Loneliness. NOT a Dirty Word.

He’s usually ferociously funny, and direct. But the other evening when I received an email from a writer friend, his words were meandering and unguarded.

He wrote of his relationship, his co-worker on leave, his child who was staying with the other parent for the week.

He’s a single dad. When he mentioned feeling isolated, I could relate, particularly as a writer working in a home office. More than anything, I could feel his loneliness, though he never used the word.

Happy face culture

We live in a land of put-on-your-happy-face. We set the mask in place in the morning, then greet the world. If we want smooth sailing – and a chance at “success” – we maintain it.

Can’t breathe in there under that mask? Suck it up! It’s euphemism time, and that means presenting a chipper tone and your best bright-white smile. If you slip, you may be forgiven if you confess: “I’m a little tired today” or even “I’m a little down.” But that’s as far as it goes. We’re expected to hide our true feelings, especially loneliness.

Granted, there’s a time and place for everything. Don’t spill your emotions to a client, a boss, a nosy colleague, and don’t do it over cocktails on a first date – not if you’d like a second! But we’ve set aside so much authenticity in our culture, including our right to a full spectrum of feelings – and that isn’t progress.

Isolation

Those of us who perform our jobs in isolation – artists, writers, an increasing number of remote workers – may feel cut off. Some of us intentionally close ourselves off; it’s necessary seclusion in order to be productive.

Isolation may also be the result of medical or related restrictions that keep us tied to our homes or bed. We stay at a distance from others, because we must, or so we don’t make them uncomfortable. Living and loving with chronic pain are particularly challenging.

Isolation is not exclusive to adults. Kids can be cruel to each other during those tween and teen years, with the perpetual peer group shuffle, rapidly changing bodies, and searching for who they are. This is fertile ground for isolation, loneliness, and bouts of depression.

Loss

Following divorce, we often cut ourselves off so we can lick our wounds and heal. Sometimes, friends walk away leaving us even more isolated as we process waves of changes in self-perception, unsettling financial futures, and plenty of worries about our children. It’s hard enough shifting from couple status to single status, and working through the grieving process. Personal and social elements that further banish us to some unforeseen aisle – at least for a time – can be devastating.

Coping with job loss involves a special kind of isolation, and a lot more than trying to stretch a dollar across an indefinite period of unemployment.

We lose social acceptance and our network of co-workers. Self-esteem plummets. We may pull away from friends in embarrassment, or due to lack of funds to fully participate in a world we used to inhabit.

And if job loss and marital problems hit at the same time? Is divorce inevitable? What about job loss during divorce? What about the isolation of relocation or empty nest, timed with marital dissolution? Then it’s a double whammy, a triple whammy, each loss exacerbated by disconnection from those you rely on, who once relied on you, who may give your life meaning and purpose – or at the very least, shape your days and nights.

Coping with the loss of a loved one? You’ve got a long process of grieving ahead, and loneliness.

I’m not here to compare the pain of losing a spouse to death versus to divorce. But in divorce, you often carry blame and stigma, which adds to the isolation.

Whatever the reason – excessive isolation plays tricks on the mind. It eats away at the spirit. We get lonely.

Solitude

Solitude is not isolation, though it’s root (soli) means alone.

In my harried universe, solitude is good. It’s a rare commodity, and furnishes reflection time, focus, and productivity. Especially with the demands on my schedule as a solo mom, constantly trying to cobble together a living like so many others in our country. In my case, I’m handicapped by the three O’s: Overqualified, Overeducated, and Over… shall we say 45, and leave it at that?

Alone

Alone is not a dirty word any more than loneliness is. It may be a choice, even a gift. Unlike solitude, “alone” has no particular connotation except being by yourself, perhaps choosing that state to find a place of rest, to refill the well of creativity, or even to do as we please.

Then it’s terrific! Our alone time is a respite from the usual hectic demands.

But when we don’t choose to be alone, or if it lasts too long, then we find ourselves taking up residence in Lonelyville.

Lonely

With too much time alone, or even solitude, I feel disconnected. Loneliness sets in. So do other, darker feelings that lead to depression and withdrawal, which in turn leads to more loneliness.

Most of us know what it is to feel lonely in a crowd. Some of us know what it is to feel lonely in a couple. I see the word “one” sitting at the center of “lonely” – as if we can’t help but confront our solo state when all we want is to feel connected.

Loneliness is not shameful

Why are we ashamed to admit we’re lonely? If we always wear the mask that everything is “fine,” how can we let others in, and wouldn’t that ease the loneliness? And if we are lonely, must we blame ourselves? Can’t we look at contemporary society and recognize how many social and institutional constructs reinforce isolation?

Can’t we look at divorce, at families spread across the continent or farther, at the technologies that facilitate communication yet sometimes leave us wanting? Why do we stigmatize loneliness? Don’t we all feel lonely some of the time?

Get off the island!

In “isolation” I see the the word isle. We strand ourselves on an island, hoping for rescue.

Get off the island! Leave your house, your apartment, your room! Chat with the dry cleaner, your neighbor puttering in the yard, the woman who makes your latte at Starbucks, the guy at the laundromat. Connect to your online communities. Step outside yourself and back into the world where you are forced to talk, to listen, and to give.

In the meantime, stop blaming yourself for feeling lonely. We all want to share our lives, to trust and experience intimacy, to be part of families and caring communities. It’s nothing to be ashamed of; it’s the most natural thing in the world.