How I Learned to Better Handle Loneliness
A childhood friend recently shared that she’s feeling very lonely. It’s understandable since her former husband, with whom she had developed a good relationship, recently died, her only daughter is grown and getting married, and several of her closest friends have moved away. I sympathized and was so glad she was willing to be open so I could try to help. So many feel it’s a failure to admit such feelings. In this case, I quickly jumped in and shared that I would try to include her as much as I could in social situations, and she should come visit my house a few hours away.
I get loneliness firsthand, and know it can stem from all sorts of reasons. I felt terribly alone when we moved to Chicago years ago and I stood outside my older daughter’s new school to pick her up from her first day as a first grader. I knew no other parents and watched as the others buzzed about catching up on summer vacations and the year ahead. Nobody stepped forward to introduce themselves. I felt like an alien and wondered if I would ever have a friend and someone to talk to. Eventually, I did.
I had that same feeling when I visited my older daughter at college one parents’ weekend and she made plans for the evening. I took myself out to dinner in a strange town alone and went back to my motel—not the safest since I had booked late. I put a chair in front of the door and slept in my clothing, hoping I would be OK, and I was.
The same feeling of loneliness crept in on me like a dark cloud when I moved to my current town and knew nobody. Would anybody care if I got up in the morning? Initially no and I felt adrift since I thrive on friendships. I took daily walks and introduced myself to shopkeepers who were among my first friends. I made others by joining activities such as Pilates and an art class and signing up for dinner party gatherings hosted by a local shop with a kitchen. Not everybody wanted a new friend but several did. You only need a few to starve off loneliness.
Yet, none of those lonely feelings compared to my sad, lonely times when I was in the last year of my long-term marriage. My then-husband wanted out and barely talked to me as we shared our family home. I remember almost anything I said was met with a negative response from him—whether it was discussing the weather, a TV series or the college our older daughter wanted to attend. Sometimes, there was no conversation at all and the silence was heartbreaking. I felt diminished and worthless that there no longer was a connection between us when once we couldn’t stop talking and caring. I was too afraid to take charge and say, “Why don’t you move out now?” I was desperate to try to salvage the marriage so I tiptoed around everything, letting loneliness gnaw away at my self-esteem. After several months, I learned that one person never can save a relationship, and ours was done.
When he moved out, I felt emboldened and that a dark storm cloud had disapated. I was terrified of the idea that I might be alone forever but surprisingly felt less lonely. I had the gut feeling that there was hope for a new life and soon realized that resilience and optimism have always been big parts of my DNA. And in the case of my divorce, I was determined not to let loneliness control my outlook or stop me from enjoying life forever. Yet, it took hard work to know what to do.
I started by being more socially aggressive and inviting friends for dinner at my home. I started taking swing dancing lessons, which my former husband never wanted to do. I considered taking a hiking trip to Southeast Asia alone, looked for recipes to cook for just me, and went to my favorite bookstore regularly (especially on Saturday nights) to sit and thumb through new books while drinking a skim latte. My mother had told me years before, “If you have a book you always have a friend.” And when I needed someone—to drive me home from my first colonoscopy, I had enough friends to call upon.
When I was ready to date again, I signed up for multiple online dating services thinking a new relationship was the best cure. It wasn’t as I found it incredibly lonely to retell my life story ad nauseum, spend time with men who seemed to match what I needed on paper though reality proved quite different, and who in many cases didn’t share the truth—the beginning of fake news in retrospect. It made me feel incredibly lonely to realize that a good healthy relationship takes time and much more than finding someone who meets your height, weight, college and athletic criteria. What about the core values of really caring and sharing?
So I worked more on what my therapist said was critical: to learn to be alone but not lonely by finding activities that appealed to me and avoid those that didn’t. That took getting to know myself better. My Saturday “date” nights at home with myself involved reading books and magazines, working to get more writing assignments with a snazzy new website, preparing nice meals which I served myself with a good glass of wine—after I learned to open a bottle, and going back to my painting, my college major which I had put off for my writing career.
Of course, there were times when I still felt lonely—when it crept up on me again as I sat home several times in a row at night and wondered if this would be my permanent fate. A short-lived pity party is OK. When that happened, I learned I needed to change up my routine and see a movie in a theater with others around and buy the size popcorn I wanted or to plan a trip to see out of town friends and family. Doing so was tough initially in those cases and others. Being at a movie reminded me that most folks come as a couple or with a gal or guy pal; going on a trip was the same for most. They drove to the airport together, waited for the flight a deux, sat together, worried together when the seat belt sign came on in mid flight for severe turbulence, and even looked for their luggage together.
Gradually I began to enjoy my single state. It was better than spending an evening or day with some guy I really didn’t want to be with or who didn’t want to be with me. That was unmitigated loneliness. I got to take a Pilates class when I wanted, pick the TV shows I liked including “The Bachelor” and avoid Fox TV which one guy liked, eat dinner at the counter of my kitchen while watching the evening news if that appealed or at the counter of a restaurant and schmooze with a favorite bartender.
I can’t say I became so adept at singlehood that I never envisioned life as part of a couple again. I hoped that I would eventually meet someone but didn’t wait breathlessly or put off living and enjoying what I wanted to do. When least expected, I was fixed up almost 5 years ago with a wonderful man. We clicked. It wasn’t a case of lightning striking but a slow steady progression, from nice to like to like a lot to love. Maybe, that was because he wasn’t the fast-talking New York type of guy I had come to imagine since I was back in my native New York after more than 30 years in the Midwest. And he wasn’t the next male version of Julia Child, which I thought would be divine since I love to cook and eat and probably was reading too many cookbooks and food magazines in bed alone before he arrived on the scene.
But he has honed his cooking skills perfecting a great spaghetti Carbonara, Bolognese sauce and mushroom barley soup with my encouragement. He also raves about my cooking, especially my baking. Also, he also knows just what to say when the turn on your seatbelt sign comes on during severe turbulence—which is often what kind of wine do you want to drink, and he gives me lots of space to watch “The Bachelor” even though he has no interest. He simply goes off to another room to read. And he encourages me to go spend time with my gal pals whom he knows are so important in my life.
Avoiding loneliness takes hard work, recognition that all isn’t right with life as it is for each of us, and introspection on what best will counteract it. The payoff can be big. It can guide us to new adventures and experiences if we listen well to ourselves and learn.