I've rarely had a job I enjoy. Sad to say, but my favorite job was the one I had when I was 17 and 18. I worked in a record store by myself, got to do whatever I wanted (usually my homework), and listen to whatever music I cared to. This was in the golden age of CDs in the mid-'90s and business wasn't bad. My friends came by and spoke with me and I met some cool people, too. Yet the things I liked about that job then wouldn't be what I want today.
I find that my mental health often suffers at a job. For most of my life, I've had a difficult time with work. I've found it makes me depressed to have a job I don't enjoy. It weighs upon me to do mindless work. I'm most productive and successful when I'm on my own. I also work best when I do something that gives me meaning. It's taken me a long time (much longer than I would have preferred) to realize what I desire to do is to help others dealing with mental health issues. I want to do this through writing and speaking on my issues with mental health.
It's important that we do things that make us happy in our lives. I know it's not always possible that our work is in our dream field. Life has complications: health issues, family concerns, or geographical impediments. (If you want to be an actor but are stuck living in Alaska, it's hard to achieve that dream of the silver screen).
Yet, if I've learned much of anything from suicide attempts and mental illness, it's that life is short. Far too short. So I've been willing to set aside what may have been a "traditional" life to achieve my goals as they come to me. Attempting to find happiness and meaning is such an important desire. So much so that I was happy to forego a typical career, stability, and a regular relationship in the hopes I could find them.
It's hard for me to rest if it means that I am not close to my career goals. It means that every minute I'm at a job that doesn't bring me satisfaction is another moment I'm away from something that provides me with some meaning.
It's not always easy to find the energy to take up the struggle to meet my goals. Some days I would rather watch Netflix and sleep. But I keep pushing on because I yearn for something where I come away from my work day feeling happy and upbeat about what I've done. Which, in my case, means making a difference in the lives of others.
My hope is that if you are not doing work you enjoy, you will find ways to get to a place where you can. Sacrifices, moves, and time spent trying out a myriad of possibilities are worth it when you find the thing that makes your heart beat a little faster. They're worth it when you find happiness knowing that you're doing work that brings you meaning.
1. No one is going to save you from your loneliness; you're going to have to put the work in
In 2005 and 2006, during my first bout of extreme loneliness, I wallowed in it. I wished for interactions with others but didn't make any effort to establish them. I made a lot of excuses due to my schedule (I worked evenings) but did very little to try and connect with others. Making these connections was more difficult for me given where I lived. (At that time I lived in South Bend, Indiana, which didn't have a lot to offer) I was often depressed, too. Still, there were options for me but I didn't advocate for myself to pursue them.
2. When you do reach out to find connections, you may have to try a long time and a lot of places
I've tried many ways to meet people: volunteer at organizations, connect with co-workers, meet friends of friends and join their circle. You name it, there's a good chance I've done it. I did pick up friends along the way, though. It doesn't always happen in one fell swoop. You may find a connection from a friend of a friend and another relationship through a job. There's rarely one moment where you find your best friends and that's it. It can take a while and require tackling your loneliness from many angles.
3. Loneliness can teach you things that are beneficial, i.e. it can be good for you (for a time)
For more on that you can see my post here or my video here. But suffice it to say, there are lessons of strength, resilience, and confidence that one can take away from extended periods of loneliness. That doesn't mean it's something we should strive for. Yet considering it will likely happen to us at some point in our lives, we may as well find some things to appreciate about it.
4. You will make it through your loneliness
For every time I've spent feeling lonely, I have come out the other side. When I lived in South Bend and was lonely, I found alleviation when I moved to Seattle and had a bunch of friends. When I was lonely upon moving to Boston, it lessened by finding a good partner who provides me with most of the companionship I need. The times when one is lonely can seem to last forever. Life can stagger and pass in deep pauses, but those periods of loneliness can be overcome. Those pauses will once again give rise to a murmur of connection with other human beings. It's a type of connection that brings some reassurance and meaning. While you're in those time devoid of connection, use them to your advantage to better yourself and make those attempts to reach out. You will make it through.
I have one last resort when things go wrong. When I am suicidal or incapable of doing anything, and want to give up, I turn to this document that I keep on a shelf by my bed.
Thankfully, I don’t have to turn to it very often, but it’s become my lifeline for when I feel horrible. I tend to work my way down the left side of the page and have found that, for the most part, by the time I get to the fifth or sixth question I’m feeling better. Your experience may vary and there’s nothing wrong with jumping around with the questions or doing some and not others.
This document isn’t a rulebook, but if you feel at the end of your rope, if you do enough of these, chances are you’ll feel better after a while. Your problems won't stop, but this document pulled me through a handful of dark times.
Last winter there was a snow day from work and I had a difficult time feeling motivated to do anything. I was disliking my job at the time quite a bit and was feeling hopeless and unmotivated with my life in general. Thoughts of suicide entered my mind. I had eaten and drank water. I had even showered. But I realized I hadn't been out of my apartment all day. So, once the snow eased up some I put on my boots and coat and trudged around my neighborhood. The lack of sound in the city made things quite eerie. Yet I found it very peaceful to see the snow lightly falling. I could tell the exercise and a change in environment were helpful. Things didn't change dramatically, but it was enough to pull me out of my severe doldrums.
I’m not exaggerating when I say if you deal with problems of suicidality, print this list out and put it by your bed. These items aren’t relegated to only the times you feel horrible—they’re good activities for general daily living. But they’re especially helpful if you find yourself at the end of your wits.
My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
In the past two entries I’ve explored things we can’t change: the way life works (illness, age, death) and other people and things. So where does that leave us? The last remembrance tells us that all we can control are our own actions.
Our response to life is the only thing we own. It’s the only thing we take with us everywhere we go at all times. Furthermore, our actions speak for us. How we act is what we fall back upon. It says who we are and what’s important to us.
What this remembrance means to me is that I have control over my actions. I can make that decision on how to respond to the things that happen to me. I wish I had control over more things, especially when life doesn’t seem fair.
There are often arrayed against us a plethora of cultural and personal barriers: racism, sexism, homophobia, mental illness, physical disability, etc. And they’re not fair. Yet, our response to them is all we can control. Part of that means we can choose to act by fighting against the systems and people that hold us back.
Our attitude can go a long way to determining how we view life and in turn our mental health. I acknowledge that even though we control our actions, it’s not always easy to be positive and optimistic. Life can suck and it’s up to us to get to the point with our mental health where it’s possible to see this remembrance as do-able.
It hasn’t always been simple for me to acknowledge that I have any control over my life. Often I have to fight against feeling helpless and hopeless. This happens especially when there are decisions to be made by others and I’m left waiting on their actions. But if I can confront and work on my mental illness, I find the remembrance that I only have control over my behavior to be a reasonable one to address.
Attempting to take on my own mental health and deal with it is an action in itself. It’s an action that says I’m trying and shows what I’m made of. This is a consequence that I’m willing to accept.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are the nature to change.
There is no way to keep from being separated from them.
The remembrances of the Buddha shift with the fourth statement. They’re not facts of human existence (aging, illness, death), but rather an acknowledgement of the outward changes in our environment. With this statement we move away from the self and to speak of others.
I’m pretty good with accepting getting older, sicker, and dying. But it’s change with others and my situation that has often caused me the most trouble. Sudden, dramatic changes can throw me for a loop. The end of a relationship can especially do this. When my girlfriend dumped me in 2011 it hit me hard, especially considering we had only been going out for five months. So much so that I tried to kill myself. Looking back now I find it amazing this was my reaction, but I’ve learned that losing close connections to others is a triggering experience for me.
Nowadays I remind myself that when change occurs, it’s a matter of how the world works. I don’t always like it, but what can I do to stop it? Others’ actions caused change in my life that has disappointed and scared me. Just the same, I’m sure I’ve caused change in their lives that has made them uncomfortable.
But if I take a step back and look at the full scope of my life, I see that disruption and change are the nature of my existence. People move, you get laid off from a job, pets die. I’ve learned now that the fact of the matter is that most of your relationships will end, until there’s one that doesn’t. The closeness we have with our family and friends may change as we move and grow in our lives. These are inevitable. Look at not only your life, but the lives of others you know. No doubt major changes have occurred with all them.
It’s a daily struggle to accept that things don’t stay the same. With each new thought of frustration about things out of our control, we have to take up that struggle once again to come to some tolerance of our situation. Life isn’t always out of our hands, though. We do have a way to handle these frustrating experiences when they occur. The final remembrance of the Buddha has helped me a great deal and I’ll explore that in the next post.
I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health.
There is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.
The first three remembrances of the Buddha come off as pretty big bummers. You get old, you get sick, and you die. I brought up the remembrances to some family members and they stared at me in disbelief. There was a long pause and then one of them said, "Wow. That is really depressing." I understood why they might think that, but since I discovered them years ago, I have come to find them freeing.
A certain level of acceptance is necessary to find peace with these first three remembrances. But let's face it: we can all agree we're going to age, become ill, and die, right? That's the nature of this life and there's no way around that. Once I learned that that was the way of things, I knew there was no reason to fight it. And I saw how much unhappiness arose not only in me, but others, when we can't be the young healthy people we desire.
I've come to peace that this is how my life is going to go. Does it mean that I like getting older, ill, or the thought that my loved ones (and I myself) will someday die? Not really. But what can I do about it? I can have empathy for those experiencing times of illness or who are going through the death of a loved one. And I can listen and love them when they're frustrated that the strength of their youth has gone from them.
Once there's an acknowledgment of the way life works (aging, illness, death) we can turn to accepting them. That acceptance is a daily struggle. It requires constant patience (which is one of my weak traits). But what does fighting against these constants in life get us? It can often cause us sadness, despair, and frustration, which doesn't help things.
I will be the first to acknowledge this isn't easy to accept. And that it comes off as a major downer. But I can also tell you that learning to accept that life operates this way has brought me a great deal of patience and humility.
It's also helped me avoid situations that might otherwise exasperate my depression and anxiety. There are times I’ve fallen ill with the flu or an injury from being physically active. Those situations leave me wondering if I’m at the beginning of some greater, more serious illness. It also leads me to sadness at not being able to do everything I want to do. Yet, when I reflect on the remembrances, I acknowledge that such events are a given in life. There’s nothing I can do but accept it and adjust my behavior accordingly.
So, I've addressed some of the bigger forces at work in our world—things that have been upon us since the dawn of humankind. But what about the nature of other humans? How do we deal with them and how freaking annoying they can be? That's material for the next blog post.
I’m not a Buddhist and have no intention of becoming one, but do appreciate many of the teachings and have found them useful. The one I return to daily is something called the Five Remembrances of the Buddha. There are many translations of it, but the one I like is by Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Buddhist monk:
I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health.
There is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
I shared these with some people recently and they found them to be very depressing. I can see how one might draw that conclusion. Looked at from a certain perspective it appears to be saying that life is a big bummer and then you die. Nothing is going to stay the same. Everyone and everything is going to change. Sounds shitty, doesn’t it?
Yet, I find that the Five Remembrances have cut down on my anxiety. I need facts in my life—foundational ideas that cannot change. I need to be able to know there’s something I can rely on. I’ve thought about these five things and realized that they are true and unchangeable. They will always be there. And thus, they’re something I can believe in.
The Five Remembrances also encourage me to live in the moment and get out of my head. And they’re important (and confusing) enough to be worthy of exploration in future posts.
On occasion I fear a relapse into depression. Other times I find myself in the depths of despair. The best thing I can do to help me then is to remind myself that whatever I’m feeling, it’s happened before and I survived.
I’ve worked horrible jobs that I hated and where management was atrocious, so I know that should work get bad I can get through that. I often struggle with impatience. But I've found it’s helpful to remember that there were occasions where time took. I wanted out of my situation badly enough that I made the necessary plans to escape and did so. Thus, I am pretty sure I can do it again.
Even with new situations, such as going to a mental hospital, there’s a first time with that. I had never been through that. But I reminded myself there had been times before where I felt as despondent as I did then. I also knew to rely on those around me, such as my therapist and psychiatrist, for support. With their help I was able to survive that situation and now I know it’s possible to get through a hospitalization.
I also find some comfort in seeing how others have made it through difficult times and know that I, too, am capable of making it. I may not always feel I am able to do great things. Yet my success in other areas shows me that I have the knowledge and understanding to do something as well as those around me. I try and take hope in that.
Still, the more years I have behind me, the more experiences I have. I also see that with some planning and help from those around me, whatever is happening, I can get through it.
I’m just shy of forty years old and I never thought I’d make it to this age. Since I was in middle school I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety and my goal back then was survival. I didn’t think about the future and so I had to make up things as I went along.
I didn’t know what I was doing as the years went by. I felt such anguish and pain at the inability to know what I was meant to do with my life. I saw so many others around me in relationships and on career paths. I felt lost and impatient at not having direction.
Now my picture is a bit clearer. I know I want to help those with mental health issues such as the ones I’ve experienced. I want to speak to groups and write about what has worked for me. I’m figuring out how to make that happen in a way that is sustainable.
It took me much longer than I would’ve preferred to get to where I am today. But I wanted to share four things I did that helped me get to where I have a better idea of what I want to do with my life.
1. Find work you can tolerate and that provides stability
I’ve worked in libraries for almost fifteen years. It wasn’t my calling; I actually went to library school because I needed to get out of my parents’ house. But after thinking it over I realized that going to grad school was about finding something I could enjoy enough to deal with every day as a job. I wasn’t sure that it was exactly what I wanted to do, but it has provided me with a steady career, a decent paycheck, and health insurance.
2. Try things
While you’re working a job that you can tolerate/enjoy, try to do as many new things as possible. Move to a different city, take a class, travel someplace that makes you uncomfortable, pick up new hobbies. The more things you try, the better you’ll get an idea for what you like and what you don’t like.
3. Read a lot
I picked up a lot of self-help books to educate myself on life. I read books on how to deal with depression and anxiety (Mind Over Mood), and creating the life you’ve always wanted (Four-Hour Work Week). I took many different career tests to figure out what type of work might be good for me. I followed recommendations from friends, family, and people in the self-help field whose work I respected. I picked up a lot of food for thought that pushed me in some new directions.
4. Put yourself out there
It’s scary to try new things. Fear of rejection held me back for so long. My self-esteem was pretty low. But asking for help and advice from people I respected gave me encouragement. And even though I faced some setbacks, I wouldn’t have made progress if I hadn’t tried.
Feeling depressed and lonely is a difficult place to be. Loneliness, especially, is a solitary trial, something that alienates us from others. We see those around us who appear happy and think, “What is wrong with me that I can’t be like them?”
It can bring some relief, though, to remember that I’m not alone in these struggles. And it’s not only friends or co-workers who deal with these feelings of loneliness or great sadness. Successful individuals, too, are trying to get by with these emotions. While I’m not happy others are suffering, knowing that there is a wide range of people dealing with what I’m undergoing can make me feel not quite as bad. I can say to myself, “If they’re dealing with this and achieving some of their goals, perhaps that’s possible for me, too. There’s no logical reason why that shouldn’t happen.”
But this also works the other way. When friends and family are working through issues of melancholy or feeling disconnected, we can support one another. Even if we’re both not feeling well, there can be attempts to hold one another accountable to do the things we need to do to work toward getting better. In the same way, having gone through difficult times and emerging on the other side means we can help those who need it.
For years (in fact, most of my teens and twenties) I never thought I’d emerge from the dark cave of depression in which I found myself. And yet, after a lot of therapy, medications, writing, and so many other attempts at mental wellness, I’ve found some calm (for the most part). And now I want to use that to help others and remind them that it is possible to get through unwanted times of emotional pressure. Whatever you’re going through, and no matter how bad it feels, other people have been there. We want to do our best to remind you you’re not alone and we’re here to help.
Transition can be a very difficult thing for me. Even when it’s something I put upon myself it can be hard. It’s the uncertainty and the fear of all that might go wrong that gets to me. But change can also be a good thing. Let's look at a few of those positive reasons below.
1. Change can inspire us
Change can be a good catalyst for getting a new perspective not only on the environment in which we find ourselves, but on ourselves. Travel inspires me to get a new vision of my life and serve as a reset. Change in what we’re doing in our lives as far as a big move or career change can do the same. It forces us to question what we want and who we are.
2. Change can show us a side of ourselves we may not otherwise know
In going through a change, especially in a new career, we can learn we are good at certain things we may not have otherwise thought. A few years ago I took a chance and became a tour guide. I had no idea if I’d be good at it but discovered that it was something at which I not only excelled but enjoyed. Who knew that I, an introvert, would enjoy being social? But if I hadn’t taken a chance at that change I would’ve missed out on something that has now become a livelihood.
3. It can expand our minds
If we’re willing to take a chance with change we can learn new things. And learning new things can make us wiser and more open-minded, which can only inspire more empathy and kindness toward others. (Or at least that’s the goal for me.) By taking a chance to move to Seattle back in 2006 I grew so much as an individual in only two years. I learned about what I believed, spiritually and intellectually. I also learned how to adapt to some of the most jarring change possible (new home, new friends, new job) all at once. But it was worth it and I’d do it again.
4. It’s a reminder to take care of ourselves
Moments of change are the most important occasions to do self-care. It should almost be a default setting in our minds: change = taking time to take care of me. That’s something important for me to remember as I start a new job. To stay healthy I need to hit the gym, get enough sleep, and not overtax myself with other responsibilities. All these things (and more) are good things to remember when you and I are going through changes.
I tuck myself away from people quite often—not the best way to deal with loneliness. But I do so not to escape socialization (at least not entirely), but rather to work. Yet, there’s a part of me that can’t deny that a lot of this is because it’s safer to work than to socialize and try and meet other people.
I write, edit that writing, and then write some more. It’s reviews for Razorcake, the punk music magazine I’ve been with since 2005, or entries for this here blog post. Sometimes I’m editing a book or longer piece I’m putting together for another publication.
With writing and giving talks, with the extra jobs I take on (I currently have four part-time jobs), it’s all about keeping busy. I do this for two reasons: when I’m occupied with work I don’t think about how lonely I am, and also because time is of the essence.
Work is reliable. It rarely lets me down and the only person I have to please is myself. When I am deep into my writing or editing I feel productive and accomplished and that is a wonderful feeling. I also don’t have to acknowledge my loneliness, which can often leave me depressed—a road down which I don’t wish to go.
The past few years I’ve recognized that I’m getting older (just shy of 40). There are still too many people to help and things I want to do in my life. This includes spending more time doing something I enjoy: speaking about my mental health. There’s something about having a few suicide attempts in my life that cause me to want to work even harder at living in the moment and do even more.
I try and find time to slow down. I do this by exercising at the gym or doing yoga. I read, although lately I find it more difficult to find a good book. I enjoy vacationing and seeing historical sites, museums, and the outdoors in all its splendor.
Yet I can’t seem to slow down. And I know I need to. I need to find time to make friends and get to know others. It’s easy to stay in what makes one comfortable, especially when I can mask it as helping others. I’m putting them before myself and that can feel like a more noble route to take. Yet I don’t always follow my own advice about loneliness because it takes time too long to implement those practices.
None of this is to say I’m going to stop with my writing and speaking. Yet I have become more aware as of late that it’s important for my health to make connections with others. That can bring me joy in a different manner. A well-rounded approach to happiness is something that we all can use. So I’m doing my best to begin to attempt to go from “can’t stop, won’t stop” to “maybe can stop, should probably stop from time to time.”
,There is a lot of stigma associated with the word “loneliness” or saying “I’m lonely.” But loneliness strikes everyone at some point in our lives. It's challenging to take one's self out of a comfort zone and be in situation where we may know few, if any, people. For college students, being a young adult is already a time of questioning one’s self, meaning we may not feel as though we belong. Yet that is what we’re all seeking, especially when we’re unsure of ourselves.
Setting up a system whereby students become informed of their need for belonging and how to find that presents a positive notion. It says: here’s this thing you want and now let’s talk about how you can get it. This is in opposition to the way that loneliness often comes across. It's often seen as a dreaded state to avoid and connected to depression and inadequacy.
Yet everyone desires to connect and belong. Framing an attack on loneliness in this manner seems a more likely way to get students to interact with programs at universities. “How to find connection and a sense of belonging” versus “How to stop feeling lonely.” While the phrasing could be slightly different with each of those, the sentiment is the same. Having more people say “I’m lonely” along with rephrasing it as being about connection and belonging would find more success in aiding students who may be dealing with both loneliness and wanting to belong.
Recently I visited family and friends in the small city in Indiana where I grew up. As a teen I felt, for the first and last time in my life, real community. Sure, I’ve had friends here and there over the yeas, including a few very good ones. But I’ve never felt those tight friendships that I did in my teens.
There’s a tendency to wax nostalgic about times that seemed particularly good, but that’s not the case for me. During my high school years I was often quite depressed and anxious. I wasn’t in as good of a place with my mental health as I am now. And yet I knew people who stood by me during those times. They accepted me for all my faults.
Our ability to grow up and survive in the same environment and overcome some of the same mental health issues, as well as a boring, small city, bonded us. It’s something that caused a connection for me with others, even twenty years later. It’s these feelings of love and appreciation that cause me to wonder what it is I’m missing now which prevents me from finding those deeper connections.
I realize that a great part of developing that intimacy was because I saw people on a frequent basis—daily and sometimes on the weekends, too. I don’t have that luxury with many people beyond those with whom I work. Even then, I haven’t developed any connection like the one I felt with my high school peers. Due to hectic schedules, driving distances, and people having children, it’s more difficult to find the time to see one another.
My hometown has come a long way from when I was in high school. There used to be little to nothing to do. Now my peers from high school (and many people I don’t even know) have brought into town a great brewing company, lots of bars, a Neapolitan pizza restaurant, an Indian restaurant, a record store, and an excellent coffee shop. I often tell people it’s the kind of place I’d want to live if it wasn’t in Indiana.
As I get older I see the importance of community as a way to develop connections that make us feel wanted and cared for. They also are a way to combat the loneliness that I often feel in a big city.
After my recent visit I began thinking more about moving back. I don’t think I’d do it, because there’s a part of me that loves the hustle and bustle of a big city, and I appreciate the many opportunities of things to do in Boston. But I have no idea what I’d do for work in my hometown. And the politics in Indiana aren't always to my liking and that makes me frustrated. Besides, I love New England’s natural beauty and being near the ocean and hills.
Yet I can’t help but wonder at what point that desire for community and a closeness with friends will override all other things. That sense of belonging may end up drawing me back to a city to which I never thought I’d return.
In my times of loneliness I discovered some qualities about myself that I wasn’t expecting. One thing I learned is how creative I can be. When I dealt with my loneliness I knew I had to find things to keep me occupied. I started going places on my own—not only on vacation but around Boston, where I live. I started visiting historical sites and not allowing my lack of friends to keep me from living life. One semester of grad school I went to look for different breakfast places around the city to eat at on Saturday mornings. It gave me something to do and exposed me to new parts of the city. Another time, I looked for the best burritos in the city.
Through my loneliness I also learned more about myself, mentally. I realized when I needed to exercise and release my life of tension and stress. It also allowed me to be around others, even if I didn’t have conversations with them. I would often leave feeling better. I forced myself to meditate more often because even though I thought it was boring, I ended up often feeling better after that. After these experiences with my loneliness, I realized I was stronger than I ever thought I could be.
I first had experiences with loneliness in high school and between my low-self esteem and immaturity I was often crushed by it. Years later, after a growth in my confidence and maturity, I acknowledged I was stronger than I may have otherwise thought. And that was encouraging to me. I could see that it wasn’t only about loneliness. I had strength to tackle other big struggles in my life.
Loneliness isn't something I wish upon others. Yet at the same time I can’t imagine my life without it because it’s made me into the emotionally resilient person I am today. We know loneliness is going to hit us all at some point. But it’s reassuring to know that with the proper mindset and practices we can emerge from it as stronger individuals.
When one is lonely, it can often feel overwhelming and all-encompassing. Yet, surviving a period of loneliness can serve as further proof that one can do things once not thought possible.
When I moved to Boston (where I currently live) in 2008 I didn’t know anyone. I moved to the city for graduate school having never visited. I felt lonely quite often and spent a lot of time hanging out by myself. It seemed so difficult to make connections and I didn’t feel as though I could find anyone to befriend.
I’ve always felt like someone who didn’t quite fit in. I came to graduate school for a masters in American Studies. There I believed I would find activists, punks, anarchists, and others akin to where I stood, politically and socially. It was disappointing to discover that none of these descriptions fit my peers. I had a difficult time finding much of anyone with whom I could bond in such a big city, which seemed like adding insult to injury.
Graduate school and working part-time also sucked up a lot of my week, keeping me from being able to make new friends. Despite our differences, I gravitated toward my graduate peers but often felt loneliest when at parties with them. I was older than many of them and had difficulty sharing my past with them: punk rock shows and radical politics.
Yet, as time went on, I survived. I’ve picked up a few acquaintances and friends here and there and having a partner has gone a long way, too. I didn’t think I could survive those lonely experiences, but I made it.
I have more strength than I ever knew I had. I am resilient in the face of not just loneliness but now know that if loneliness doesn’t get me down there are other issues in life I am certain I can break through: depression and anxiety, for example. Besides, if I could get through such lonely times, I knew I could deal with loneliness should it hit me again.
When loneliness occurs, it’s good to know that you have a well of strength from which to draw to help you through what can be a difficult time. During my long times of loneliness, I turned to meditation and reading self-help for some solace and ideas of how to deal with what I was experiencing. As much as it was possible, meditation taught me to be okay with myself and my condition.
I wouldn’t suggest subjecting yourself to loneliness as a means to build resilience. Yet it gives a great amount of agency to someone suffering loneliness to know they have power over it. In learning how to deal with lonely experiences, it can empower the individual to the point where it creates self-confidence.
For example, when I was in states of loneliness, I realized no one was going to take care of me when I was ill. I had to go to the drug store and get medication or drive myself to the doctor. This showed me that even at a weak point I was capable of accomplishing things for which I had in the past relied upon others.
I put myself in a situation in January 2009 when I traveled alone to Iceland. It was scary because I didn’t know anyone. I couchsurfed with strangers, and ended up having a great time. I learned that I can plan a trip to a foreign country and be social and meet others. This experience showed me that if I can meet people in another nation with a different culture and language, I can meet people at home. Once again, being lonely but forcing myself to do things, gave me self-confidence to know I could do even more in my life.
Given what I’ve written about loneliness, it might come as a surprise I would say one can find any benefit from it. But I very much believe you can. As Marissa Korda, the founder of The Loneliness Project, said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper: “Loneliness as just a normal part of being human. It comes, it goes, it’s something that we experience and it doesn’t need to be as isolating as it is….It’s not realistic to expect that we can cure loneliness and I don’t think we should—it’s part of being human.”
Too often, there is an all-or-nothing take on loneliness and a level of fear-mongering associated with it. It’s an “epidemic” and a “health crisis” that must be “defeated.” They way some write of it nowadays it sounds as if we’re dealing with the Black Plague. In reality, you might as well attack guilt or fear since loneliness is as real and prevalent as those feelings and experiences.
My times with loneliness have shown me that it can be something that is helpful and from which to draw strength. Given its inevitability, it’s important to see what we can learn from it and what lessons it might provide us in our journey as human beings. Thus, in my next few entries, I will write about what I’ve learned from loneliness and what you can get from it when it hits you. There’s no reason to sit and take it—there are methods by which you can get out of loneliness. But while it’s happening, reminding yourself of the benefits can ease the emotional pain it can cause.
I’ve found that the worst part about loneliness is being aware of it when it’s happening to you. Thinking about it can make it worse. That’s why I’ve found the best thing I can do is to keep busy. I tend to work on activities or take on extra jobs (I like feeling productive). But for those in college, my suggestion is to dip a toe in the waters of clubs and organizations.
Think of things you’re passionate about: writing, acting, exercising, film, etc. There are often clubs on campus for those sorts of things. And if there isn’t you can usually start one, either formal or informal. Your university’s website will often list official clubs and student organizations. Getting involved with these groups will not only keep your mind occupied but will also enable you to meet new people.
This way of making connections goes back to John Cacioppo’s EASE method, so the premise is the same. Think about what activities you like and create a list. Then decide what you have time for and what you really want to do. Any time you can spend bonding over similar shared interests is a way to grow closer to others.
Since I never felt I fit in on my tiny, rural college campus, I spent time at the nearby state school. I went to concerts there and got to know people in that music scene. In the end, that was the best way for me to make close connections in the midst of a college setting that otherwise left me feeling lonely all too often.
One of the great things about college is the wide array of activities available. These might include movies, lectures, theater performances, and volunteer events. Many are either cheap or free. If possible, make a point to attend at least one of these every few weeks. Mark it on your calendar and stick to it, even if you don’t always feel like going.
Such events are perfect opportunities to get to know people with whom you want to hang out. Go to an event and then get some food or coffee afterward. That bond of having the same experience will give you something to talk about.
I did this at college on occasion, but I often found myself uninterested because I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was the one punk kid at an otherwise pretty conservative school. Yet, at some point my freshman year a guy in my dorm invited me to play pool with him. It ended up being a good way for us to connect and build a friendship. I wouldn’t have expected to like pool but I did. And it helped me make a new friend.
Many of the activities offered at college take place on weekends, so a piece of related advice: don’t go home when your classes are over for the week. Some students will do that their freshman year, usually because they have a partner back home. Many times those students have difficulty making new friends.
I went home a few times my freshman year to see people I knew from high school or go to a show, and that’s understandable. But if you’re going home every weekend (or most of them), it makes it difficult to connect. Building relationships (and escaping loneliness) takes repeated shared experiences with others. That can only happen if you’re on campus.
Loneliness at college is all too often made worse by mental illness. When I was in college my bipolar disorder emerged. I had very low self-esteem and didn’t believe there were many (if any) people who wanted to be my friend. Combating serious depression and chronic low self-worth can take a toll on one’s mental health. It makes it all that much more difficult to get out of one’s lonely shell. So, if you’re having chronic depression or other mental health issues, address those. Seeing a therapist at your school's counseling center can be a good place to start.
Handling feelings of loneliness at college often goes back to what John Cacioppo said about “expecting the best” when trying to break out of loneliness. Ask someone from your dorm, that person you chatted with at a party, or someone from one of your classes if they want to hang sometime. It doesn’t have to be a weird date—ask them if they want to study together, go to a concert with you, or get something to eat. And then try your damnedest to be optimistic. I know it can be difficult because it’s all too easy to be cynical. Yet people are making connections all the time and there’s no reason you don’t have to be one of them.
And do yourself a favor: take some time off from social media. Or at least don't check it quite so often. Based on what your friends are posting on Instagram and Snapchat you may think they’re all having a fun time without you. Perhaps they are, but it’s also likely they feel lonely at times. But few people are posting pictures of that.
I’ve learned that if you want accountability for things you want to change in your life, it’s important to let other people know about it. For example, I want to start doing more public speaking about mental health, so I’ve told friends and family that’s a goal of mine. It works the same way when you want to overcome any issue: share it with others and people will follow up with you on it. They can keep you accountable. As I mentioned in the last post, you’re not alone in this. So, if you feel comfortable doing so, share with friends or family how you’re feeling. If nothing else, write about it in a journal. You’re feeling lonely. That’s okay.
Now for a basic piece of practical advice on how to open one’s self to a possible avenue of making friends in college: leave the door open. I lived in a dorm for three of my four years at college. I felt out of place for most of my college experience, but I learned early on that leaving the door to my room open encouraged others to be social. Of course if you need some privacy to study or make a phone call it’s understandable to close the door. Yet it surprised me how many people would stop by and say hey or ask if I wanted to go to lunch or dinner. I’m well aware this may not lead to meeting your best friend, but every chance you have to spend time with new people is at least another possibility.
There is still a lot of stigma attached to saying you’re lonely. This is especially prevalent amongst teens and those in their early twenties. While it’s becoming acceptable to share one’s struggles with mental illness, few want to admit that they don’t have the connections they desire. But statistics show college students aren’t alone in their loneliness. As Frank Bruni wrote in The New York Times: “In a  survey of nearly 28,000 students on 51 campuses by the American College Health Association, more than 60 percent said that they had ‘felt very lonely’ in the previous 12 months. Nearly 30 percent said that they had felt that way in the previous two weeks.”
The important thing to remember is you’re not alone. It can make you feel like there’s something wrong with you to not have as many friends as your peers seem to have (although looks can be deceiving). It’s hard to be patient when you’re going through so many changes anyway: the attempt to find friends seems like one more thing to deal with. Time can seem to drag while you wait to make those close friends everyone told you that you’d make in college.
Take solace in the fact that there are others like you out there; your fellow students who also want to make friends. You never know which person it is in your group for a class project who may become your new friend. Or someone who lives on the same floor with you in the dorm.
Being accepted to a college is both exciting and terrifying. It’s a relief to have some direction in one’s life but for many people it’s scary because you may not know anyone at your new school. I was anxious about going to a big school where I wouldn't have friends. So I only applied to the college my sister attended because I knew I’d at least know her and her friends, even though they were all seniors when I was a freshman.
In a new situation, loneliness can be prevalent. Many students are taught that college is “the best four years of your life,” which, I can assure you, was not my case (nor the case of many others). Some students are under the misconception that making friends in college is quick and easy. Yet that can also be far from the truth. To meet people with whom I felt as though I could identify, it took me almost to the end of my freshman year—and it’s not as though I went to a huge state school. My university had 1900 students.
There are a lot of issues that come into play with loneliness at colleges, though. One is social media, but there are also issues of anxiety amongst teens. It can be scary to put one’s self out there and try and make new friends. Homesickness also plays a role in making life more difficult for those away at a new learning institution. In following entries, I’ll be looking at issues of loneliness at college and what students (and parents) can do that might ease it.
In May the health insurance company Cigna produced the results of a study on loneliness. The most surprising piece of information was the group that suffers the most: young adults.
At first thought it doesn’t seem logical that those in their teens and early twenties would have such high rates of loneliness. Yet, the current train of thought is that loneliness amongst youth is due to a couple of reasons. First, youth haven’t developed an understanding of picking up on social stimuli. In other words, the more one pulls into loneliness, the lower their self-esteem can go. Others (friends, family, acquaintances) can try to draw the lonely individual in to relationships. But this may lead to the individual being more resistant to that attempt. Youth have a difficult time of understanding the sincerity of positive connections. This causes them to draw further into their loneliness.
I speak of this from personal experience, too. I went to a small liberal arts university that was fairly conservative. To put it in musical terms, my school was very pop radio and I was more punk rock. I did have some connections and friendships, but when I received an invitation to a party, I often declined. Granted, much of this was due to my depression (which I’ve covered before). Yet the two fed off one another. I couldn’t comprehend the idea that others had a genuine interest in being my friend and so I withdrew further. It took years of therapy and coming to accept I was someone worth loving for me to believe others when they asked me to do things with them.
The other primary issue with youth and loneliness is the internet, especially social networking. Some teenagers find the web to be a good place to escape from society. (This isn’t relegated to teens, of course.) The possibility to avoid awkward social interactions and use the internet, instead, is appealing. Witnessing others living curated lives can be deceiving, though. When one views others engaging in fun occasions, it can leave the lonely teen feeling as though she or he is even further engulfed in loneliness. As one article stated: “Though we temporarily feel better when we engage others virtually, these connections tend to be superficial and ultimately dissatisfying.”
Utilizing the web isn’t always a bad thing. As Rebecca Nowland, Elizabeth Necka, and John Cacioppo point out: “When the Internet is used as a way station on the route to enhancing existing relationships and forging new social connections, it is a useful tool for reducing loneliness…. This suggests that lonely people may need support with their social Internet use so that they employ it in a way that enhances existing friendships and/or to forge new ones.” (“Loneliness and Social Internet Use: Pathways to Reconnection in a Digital World?” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2018, Vol. 13(1) 70– 87).
Thus, like most things, it comes down to how we use it. The fast growth of the internet and our readying acceptance of everything associated with it has caused us to leap first, without looking. My hope is that, through the work of schools, parents, non-profits, and the mental health community, we can teach everyone—and especially teens—good boundaries in their use of the internet so to avoid the frustrations of loneliness.
This blog is an exploration of the subjects of belonging and loneliness. I also look at mental health issues. I seek to provide content to my readers that is informative and helpful. If you don't want to miss anything, sign up for my email list.