It will surprise exactly nobody who knows me that I am intimately acquainted with loneliness. She and her siblings – anxiety, fear, sadness – travel with me every day. On different days I carry a different one on my shoulders, feeling knobby knees bumping into my temples and shifting to try to walk steadily while balancing such an awkward and heavy load.
Lately, it’s loneliness I’m carrying, and I find myself staggering under her weight. This has been a long carry, this one, a long slog. And I’m realizing that loneliness’s mood changes day by day, depending on me and the circumstances I find myself in. She has flavors.
The basic loneliness, and the one I am most comfortable with, is that of being physically alone. In fact, in truth, I crave this kind of loneliness sometimes. I like being alone. Of course, much has been written and theorized about the enormous distinction between loneliness and aloneness, and I agree with it. Still, sometimes, after a long afternoon by myself in the house or a quiet night at home, I am surprised by a shiver of loneliness. This loneliness always straddles the line between pleasant and chilly, and it always passes as quickly as it comes. Well, like a shiver.
Then there is loneliness for a specific person. A friend once told me she felt like an amputee when her boyfriend left for long trips. This loneliness is profound, and feels for me like a pulsating ache that will not go away. It’s a preoccupying kind of pain: the sting of a deep cut that blots out everything else, the sharp hurt of a bad knee making it impossible to walk without mulling and considering the injury with every step. This loneliness makes itself known, it shouts out to us that we wildly, agonizingly miss someone who is special. It seems to point out the empty space next to us that used to hold the person who is gone. I am always surprised by what feels like the blank disloyalty of physical space: how can it not hold in some energetic way the remnants of the person and the experience we shared?
Finally, there is the loneliness that I’ve been carrying lately, the kind that is to me the most pervasive, the most invasive, the most toxic and terrifying. This is the feeling of being lonely when surrounded by people. Worst, by close friends. For me this kind of loneliness creeps in on little cat feet (like fog in a harbor) and, when it sits down and makes itself comfortable, is hard to evict. This loneliness is not fog for me but a cold liquid syringed into my veins.
This loneliness is existential, and it reminds me that there is no way to be fully known. That regardless of how many words I spill, of how desperately I seek to connect, I can never really share the contents of my heart and head. That what I have is myself. And just that. These limbs, this skin, this network of synapses working overtime, frantically, making me grind my teeth to try to burn off some of that excess psychic and emotional energy. I realize intellectually that this is a very useful reminder.
I believe that even the most introverted people long for some kind of connection. Nobody, as much as they love being alone, wants to be lonely. Everybody wants to be seen and known. Once again I return to my evergreen theme, and one of my favorite quotes of all:
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. – Plato
Everyone knows loneliness’s moods. Everyone struggles under her weight, or that of other burdens, some of the time. And for me, loneliness has absolutely nothing to do with how many friends or family I have, with what my life looks like from the outside. Those things might actually make the third kind of creeping, icy loneliness worse. Because I sit and look out at my life and clench my fists with frustration that with all of that richness out there, all of that love, I cannot feel less alone. I know. I know. I’m trying.