‘A long weekend can be challenging for those with no one to spend it with’

Nirpal Sing Dhaliwal - John Lawrence
Nirpal Sing Dhaliwal - John Lawrence

Like many lonely people, I’ve often felt at my lowest when the rest of the world seems most happy – including sunny bank holidays, like this. Trapped in a spiral of depression and isolation, every day – holidays included – merged into the same flatline of sadness.

A long weekend can be challenging for those with no one to spend it with. Telephone helplines, such as the Samaritans, often receive a surge in calls. In 2019, Silver Line received 4,000 calls over the bank-holiday – it typically gets 10,000 in a week –  as many elderly people struggled with acute loneliness.

Loneliness, according to Dr Vivek Murthy, is lethal. The recently reappointed US Surgeon General told the BBC that being lonely is “greater than the risk we see associated with obesity”. Solitude raises the chance of premature death by almost 30 per cent, through health conditions such as diabetes, heart attacks, insomnia and dementia.

Indeed, Dr Murthy cites medical research showing chronic loneliness to be as damaging for human health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

loneliness - Getty
loneliness - Getty

According to UK government statistics, 1 in 14 of those in England aged over 16 – that’s 3 million people – feel lonely often or all of the time. With the collapse of social networks during lockdown, the number of over-50s experiencing loneliness is expected to number 2 million by 2026 – a 49 per cent increase on 2016. It looks like we’re headed for a loneliness-induced health crisis.

I’m very familiar with the painful experience of loneliness. In 2012, I went into a deep and solitary depression. This only began lifting two years later when my then girlfriend got me into weekly therapy, which I still undergo. I now appreciate the importance of human connection to the process of getting and staying well, no longer suffering the desolation I did during those bleak years when I continually considered suicide. It’s fair to say that loneliness almost killed me.

Growing up in a chaotic household in Greenford, in the far suburbs of west London, I experienced routine neglect. I instinctively withdrew – mostly into books and my imagination – unable to make friends at school until I was almost 10. I felt like an unwanted ghost, especially at break times when I wandered the playground mystified by the other childrens’ ease and joy with each other.

It didn’t help that my parents moved house nine times before I was 12, making me the perpetual new kid at school. But the loneliest I felt was at home, with my parents locked in furious rows – often for hours – or my father sat drinking in front of the television while my mother raged at him; feeling then wholly invisible, or worse, rejected.

In adolescence I became sociable, making myself popular with a sharp wit and churlish attitude towards teachers. But I never expressed vulnerability. My friendships were superficial, built on a shared love of football, smoking dope and partying. Young men of all backgrounds tend to do this, bonding over shared activities, be they healthy ones like being in a cricket team, or damaging ones like crime; their conversations being full of largely vacuous banter and bravado.

In my circle, no one dared be perceived weak, especially by other men. When, aged 11, I ran home sobbing after being beaten and mugged by older boys, I felt as if my parents both mocked me for my tears, and I never told them about anything difficult again. As I grew older, I stuffed down my anxiety and adopted an arrogant front. I simply did not know that telling others I felt inadequate or needed help was allowed, let alone normal and necessary, seeking friendships and romance with equally emotionally illiterate people. It didn’t help that the wider culture typically romanticised anti-heroic loner males – think of Heathcliff, James Bond or Don Draper – presenting silent smouldering machismo as an aphrodisiac.

There are many different reasons for loneliness. Bereavement, divorce, moving house, changing jobs and retirement are just some of the reasons. Addiction, too – as many of my friends have discovered. Then there’s the irony that some of the most exciting times of our lives can also be the loneliest – such as starting at university or going into business for oneself – as we leave predictable routines and relationships behind. Illness and financial stress can also lead to loneliness, as people find themselves unable to be as social as they were.

Being social wasn’t a problem for me. As I became an adult, I could always find female company when depressed, but none cut through my alienation, rooted in my chronic inability to be intimate. I had casual sex when what I really needed was companionship. Feeling a harrowing sense of isolation straight after, I couldn’t get away quick enough. But even with girlfriends, I felt acutely alone. Unable to disclose my problems – with work, family or misgivings about our relationship – I didn’t connect with them.

There can even be loneliness during a marriage – as I was to discover. Between 2002 and 2007,  I was married to a successful and much older woman, whose relentless obsession with her career left me little time for my inner needs. My inability to express myself and my misgivings made those five years the most hellishly lonely of my life. Inevitably we divorced.

In 2015, I went on a week-long retreat called The Bridge, where I and 20 others, almost all female, processed our various suppressed griefs – bereavement, divorce, childhood trauma. I’d been in therapy for a year, but that week was the first time I revealed my damaged self to peers, not just professionals, and realised that being broken is a part of being human and not to be ashamed of. I began to come out of isolation then, forging relationships based on emotional truth; one woman I met there is now one of my closest friends.

Through therapy and support groups, Dhaliwal discovered a new form of masculinity - John Lawrence
Through therapy and support groups, Dhaliwal discovered a new form of masculinity - John Lawrence

Men are particularly prone to shame and suppressed vulnerability, hence suffer twice as much substance addiction as women and account for 75 per cent of suicides. In recent years, I’ve taken weekends away with A Band of Brothers (ABOB), an organisation that integrates men of all ages into their communities by helping them process traumas; the older men then provide healthy mentorship to younger ones who are themselves better able to receive it. Focused on the needs of young men involved with drugs and crime, it performs miracles.

Before those weekends, I never let my guard down with other men, but I started to experience protective and nurturing masculinity for the first time. Men’s groups such as ABOB and The Mankind Project now proliferate, offering men a space for genuine connection and community where they can share their stories and struggles rather than hide behind the beer and banter of the pub and the football terrace.

As I write, I’m still single. I haven’t attempted anything serious for the past five years as I’ve focused on working on myself. I sometimes miss working in an office; as a writer working from home, it’s not unusual for me to go a week or more not seeing any friends or colleagues.

But, while I only have a handful of friendships, they mean the world to me. We’ve been there for each other through bereavements, serious illness and career upsets.

Even though most of my days are still solitary, spent writing, reading, or listening to podcasts, this now feels like the life that suits me. Today, however, I’ll be picnicking with my sister and my adorable toddler nephew in the park, before joining friends for a late afternoon drink. A few years ago, such sociability was alien to me. I may still be a loner, but I’m not lonely anymore.

What has been your experience of loneliness? Please join the discussion in the comments.