Confronting my loneliness was a double-edged sword


Photo: Lucia Thorne

I convinced myself that people could see my loneliness, radiating like an inverted aura that stigmatized me into something wretched and weak.

By Joshua Sokol, Staff Writer

I first moved to Boston in the fall of 2017 from Westminster, Massachusetts; a small, rural town. It was a move that filled me to the brim with anxiety and excitement—emotions at the opposite ends of intensity, caused by the same chemical reactions in your brain. I was excited for all the new challenges and experiences the city had to offer. 

I was also excited for the sense of anonymity that a city provided. You are one out of so many, making it so much easier to hide from people’s memories. You are free to be a fuck-up in a sea of fuck-ups, and no one would have the time to care. 

Something that I wasn’t prepared for, the sensation only a city of 617,000 would tend to bring; feeling entirely, utterly, and devastatingly alone at every turn.

This isn’t to say I didn’t have friends and social groups who supported me— I did. I went out to parties and engaged socially with people whom I considered close friends. I had the added benefit of being in an environment full of people with innovative and creative ideas that inspired me.

This loneliness was more of an existential feeling internally, rather than a result from outside interactions. I sat on the train, alone. I ate in the dining hall, alone. I went to bed, alone. No matter how many people I surrounded myself with, everywhere I went I felt like the only company I kept was my shadow.

Loneliness is not a foreign concept to me. Growing up gay in a rural, conservative community is directly correlated with the feeling of isolation that I’ve always carried. Small-town culture has a way of throwing you out early if you violate the status quo. The first time I was ever called a “fag” was in the fourth grade—before I even know what that word meant. Shame and social othering are tools of the oppressor to encourage loneliness.

As a result of this social othering, “Gay people are now, depending on the [] study, between 2 and 10 times more likely than straight people to take their own lives,” according to a Huffpost article by Michael Hobbes. Even in countries where performative social constructs, such as gay marriage are legal, the emotional and psychological weight of being a gay person (a social tabboo) are still very much apparent. 

Hobbes writes about the social isolations of “being in the closet.” Feeling a complete disconnection from the heteronormative mindset around us. But what comes after, the “gay men who have come out of the closet and still feel the same isolation,” is a part of the equation that is rarely addressed. The ritualistic “coming out” may seem celebratory, but it leaves in its wake further opportunity to be driven back in.

This urban loneliness that I felt had a heavier weight attached to it, because it revealed to me a singular truth: loneliness would follow me wherever I went.

In her novel “A Little Life”, author and Editor-in-chief of The NYTimes Style Magazine Hanya Yanagihara writes, “He is so lonely that he sometimes feels it physically, a sodden clump of dirty laundry pressing against his chest.” While the feelings of loneliness can often be heavy, and carry with them a wet musk, it can also be light, and cause our heads to become a mass of static with no pin-pointed direction.

On many occasions, I would wander around the Museum of Fine Arts or Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on my own for hours on end. I knew I wouldn’t be alone when I was surrounded by museum patrons and art alike. Anonymous strangers became my gateway to socialization without uttering a single word to them. Sometimes I even talked to the art. 

Around this same time is when I read Olivia Laing’s book “The Lonely City” for the first time. In this book, Laing chronicles her time living in New York City, alone and wandering as a spectator in a city full of vibrant opportunities for connection. 

She parallels her experiences of loneliness with famous artists who also drew from feelings of isolation in their own work. Andy Warhol, who barely spoke, and David Wojnarowicz, who would attempt to fulfill feelings of loneliness by cruising the New York waterfront for anonymous sex amid the AIDS epidemic.

Laing writes in her book about the phases of loneliness, a “period in which speech became an increasingly perilous endeavor.” There would be days where I would speak to no one, a task like ordering a coffee could leave me stuttering and anxious that I had fucked up my only social interaction of the day. This sensation only drove me farther inwards, afraid to interact with anybody. If I didn’t talk to anyone, I couldn’t be perceived.

I was afraid of judgment. “I was aware of a gathering anxiety around the question of visibility,” Laing writes. I didn’t want my physical identity to be a static singularity that people would remember. I wanted to be invisible, but so badly craved to be understood. This internal struggle plagues my head to this day, only now I have the emotional comprehension to put it into words. Some would call that progress.

I got into the habit of staring out my eighteenth-floor dorm late at night, projecting life stories into the cars that drove by. Similarly, whenever I would look into apartment complexes, I would imagine what kind of life was being lived inside each window, lit and unlit alike. This was my means of connecting with other people, a Hail Mary to practice and test empathy, because as Laing writes “loneliness inhibits empathy.”

I would spend hours on Twitter or various dating apps, just to feel like I had a sort of connection with the world around me. I hoped that if I scrolled through my feed long enough I would either achieve some sort of fulfillment, or the constant feed of the Trump administration, white supremacy, and Brexit would hinder me too apathetic to care about my loneliness. It was usually the latter. I overloaded myself with news in order to eventually become numb to it all.

In an article from The Guardian, Laing writes “our numbness facilitates precisely the cruelties it’s caused by, a vicious circle it’s hard to know how to stop.” I was lonely because I thought I deserved to be, that anything else was an unobtainable and selfish goal. Awakening yourself from that numbness is a need for survival, both within yourself and for the well-being of those around you.

My grasp on reality was obscured to the point where I wasn’t even aware that someone would be talking to me. The dissociation I experienced was a way to look past the current moment I was in, because if I realized what was happening, I might have had a sense of permanence. Permanence was, at that point, my biggest fear.

This article is the first time I’ve actually confronted this period of my life in a concrete way. Putting these words out into the world is a reckoning of my own, something personal that I’ve grabbed out of the recesses of my mind, and it feels like an exorcism of sorts, a catharsis. If you talk about something, it cannot hide.

This isn’t to say that spending time with yourself is a negative thing. In fact, it’s inherently beneficial to your well being to take care of yourself. But I was taking it to the extreme, finding myself surrounded by crowds of people (pre-COVID, of course) and feeling like if I touched another person, I would spontaneously combust or be accused of a crime I didn’t commit. Every interaction felt like a trial, and the gallows were waiting for me.

I equally felt as though I was completely invisible while sticking out like a sore thumb. I convinced myself that people could see my loneliness, radiating like an inverted aura that stigmatized me into something wretched and weak.

Now, in 2021, we have been surrounded by loneliness because of a pandemic. For me, I have had to fight everyday to not fall back into these patterns of dissociation and apathy. Unfortunately, it has not been the easiest feat. Alongside COVID, loneliness is a pandemic that will have repercussions long after a herd-immunity is achieved. 

The government of Japan announced that they are appointing a “minister of loneliness” as the country sees rising suicide rates amid the pandemic. There’s a word in Japanese, “hikikomori,” which translates into English as “pulling inward, being confined.” This generally refers to individuals who completely withdraw from society and seek extreme self-confinement. The concept of existential loneliness spans language and culture, it is universal and a collective feeling. In a sense, loneliness can be a fertile breeding ground for community and a catalyst for breaking out of the unrelenting cycles of numbness and passivity.

Just as all rivers run to the sea, all of our individual isolations lead to a greater, collective depth of loneliness. 

In the closing chapter of her book, Laing writes “I don’t believe the cure for loneliness is meeting someone, not necessarily.” The cure for loneliness, she says, is that we should know how to “befriend” ourselves and realize that what afflicts one of us, afflicts most of us. That loneliness doesn’t exist on an individual scale, ironically enough. Concepts such as shame and anger are utilized to isolate us from one another. These afflictions, such as “stigma and exclusion,” exist to be resisted, and for the betterment of us all, they should be.