When you’re lonely, you feel like all the good lives are taken.
When there’s an invisible and impenetrable distance between you and the world, that’s loneliness. The world might appear inviting, but you’ve been left off the guest list.
And, yes, I’m the humor lady writing this. A lot of people who consider themselves part of the humor tribe have been, in fact, profoundly lonely at some point in their lives.
But then again, I think most people have been profoundly lonely.
Oddly enough, it’s something we don’t talk about often unless we’re talking about quick fixes for it, as if loneliness were a broken fingernail or a dented fender.
As my colleague and friend at UConn’sSchool of Nursing, Thomas Lawrence Long, put it, “Loneliness has been my constant pale companion — and I’m an extrovert.” Tom is adapting a line from Shakespeare’s comedy, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in which one character tries to banish the “pale companion” of melancholy from a celebration. I think the image works.
Loneliness saturated my childhood and seeped into my early 30s. I was abjectly and achingly lonely as a child; it was always worse at dusk and on the weekends.
In retrospect, I realize that my mother was clinically depressed. During her short life, she felt exiled inside my father’s large family, separated by a different language and living thousands of miles from her people. She died when I was 16 and was ill for several years before that. My predominant images of her are of a small, soft woman with lank hair, wearing a plaid house dress, chain smoking and drinking tea while staring out the kitchen window.
Because she was isolated, she spoke to my brother and me about subjects we had no business understanding. She gave my brother books by Dostoevsky when he was 12, and for my 13th birthday she gave me a novel about a home for unwed mothers. She had a sister who’d gotten pregnant at 15 and had to give the baby up for adoption. My mother was sexually abused by family members as a girl.
If my childhood wasn’t exactly cheerful, hers had been a battleground and I was aware from my earliest years that I had no right to complain about any of my own frivolous problems. If I was worried about not having friends or feeling sorry for myself, I took it to my room and wrote in my notebooks. I started writing in them when I was 8, but my mom, discovering the notebooks and not liking what she read, threw them away when I was 15. That, too, was a lonely moment.
Of course, I now understand her unrelenting sense of isolation from the world was based on the terrors of her early life. She lacked the ability to create a home with a sense of safety and my father worked all the time.
You learn to protect yourself as a kid in order to survive, but when you become expert at creating your own emotional shelter you also become wary. You become suspicious.
Doubting even the kindest offers of emotional generosity from others, you put yourself into a kind of self-storage. Then you keep changing the locks and the passcodes on your inner life so that it becomes difficult for those closest to you to have access to anything that matters and, at a certain point, you become secluded even from yourself.
I know many people who, through death or divorce, through alcoholism or chronic illness, lost one or more of their parents when they were young, and this builds — unwittingly — a deep foundation for loneliness in later life.
Such foundations, I discovered, must be dismantled, and not just buried. They have to be excavated and reassembled into an entirely different structure to build a life that’s strong, stable and that provides exits and entrances so that other people can become of your world.
Choosing solitude, as we all know, can be heaven; being alone is not the same as loneliness.
But let’s be honest: Being lonely can be hell. Yet loneliness is a fragile hell, one that goes up in smoke when somebody sees us, recognizes us and welcomes us. Send a note. Pick up the phone. Wave hello. Take someone’s hand, banish the pale companion.
Gina Barreca is a board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at University of Connecticut and the author of 10 books. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.