My first recollection of loneliness was when I was six and my family moved to Saint Andrews, Scotland for a year. The accents didn’t confuse me so much as the turn of phrase. People were constantly saying and asking things with words I understood, but put together in a way I did not. And at the tender age of six, even Scotland was a culture shock.
I have many memories from that year, though not in an ordered timeline. I recall pushing a boy on the playground, and was surprised at how soft and weak he was.
I don’t recall my classmates shunning me. But I do remember spending countless hours on the playground by myself. I had a vivid imagination, by which I mean that I believed in magic. I would scour the playground yard, paved and surrounded by a stone wall, looking for treasure. I would see a crack in the stone and follow the line, past where it ended, tracing with my finger until I came upon something else of interest: another crack perhaps, or a stone that was jutting out more than the others. And from there I would follow this new “lead” or pattern, on and on, until I found treasure: a coin on the ground, or a flower poking up out of the pavement, or a piece of candy perhaps. I had lively discussions in my head as I went on my solo adventure.
Who knows what the Scots thought of this American girl talking to herself and tracing lines in the stone wall.
When we returned to the U.S., I settled back into my social routines – at first with friends I’d known before Scotland, then with new friends when we moved, and then when we moved yet again.
My next encounter with deep loneliness was when we moved from the east coast to a small town in Oregon. It was, again, a culture shock. I had gotten the message from my family that our international travels and time in major cities made me special. I was one of those kids who was simultaneously shy and boastful. I was also for whatever reason a staunch atheist.
I believe it was my very first day at school that I threatened to fight anyone, anytime. But things didn’t turn bad until I revealed that I was an atheist. A kid was insisting that Santa Clause was real, and the class bully was mocking him. I “defended” him, saying that believing in Santa Clause was no different from believing in God. The class was shocked into a collective silence – until Lenny, the bully, incredulously asked me to confirm that I didn’t believe in God. I did so proudly, with a hint of superiority.
They didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand them. And with this revelation the class distanced itself from me, at one point agreeing to give me “the silent treatment.” (I learned this from a classmate who decided to tell me. Even at the age of 11 I understood that her momentary friendliness wasn’t to be interpreted as friendship.) And Lenny turned his mean-spirited mockery on me.
Once again, recess spent on my own. On the swing set, or at the far end of the playground where I could avoid my classmates.
At home I found solace among our animals. We had cats that bred and reproduced unchecked; I was the one to feed them, pet them, and at times be the nursemaid to a female cat birthing a new litter. We also had chickens which I named, pet and held, and a rooster that I learned the hard way never to turn my back on. I recall gerbils and hamsters as well. These were my friends.
The good part about moving every year or two was that I had the chance to start again, when things weren’t going well at a school. The bad part was having to leave behind friends and things that were going well. Worse was never learning to work through difficulties with friends, and never having the experience of building trust over time. I could neither navigate the difficulties, nor trust friends to be there for me. Childhood friendships don’t survive moving away.
Years later after leaving my first husband, my son’s dad, I spent three years as a single parent and a very young adult. Yet again in a new town and with a toddler at home, making friends was challenging. I felt stifled and lonely and bored, while simultaneously overwhelmed and exhausted by the responsibilities of adulthood and parenthood.
Many years later when my last partner and I were together, again loneliness crept in. I found it hard to maintain my friendships within our relationship: she never felt comfortable with my friends, and she preferred me to be at home. She wasn’t demanding, but I was overly conditioned to keep the peace. Most of my friendships faltered. She would retreat to the bedroom by 7 p.m. every night and read or watch tv. Night after night I would sit in the living room alone, my teenage son with friends or keeping his own company. Loneliness does not always come from being alone, and this was the case for me during those years.
It was my dissatisfaction with that time in my life that propelled me to move north as soon as my son finished high school, and pursue a career as a park ranger. I then spent seven years moving from park to park, looking for the right park to call home: living in park housing means your coworkers are also your neighbors, and a tense work environment makes it impossible to feel “at home.” Because I never found that park that felt like home, I never put down roots. I did try. I went to social functions, hosted a few of my own, and dated. But knowing that I hadn’t yet found my place prevented me from fully letting down my guard, or letting people get too close. Yet another bad habit established after a childhood of moving on and leaving friends behind.
When I left rangering, the moving didn’t abate. But with the addition of my PTSD struggles, I stopped trying to make friends. I stopped dating. I stopped going to social functions. Efforts were few and far between because I’d grown tired of the effort, which had seemed so very fruitless. Rare efforts to socialize usually resulted in canceling last-minute due to anxiety.
There have been times over the past decade when the loneliness has come on swiftly, doubling me over with pain. I struggle to catch my breath, not knowing how to ease the searing pain deep inside. But most of the time it is a dull ache, and felt more as a growing boredom with my life.
Pursuing my interests and human interactions happens more and more online. I have learned to make connections with real people; I have continued to grow and learn, to challenge myself, to live according to my values. These are not meaningless efforts, and I value both my expanded awareness and the people I have met or deepened connections with this way.
And yet, they are not there to be a part of my life, and me a part of theirs. They are not there to meet for coffee and share about the week’s events. We do not go see movies together, then have a lively discussion about the failures and successes of the movie. We do not peruse the county fairs, flea markets, or festivals, talking about experiences we’ve had and adventures we’ve been on.
Before my paternal grandmother died, having survived her husband and chosen to remain single she said, “there are worse things than being lonely.” Without a doubt she is right. Still, humans are designed to be social; we aren’t designed to live lonely lives. What damage does this do to our hearts and souls over time? When the loneliness becomes so much a part of us that – even when it hurts – we feel unable to reach out to others for companionship?
Those of us who would be more social but for our emotional fragilities share the dilemma of wanting meaningful friendships, knowing they take time and effort, and having such a small ability to exert any effort at all. In my case, it is the accumulation of struggle combined with my comfort with being alone; my familiarity with loneliness. It is exponentially challenging given the emotional fragility that comes with having PTSD.
Healing takes time. It is only in this past year that I have found a job that I can stick with, that has the flexibility and the accommodations I need in order to make a living without coming up hard against my PTSD limitations. It is only in this past year that I have lived in a place that feels not only safe, but safe for me to linger outside unaccosted.
These changes are foundational: and without them, no wonder I had no motivation to venture out. I’ve started a container garden. I sit outside under an umbrella when it rains, feeling the cleansing breeze on my face. I have a covered area with my bicycle on a flywheel, which perhaps I’ll start using – Ha! I’m doing yoga at home every other evening because it eases the pain my otherwise sedentary body feels after a day at the computer.
I continue to learn to tune into my body and its messages. Having spent so much of my childhood and early adulthood in my head, I never learned to have a relationship with my body. Consequently I never learned to trust the messages of my body, for example if a person or situation felt unsafe or just not good for me.
Now I can feel when something is triggering me; I can feel when my anxiety is starting; I can feel in my gut when something isn’t right. And now, most of the time, I pay attention and do something about it. Besides not tolerating bad situations, I’ve learned to keep my body from escalating into full panic or overwhelm. It involves turning off the chatter in my head and really focusing on what is going on in my body. Did my throat just constrict? Do I feel a pressure on my chest? Are my legs feeling agitated? Can I slow down and deepen my breathing?
And I tune into my senses. What are the sounds I’m hearing? How many can I identify? What do I smell? I engage my sense of touch by rubbing my hands on my clothing, or a nearby object, paying close attention to the texture. I press my feet into the floor and feel the connection between whatever is supporting me, and the muscles through my legs and hips.
All of this is foundational. Without any confidence that an outing would not completely trigger and overwhelm me, no wonder I did not risk trying new things.
The next step is to step out – back into the world. Or maybe I should say, that is the next landing, with many steps to take between here and there. Going to a café and being friendly with the staff. Lingering at the library among people. Walking in parks with the requisite, if brief, exchanges of pleasantries with strangers.
I am so very anxious to be at the next landing. To have face-to-face friendships, to have close friends, to feel part of a community, to have an intimate partner. I am so very bored with my life. I am so ready. And still, anxiety must be coaxed with gentleness. My old approach at life, lived full speed, is not an option anymore. White knuckling through challenges is no longer possible. Pushing myself too fast will mean even more retreat. I must be gentle and patient with myself. I must build the foundation, making it as solid as possible. Take small steps. Forgive myself for not being the person I wish I was, for not living the life I wish I lived. I must believe that people will find me interesting, valuable, and lovable nonetheless. Learn to accept who I am now.
Loneliness. Can I unlearn it? Perhaps now that my heart and body force me to respect them, perhaps now that I’m learning to honor myself I can also, ultimately, learn healthy vulnerability.
Without these changes, I am guaranteed to find loneliness in every friendship.