Loneliness is becoming an epidemic in the western world and the African diaspora is catching up fast. Over the last few years, I’ve heard of people who’d died only to be discovered when the neighbours reported ‘a funny smell coming from the flat next door’. Or seen pictures of people circulating the web because someone died but had no family. Not surprisingly, many of these deaths were as a result of suicide. I’ve also heard stories of seemingly happy people who’d overdosed – tormented souls braving life but feeling underwater the whole time. And I ask myself….. why?
Not long ago, I took a taxi where I felt like I was a driving instructor, psychiatrist, priest, friend all in one. For the entire drive, I was holding my intestines in the palm of my hand. Needless to say, the driver kept missing turns even when the satnav was as clear as a bell and there was no traffic – he drove like a maniac out of hell. When talking, he insisted on looking at me – no one taught him talking-while-driving mannerisms – it’s ok not to have eye contact.
Anyway, by the time I got home, I was a nervous wreck from praying, listening and stepping on imaginary breaks. In the time it took him to get me home (barely), I’d heard his life history – when an immigrant tells you their life history, you know it’s long and spans several countries and lives. All I could do was advise him to seek help from his GP or a mental health specialist or both, and definitely a lawyer.
After I recovered from the near-death experience I realised something – that man must be lonely despite spending a lot of time with people: I mean, does he do that with all his customers? How many of his customers cut their journeys short because they ‘couldn’t take it anymore’, or how many request refunds because the driver was demented and dangerous?
A lot of thoughts swirled my mind and I sympathised with him – does he have a close friend he could share these things with? Had he shared and received no relief? Had he shared and felt exposed, and decided it was best to tell strangers where there’d be no judgement? What does he do when immersed in thoughts alone at home? Yes, he told me he lives alone. Later, I decided to tip him and give a good review – it might brighten an otherwise dull day and give him a reason to keep going.
That encounter got me thinking of people with serious life problems and are lonely. Almost everyone has life problems – whether they are serious or not is a matter of self-preservation, level of perseverance, relationships, family ties, age, general health etc.
First of all, there’s a big difference between being lonely and being alone. You could be surrounded by people and be lonely, and you could be by yourself and not be lonely. You could be alone and lonely because no matter how much one enjoys their own company, not every minute of it is enjoyable – a lot of it is spent on overanalysing situations. Researchers who investigate loneliness define it as ‘the perceived discrepancy between a person’s desired level of social connection and their actual level of social connection.’ Keyword – perceived.
Loneliness has various causes and depends on people’s personality types, age, socio-economic and/or immigration status, general health, relationships etc. My cab driver, for example, appeared extrovert but also demented. He appeared out of tune with Britishism – when in Rome….. you get my drift. In the 30 minutes it took him to somehow take me home and narrate his life history, I knew he was facing mad life-changing circumstances and tough decisions which might tip the scales towards the loony bin if he takes no action. To add to his woes, he was also lonely.
According to mental health experts loneliness is associated with increased risk of mental health problems like depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, sleep problems and high stress. Loneliness has been known to exacerbate existing physical problems which can give rise to the aforementioned mental health issues which can lead to catastrophic results like suicide or harm to others.
As much as some people love solitude – it’s the only way to have meaningful board meetings with themselves – I do this all the time, the ‘solo time’ can be used for maladaptive behaviour like festering, analysing, and maximising small problems and minimising big wins. Watch out when your otherwise outgoing friend, decides he prefers isolation and is no longer the social butterfly. He does not want to do the usual things he did like visiting the pub, watching footie or letting people in his flat.
Some of us are too quick to judge when we observe unusual behaviours with our friends. Life is hard and nobody wants to be burdened with extras, so we ignore the obvious. What would you do if you call someone and they don’t pick up the phone, or call you back within the day? Do you assume they don’t want to talk to you? Do you assume they are busy? How long do you wait before you call them again? How many times do you call before you alert the whole world or knock on their door? Say they return your call and say they are busy and would call you later, and they don’t. What would you do? Does the depth of your relationship with them determine your next course of action? What if you heard through the grapevine that the person is doing ok – would you stop calling/texting/visiting? What if the person tells you categorically they don’t want to speak to you? Do you walk away and never look back? This list could on forever…..
Take home message: Get to know your friends and family – it’s the only way to know when people are not themselves. Just because someone might ask you to stop bothering them doesn’t mean you should. Know their behaviours and mannerisms so that when something is off it would be noticeable. Trust your gut instinct – when something feels wrong it probably is. I am in no way advocating for people to force themselves on others – that’s annoying – but in a world with billions of people, no one should suffer loneliness.
No man or woman is an island.