Feeling Lonely When You’re Single Doesn’t Mean You’re Weak

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"Sad Presentiment," by Girolamo Induno
“Sad Presentiment,” by Girolamo IndunoPhoto: Sergio Anelli

I planned a party last September to celebrate having passed the halfway point in writing my first book. 43 women invited to celebrate 30,000 words written. $128 spent on alcohol, $54 on snacks, $49 on new speakers, $12 on dollar-store Champagne flutes, and $25 to get my hair blown out for the occasion. It would start at 9 p.m. and end when we grew tired. But the real reason I wanted to have the party was that I wanted to see my friends and to make new ones by inviting people with whom I was only acquainted in the digital sphere. I wanted to see these people because I was lonely.

Expressing loneliness has the rare distinction of making a person appear both pitiful and callous. As members of a generation raised on the virtues of self-esteem and self-reliance, confessing that we are lonely is to admit we’ve failed to sufficiently absorb the personal motto we were assigned from birth: “I am enough.” Adding insult to injury, admitting loneliness to an audience of one or more puts the listener on the defense. “You’ve got me! Aren’t I enough?” they reply, having so thoroughly internalized the self-affirmation that they have expanded “I am enough” to mean “I am enough for everyone.” The assumption is a category error. I would be terribly lonely if I had a romantic relationship but no friends, but that’s never happened. I have, however, experienced prolonged bouts of singleness, and the crushing loneliness those long stretches pressed onto me.

I often marvel at the gregarious avatar of me that thrives online, how no one would guess how prone to loneliness she is. That version of me scoffs at male behavior and suffers no fools, embraces the cat lady lifestyle with gusto, and loudly celebrates her friendships above all else. In reality, I must draw every ounce of my willpower to engage socially outside of my comfort zone. There are friends to whom I would hand-deliver my beating heart if they asked, and who would do the same for me, but I can count them on one hand (which is for the best, as we all have only a single heart). In larger groups, meanwhile, I either appear withdrawn or overcompensate with rushed intimacy and postured extroversion. I wanted to have that party to welcome women I admire into my home and introduce them to a me that was worthy of them. I wanted to present a version of myself that did not look quite as lonely as I felt.

But the same loneliness that prompted me to schedule the party was the reason it did not happen. It was three days before the party that I last slept. I will not say the number of calories I consumed that week, but they were counted and they were too few. It was nine hours before the party that I ran four miles to the beach and back, grinding cartilage at every heel strike. It was four hours before the party that I fainted from the heat and the fatigue and the low blood pressure that I inherited from my family but that I nurture with my habits. These are the habits of someone accountable only to herself and inclined to self-destruction, habits I abandon instinctively in relationships when I feel the peculiar but warm sense that I do not belong entirely to myself anymore.

Thirty minutes before the party’s start time, I fell into a deep sleep that made me miss the doorbell and the phone for hours and hours, so that I failed to open my door and host my own party. I woke up the next day after a night of fever dreams, and when I realized that my body had finally surrendered to sleep, I burst into heaving, childish sobs. I cringed at the visual of friends gathered at my door, frustrated and worried about my whereabouts. Some knew better than others about my predisposition to eschewing sleep until gravity and cardiac ultimatums put me to bed. Fortunately, they talked the others out of calling an ambulance.  

These invincible, sleepless manic cycles often culminate in crushing despair, but there was something especially unbearable about waking up to the untouched party spread in the living room and my hair done so well for no one to see. I didn’t just feel sad and embarrassed. I felt lonely. The very emotion the party was meant to replace with noise and friendship for at least a few hours was now even more acute.   

Though the purpose of the party was to engage with women friends, I know that in some ways I was using their friendship to fill the empty space where I felt the lack of a reliable romantic partner. I recognize and respect the people for whom friendships are sufficient and who do not long for romantic partnership. But I am not among them when I am single, and neither are many friends of mine. I have written before about how we ought to forgive ourselves when we hate being single. I made passing remarks about needing a partner to fetch NyQuil when I’m sick. What I dared not mention was that long-term solitude felt not just occasionally inconvenient but existentially threatening.

There’s a scene in Magnolia in which William H. Macy’s character says, “I don’t know where to put things, you know? I really do have love to give, I just don’t know where to put it!” I don’t recall the context, but I relate to the sense that my emotions are too abundant and unwieldy to remain at rest within my body. And so I tried to throw a party because parties are among the most unsentimental ways I know how to share love when I am not in love.

An African proverb that I think of often says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I used to think it was an indictment of the solitary runner who wanted to go quickly until I realized that speed and distance are morally neutral objectives. There are times when we need to go fast and there are times when we need to go far. Some people need to do each more often than the other.

There are some who find the most solace in romantic relationships, others in friendships. Some people are at their absolute best when they are alone, and indeed, feel loneliest in social settings. When I got into a relationship this year, I realized that my disposition is toward longing itself rather than longing toward people: Now I find myself lonely for my friends more often, though they haven’t gone anywhere. None of these dispositions reflect on our strength of character. Feeling loneliest without a partner is as indicative of personal integrity and character as being double-jointed or flat-footed. But we do not attempt to shame the double-jointed person into believing their traits can be exorcised with just a little bit more self love in a world that is designed to make people hate themselves.

Solitude demands that an individual body be the holding vessel for all of a day’s pain and uncertainties. Unwelcome solitude manifests as a sickness whose primary symptom is quiet, persistent panic. The lonely are beset with fears that they are unlovable, despite the deep reservoirs of love they have to give. Their overflowing hearts are the party that no one wants to show up to.

This is doubly cruel in a world that also shames singleness. People grow frustrated when others cannot say, “I am enough!” because of the misguided belief that people craving relationships believe a partner will fix them when they are not broken. But it is difficult to say, “I am enough” when you’ve been staring into your own mirror for so long. The reflection grows foggy from the breath of disappointed sighs that follow another failed prospect, the glass smudges as we attempt to touch our faces, wondering if they belong to someone worth loving, and cracks in the surface split our faces after we’ve grown enraged with ourselves for failing to love ourselves enough. Whether we are lifted up by friends or partners, what the other can do is hold up a new window, unscarred by doubt and despair. Looking at ourselves through their perspective, we find ourselves immeasurably lovable. And it is there that we find a place to put our love.