My bedroom window looks out on to a street. It runs through an “artist’s village” in north London’s Warehouse District and, every weekend, revellers fill the road, falling out of parties, giving each other piggybacks, shouting, singing, holding hands. I watch them as I go to sleep, and again at 5am, when their drunken joy wakes me up. I don’t mind – they’re having fun. I’m alone.
In these moments, my mind often wanders to a line from Gail Honeyman’s novel Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. “These days, loneliness is the new cancer – a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way,” muses the narrator. “A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.” When I first read it on holiday earlier this year, I had to put the book down for a while – I felt embarrassed; I didn’t want it to apply to me. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know that Eleanor is a deeply troubled woman, having lived through unimaginable tragedy as a young girl, and, outwardly, we have very little in common. Except our mirrored, pervasive loneliness.
For context, I am a 24-year-old young woman with a job and a nice place to live just half an hour away from central London. I have plenty of friends I can go for a drink with, or spend an afternoon with, wandering aimlessly around a museum. Although my family live in Manchester, I speak to them on a daily basis and visit them every other month. I have interests – gigs, typically millennial brunches and the occasional night out, none of which are solo activities. By all accounts, I am privileged. But none of this stops the gnawing feeling of loneliness grinding against the back of my skull nearly every evening. I find myself reading long Twitter exchanges between people who I know to be friends. I spend my spare time reading back old text messages to make it feel as though I am engaging in conversation. I stay late at work, even when my to-do list was finished an hour previously. When someone asks how my weekend was, I have nothing to report. When I’m asked what I’m doing that evening, there are rarely any plans.
It is sad, but not in an “oh, woe is me” aspect, but in a shameful, “loser” kind of way. It’s humiliating to the point of excruciation.
Ironically, it seems I am far from alone. While loneliness has been always thought of an affliction affecting older people, research indicates that 10 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds are “always or often lonely” – three times higher than those aged over 65. When every age group is counted together, one in 20 people regularly feel lonely. Women were more likely to note feelings of loneliness, although it’s thought that – thanks to outdated, fallacious perceptions of masculinity – this is down to the reluctance of men to admit their isolation.
It’s not an easy emotion to register, let alone articulate, or talk about. We’ve come a long way in recent years, becoming more willing to accept, understand and treat mental-health issues, especially when it comes to anxiety and depression. And rightly so. But, up until very recently – well, since the emergence of this research – loneliness hasn’t been on the radar. At least, for young people.
I find myself reading long Twitter exchanges between people who I know to be friends. I spend my spare time reading back old text messages to make it feel as though I am engaging in conversation
For me, loneliness is a toxic mixture of sadness and a permeating feeling of being misunderstood – you doubt yourself in nearly everything you do. At first, I began to think there must be something wrong with me and, after living with loneliness for a while, I now believe there just might be. I don’t feel a friendless gap in life, but instead have convinced myself that the friends I do have are built on surface-level interactions and I constantly worry that I cannot offer the other person reason enough to invest in a long-term, meaningful relationship. When people close to me read this, they will most likely assure me that it’s isn’t at all true and, in my more self-assured moments, I might know they’re right.
But when the ache of mundane loneliness creeps up – when I sit down in the cinema on my own, when someone cancels on plans, when I wake up on a beautiful Sunday with no one to wish good morning – I always look inwards first. Even reading this now, branding myself as a lonely person with friends seems ridiculous – an oxymoron that simply renders my woes unimportant and whiny. Perhaps that’s just a part of human nature. It doesn’t settle my thoughts any more.
My loneliness is undeniably, intricately tied up with the fact that I suffer with depression and anxiety, and at first I instinctively attributed the gloomy feeling to my mental-health struggles. This, again, is a problem disproportionately hitting the younger generation – last year, a report found that British millennials have the second-worst mental-health wellbeing in the world, and the number of schools referring pupils to NHS mental-health services has risen by more than a third in the last four years, over half of which relate to primary-school children. In my darkest, most desperate bouts of depression, when I was on the brink of feeling suicidal, my thoughts would always find their way to wondering how long it would take for someone to find my body – a day, a week, even longer?
I was lucky enough to eventually build up the courage to go to the doctors and, four months into a course of antidepressants and some online therapy, my mental state feels – at least relatively – in control. Still, I find myself looking for someone to share my thoughts with, someone to bounce off and debate with. Loneliness and depression are in a neverending chicken-and-egg cycle – it’s hard to know which came first and it’s even more difficult to decipher which is perpetuating the other. What was once a symptom has now become a beast of its own and, unlike my depression, I don’t know how to help it.
Away from mental health – or, at least as removed as it can be – there are some practical reasons why I may feel lonely, too. I’m a naturally shy person (though this doesn’t last long when I get to know someone – I have an unintentionally irritating tendency to overcompensate); I genuinely do enjoy time on my own to read a book or watch a film; I’m not naturally inclined to spend my days having digital exchanges over WhatsApp. But these aren’t wildly contentious personality traits (at least I hope) and don’t naturally lead to this overwhelmingly lonely feeling.
What was once a symptom has now become a beast of its own and, unlike my depression, I don’t know how to help it
On top of this, there are also a lot of societal theories as to why my peers and I might be feeling alone. First, there’s the transient nature of Generation Rent – there is little point in setting down roots or building community relationships; we might be evicted within the week. Millennials are making less money than the generation before us, meaning we’re more likely to opt for a night in than a night on the town, sipping £18 martinis, meeting new and exciting people. Then there’s the digitisation of our entire world. I don’t have to speak to anyone when I pick up tampons in the Sainsbury’s Local, I can order dinner straight to my house with very minimal human contact, I don’t even have to acknowledge the bus driver on my way home – I just hop on the back and pay with my contactless card. Then there’s the ironically named “social media”. Studies have shown that, while centering on connecting users with friends, Facebook and other sites can actually make people feel more lonely, and who among us hasn’t sat around a restaurant table in silence as others scroll through their Instagram feeds – yes, me included? Even our love lives are managed and organised through a phone screen – we can speak to a potential partner for weeks without ever hearing the sound of their voice.
And it’s those visceral, tangible features of other people that really drive home the emptiness of being lonely. You don’t realise anything is missing until a stranger accidentally brushes your arm on the train, or until you realise it’s been nearly two days since you spoke to another person when your colleague wishes you good morning on a Monday. As that feeling falls down your throat, through an empty chest and into the deepest pit of your stomach, it’s not a shock, or even a gradual understanding. Instead it’s a familiar tap on the shoulder, a low, impertinent grumble – “You’re on your own,” it tells you again.
Maybe it’s a misguided attempt to feel less lonely, but I think more of us recognise this experience than we’d like to admit. A 2016 report by the Co-Op and British Red Cross found that nine million people are thought to be lonely in the UK.
I feel vulnerable branding myself a lonely person. But it also feels brave
Regarding loneliness as a mental-health issue, rather than only a person spending too much time on their own, is something we need to think about. And we’re definitely moving in the right direction. In January, building on the work of the late MP Jo Cox, the government appointed Tracey Crouch as the country’s first minister for loneliness. The Jo Cox Commission, headed by MPs Rachel Reeves and Seema Kennedy, works tirelessly to combat the loneliness epidemic and raise awareness. Charities such as Age UK and the Campaign To End Loneliness have befriending schemes to help older lonely people connect with others. Researchers have started to investigate the effect of loneliness on our health – a recent study found that lonely people are 40 per cent more likely to suffer with heart problems. Despite all these readily available stats, there are still glaring gaps in both efforts from society and the government – when speaking as a young lonely person, not only do I have nowhere official to turn, but I am made to feel ashamed of my feelings, as if I am acting like a media-stereotypical millennial crying over having no one to eat avocado toast with – there are many more people who have it worse of with me. Of course, this is absolutely true. People in the LGBTQ+ community, people of colour, migrants and those living in poverty are all likely to be more exposed to this feeling than me. As the most marginalised and unfairly peripheral members of our society, it’s likely that their loneliness is at a much more urgent level.
Many of my friends, relatives and colleagues will be surprised to find out the extent of how lonely I feel. I’ve never expressed it out loud and I’ve even gone as far to deny my loneliness when someone inadvertently asks about the idea. As well as my personal embarrassment, I don’t want to worry them; I don’t want them to spend their time thinking of me, hoping I’m OK. Those with anxiety will recognise these thoughts all too well – I’m wary of putting myself first often, arguably, to my own detriment. When I have attempted to explain myself in the past, the message hasn’t been heard in the way I intended: “You’ve got loads of friends!” “But you’re always out!” “Maybe you should make more of an effort?” I want to tell them it’s not the same – that even when surrounded by friends, I feel disconnected at best, and at worst, invisible.
I feel vulnerable branding myself a lonely person, akin to wearing an outrageously posh dress to laid-back birthday drinks in the pub or arriving an hour early for a meeting and sitting like a gooseberry. But it also feels brave. Like depression, anxiety and countless other taboo subjects, loneliness is not exactly something you just bring up over a pizza on a Wednesday evening. It should be.
Until then, I’ll watch the revellers from my window, wondering when it will be my turn.