at various moments through the year. It helped that there was a cultural unison in experiencing this feeling. So when I did feel lonely, I accepted it as my body’s smoke signal that I needed connection.
Accepting that you feel lonely takes time and is an uncomfortable process. I envisioned myself as Akon sitting outside the Orpheum crooning about how I had nobody to call my own. I was Ms. Lonely. I was head-to-head with my loneliness and my perception of it being sad and pathetic. I felt the pressures and limitations I had been putting on myself so that I could avoid admitting I felt that way.
Over time, though, with the feeling becoming more and more familiar, I slowly started accepting it as a message. I was able to identify the feeling more correctly when it occurred. Soon, it became easier to experience loneliness, rather than shaming myself away from it.
When we reduce our shame toward loneliness, we can focus on seeking connections and lessening it. We can bring true meaning to the term “quality time spent with loved ones” because we know our bodies need it. We can start valuing our time alone as time we spend with ourselves, doing exactly what we want. This, in turn, shall turn our loneliness into solitude.
I still have my Ms. Lonely moments and will continue to do so. In those moments, I understand that there’s a need to be met. Some days, it’s easier to connect, and I am grateful for loved ones who make me feel valued and appreciated when I need it. Other days, I can’t get the words out because I’m too overwhelmed or confused. On those days, I tell myself that it’s okay to feel like that. It will pass, and at times, I simply belt out a few Lonely verses by Akon and muster a feeble laugh to myself in my pillow fort.