photo by Andrew Neel

Loner

Everybody probably knows one. Or so you think.

The loner. Everybody probably knows one. You may know one, although, almost by definition, perhaps only from a distance. That guy in a hoodie you always see coming out of the supermarket with a backpack — maybe full of beer, you can’t help wondering — shoulders drooped and eyes glued to the ground in front of him. Or maybe that woman who lives in the apartment across the street. She is always by herself. No one ever seems to visit her. You have never seen her in the park with a friend. She walks her dog all alone, twice a day. That friend you have, who is pretty okay to hang around with, once you get to know him, but who has been going without a date, seemingly all his life. Your aunt, that old spinster, whose life is the running gag in the family, every christmas eve. Maybe even you.


loner /ˈloʊ nər/ noun
1. a person who is or prefers to be alone, especially one who avoids the company of others

A loner. You may call yourself one. You prefer to be alone. You avoid the company of others. They sap all your energy. They do not understand you. You do not understand them. They seem to only talk about stupid things. No one seems to notice you. No one seems to care. You don’t care. Anymore.

Whether you know one, or call yourself one, let me clue you in on something: there is no such thing as a loner — someone who, deep down, chooses to be alone. There is just lonely people.

We, as a species, are social creatures. We need the company of others around us, and have to interact, frequently. We need to connect. We need to love and be loved. If we shun others, if we go against this most fundamental of our emotional needs, our desire to belong, very likely there is something broken deep inside of us. It may be in our blind spot. We may not be fully aware of it, or unconsciously choose to ignore it if it’s too painful, but something is probably amiss.

It takes effort to stay away from connection. That impervious force field that keeps others away, that hides your vulnerability and cloaks you story, also drains your energy. Without connection, without some way of topping up your batteries, slowly but surely you will build up a debt. Often your body will start repaying that debt first. Aches, tension, stress, migraines, burnout, chronic fatigue syndrome… the list of ailments that are possibly linked to loneliness grows. There are now strong indications that addiction also stems from a lack of connection. Anybody who has opened up their heart to an addict knows this to be true. The cost of alienation, both on an individual level and to society, is exceedingly high and rising, as we are pushed further into connectionless individuality.

Boxes

“You are bit of a loner, right?” people would sometimes ask me. “Mhh,” I would then mutter uneasily, as I shrugged off the stinging, brief contraction of my heart. I would not have fully agreed with them, but, frankly, I would not be able to disagree either. The evidence was ostensibly overwhelming. While I wasn’t alone, in the strictest sense, I certainly was distant. While I had plenty of people around me — family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, the lot — I was, in fact, lonely. Crushingly lonely.

“There is no such thing as a loner. There is just lonely people.”

Unable to connect, to connect meaningfully and deeply, I was wandering in our world all by myself. Unable to open up, to be vulnerable, I retained a safe distance from others. Or even hoped (at least that’s what I thought): safe. Of course it was anything but. While the pain I was carrying inside of me was almost unbearable, not being able to lean on others for support actually made it worse. To stop myself from feeling the hurt I couldn’t share, let alone shaking it off all by myself, I pretty much stopped feeling all together. Forever fearing the judgment, or worse, the ridicule, scorn, denial, rejection or indifference of my torment, I sealed all my agony in boxes, and retreated in my mind.

High up there, in that bare and dusty attic of my being, far removed from the dark, cold basement where I stored all those boxes, I created an inner universe I could escape to. I could ponder the astounding wonders of outer space or be enthralled by the latest discoveries in science and technology. Stuck in an infinite loop, I would chew on that vexing computer programming conundrum I was toying with. I would bring about world peace and be highly regarded as a superior intellect. My mind and I, we could chat endlessly, fantasizing about the interactions I dreamt I could have with others, but in reality was unable to. Day in, day out, someone would pierce my protective bubble and rescue me from my anguish, save me from my solitude. I would finally be airlifted off my island. “So long Wilson, see ya!”

Of course, no one ever did save me. No one ever reached out. The lonely, if they choose not to be alone, always seek out the lonely. The scarred invariably find the scarred.

The void

And so I plodded on for years and years. Every new obstacle I encountered got its own box, unmarked and stacked on top of the others into a towering and growing mountain of experiences and interactions I would from then on avoid.

photo by Filippo Ascione

Explaining away this unbridgeable gap separating me from others, focussing solely on what I could grasp — differences in intellectual capacity, real or perceived — I begrudgingly had come to accept my fate. Shouldering this apparent burden of the smart, I continued onwards, aimlessly meandering through life. The numbing repetitiveness of my lackluster and interchangeable days would slowly leach all my lifeblood. Cynical, nihilistic, it was a drab and mundane existence.

But — outwardly I was bubbly, easy going and fun. I had tricked myself and everyone else into believing I was having a good time. However… I was in fact staggeringly empty inside. A mere hollow vessel for this sucking void that could collapse into nothingness at any time. With no one to fill the vacuum, I strained to keep up an outward — and inward — appearance of joyfulness. I acted out a joie de vivre I in fact did not possess.

“The lonely, if they choose not to be alone, always seek out the lonely. The scarred invariably find the scarred.”

Yet, often a single word was all that it took for this facade to crumble under its own weight, exposing me to the murky swamps where my pain was still festering. I then had no other recourse but to flee. To remove myself from the scene that made me feel all that sadness, emptiness and loneliness I chose not to know. Or, all the attention and affection I was so uncomfortable with, and was certain I didn’t deserve.

So, I ran away.

Time and again. Out the door in a flash, or deep into the comforting seclusion of my inner world. This was the story of my life. Quite literally, I had to extract myself from that moment, that brief instant that made me feel what I could not handle. Any speck of time that actually made me feel. Period.

And, in doing so, over the years, unwittingly I had become an accomplice in my own betrayal. Unknowingly, I had imprisoned myself in my solitary dungeon, deep under my keep, where I would waste away in shame, having been convicted of the petty crime of not being able to connect, of not being human… enough. I had become an untouchable.

Out with the old…

Obviously, I now know, I had it all backwards. It is not because I was so smart that there was this distance to others. That was only the soothing story I had to tell myself to keep me from falling apart. More likely, it was the other way around. I could rely on nothing but my intellect to make sense of the world and to engage it and everyone in it. An inability to connect with someone on an emotional level, and not a difference in cognitive ability, caused this rift to open up in the first place. And because I could not relate much to others, seek their help and support, I had to sharpen my mind and dull my emotions — toughen up — widening this gap and inflating the disconnect. Furthermore, afraid of being judged, and being deemed unworthy with all my vulnerable frailty and humanity, I had put practically everyone else on the other side of this chasm. No one was able to reach out, even if they wanted to, while my own fear of plunging into the deep blocked me from taking the leap back to the other side.

“Every new obstacle I encountered got its own box, unmarked and stacked on top of the others into a towering and growing mountain of experiences and interactions I would from then on avoid.”

I now know this because today things could not be more different. About six years ago I did something unimaginable.

I stopped running away.

Or more precisely: I hit a brick wall. Unable to move forward or backwards, sideways, up or down, I finally sought and found help. I found someone who would descend with me into this dark basement of mine. Someone who stood by me — holding my hand, comforting me, giving me courage — as I flicked the light switch on and started unpacking all those boxes, one by one.

That someone was my therapist.

photo by Ezra Jeffrey

Slowly and patiently she taught me how to feel again. She helped me put words to those feelings, often for the first time, as I struggled to make sense of them and integrate everything in this new me I was cultivating. Under her guidance I learned to appreciate that others had a mind and experiences entirely separate from mine, something I had until then only understood on a cognitive level. I pieced together the story of my life, long since forgotten, cherishing the bits that were really me and that I wanted to keep, and discarding the ones I no longer sought to carry, lessening my burden. A mountain of boxes reduced to a pile of rubbish I placed on the curb, waiting to be collected. I now own my pain — my sadness, grief, shame and fear — and my pain only.

I can still be lonely at times. But not as much as I used to. I’m connected now. More than I’ve ever been. There are some fantastic people in my life and I’m grateful our paths met. My journey isn’t finished. It will never be. I can see the road ahead will remain winding and often uphill before it dips below the horizon. Yet, I look forward to it, as this has been the single most enriching, rewarding and courageous adventure I have ever undertaken. I have been given the opportunity to rebuild myself, completely, from the ground up. This is something I’m grateful for, because not everyone is given such a chance. Few realize it is even possible and stay in their little, withering world.

Next time you see a loner, on the street or in the mirror, know that they hardly ever end up alone by deliberate decision. Hidden factors, invisible to you, and often to themselves as well, may shape their experience and the road they travel. They may be unable to ask for help. They may be unable to accept it. But, you can always reach out and touch someone. All it takes are a few simple words.

“Hi, how are doing? How are you really doing?”

They may recoil.

Or they may respond. Positively.