Life after loneliness: ‘At school, I was incredibly isolated – then I learned to build deep, thriving friendships’
I am sure I was not the only one, when lockdown was announced last March, to wonder if I was more scared of loneliness than I was of the virus. As a disabled person, I knew I was in for the isolation long-haul. Apart from my carers and my parents, I didn’t see another soul – not even a stranger in a shop – for eight long weeks.
I’ve spent much of my adult life haunted by the spectre of a much longer period of loneliness. It has meant I am often frantically arranging meetups with friends, or other activities. At school, I was incredibly isolated; excluded, sometimes purposefully and sometimes not, from the social lives of my non-disabled peers. There was also a deeper sense – not of loneliness, really, but what I now think of as “aloneness”. I simply didn’t know anyone like me, which fostered a feeling of difference, shame and segregation that still lurks under my skin.
Keeping busy has always been a way to keep that feeling in check. You don’t feel so excluded when a group of friends piles into your flat every weekend, or you are surrounded by colleagues at after-work drinks. I had built a life so far from the one I had at school that I finally felt I was on solid ground. And then the world shut down.
The first week was scarily familiar. Staring at my own four walls while my head buzzed with worries – this was how I had spent many a teenage weekend. But then, to my surprise, after everyone had panic-bought loo roll and cobbled together a home-working space, the messages started. “How are you holding up?” “I’ll call after the Tesco delivery comes.” “Have you seen this dog on a skateboard?”
And they didn’t stop. Work Zooms broke up interminable days of reporting on Covid. I spoke to my group of university friends, usually all busy at different times, more than I had since graduation. One especially close friend set aside two or three hours every week without fail, just to call and bemoan the state of politics (there was a lot to say). When I went to stay with my parents because one of my personal assistants was ill, my dad wanted to know who on earth I was talking to all day. “Just the usual suspects,” I told him.
Yet I was still lonely. I missed the hubbub of the office. Missed the easy laughter that comes not from a screen but from a glance across the table. Four weeks in, I missed awkward chat with taxi drivers and checkout workers. But this loneliness, I realised during yet another Zoom, was nothing like being truly alone.
Things got harder, however, when lockdown started to lift, and my healthier friends could venture out. The gulf between my life and theirs seemed to widen, reminding me once more of those school years. People were out and about and, most importantly, together. I was still stuck inside.
But while contact with some friends faded away as this shift took hold, many more kept calling. Slowly, I was able to start seeing a select few, and no one complained when I asked them to meet me in the park despite the freezing cold. We bought hot chocolates and made do. Many schlepped across London just to sit with me in my building’s courtyard. This was real friendship, and in the depths of last autumn, as my fear grew along with case numbers, it kept me going. I still had my usual suspects.
What I’ve learned these past few months is that no matter how many friends you have, enforced isolation will lead to loneliness. But I’ve also learned that if you start by reaching out to your friends in whatever way you can, those friends don’t need to be sitting on your sofa to keep you from feeling truly alone.