No one is glamorously lonely ~ The Backstreet Boys, Song for the Unloved
[Alternate Backstreet Boys opening quotes: Loneliness has always been a friend of mine or Show me the meaning of being lonely.]
Once upon a time, I knew a young man… wait… I’m not sure about that. I want to start again.
Once upon a time, I knew a boy. But, wait, I don’t know about that beginning either.
Once upon a time, I knew a teenager, but it’s not always easy to see where childhood ends and adulthood begins especially when adulthood is thrust onto very young kids who learn early on how to survive the streets. Who learn very early on about the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual pain loved ones can inflict upon their bodies, hearts, minds, and spirits (all of these things are one thing), but who never learn what it means to be held affectionately. Who never learn what it means to come home to a place that feels safe, and who never learn what it means to not be betrayed and abandoned. Was he a man? A boy? A teenager, sure, and he hung himself from a door handle with a belt which isn’t that easy to do because I tried it once just to see how it was done and just getting the belt to strangle you takes some work and I can’t imagine the will power it took for him to sit there on the floor behind the door with the belt around the handle – like Viriginia Woolf walking into the Ouse River with rocks in her overcoat pockets and laying down and not standing up again even after the water flooded her lungs – and refusing to move, not even when he stopped thinking clearly and his body was screaming for relief, because Death, it was Death that was the relief.
I knew this person and he died. I tried to show him care, I tried to love him, and maybe I did but it wasn’t enough. He was out on a day pass from the psychiatric ward at the hospital. He was staying there because he was suicidal but the doctors were happy with the progress he was making and so he was given a day pass to go to a friend’s a house (besides, it’s not like it was his first time feeling suicidal or staying at the hospital). And he went to his friend’s house and they had a nice visit and he seemed to be happier and everything was going well. Then, in a quiet moment, he went to the bathroom and in the bathroom he sat down on the floor and he never stood up again. The weight of his body made it hard to open the door. And the weight of his life and death? This is a weight I carry in my chest and stomach.
I won’t say his name. I can’t forget it, but it’s not for me to share.
Due to some recent events related to violence in my workplace, I’ve been attending some trauma counseling. As a part of doing that, an Oneida healer whom I know and respect a great deal, suggested that I create a personal trauma and loss timeline. This is a timeline stretching from your birth until the present, wherein you record all the traumas and losses you can remember. This helps you to see which traumas are lingering and may be in need of further resolution. It’s an interesting exercise. Trends or extended periods if identity or character formation can also stand out and give you a different perspective on yourself when everything is considered cumulatively.
One of the things that stood out to me, when I looked at my life in this way, was how much loneliness has been a theme running through my life and how much it related to many of the traumas I experienced. I think a lot of the trauma that I experienced in a lot of losses was the reaffirmation of the idea that “I am alone.” I think, for example, that’s why the gal who loved me and left me when I was in my early twenties impacted me so deeply (both in the loving and the leaving). Here, even in the context of a very intimate and wonderful love, I was suddenly left alone. It made no sense to me for a long time.
Amanda Todd is a name I can say. It is no less of a sacred name than the name of the fellow I mentioned above, but it is a name everyone should already know. If you don’t know it, this is the suicide note she left on youtube:
I have nobody… I need someone. 🙁
Amanda Todd’s loneliness was forced upon her with a great deal of violence, cruelty, malice, and, well, is there a word for the kind of callous, ruthless, viciousness with which she was treated? Why is it that all those words seem to still fall short of describing the ways in which she was treated? Even after her death, people were still mocking her and putting up pictures of her with bleach, or her as a zombie, and even worse pictures that caught me totally off guard and made my cry and throw up in my mouth. This bullying has continued up until this year when her picture was put up on a mock poster for the Suicide Squad movie. I knew about Amanda Todd, I’d already watched the youtube video and made my own image based upon some reflection about it, but I didn’t know about the post-death mocking and bullying. My throat is still clenched and I feel ready to vomit again.
There are some things we mourn because we know that they were awful, awful, unspeakably awful things and that, no matter what we do, or how hard we cry, they cannot ever be made right. No matter what, those things will always, right now, immediately and forever, be unspeakably awful. The loneliness of Amanda Todd was… no, wait… the loneliness of Amanda Todd is one of those things.
She had nobody… she needed someone. But if you know that feeling (I’ve known it, too), then maybe we’re not quite as alone as we think.
Maybe. But that’s all nice and theoretical and works well on paper but it doesn’t translate so easily into the way we feel. My loneliness felt different than the kind Amanda seems to have experienced. I didn’t feel so utterly rejected and despised and used and abused as she felt. But I do know a bit about feeling confused as to why I didn’t fit in or wondering what I was doing wrong.
When my dad hit me when I was young, I never understood why. He once told me that I got my first spanking before I was old enough to walk because I was squirming too much on the change table – of course, what he was telling me was that he hit me before I was even old enough to talk, let alone understand a concept like “spanking” which we are taught as adults to differentiate from abuse (even though it is abuse) – but he claims I didn’t squirm as much during diaper changes after that so, even though I didn’t understand why he hit me, I might have started to understand that I could maybe do things that would make him not hit me. But pursuing a “not” is always more ephemeral than pursuing something more tangible. Living constantly to-be-not-hit means living in a heightened state of terror, where being-hit may suddenly and unexpectedly turn into a reality. “Why does he hit me?” I asked myself, although perhaps not in so many words. “It must be because I cry too much, because I disgust him (he looks at me like I’m disgusting), because I’m a failure, because I’m no good.” I looked to him for love and assurance and affection. Instead I got blows and criticisms and disgust and the constant threat of more to come. It didn’t make any sense to me. I couldn’t make sense of it.
I also learned that my mother would not protect me from him. I understand more about that now, as an adult who has worked with many female survivors of intimate partner violence, but as a child I did not understand that and often felt betrayed and handed over. I often felt like she didn’t want my father to hit me, but I also felt like sometimes she did.
I know of no child who can ever truly and properly understand, as a child, that children never deserve to be abused or abandoned by their parent(s) or caregiver(s). Children are so full of love and trust that they are willing to believe all kinds of terrible things about themselves in order to justify their parents’ actions. I’ve seen this over and over – children abused and neglected who grow into teens and young adults full of self-loathing because they blame themselves. Even if they come to the conclusion that their parents were assholes, they still can’t stop hating themselves and thinking the abuse and neglect must somehow relate to who they are as people. It’s appalling and tragic and terribly hard to break into in order to help people begin to relate to themselves in different ways. Once children have developed in a certain way, it’s hard to reverse that. Sometimes injuries to our hearts and personalities – injuries to our souls or spirits – are as irreversible as injuries to our brains or spines or bodies. Sometimes. But sometimes not. And from the outside looking in, it’s impossible to say which are which.
I had no peers to turn to at this time for friendship. My parents were very conservative Evangelical Christians and they very, very rarely let us play at friends’ houses or have friends to our house to play. They found various excuses for this: “We don’t want you watching TV shows or cartoons there” or “We don’t want you playing with action figures or toys with guns” and so on. Because of this I used to describe my childhood as “sheltered.” It was only about a year or two ago that I realized what a misnomer that is. My brothers and I weren’t “sheltered” – we were deliberately isolated so that the abuse we experienced wouldn’t be discovered by others. If we were “sheltered” then, to pick a more extreme example but one that highlights the absurdity of this language, so were Josef Fritzl’s daughter and grand/children.
And so, especially when I was home-schooled with my little brother, I was lonely and often longing for connections with others – connections I did not always find reciprocated. I remember once, when my dad was teaching a French lesson to my little brother and I, we had the following exchange:
Dad: Qui est ton meilleur ami?
Me: Mon meilleur ami est [name of my little brother].
Little Brother: Mon meilleur ami est [name of the boy who lived across the road.]
I was surprised and hurt enough by this that I still remember it. Of course, my brother didn’t mean to hurt me. But the thing about loneliness is that, once it gets inside of you, you end up being really sensitive to anything that feels like rejection. Because whenever that feeling comes up, it brings with it the old panic and a flurry of anxious questions: “What am I doing wrong? I didn’t know I did anything wrong! What is wrong with me? I don’t know what is wrong with me!” and also, “Please don’t hurt me! Why are you hurting me?” because, for the child traumatized by loneliness and rejection, the anticipation of rejection is just as painful as the event itself (perhaps even more so?). And so the anticipation creates a response that is massively out of proportion to the event.
I thought of this the other night after working on getting my daughter take some medicine because she was sick. She didn’t like the taste of the medicine and so she was freaking out at the idea of taking it (this was a new behaviour for her but, hey, I reckon we all try this out at some point). She was crying and even shaking, genuinely terrified by the idea of having to taste something gross. It turned into a surprisingly long process to get her around to the point where she was calm and was willing to take it. Eventually she did, and it tasted gross, but that taste only lasted for a second, and then she had a treat and was happy and went on with her life.
Children who grow up lonely can develop this kind of reaction to anything that feels like rejection. And they often never get around to working through the things that trigger this reaction (hence, patterns of rejecting other people before they can fully reject the person who feels lonely tend to become prominent), let alone getting around to life on the other side of those things.
In the loneliness of my childhood, I fled to books. No wonder I became such a prolific reader at such a young age (and I still wonder how much loneliness is a common denominator in voracious readers… although perhaps all of that has been replaced by Netflix now… and in the age of social media I wonder how much loneliness has become symptomatic of all of us and I also wonder how invisible something becomes when it attains that level of diffusion and saturation in the social body). Books offered me companionship, they offered me stories with struggles and tragedies, but also with vindications and happy endings. They also offered me the possibility that, if I just studied enough, I might understand what made my father violent and I might also be able to finally escape from that violence and the constant fear it inspired in me. These narratives burrowed deep inside of me. I made a home within myself for all of them. I became a library — and it took a long time for me to learn that life is not a storybook. For many years, I was sustained through some very dark places — in the company of many who had experienced unspeakable horrors akin to those of Amanda Todd and the teenager whom I described above — because of my storybook beliefs. And then I lost those, too. In the collapse of my marriage, in the collapse of myself, metanarratives, petit récits, sense-making, hopes, dreams, identities, and ethics, there was no more story. Just a void. Like being told you need to go in a certain direction but you are experiencing sensory deprivation in zero gravity and have no clue which way is up, let alone which way you need to go. This is not a story, there is no God to save us, I am not a good guy, there can be no happy ending, and I
Once upon a time, I knew a teenager (a girl? a woman?) who walked off a subway platform into the path of a train. The fire department was called because, well, what was left of her could only really be collected if it was sprayed into a pile or just washed away. She was doing really well before she died. That’s what everyone thought. She had gotten off the street. She was with a fellow (a boy? a man? he was a teenager) who loved her and she had a decent job. No more sex with strangers for money or sex with strangers for security or sex with strangers simply because they can take it from you and you can’t do a thing to stop them. No more nights out in the cold. No more abuse at the hands of men who claimed they loved her. Everything was going her way. That’s what everyone thought. But she put herself under a train (“And the light by which she had read the book filled with troubles, falsehoods, sorrow, and evil, flared up more brightly than ever before, lighted up for her all that had been in darkness, flickered, began to grow dim, and was quenched forever”). I wrote the following eulogy for her a lot of years ago:
A city full of ghosts and shadows stained grey.
Catching glimpses of the skin of children wrapped in cardboard.
Born of angels
Who fell a long, long time ago
And forgot that they could fly.
“She’s still a trigger and I’m still reliving
The trauma caused by beauty and searching for a stronger muse.
But I only find
Her voice in parking lots
And her reflection in the windows of this train.”
But it was not only a eulogy for her. It was a eulogy for many others and it was a eulogy for me, too, and for love that was sent out but did not return to me.
A childhood of abuse or neglect can really set you up to romanticize unrequited love. Especially when the one person who really is kind and gentle and tender (for the most part) with you, models it day after day after day. But I would not say that our love for the dead is unrequited. It is only the living who can choose to not requite our love. But I do not want to push this language any further because I do not believe that love is the kind of thing that requires reciprocity or some kind of return. I think love is only free to be what it really can be when it is liberated from the domain of requirements.
These days, I am much less lonely than I used to be. But in some ways I am still recovering from the loneliness that was so definitive of contexts that were formative of me. I still have an initially over-sensitive reaction to things that feel like rejection and I need to deliberately suppress the welling up of emotions (especially grief and anger) that can come with that. Sometimes I manage this better than others. I still don’t have a lot of friends (never wanted a lot of friends, to be honest, just a few very close friends is good for me) but I do have some people who love me in truly wonderful ways and who have opened me up to loving in truly wonderful ways as well — my children, Jess, two or three other people. That’s more than enough.
But here is one thing I have learned: part of the reason why loneliness is so devastating is that being alone is related to some kind of fundamental personal fault, error, or malformation. I am alone because there is something wrong with me. I am alone because I am unlikeable, that sort of thing. To counter this, a person may develop a rigourous moral code or value system to live by, and I did precisely this. And that really did mitigate my loneliness a great deal. I still often felt like the odd person out, like I wasn’t quite connecting with others in my peer groups (even in my small circle of close friends) in the same way as they were connecting with one another , but that was okay because the thing that set me apart and made me different wasn’t anything wrong with me. It was my extra dedication to “really great things” that was the cause of my difference.
In my own way, I think this was a form of being into the rugged individualism that is offered to us as a model for truly strong or great people. Rugged individualism — sometimes taken as symptomatic of our post-Enlightenment hubris, or our contemporary cultural narcissism, or the solipsism of the “me” generation(s) that never learned empathy — is actually more fundamentally rooted in a deep and enduring sense of loneliness.
Only after a person has experienced abandonment, betrayal, and an ongoing feeling of isolation, does a person begin to truly glorify the ability to “stand alone.” Children do not come by this feeling naturally (if you’ll pardon me using that word since I don’t really believe in “nature”). Anyone with children knows that they are constantly longing to be connected in loving, playful, safe, and meaningful ways with others (although many children have that part of themselves shattered at a very young age). Hence, rugged individualism isn’t so much symptomatic of strength and healthy development, as it is symptomatic of brokenheartedness.
Granted, it takes strength to live as one who is brokenhearted, it takes strength to survive abandoned and alone, and it takes strength to come through a decimated childhood, but here one should not mistake a coping mechanism for a cure. Rugged individualism is no more the cure for loneliness than heroin is the cure for childhood abuse. While both can make living in the midst of hurt more bearable (and this is no small thing), neither can ultimately bear the hurt away. Therefore, to fully give oneself over to either, strikes me as an expression of despair — it shows that one believes that the hurt can never actually be healed. I will always be the broken, jagged, weeping pieces of my childhood — therefore, I resign myself to a heroin dependence. I will always be alone — therefore, I will transform myself into a rugged individual who has no real need of anyone else.
I think my pursuit of a so-called “radical” lifestyle was a way of manifesting a kind of rugged individualism that was rooted in loneliness, even though a lot of what I was doing was related to things like “community,” “solidarity,” “mutuality,” and so forth. Consequently, when the bottom fell out of all of that, when I walked away from my core values to (half-heartedly?) try and save my marriage, and then when I lost all sense of a moral compass as my marriage continued to collapse, the loneliness re-emerged in all its strength.
At precisely this point, skills that I had learned to overcome some of the trauma related to my childhood experiences of rejection (recognizing that I was not to blame for the things that happened ,and recognizing that I was not a bad kid but was a fundamentally good person who had been treated in ways that no child deserves to be treated), now worked against me. What I needed to do was to recognize my responsibility for some of the things that happened, and recognize that I had done some terrible things. What I didn’t know how to do very well then (and I say this not to excuse myself for what I did do) was make the distinction between my childhood experiences and my adulthood experiences. It took me years to figure that out.
(We see this so often in other traumatic environments — the skills a person learns to survive in prison, on the streets, or in a war zone, don’t translate well into everyday society and can end up being barriers to a person’s wellbeing outside of those environments. So it’s not surprising that the skills one learns to survive an abusive childhood also don’t translate well into other relationships.)
But figuring that out has been a critical component of my journey out of loneliness. Now, I can recognize my wrongs. I can recognize my faults. And I can do this without coming to the conclusion that my wrongs and my faults make me a fundamentally unlovable or malformed person. I can recognize myself as much more than an eternally innocent victim. Of course, I once was an innocent victim, as were all of us once upon a time, but I have become much more than that. I am a regular, everyday, adult human being. I am a person capable of doing both good and bad (but mostly doing neither), capable of both helping and hurting (but mostly doing neither), capable of wonderful acts and capable of terrible acts (but mostly doing neither), and sometimes not even able to tell which I am doing when. Recognizing and accepting this has been very transformative. No longer seeking to valourize myself but, rather, seeking to accept myself (and all of myself — including all my faults and wrongdoings and, ultimately, what I take to be my utter insignificance), has opened me up to new kinds of relationships.
In relationships now, I don’t need everyone to love me (or hate me or desire me or think anything at all about me). Now, I am trying to simply be the kind of person I enjoy being, and if other people like that person then that’s great, but if they don’t, that’s okay, too. I’ll just focus more on spending time with the first group of people than on spending time in intimate relationships with people who dislike me.
(And if your most intimate relationship — the one you have with yourself — is one where you are spending time with someone who despises you, then you can get help. Life is too short and too full of wonder to spend feeling like you are a worthless piece of shit. For example, I may think I’m worthless but I don’t think I’m a piece of shit and I recognize that worthless is a synonym for priceless. If you’ve been prevented from seeing that until now, it doesn’t mean things can’t change after now.)
This doesn’t mean I can’t be around people who criticize me or offer me advice or point out things I might be missing about myself — far from it, this opens me up to being in relationships with these people and to feeling grateful that they care enough to relate to me in this way (assuming, of course, that they relate to me this way because they love me and that this love is manifest in other ways as well — and this is important proviso, because a lot of abusers claim the abuse they dish out is done out of love and a lot of abusers believe their own claims).
So I am recovering. I am recovering because I have truly loving relationships in my life. And I am recovering because I am much more content with who I am when I am alone.
For all the ones who have died, I have known just as many who walked away and walked out and walked through it, and chose life when it didn’t make any sense to do so and who kept choosing life until
I lift my hands to them.
It often takes hope to journey out of loneliness and out of rugged individualism or the other ultimately crippling survival methods we develop to stay alive in unliveable conditions. To still risk relationships of vulnerability, to still risk truly relying on others, to still risk loving and being loved — not only with this or that individual but in communities that try to enact mutual care — is a hopeful act. When or how hope dies within individual people is hard to predict (“la esperenza muere al último“). It is also hard to say how hope can be resurrected or strengthened. And I had actually stopped hoping (to be honest, I’m not sure if I’ve started hoping again, although now I feel like I have also stopped despairing and I’m pretty content in living in the liminal space between hope and despair). However, there is one thing that I believe we can do that affirms hope and that offers a kind of companionship that begins to penetrate into the loneliness that almost all of us are carrying inside of ourselves. This thing is gentleness. When people are gentle with me, I don’t feel the urge or need to stand alone. Gentleness is a balm to the loneliness of the brokenhearted and, if it persists, it begins to knit hearts back together. Hearts that are healed — that are made new — are never the hearts that they were before. But they are whole, and they allow a person to live whole-heartedly. I believe this is a good thing.
These days, instead of talking to god, I talk to trees and rivers and birds and bugs. To stones and forests and fields of grass. To the sun and the moon and the stars. I mostly just say “thank you,” but sometimes I say a little more as well. I listen, too, and every now and again I think I hear something, but not with my ears.
Perhaps the reader will see this as a lingering symptom of loneliness. Here, yet again, we find the lonely child. He is so eager to make a connection — somewhere, anywhere with someone, anything — that he talks to the trees and believes that they can hear him. Is this not the same as the child crying in bed and calling out to a god who never came to save him? Is this not the same child who never knew how to connect with his peers and so made connections other places (seniors at his church, a bird he rescued who later flew away)? Only now he flees to things incapable of expressing any kind of rejection of him and whose silence is understandable — trees and rocks and rivers and seas.
That is one possible reading. And I’m okay with that reading. But it’s not the only one. And I’m okay with that, too.