It is cold, so cold, in the old man’s flat. It’s winter, but he keeps the door to his little balcony open. He has bare feet. Hot, hurting, red bare feet. It’s something to do with his diabetes, he says. That’s why he keeps the door open. He doesn’t feel the cold.
The telephone rings in another room. The old man hauls himself out of his armchair and shuffles off on his hot, hurting feet to answer it. He’s not gone long. It was someone trying to sell him something, he says. He gets a lot of calls like that. “And the thing is, I don’t put myself on the quiet list because it just gives me something to do, to play around with them.” He chuckles. “I don’t know whether they’re calling from Australia or from Delhi, but the accent seems to be Delhi.” He told the caller that he was in a meeting, that he couldn’t talk. He told them to call back later.
Loneliness is a let-out-of-breath topic. People just go, ‘Oh, thank you, thank you for writing about it.’
I am sitting in Herbert Bowers’ cold public-housing flat in inner Sydney talking to him about loneliness. I am learning that he engages with nuisance callers on the phone because he is so lonely, and I am thinking, how lonely I have been.
This is not easy to say. You will jump to conclusions. You will think that I am socially inept, or difficult, or weird, or boring. How uncool I must be. A loser, a failure, flawed. In the 21st century, it’s okay to admit to having a mental illness, but admit to being lonely and watch people back away. The stigma is immense.
Herbert Bowers has been homeless and transient, he lives in public housing, he is largely estranged from his family, he is asthmatic, a diabetic, and has bipolar disorder. But what are my excuses? I have been transient, too – I’ve lived in six cities, two overseas, and the one I now call home is not where I grew up, went to school or studied. Circumstance has also played its part. Forty-something, I find, against hope and expectation, that I’m a lone ranger, child-free and, for now, partnerless. The roaming packs of merry, unattached 20-somethings and 30-somethings that were my lot in other cities are packed away in photo albums. The roaming packs of my generation in this city gather at kids’ sports or droop over their homework.
And so here we are, Herbert and I and countless others, confronting “the sad, helpless, monotony of the self”, “the locked room” of oneself, as Irish writer Colm Tóibín described the loneliness of his protagonist in The Master. The substantial connection, the nourishing meeting of minds, the intimate, quiet and calm moments of understanding – well, they are rare jewels, to be marvelled at and longed for.
Herbert and I, and all the others, are flotsam in a rising tide of statistics, and the subjects of increasingly vigorous study for sociologists, psychologists and medical researchers, who now identify loneliness as a massive risk factor for ill-health. The levels of loneliness in Western urban society today are unprecedented, according to an essay written by Tasmanian sociologists Adrian Franklin and Bruce Tranter a couple of years back. Some experts believe that a third of Australians are lonely at any one time.
Blame the times we live in: we move around too much, spurn the extended family, get out of bad marriages, suffer increasing rates of mental illness, live alone in numbers never seen before (in Australia, about 1.9 million of us), spend too much time at work, have fewer friends, don’t know our neighbours and don’t go to church. We lament – no, boast – how busy we are, and anxiously study diaries to find “windows” of time to catch up with friends.
Social researcher Hugh Mackay calls it RSI – reduced social interaction syndrome. Graham Long, pastor and CEO at the Wayside Chapel in Sydney’s Kings Cross, says loneliness is the epidemic of our times and despairs about “the privatisation of the self”. Reverend Bill Crews from the Exodus Foundation can spot a lonely person a mile off. “They reek of it,” he says.
At the charity’s headquarters in Sydney’s inner west, where the homeless and disadvantaged and troubled come, almost always on their own, to be fed and nurtured, Crews often finds himself thinking, “My God, nobody ever touches these people.” Exodus’s most popular services are the chiropractor and the hairdresser. “When you think about it, it’s because they get touched.”
I get beautiful hugs from my nieces and nephews, from friends, from my widowed mother (although rarely, as she lives interstate). I am in good health, have a job, an apartment, family, friends and the wherewithal to make more. I understand that I am fortunate. But the stalking menace of loneliness is persistent still. It gets its claws in. It starts as a thought and finishes as a cold agony. Herbert describes the feeling: “There are times when I am alone and it eats me.”
The analogy with consumption is apposite: loneliness can feel like a deep primal hunger. But the words people use to describe feelings of loneliness are also the words of physical pain: aching, suffocating, searing, crushing, stinging, crippling. After ABC Radio National interviewed Canadian lawyer and author Emily White in 2011 about her book, Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude, the RN website received dozens of comments. “I have experienced loneliness as a physical malaise; sometimes an acute physical pain, but most often as a sense of wrongness in every part of the body, a deficit that must inevitably lead to serious illness,” wrote one listener.
For Fairfax Media columnist Sam de Brito, loneliness, when it visits, is also a physical presence: “It sits in my stomach; it’s like a cold ball of intense negativity.” De Brito says that when he writes on the subject, the response is always huge. “It’s a let-out-of-breath topic. People just go, ‘Oh, thank you, thank you for writing about it.’ ”
De Brito’s loneliness was most acute after his separation from his partner at the end of 2011. He became a “visitor” in his little girl’s life. How do you untangle the nasty, knotty ball of emotion that follows such an event? The depression, the loss and the loneliness? “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever been through,” says de Brito. “I didn’t really cope with it. It was as close as I’ve come to having a full-fledged breakdown. I was sleeping a lot. I smoked a lot of cigarettes.”
In a status update on Facebook, I hint to my “friends” that loneliness is the subject of an article I’m researching. I have to hint. Any more than that is revealing more of me than I can manage.
From the safety of his keyboard, someone I know comes back to me with a hint of his own. He is, he says, reading a book about loneliness. I ask him about it, gently, and he reveals that loneliness has been his lifelong companion.
I am surprised. Because this man I barely know appears to have it all: wife, children, holidays, friends and a fullness of life that would seem to preclude any possibility that loneliness could get even the smallest foothold.
This thing called loneliness is complex. It can cast its hulking shadow over the least likely of people and yet might never, or only rarely, touch the most obvious of candidates. I meet a woman in a Surry Hills cafe with whom I have chatted on Twitter. It seems, on the face of it, that she could not be anything but monstrously lonely: in her 50s, she lives alone, works from home and is single, child-free and preoccupied by the demands of her elderly, unwell mother. She is an only child and has no other family in Australia. She often has days when she sees no one.
Yet this woman tells me that she can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times she has been lonely in her life. She has never thought being single was a reason to be lonely. “I’m quite happy to just let life tick by and I’ve got enough friends.”
A few days later I meet a man in a Darlinghurst cafe. A mutual friend has introduced us. This man, let’s call him Douglas, is in his early 40s with a well-paid, intellectually stimulating job. He drives a top-of-the-range Audi. He says he loves his wife, a woman with a great deal of her own money. They take overseas holidays every year. They have a beautiful baby boy. Yet one day not so long ago, he found himself sobbing in our mutual friend’s office about his loneliness.
“I mean shit, what do I have to worry about?” says Douglas, an intense, square-jawed man with fingernails bitten down to the cuticles. “It’s f…ing lonely man; it’s friggin’ lonely.” His loneliness seems to be a collision of existential angst and the pressure of being a man in the 21st century. He says he’s emotionally immature; that most of the time he feels as though he’s just pretending to be a grown-up. How can he be a father? He keeps his vulnerabilities in a tight, secret little ball and tries to stand strong against the waves of loneliness.
“You feel like you’re falling, you’re just falling and falling; you don’t know where you’re going to land. You caught me on a good day today – a couple of days ago I was in real strife.” Sometimes he thinks about quitting it all. He’s thought about suicide and thought about just pissing off: “Like, f… this, I just want to run, I just want to f…ing get away from it all. Bars around south-east Asia are just full of guys like me.”
He has, he says, only two friends he can talk to, really talk to, about things – and neither lives close by. “Sydney can be a very lonely place. This is the most densely populated area in the country – there are more coffee shops between here and Bondi Beach than any other area in the country – yet it’s still lonely.” I think about the handful of friends I have found since arriving in the city five years ago: for every one I make, another either quits the city and its ridiculous prices and pace – or starts talking about doing so. It’s deeply unsettling. The house I am trying to make into a home has foundations of sand.
One fiercely intelligent and engaging single woman I speak to for this story tells me that Canberra is even worse. After 10 years there, she says, she’d struggle to find a quorum for a party. “Have we moved into a society where it’s seen as sort of cool to exclude people and to be cliquish?” she asks.
Douglas, meanwhile, touches on the elemental factor about loneliness: it’s a matter of perception. “Everyone’s problems are relative to themselves,” he says. “That’s why it’s so difficult for someone like me to talk to people about this – people would kill to have my problems.”
Says ANU researcher and clinical psychologist Jay Brinker: “It is not objective social isolation that is the culprit, but the perception that one’s social interactions are inadequate or deficient.” One person’s bitter loneliness is another’s divine, even essential, solitude. It’s what my Twitter friend knows; despite having days when the only person she might see is a barista in a cafe, for her, being alone does not mean being lonely.
For me, too, solitude is frequently the finest of things. But still, there are times when it turns on me and I find myself in a colder, more hostile place – often when I’m struggling through a period of bumpiness, perhaps at work, or in an important relationship. I might crave the quiet night at home, the weekend to myself, but then the void opens up and restlessness, aimlessness, anxiety and, ultimately, distress descend.
One of the things a psychologist might say I’m missing out on is “passive socialisation” – the time spent with someone when nothing needs to be said; one person might be cooking, the other might be reading and it is peaceful and companionable. “What we have today is active socialising, meaning you’re out for dinner, or you’re out to a baseball game,” said the Canadian writer Emily White in her Radio National interview.
But out to dinner, at a game, we can be lonely too – lonely in a crowd. It’s a feeling of separation: nose pressed against window, seeing but not connecting; an icy river, a gorge, a moat between one and the rest.
I feel relieved to be in fine company: on his blog, the English actor Stephen Fry, who has been open about his struggle with mental illness, recently wrote of the sensation. “I am luckier than many of you because I am lonely in a crowd of people who are mostly very nice to me and appear to be pleased to meet me.”
There are any number of facts and figures to be wheeled out about loneliness. Loneliness is usually a temporary state; isolating events such as relationship breakdowns or financial hardship mean people can move in and out of loneliness. Single parents and people like me who live alone are twice as likely to experience loneliness. Men are generally more vulnerable than women.
The elderly are at the greatest risk of all. I cannot shake the memory of a meal in a Melbourne restaurant a few years ago and a conversation I overheard between two dapper old men in tweed jackets and ties at a nearby table. One of the men, drinking heavily, slid into melancholy. It was clear he was a recent widower. He made a fumbling attempt to reach out to his friend: “Don’t you ever get lonely?” The other man seemed to shrink away as the widower shook with sobs. The rest of the lonely man’s words were lost in his tears but his anguish has stayed with me.
I’m getting the same feeling sitting in Herbert Bowers’ cold public-housing flat in inner Sydney. He wants to talk. He wants to tell me his story, a story riddled with dispossession, isolation and illness. He’s 81 now, but once he was a young revolutionary in South Africa. He wheezes a little as he describes his bloodlines as “a league of nations” – a mixture of English, French, south Asian and black African. He is pale now but it’s clear that, once, he was dark and vigorous.
Bowers fled to Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in 1965 after his activism led to alarming police attention, and then to Australia in 1973. His wife and daughter followed him. They had two more girls and his teaching career progressed and he became deputy principal of a Melbourne secondary school. But something happened. A collapse. “One day I was having full command of myself and the next day I was just hopeless,” he says.
A psychiatrist told Bowers he needed a long rest. He never worked again. There was a diagnosis of manic depression, as bipolar disorder was then known, a marriage split, a suicide attempt and years on the move – from psych ward, to boarding house, to hostel, to hospital, to nursing home. His transience came to an end when he moved into this flat six or so years ago. The loneliness moved in with him.
His contact with the world is limited. Twice a week, he goes to lunch at a Catholic community centre. Twice a week, a worker from the centre visits him. “Every time she comes she saves 10 minutes so we can talk about poetry,” says Bowers, whose only other connection seems to be a friend from the “homeless trail” who calls to check up on him.
He keeps himself busy enough: every surface is strewn with the colourful digital artworks and collages that he creates. He writes poetry. He plays a game – he calls it “making molehills out of mountains” – in which he finds nine- or 10-letter words in the dictionary and sees how many smaller words he can get out of them.
But he just wishes his daughters would ring. “All I want them to do is pick up the phone now and again and say, ‘How are you, Dad? How are you going? This is what we’re doing.’ But I can’t blame them for anything because they’ve been through the hard yards [with me].”
The fear of a lonely old age haunts many of us; the immense reality of it is barely conceivable. Nor are some of the horror stories, such as that of the old woman whose skeleton was found in her Surry Hills house in 2011 – eight years after she was last seen. In the UK, where there’s an organisation for the elderly called Campaign to End Loneliness, research has found that television is the main source of company for five million of the 14 million British people aged over 60.
“You never visit or ring up an old person at 4.30,” says Marie Maguire, a frail 85-year-old widow who lives in Sydney’s Hawkesbury region. The Bold and the Beautiful is on the telly at 4.30 in the afternoon. “I don’t think soaps are all that bad. When you’re by yourself, it’s like someone coming by in the afternoon to tell you the latest gossip.”
Maguire is a former teacher’s aide with the brightest of minds. But osteoarthritis has crushed her body – she seems to shrink and fade before my eyes – and the shame of incontinence has become her jailer. She rarely leaves her little house. Maguire claims she’s not lonely, that she always finds something to do. Still, I can’t help but notice the book sitting on a trolley next to the blue electronic armchair that slowly nudges her into a standing position: Loneliness Therapy, by Daniel Grippo.
I visit Maguire with Melanie Baurhenn, the co-ordinator of Hawkesbury Neighbour Aid, which, a year ago, hooked Maguire up with a volunteer to help her out. Eighteen months ago, Neighbour Aid had 50 elderly clients, now it has 150. Baurhenn tells me about an elderly woman in the lower Blue Mountains, an artist, a hoarder. She would constantly order things she didn’t need from catalogues. The woman had a friendly postie. “She said, ‘If it wasn’t for him, nobody would come to the house, so the more mail I get the more often he comes to the house.’ ”
Baurhenn also tells me about an old widower, a toolmaker, who built a large, fine house for his family on the river. “He has a daughter, he has a son somewhere, but he hasn’t had contact with them in probably 20 years.” His only company is his dog and the radio. Before he was referred to the service, the old man hadn’t left his house for a long time. One day, he had a fall. He lay on the floor alone with a broken wrist for two days before someone found him.
Baurhenn says many of the service’s clients are estranged from their children. “The moment they die, children are at the door with open hands. It happens all the time.”
On Skype, I talk about loneliness, and about loneliness and social media, with a fashion publicist friend who lives on her own in another city. She tells me about her new love for Instagram, the smartphone app that lets users share their photos and videos with followers. She loves the way Instagram connects her with other people in the industry and lets her peek at what they are doing.
She started to follow a designer whose work she admired. “She posts all these things that speak of a gorgeous life: there’s obviously this gorgeous man, there is always lovely food and lots of friends, and here I am at my desk looking at some lovely picture … I found myself thinking, ‘I don’t have that.’ ”
On the face of it, technology is salvation for the lonely. No matter how physically isolated you might be, no matter how socially ill-equipped or ostracised, no matter what your health issue or anxiety, you’ll find someone to connect with online. Somewhere to express your loneliness anonymously. And something to laugh at. Like the Facebook meme I spotted recently: “I’ve been single for a while and I have to say, it’s going very well. Like … it’s working out. I think I’m the one.” Or the online shop selling an “anti-loneliness ramen bowl” with a built-in iPhone dock – stay connected while you eat alone.
But “connections” and laughs aside, everything seems to point to the fact that technology is having a fundamental – and negative – effect on the way we interact with others and is actually contributing to the loneliness epidemic.
As my friend has discovered, watching other people’s ostensibly marvellous lives flicker past – their gorgeous boyfriends, their exotic trips, their cherubic children – can make us perceive the quality and quantity of our own social interactions in a more negative way.
But that’s just one element of the effects of technology that a growing chorus of experts and writers are expounding on with Wagnerian fervour. “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” was the headline on a substantial article in US magazine The Atlantic last year. In a New York Times article headlined “How Not to Be Alone” and published in June, American writer Jonathan Safran Foer homed in on the essence of the issue. “Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat,” he wrote. “Each step ‘forward’ has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.”
You may have 200 friends on Facebook, but how many of them provide a meaningful connection? How often have you tapped at your phone or clicked the “refresh” button on your email, longing for someone to ping back at you? How often have you had your head down over your smartphone when you might have lifted it to see and connect with a warm, living, breathing human being?
I email Foer’s article to the Wayside Chapel’s Graham Long, whose own words on the subject have similar force – and echoes of a similarly alarming dystopian future. We wave our mobile phone about and proclaim how connected we are, he says, “but you can use them to avoid being human. I suspect that the next generation is going to be entirely skilled with these things and entirely unequipped for real human beings.” A relationship via a mobile phone, he says, is nothing like a relationship face to face.
I’m writing this now in my apartment, on the computer that connects me to Facebook and Twitter and any number of other online distractions. It’s cold – spring is still but a hope – and it’s deathly quiet. Silence is good for writing. But silence tells its own story. Silence opens up the space for those insidious slivers of doubt about success and failure, meaning and worth. Silence emphasises the stark reality of the small part we each play in this whole big thing.
Loneliness can make you feel as though there’s not enough of you, the Canadian writer Emily White said on radio. Herbert Bowers, in his cold public-housing flat, makes a similar remark: “It’s the tyranny of being tiny: you have all these people around you but you’re so tiny they don’t take notice of you. And it’s not that you want to be noticed in a big way. It’s just a nod of the head, ‘How are you?’ As simple as that.”