Loneliness in London
I knew that coming back would be hard. I mean, there’s a reason that I’ve stayed so far away from London for 4 months now, and it wasn’t just because I was too busy, or there was nothing for me to do down here. I have family in Westminster, and there were countless exhibitions and events that I would have loved to have seen- so it wouldn’t have just been me sitting alone in a coffee shop somewhere (although, to be honest, that often sounds more appealing). I simply knew that I needed a break from the mayhem and relentlessness of the city, the noise, the crowds and the unremitting and crushing feeling of loneliness that I get whenever I am not in someone else’s presence.
I think that, for me, is the key problem with living in London. At home, in Newcastle, or abroad, I can cope with spending long amounts of time in solitude (if I need to- I would rarely choose to); I can go a day without seeing a single human being, and be completely content with just a couple of meaningless texts. Having said this, on days like that, I am mostly curled up in bed or in a squishy armchair with a book and a couple of cats pottering around me- but, the point is, I have no human interaction, I barely speak, and yet… I am fine. This abruptly changes in London. After 15 minutes alone, I am panicking, and worrying that I am missing out on some great event or other, or that I am simply not liked by my friends, or…well, the list is endless. Anxiety sets in, and I am unable to stop the runaway train that pounds these ideas inside my head. It bends this way and that, juddering along different tracks and passing through different stations, which load on heavy cargo of worry, self-doubt, hopelessness and a special kind of self-loathing, which is a new and not altogether pleasing burden.
A great mantle of mental decay settles gently around my shoulders and clings to me, as if sodden in all the tumultuous thoughts transporting themselves freely throughout my mind.
I’m just not very good at being alone, and that is the long and short of it. Without some other consciousness there to kerb it, my mind will slowly close in on itself, over-analysing everything that I do, or what I see, and I become trapped inside my own head. I say that, and I mean it literally, for it begins to feel as if I am detached from my body, and I exist as a tiny homunculus peering through two eyes of this human body labelled Iona Jenkins, disconnected from it but somehow still part of it.
Even to me, this sounds completely nutty. I am normally a (relatively) sane, rational person, but I just can’t stand being alone. I am happier immediately if someone is just in the next room, or smiles at me, or is just on my general vicinity in a calm, unimposing manner.
The day I moved into my new flat for 2nd year at university, I was alone from about 3pm for the rest of the day, and I nearly went mad. Honestly, I haven’t had that feeling since I left London, and the fact that it had returned left me tumbling down into a pit of despair. As the minutes ticked by I tried my best to keep myself occupied, and do positive things (I even got out my ink pens and designed an ‘inspirational quote’ mood board…) but there was always that little itchy feeling of forlornness eating away at me, and as this descended into a feeling of complete destitution, I feared for myself and for my ability to complete the year. I mean, if I’m like this on the first day, with absolutely no stress of work or exams, how am I going to cope with 2nd year at a pretty intense university?
My saviour came in the form of the wifi man. It was amazing. The change that came over me after 5 minutes of casual chat, centred on my new Internet supply, was surreal. I feel more energised, more motivated to write, to sing, to actually move about the flat- pretty much immediately. It felt like I had grown new nerves all over my body; my spine uncurled and I stood straighter, my arms reached out from my sides, and I fully opened my eyes to see the shadows disappear and the cobwebs untangle and fall apart. It felt like I had woken up from a drunken stupor, a butterfly unfurling my wings and stepping out of my withered chrysalis. Deep inside the jumble of my brain, a switch had been flicked somewhere, illuminating my mind and stimulating me to function as normal.
I have thought long and hard about why it is that London brings out this awful side to me. Of course, there are simply clinical terms that one can easily associate with what I have just described, but I find them unhelpful and they do nothing to help me be productive in trying to find a way out of this embalmment of dreadful loneliness and fear. My conclusion is this.
London is a vast, sprawling metropolis renowned for being a highly multicultural, intellectual and buzzing cultural centre, with so much to entertain that one could easily fill up all day every day with galleries, concerts, cafes, restaurants and sights, and there are 10 million people with whom you can interact with; therein lies the problem. If you are not partaking in one of the countless things that London has to offer- heck, if you’re not even outside and walking aimlessly around- you feel like you are missing out and wasting your time. In other words, it is the pressure of feeling like you should be having fun and being out and about that leaves you down when you are at home, alone. Moreover, the fact that it is never quiet here, and that it is hard to escape the continuous buzz of commuters, tourists, students and residents going about their lives, means that you are always aware of the fact that people are out and about and being productive. So, if you are at home, with little to do (or, in my case, even with something to do but I just can’t force my inexorable laziness out of the window) then I think it is easy to feel like you are not utilising your time, and I think the endless hubbub simply brings your solitude to attention.
I suppose this must sound pretty pathetic to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. I suspect, however, that these feelings occur more often than it may seem; I, for one, never admitted this to anyone for the whole of the first year that I loved in London. I once discussed such issues with an architect friend who was taking part in a project to create urban spaces and homes specifically designed to prevent such feelings of loneliness. This was the summer before I moved to London, before I had even experienced it first hand, and I was shocked to understand just how much of a problem it could be, and thus I was very aware of my feelings when I finally moved to the smoke.
Loneliness seems to be a kind of taboo topic. No one, in my experience, has ever admitted to me that they feel, or have felt, lonely in some situation. It is seen as a rather lame quality, and one that people are embarrassed or unwilling to discuss. That is the first step. Admitting you feel vulnerable is undoubtedly hard, but circumventing it does no one any good and simply exacerbates the problem. My hope is that by attempting to bring the subject of loneliness to light, and to the forefront of the public’s minds, it can be combated in a healthy and productive way, which will help an unexpectedly enormous number of people. It is the simple awareness that even when someone is perceived to be an extrovert, someone who goes out a lot, is involved with a multitude of different societies or activities, and has a lot of dear friends, the inner workings of their mind may not be as content as is portrayed. Just listen to Eleanor Rigby, and you may get my general gist.
A point that must be made next is this. It’s all very well going on about how lonely you are, but how can we actually do anything about it? Clearly, it is a pretty huge task and not one that can be easily combated, and in terms of the social sector this involves a lot of funding and work force. However, I think that there are a few simple ways that can really help to lift your spirits up- not necessarily to their full potential, but enough to allow you to float through time without descent until you next see your friends, or family, or go to work, or anything that prevents the suffocation of loneliness.
- Write something. Write anything- stories, articles, poems, something about how you’re feeling: let it all out. This has always been one of the best kinds of therapies for me, because you can say whatever you want without having to say it out loud which can often trivialise it. I have a notebook, which contains all the nonsense from my head over the past 5 years, and honestly, it really helps. Free writing at its best.
- Read something. Immerse yourself in the life of a lovely fictional character, lose yourself in a book on the French revolution, learn the basics of astrophysics. This will keep the cogs whirring in your brain, in a non-destructive way, and this way you can pass hours without a second thought as to real life. Also, I would choose this over watching something, as you are physically holding and manipulating an object, so your body won’t become restless.
- Walk somewhere. If it’s raining, grab an umbrella. Fresh air (well, as fresh as air in London ever gets) and a spot of exercise are known to be a key to a healthy body and mind, and you never know- you might be lucky enough to bump into a friendly dog owner to chat to. Getting out of a 4-walled space is undoubtedly one of the best ways to free your mind from its own boundaries.
- Cook, bake, make. Whether it’s a nut roast, a 3-tiered chocolate cake or just a mysterious potion that you’re concocting, getting out of your room and into the kitchen to be productive and a little creative is a must. Plus, you get to eat food, and get a bit of an energy boost. It’s a no-brainer…and that’s the point.
- Talk to someone. I know you might think that this defies the whole point of what I’ve written, and that the whole point is that you’re alone, but there are a hundred ways to have a chat if you need to. These come in the form of hotlines, which mostly operate 24/7. Most people think that these are for people in serious despair and so on, but in fact, they are designed for people who just need to talk to someone, and they will talk about absolutely anything. Lengthy discussion on the history of the carrot? Yes, please.