5 years ago the first line on my Tinder bio probably would have been, “Not a people person”. Except that I wouldn’t have had a Tinder bio because the thought of opening my life up to new people filled me with the kind of existential dread you can only get by audibly farting on a zoom call after forgetting to mute. Also, I think my husband might have complained.
Isolation was my norm since about the age of 8. Since the time I moved up to Yorkshire, in fact, and found that my southern accent earned me zero friends and the nickname ‘posh bitch’. I was alone and I was lonely, and then after a while I was alone and not as lonely. And then after a while more I was a goth and I was alone and I wasn’t lonely because in order to be lonely one needed to need other people and by that point I’d acquiesced to stereotype and was actively rejecting the idea that other people had anything to offer. Woe is me etc. And then I was an adult and I wasn’t lonely at all. I was just different, which was a choice and nothing to do with anything else, and I was scared, which made me weak and wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to dwell on.
In all seriousness, experiencing a protracted battle with fairly severe depression also helped to mask the symptoms of loneliness, simply because my unhappiness could be so easily attributed to causes that themselves had been un- or mis-attributed. Loneliness was there, but amongst all the noise it had become almost unnoticeable. And years and years of bullying (both as a child and an adult) had helped to fix me in an inward-facing position, but without the social insight required to contextualise what I was experiencing.
Fast forward to about 5 years ago. I found a job I liked doing and I started doing it. I started meeting people who had interesting things to say about the things I was interested in, and who wanted to listen to and support me in also doing those things. I found out that with the right support I was able to do reasonably well at the job, and grew in confidence both personally and professionally. I was able to explore more of my social personality by engaging with my colleagues on a personal level, as well as professionally. I began to concede some value to myself as a person existing within a network of societies. And through all of this, my mental health improved markedly.
Still, though, I never realised I had been suffering from loneliness. Even during those really bad times when I was struggling so badly and had no-one to talk to. I just didn’t think of talking to people as a necessary thing, or something that had to be repeated more than once or twice a month. And then came the COVID-19 lockdown.
What is was is that I was sitting on the sofa yesterday, or the day before, on day 20-something of being stuck at home and only talking to people through my laptop or phone (shouting at R to do the washing up doesn’t count), and I suddenly realised that I was feeling depressed. Not sad, not moody, but scientifically depressed, just a little bit, and because it was something I hadn’t felt in so long it took me a beat to realise what was going on and then I thought oh shit, oh no, not this again, and got quite worried. But having had that distance from the problem, a revelation suddenly came to me with all the subtlety of a brick to the face and a comparable amount of ridiculousness – I’m lonely. Right now, I am lonely. I miss being around people. Like a person who’s never experienced hunger in their life and who then suddenly has to go without a couple of meals, my social self – a person I still didn’t know existed – was rumbling for contact with the outside world.
Honestly, the discovery that I need to be around other people, physically and not just over the phone or by video link, has been both worrying and exciting. I’m still not a people person, by any means! But lockdown has made me realise that you don’t have to be, in order to still get value from being in the company of others. I credit this revelation entirely to all of the wonderful people I’ve met over the last few years, as well as those few friends I’ve had for decades who have had to suffer the worst of being acquainted with someone as flaky as me (looking at you Percy). Because of course I have had friends throughout my life and frankly they’re all saints to have put up with me for so long when the most they might see me is once or twice a year. You’ve all dragged me into a position of needing you. I’m not sure whether to thank you or curse you (jk oc).
Of course the biological thing about depression is that, from my experience, it’s more of a ‘recovery’ thing than a ‘recovered’ thing – those of us who are able to, get to a point of functionality that they’re happy with and maintain, whilst never forgetting that the dog is waiting, watchfully in the wings. In fact, there’s an element of pride in that whole thing of yeah yeah, I’m fine, I like being alone, I’d do fine in a lockdown, I’m perfectly equipped for any kind of apocalypse situation, my machete is sharpened and saying goodbye to the world as we know it might not cause me any undue amount of grief. Which is great, but probably shouldn’t form the entire basis of your personality. In a way I actually mourn for that resolutely antisocial person who probably would have rallied outstandingly on the day the zombies come. But just in case, I’m happy to have learned a little more about how to exist in the here-and-now.