adjective, lone·li·er, lone·li·est.
- affected with, characterized by, or causing a depressing feeling of being alone;
- lonesome.destitute of sympathetic or friendly companionship, intercourse, support, etc.:a lonely exile.
- lone; solitary; without company; companionless.
- remote from places of human habitation; desolate; unfrequented; bleak:a lonely road.
- standing apart; isolated:a lonely tower.
Someone referred to me as a lonely woman today.
I had a visceral reaction to this statement. I was not upset with the person who made the comment but, instead, I felt a tidal wave of defensiveness building inside of me regarding my state of being. I am, for sure, alone but that does not mean I am lonely. Big difference.
When I have such a strong reaction, I have to study it further. Generally this is a significant indicator that there’s more going on than seems obvious to me at first blush. As I started unpacking my feelings around the statement, I confirmed that I do not feel lonely but I also appreciated that the current circumstances in my life might produce a certain amount of loneliness. After all, I am now living as a single woman without a partner. We are in a pandemic and I am alone and away from my friends and many of my loved ones. There is a certain amount of loneliness we are all experiencing. However, I reluctant to define myself as a “lonely woman.” The connotation of that term in my mind is quite different than how I see my life.
From an early age, independence was instilled in me and I have prided myself on not being clingy or needy. Without a doubt, I enjoy and appreciate my alone time. The ability to back away from the world and quietly reflect or recharge my batteries is critically important. It feels like I am a flickering light at times, as the bulb completely exhausts the last drops of filament before it burns out. The energy drains from me forcing me to disconnect. In contrast, I acknowledge that I derive a tremendous amount of pleasure from connecting to other energy sources and often find myself challenged when I am isolated (as has been the case for the last many months). Yet, I would never refer to myself as lonely.
This simple comment had me reeling so I decided to take a giant step back and investigate the notion of loneliness further. Is loneliness a bad thing? I read this insightful quote from Janet Fitch from her book White Oleander that made me re-examine my thoughts around being lonely:
“Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness. Never hope to find people who will understand you, someone to fill that space. An intelligent, sensitive person is the exception, the very great exception. If you expect to find people who will understand you, you will grow murderous with disappointment. The best you’ll ever do is to understand yourself, know what it is that you want, and not let the cattle stand in your way.”
Is that bleak? Is that a dour way to look at our lives?
To me it is not. I am energized by the hypothesis of loneliness as a way to accept ourselves and allow ourselves to grow. I question whether anyone can truly fill the spaces in our lives. After all, I spent 28 years in a relationship and, even in the best days, I always was alone with myself. I had to make peace with my inner being and take the journey along the long hallways of my mind. Sure, as humans, we search for connection – we are pack animals. We desperately want to create tribes so we can look around, find identifying markers, and feel like we belong somewhere. But, even within the pack, we stand apart and are alone with ourselves.
Last night, I sat down and had a proper dinner by myself for the first time in as far back as I can recall. It was one of the nights my ex was scheduled to have dinner with the kids and, usually, when he is with them, I take advantage of the free time by seeing friends or going on dates. Last night I was working late and felt mentally exhausted. I didn’t have the urge or energy to do anything so I cooked myself a meal, sat outside on my patio alone, read a book and ate my dinner. I embraced the solitude of my solo dinner. Quiet introspection is always welcome in my life and, while I didn’t spend my dinner focusing on how I felt, I was aware of how much I enjoyed having the time to myself.
After being in a relationship for nearly three decades, having children for two decades and working in a demanding job that required me to be “on” most of the time, the abrupt slowdown that came with my separation and the onset of the pandemic was like fighting the inertia when trying to stop a jumbo jet. I felt myself skidding across the runway, doomed to crash. There is no on/off switch for me and I had no time to process what was happening. Suddenly, in mid-March there was a massive amount of empty space that was previously filled with distractions that kept me from focusing on me. Over the years, very little time was ever dedicated to the care and feeding of Tammy and, mostly, I was a mom, a wife, an employee, a manager, a coach, a friend. My identity was so wrapped up in all of these elements of my life and the tapestry created by all these roles was beautiful but inherently missing from it was ME.
Instinctively, when I had newfound space in my life, I tried to fill it. Like many when we began to shelter-in-place, I caught up on television and movies. Then I did jigsaw puzzles. Work was slow. My kids were occupied with school and zoom calls with friends. I was dating someone so I could chat or text with him to fill up the relationship space and I had plenty of virtual hangouts with friends to sustain my need for socializing. Work got busier, the relationship ended, my kids found other ways to occupy their time, the weather grew warmer and we all got out of the house a bit more. I still was not focusing on me. And, over time, I recognized that I was intentionally not addressing how I was feeling and looking for more and more ways to distract myself from myself. Panic and anxiety were beginning to tighten its grip on me as I began to wonder if I could be comfortably alone. My ex was already in a new relationship and living with his girlfriend and I suddenly felt like I cast myself out of my own life. Everyone seemed to be progressing except for me. Most of my friends are married or happily coupled off and, as I looked around my life, I realized that I was living on the periphery and not really engaged with anything. Was I lonely?
As a child, I was always alone. Growing up in my home there was instability and turmoil with my parents and large age gaps between me and my siblings. I am the youngest of three and was often left to fend for myself while everyone else was caught up in their own melodrama. Quiet and introspective, I spent time reading to escape into different worlds. My viewpoint and perspectives were shaped by the characters in books and, like a chameleon, I adapted to the moods and colors around me. I learned how to read body language and be attuned to behaviors to drive my own actions and thoughts. I was reflective and reactive, ensuring my survival, thereby creating some level of stability for myself. Some see this as unfortunate and tragic but, for me, it was an opportunity to cultivate my skills in ways that have served me well in adulthood. Except, I have a challenging relationship with loneliness.
As a child I processed being alone as a deficit. I was consumed with thoughts of how to not be alone. My shyness and introversion felt limiting and, as I got older, I saw myself begin to blossom, my petals expanding, revealing my inner beauty. Initially, I was vulnerable. I didn’t understand what it meant to build trust and, intoxicated by the aroma of extroversion, I was an easy mark. My romantic relationships were clumsy and disruptive. I churned through men, not recognizing the vital difference between sex and intimacy. Later on in life, I read the brilliant quote by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “sex is the consolation you have when you can’t have love” and started recognizing that I was overcompensating for my anxieties around loneliness by having sex. The connection seemed to fill the void but, not until I fell in love with someone did I understand what it meant to not be alone.
Moving through my life as an adult, one measurement of my success was based on the number of people in my address book. If I had a lot of friends, I would never be lonely. I was married, had a family and could throw parties that dozens of people attended. I certainly was not lonely. In fact, I was never alone. I lived in a community where I could not step onto the train platform without running into people I knew. I arrived at work and was swarmed with people wanting to talk to me. I always had plans after work or on the weekends. My life was busy. I certainly could not feel lonely. The first time I ever paid any attention to the idea of loneliness was towards the end of my marriage. As my children matured and started to have their own lives and my ex was deepening into his own depression, I looked around at my life and felt like it was filled with styrofoam popcorn to take up the extra space. It was fluff. I ultimately decided to leave my husband because if I was feeling lonely inside of a marriage, something was broken.
Being apart from my ex was remarkably easy. I never missed feeling his presence on the other side of my bed but, instead, relished in the space afforded me. There was no lamenting the quiet at the end of the day as I cleaned up the kitchen after dinner. There were always people for me to call if I needed to talk and plenty of entertainment to keep me occupied if the silence became deafening. What I missed after my marriage was over (and well before) was partnership. It was easy enough to find someone with whom to have sex but having a partner who I could lean on when I needed strength and support had been the missing piece in my life. When I think about being alone or feeling lonely it is because I am seeking that connection with a partner that allows us to lift each other up or make each other feel safe when life presents danger. I am flush with friends who make me laugh and whose company I relish but I am seeking out my person. As Phoebe from Friends plainly explained it:
“She’s your lobster. Come on, you guys. It’s a known fact that lobsters fall in love and mate for life. You know what, you can actually see old lobster couples, walking around their tank, you know, holding claws.”
After breaking down my reaction to the comment this morning, it was clear that it triggered my anxiety about my ability to find that type of partnership I crave. No, I am not a lonely lobster. I am just looking for another claw that I can clasp as I walk around my tank.