Why is being alone so hard for so many?
When someone crashes mentally it feels as though they are in a living death that no-one else can have experienced, a torture that only that particular person can be suffering. There is a truth to this sense of a totally separate experience because each of us breaks down for a slightly different mix of reasons, and each of us then experiences what feels to be a highly individualised mix of hellish symptoms.
There are common elements in this cruel mix of misery: sleep disturbance, or wanting to sleep all the time as a form of escape; feeling unable concentrate as well as usual, if at all; emotional over-reactions to most things, or total emotional numbness; paranoia; an inability to make decisions; restlessness; greatly increased anxiety; a sense of despair of the ‘what’s the point’ variety. It is a list that goes on through every aspect of our lives, ranging from a hatred of every part of our body and mind, to a terror of everyone and everything. But I want to pick one out of this list—loneliness.
Among the many things that I hear over and over as people try and tell their story is the following, sometimes forced out as though even just trying to say this is another form of torture too:
‘You don’t understand…no-one understands…’
It would be patronising to put that it is as painful to hear as it is to say. That would be as disingenuous as the boss who says, ‘this is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you…’ just before they fire you. But I do understand, even though I cannot say this as someone claims not to be understood. I understand as much as any human can understand the pain of another.
And as each person says this, from their particular place of pain, the subtext is, ‘I am so totally alone in this, no-one can possibly understand how alone I am.’
One of the conflicts of being human is the need sometimes to be alone and at other times to be with others. There are times when we long for space, whilst we also scared of being alone. We crave company at times, human contact, warmth and understanding, whilst, at the same time, wanting to remain unique in who we are, independent, different.
Evolution honed our minds to send us the continual feedback that we are unique and different, that others do not understand as we do, or experience as we do, that we are as individual as our fingerprints. Yes, we are a variation on a general human theme, but we are different, very different to everyone else. In the terms of evolutionary design this is all part of the self-protection mechanism—a constant mental tick reminding us of our separateness.
This is a fine design when all is well in our world, when this sense of differentness feels right. Yet everything changes when it is an apparently unique kind of mental suffering that is setting us apart from others, a feeling of being alone that can only be destructive. It makes us want to hide away, to curl up and into ourselves, for this pain not to be visible to anyone, to hide this shame. And yet, at the same time, we so desperately want to be heard, to be seen and understood.
So, it is in this one line, in it’s varied forms, ‘No-one can understand how I feel,’ that we make the evolutionary statement of our uniqueness and also of our very own particular kind of damage and pain. With this statement we seem to be saying that we want to hide the shame of all that is wrong with us, but that we also want to be helped. Or, I could strip it down further to this: we feel utterly alone in our pain, but we are desperate not to be alone, and we have no idea how to find our way out of the overwhelming fear of loneliness.
And loneliness has this overwhelming power because it cuts to our greatest fear—death. It links directly to the human terror of dying in pain with no-one there to witness the end of us, of all our pain, and all our joy. It is the vast fear of dying alone, unmarked, without having made any impression. It is the terror that all the pain, all the joy, meant nothing.
It is a very deep fear that overrides almost everything. As we begin to understand how deeply this fear is ingrained in us we begin to dilute its power. And so we begin to realise that being alone does not always have to tap back to that fear of death. That sometimes it just means we need to curl up for a while, as a wounded animal. Then, when we have healed a little, we can emerge again, and be amongst others without feeling alone in the crowd, isolated by our pain.
There will be a second part to this looking at why the sense of aloneness and isolation stops people from asking for help when they really need it.