The title of this post is a line from a Wilco song.
Last summer, I had what I guess could be termed a nervous breakdown. The good news is that I wrote an essay about it that will appear in the forthcoming anthology, The Good Mother Myth. The bad news is that though I was proud of myself for pulling out of my downward anxiety spiral mostly on my own (look at how self-reliant and capable I am!), I ended up stuck for months in a toxic holding pattern of isolation instead.
We moved to this town two years ago this summer. The few friendships I tentatively made when we arrived were not yet strong enough (by my own estimation) to bear the weight of my descent into panic. So I didn’t lean on them. My partner resented me for having to pick up my parenting slack. My mother tried to reason with me but there is no reason in Panicville. I called a few friends, here and there, but mainly I shook and sweated and slumped through day after day of my summer of panic on my own.
Escaping the anxiety spiral felt like breaking out of solitary confinement. I wanted to reconnect with those few friends I’d begun to make here but I felt like I didn’t know how. My already unreliable social skills had atrophied in solitary and my opinion of myself had dipped too low. It was easier to just continue going about most of my days alone (with my kids and partner) than to try to reach out to others again.
I still don’t know why I became so suddenly possessed by manic fear or how I exorcised it from my body, but I do know one thing and I think it’s probably related: I was lonely. I am lonely. Achingly, desperately lonely. I miss my old friends. I miss being able to sit on porches all night or in cafes for hours just talking. I miss that magical feeling of riding around in cars with my people, windows down, music turned up, singing together at the tops of our lungs. I just plain miss sharing many of the days of my life with more than one person (my age). Part of the problem I’ve been told has to do with getting older, part I assume is being a modern American parent, and part is obviously living in a new smaller, less-queer-friendly city without established relationship bonds.
For a long time I resisted saying anything publicly about this. I worried that admitting feeling desperate or lonely would repel others further. But eventually the pain of isolation outweighed my fear of humiliation and I decided to write something short about it on Facebook. To my surprise, a number of my far flung friends commented that they too struggle with feeling isolated and lonely–even those without kids living in big cities where I would expect they’d have ample opportunity to find their people.
So am I not alone in my persistent loneliness? Is everyone, or are a lot of people anyway, experiencing this same hell, too? Is it our increasing reliance on social media and other technology to meet our social needs? Is it that we all just move around more these days or work too much or both? Maybe loneliness isn’t just a modern problem. This documentary about a couple married 54 years, happily it seemed until their son looked closer, got me to thinking that maybe a lot more people than not are hiding private pain behind their smiles, online and off.
I started reading a book about loneliness. In it, the authors explain that the feeling of loneliness is a warning sign to prompt humans to secure their social bonds, much like hunger prompts us to eat. But the more prolonged the loneliness, the harder it is for lonely people to reach out to form new bonds or strengthen old ones. Personally, the longer I steep in my loneliness, the more self-critical I become and the more I suspect that the few friends I do have don’t like me much anyway. Plus I worry that I’m setting a bad social example for my kids, and feel sad that they’re not growing up with the village of chosen, cool aunts and uncles and other role models that I imagined for them. What a morass.
The book’s authors discuss various studies that provide scientific proof of brain changes, as well as other ill health effects (artery-hardening, stressed immune systems and higher blood pressure among them), in chronically lonely people. But these authors and others who’ve written more recently about the subject don’t cover just how many people might be suffering from chronic loneliness. I’m positive that a lot of people would take one look at me on a playground or glance at my social media activity and assume that I am not in danger of loneliness. And yet here I am. How many more are there like me?
Book clubs and volunteering have been suggested to me as ways to improve my social health. I like those ideas but feel too paralyzed with insecurity and already harried with my daily (solitary) work and mom life to pursue them right now. I’m still trying to nurture connections in my own little ways here and there. But mostly, I keep fantasizing about some kind of online dating site for meeting new friends, which would probably be an appallingly bad solution in practice, but better maybe than awkward playground overtures, writing a craigslist ad, or spending another year trapped in my head.