There has been periods in my life, when I’ve felt intensely lonely, for different reasons and of varying levels. Sometimes it makes a fleeting appearance, and others it lingers for a bit longer.
This year I turned 30, took up running, became a trustee of a charity I care about and got a job that provided me with more security than I’ve ever had in my life. After years of bouncing around between sessional work, zero contracts and working from home gigs, this really felt like the break I needed. I did not account for the intense loneliness I would feel or that when I worked for a national mental health campaign, but often in isolation and from home, I would feel more connected to others than I do now. It’s a strange feeling, but my guess is that if I’m feeling it, some of you will too.
Your 30’s are by definition a time when you’re meant to have your life ‘sorted’ and in some way know where you want to head. The ‘wild’ 20’s phase will be coming to an end, as university feels like a distant memory and you begin to settle down. You only have to look at all of the social media posts from people my age sharing new houses, babies and engagements, to know this. If you’re anything like me, and you didn’t follow the conventional route to anything, whether because of trauma, disability or family circumstances, you’ll know how difficult this can feel. I didn’t have a ‘wild 20’s’ and I’m likely not to have a conventional 30’s either, but I know we all want to portray the idea that we’ve totally ‘got it together,’ when in reality most of us don’t have a clue. I mean, we’re all just busking it really, aren’t we?
It’s Christmas in a few weeks, and I turn 31 even sooner, so seeing adverts suggesting we “check in on an elderly neighbour or relative,” as important as this message is, can be tough when you’re experiencing loneliness at a different time in your life. Of course I worry about my 90 year old Grandad who lives miles away, especially as his health has deteriorated recently, and I know there will be people to check he’s okay, and call in, but when you’re wearing a mask to suggest you totally have everything sorted, it’s very hard for people to know when you’re not. And at this time of year when everyone’s preoccupied with Christmas, New Year, work Christmas parties and unfortunately an election, it’s very hard to have that conversation.
In August I started receiving congratulations cards for my job, enough of them so I knew people had noticed this milestone in my life. “Well done! You deserve it!” and “I’m so proud of you!” they said. I felt happy. That I was finally going to get a desk in an office. A strange dream, but it was mine. After a host of inconsiderate employers, I wanted to feel like I had a purpose at work. A desk and a degree of responsibility seemed to tick that box. As I settled into my desk and started making small talk in the kitchen, mainly about cats, I began to focus on my work, which felt very solitary, despite being surrounded by people in a shared office. I’d make a to-do list every night for the next morning, and focussed on completing this, occasionally emerging for the usual caffeine fix. Before I started this new job I had good intentions to get the work-life balance sorted from the start, hoping to visit friends on the weekend, join the local orchestra, go to the Tuesday night music session, sticking with running at the club and even taking up Morris dancing and joining a choir. I have achieved pretty much none of the above. I didn’t account for or realise how exhausted I’d feel after a long day in the office. I barely had the energy to keep friendships going in the first few weeks, let alone visiting people at the other end of the country or being more social than sending the odd tweet.
I’ve since read up on workplace loneliness, and realised that it is an actual thing. That other people in new jobs experience this too, 53% of us in fact. It’s great, after reading that, to know I’m not alone, but offers little reassurance to tackling the isolation we all clearly feel. Sometimes I just want a hug from a friend, but when most of the people I’m close to live over 200 miles away, that takes a bit of planning. The listicles to help us cope with loneliness in the workplace (or anywhere) are interesting or amusing, I haven’t decided. ‘Put down your devices and make friends!’ one told me, which is fine, if most of us didn’t need twitter like we need therapy. Telling someone to have a social media break, is as one friend put it, like saying “don’t go down the pub”. Another listicle suggested ‘to make the most of the time you spend alone,’ which works okay, until I’ve read my way through all of the books I own and listened to Thea Gilmore thousands of times. Another suggested admitting openly how you’re feeling so others can reach out to you, again good advice, but needs to be taken cautiously when everyone you’re naturally connected to also has emotional baggage. It then ended with ‘see someone about it,’ that can again be useful advice, if used by the right people, and mental health services weren’t a minefield to navigate to see anyone helpful, who doesn’t just read from a self help book reccounting things you already know, (my actual experience of a university counselling service…)
I’ve now fallen into a better routine at work, and I’m not as tired as I was a month or so ago, but three months of not socialising or seeing people outside of work has become a cycle I’ve found hard to break. I’m beginning to recognise when I may need to take holiday, the concept of annual leave is still a new one on me, being paid for not being at work? Are you actually sure?! Some of the sessional worker guilt still lies dormant. I do know now, that to stay productive, I need to occasionally take a break, and probably soon. I’ve been so focussed on work, that I haven’t been able to plan ahead further than the the next day, so things like New Year, that in previous years I’ve actually made more of an effort for are left unplanned. I’ll likely be alone with cats this year, unless something last minute falls into place. There is of course #joinin on Twitter, so we’re never really alone, alone are we? But we can, whether surrounded by a supportive social media following, with family around or work in a busy office, still feel intense feelings of loneliness and isolation. I’ve always battled with the concept of fitting in, and understanding where I really do belong, and of course naturally everyone I’ve ever really connected with isn’t exactly around the corner. I have learned that loneliness is one of those things that you can’t see or recognise unless someone tells you it’s there, but you can definitely feel it once you have it.