The other day I was watching a programme on BBC1 where they were talking about loneliness among older people. they are setting up a helpline called The Silver Line, to be around 24 hours a day for older people feeling lonely. Of course, some people don’t have anybody who can be there for them or, sadly, anybody who wants to be there. But one of the most common things that the people they interviewed said was that they “didn’t want to be a burden” or trouble their families with their loneliness. That it wasn’t that nobody was there, but that they didn’t want to take up time from others with their own problems. From some of them, I got a sense that the very fact of knowing people are there if you need them contributes to something like embarrassment when it comes to admitting that you feel alone. That it seems “silly” to feel lonely when you have people who are willing to be at the end of the phone, yet it seems equally silly to call them up for “no reason” and admit that you need them to be there.
Why is loneliness such an embarrassing affliction? I’ve been lonely, and the very word gets stuck in my throat for fear it will look silly once it’s been spoken. People can’t get their mouths around it, it seems like something “sad” or something that should be happening to someone else, someone different, someone with a real reason for it. People talk about loneliness like they talk about STIs: haltingly, not wanting to seem like they know too much about it, not wanting to seem like it’s somewhere they’ve ever been. And yet most people, at some point, have felt lonely.
It’s a cliché that you can be alone in a crowd. But it’s true: quite literally, you can be surrounded by friends, drink in hand, laughter in your mouth, and still feel the ache of loneliness under your ribs. You can call your family and talk for an hour and come away feeling very much alone. Loneliness doesn’t always have to do with logic or reason, with actually having nobody. It can be to do with the slow thrum of evenings where you don’t have anything to say, anything to phone about, anything to moan about (so you feel). And so you sit there, looking at the clock, wondering when it’s time for the day to be over so that you can stop feeling sorry for yourself- and already there’s a judgement in that sentence, you are judging yourself for being… what? Pathetic? Self-pitying? Ridiculous? You are probably none of those things. Probably, you are just lonely.
Why is that so hard to admit?