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Learning to Live with Solitude

Lonely by Emily White
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A brave and revealing examination of an overlooked affliction that affects one in four Canadians.

Despite having a demanding job, good friends, and a supportive family, Emily White spent many of her nights and weekends alone at home, trying to understand why she felt so disconnected from everyone. To keep up the façade of an active social life and hide the painful truth, that she was suffering from severe loneliness, the successful young lawyer often lied to those around her — and to herself.

In this insightful, soul-baring, and illuminating memoir, White chronicles her battle to understand and overcome this debilitating condition, and contends that chronic loneliness deserves the same attention as other mental difficulties, such as depression. "Right now, loneliness is something few people are willing to admit to," she writes. "There's no need for this silence, no need for the shame and self-blame it creates."

By investigating the science of loneliness, challenging its stigma, encouraging other lonely people to talk about their struggles, and defining one person's experience, Lonely redefines how we look at loneliness and helps those afflicted see and understand their mood in an entirely new light, ultimately providing solace and hope. It is a moving, compassionate, and important book about a topic that is affecting more among us each day.

From the Hardcover edition.
McClelland & Stewart; February 2010
ISBN 9781551993492
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Lonely
Author: Emily White
Chapter One
Waiting for the state to strike

I’ve had periods of loneliness my whole life. Since research shows a genetic basis for loneliness, with some people being born with an ingrained tendency toward the state, I now see these periods as natural, almost inevitable. Or, rather, I see them as inevitable from the perspective of the adult I’ve become. I’m the sort of person who likes to play “What if?” What if I hadn’t dropped physics? What if I’d married my first boyfriend? What if Henry Ford had mass-produced bicycles instead of cars? And I can engage in this sort of shuffling and reshuffling of reality when it comes to my loneliness. I can daydream about a childhood in which my sisters and I were closer in age, and my parents stayed together, and my whole family remained in the South. In this way, I can whip up an alternate version of my life, one in which my genetic predisposition toward loneliness doesn’t slam up against the experience of early isolation.
But the fact is that I was a solitary child born into circumstances that saw me too much alone. I don’t mean that I was friendless. One of the overriding ironies of my life has been that, although I’ve struggled with loneliness for years, sociability has rarely been a problem for me. I grew up with much older sisters—Christine and Theresa were ten and eight years older than me—and while the age gap set us apart, it also meant I had the benefit of role models. By the time I was nine, I had the manners of a much older child. I knew how to be polite with parents, deferent with teachers, and funny with friends. I had a best friend—a beautiful Trinidadian girl with the pretty name of Stacey Lea—and other girls used to crowd around me in the schoolyard, asking if they could be my second best friend, or my third. This sort of flattery never made me disdainful or vain, and that’s because the isolation that characterized the other aspects of my life worked to keep my little ego in check. I’m not sure exactly when I became conscious of my motivations, but I realized fairly early on that the reason I was better than other girls at making friends was because I needed those friends more acutely.
This was something the kids around me didn’t seem to notice. Stacey, for instance, had a big, sprawling house. It was a bungalow that had sprouted additions as the family grew and grew, and the erratic architecture made it an ideal place for playing, with an unfinished attic, blind spots in the yard, and dead-end hallways that could be cordoned off with sofa cushions. Stacey used to like a game where we dared each other to climb into a crawl space under the kitchen—it was a damp and gravelly spot that smelled of soil—and she never seemed to realize how uncomfortable the game made me.
“I’m here,” she’d call out, as I cringed with nerves at the entrance, afraid she might just disappear. “I’m putting my clip down as a marker. You have to pass it,” she’d say victoriously, emerging from the crawl space with dirt in her hair and cobwebs stuck to her sweater. And I could never do it. A foot or two into the crawl space, with daylight just an arm’s length away, I’d panic, and scurry back out. “You have no guts,” Stacey would say dismissively, already forgetting the game and heading up to the kitchen, and I’d follow along, patting the big German shepherd that slept on the stairs and not letting on how frightened I’d been.
Because what Stacey didn’t know—and what she, with five brothers and sisters, would probably never understand—was that I had a fear of empty places, a fear that I recognized as embarrassing and irrational even at ten. There seemed to be two versions of my life. There was the public version, which saw me eating cabbage rolls at Stacey’s huge dining room table, playing dodgeball at school, and reading the notes that the girl behind me would slip over my shoulder in class. And then there was another version, the one which I think my friends’ mothers detected but which no one ever mentioned. This other me, this private me, saw me on my own a great deal of the time—unlocking the back door after school and calling out to the cat for company, or going to the corner store on my own, or sitting on the back porch in the early evenings and fiddling with marbles when the empty house became too dark and scary.
In many ways, I had it easy as a kid. Not only was I popular, but my family was reasonably affluent, and I saw none of the abuse or put-downs that some of my other friends had to deal with. The difficulties I faced had nothing to do with people behaving badly toward me and had everything to do with people not being there at all.
The 1970s—which saw families start to seriously fall apart—also witnessed the beginning of the vogue for family trees. My third-grade teacher had a particular fondness for these creations—they must have eaten up a lot of class time—and she made us cut leaves out of bristol board and glue them onto painted trunks and branches. There wasn’t a lot of sensitivity, within the Catholic school system in the mid-1970s, to the fact that some family trees had blown apart, and I had to muster all of my precocious social skills to deal with the challenge.
“Mrs. Twaite,” I said, holding a “Mother” leaf and a “Father” leaf. “What if they’re not on the same tree anymore?”
“What do you mean?” Mrs. Twaite answered. I blushed, and Mrs. Twaite seemed to come to her senses. My sisters and I were famous—we were the “divorced kids”—and Mrs. Twaite was clearly unsettled by our lack of conformity.
“Maybe you can create a second tree,” she said uncomfortably.
I looked around the classroom. There was no way I was going to have two trees when everyone else just had one, so I defiantly glued “Mother” next to “Father.” I liked the way the tree looked—with the mommy and daddy leaves hovering protectively over the little kid leaves—but when I hung it up on the wall, I knew it was a lie. I had no memory of ever seeing my mother and father together, and when I thought about our family tree, I pictured something being dismantled, like the artificial pine my mother and I took apart every Christmas.
It hadn’t always been that way. There seemed to be two families in my family. First, there was the intact unit that my sisters had spent their childhoods in. This was in Kentucky, before the move to Canada and the divorce. This grouping had seen my sisters and parents living in a big white house in Lexington, on a street with the magical-sounding name of Sycamore Road. My mother kept a photo of this house tucked in a drawer in Toronto, and I used to study it when I was little. I’d look at my sisters standing in matching white dresses on the sunny front steps, at the big oak tree in the corner of the frame, and the edge of my father’s shadow in the foreground. There was a peacefulness to this portrait that mesmerized me. I always tried to insert some image of myself into the frame—perhaps looking out from an upstairs window—but I could never fully convince myself that I belonged in the picture. And that’s because, even though I held the photo in my hand, the move to Canada seemed to have ripped its contents in two. Perhaps the absence of aunts and cousins had revealed fault lines within their marriage, but—for reasons that were never explained to me—my parents split up shortly after the move, when I was four. The divorce meant that I saw my father only on Sunday afternoons, and that I saw my mother barely at all. Confronted with the sudden demands of single parenting, she had to hustle for work, and she ended up teaching English as a second language to other newcomers at a college downtown. Her hours, as well as the long commute, meant that she was often not at home, and her absence meant that I had to be self-sufficient.
“You never gave me any trouble,” my mother said fondly, years later, and what she really meant was that I could get by on my own. I relied a lot on Theresa for company in my early childhood—Christine left for university when I was eight—but, as we grew older, Theresa became understandably preoccupied with boyfriends and band rehearsals. By the time I was nine, I’d become adept at entertaining myself. In many ways, it was something I was good at. The relationship between loneliness and solitude can be hard to delineate: the former is often seen as canceling out the legitimacy of the latter, as though a lonely adult or child is simply not entitled to want or need time alone. But the feelings of isolation that accompany loneliness are entirely different from the more sated and creative feelings that accompany solitude, and it’s entirely reasonable to feel lonely and yet still feel as though you need some time to yourself.
“If you don’t want to stay, say yes,” my mother would quietly instruct me, when I called from a friend’s house to ask permission for a sleepover. My mother liked time alone as much as I did, and she never criticized my desire for solitude.
Yes,” I’d reply, trying to sound as enthusiastic as possible.
“Sorry, hon,” she’d say more loudly, “I need you at home tonight.”
And when I got home to find my mother there, I’d be entirely happy to lose myself in daydreams about being the Hardy Boys’ little sister, or I’d just lie on my bed and listen to my mother writing letters and diary entries on the big electric typewriter downstairs.
The problem was that the solitude I enjoyed when my mother was at home disappeared completely when I was on my own. And this meant that what my family saw was a contented aloneness, while what I experienced, when there was no one else in the house with me, was a frightened isolation. On weekday afternoons and evenings—when my mother was still hours from the end of her workday, and Theresa was at the mall with her friends—I’d fall prey to all the habits and superstitions of a child left too much on her own. I’d refuse to go to upstairs. I’d race to the downstairs bathroom and then scurry back up to the main floor as quickly as possible. I’d try to stay rooted in the kitchen, where I could keep an eye on both the front and back doors, on guard against possible intruders, and I had long, nervous talks with my imaginary twin brother, Randy, someone I suspected I should have gotten rid of years earlier but whose presence comforted me.
The person who was best positioned to respond to the isolation I was experiencing was my father. As a university professor, he had flexible hours, and the fact that he had remarried quickly and well meant that he wasn’t struggling with the feelings of isolation and distress that seemed to trouble my mother. The problem was that the court had limited access to Sunday afternoons, and my father didn’t seem to know what to do with me during such a short time period.
“Isn’t that terrific?” he’d ask, as we stood in the atrium of the Toronto art gallery, staring at an enormous canvas. I can still see this painting precisely. It’s a late 1960s Ellsworth Kelly print of a huge blue circle against a pure white backdrop. I’d be hard-pressed to say something intelligent about this painting now, and when I was eight, I was absolutely dumbfounded. Standing with my father’s hands on my shoulders, I’d fall silent, and my father would misinterpret my confusion as dissatisfaction. He’d grow anxious that I wasn’t enjoying myself, and I’d feel guilty at having let him down. Our Sunday afternoons together were often marked by a sort of cool emptiness: we were often in drafty museums, or barnlike auction houses, or half-deserted restaurants. There was an enervation to our outings—I think both of us would rather have been tucked up inside somewhere, reading—and I often only relaxed on the drive home, when I could close my eyes and gobble up my dad’s sheer presence. I’d breathe in the smell of him—spicy shaving lotion mixed with the scent of his clean cotton shirt—and imagine a more ordinary life in which he woke me in the mornings, and read me stories, and stroked my hair when I was tired.
But the drives with my father always ended. We’d pull into the driveway of my mother’s house, and I’d open the car door to let in the cold air. “I’ll see you next week,” my father would say, not quite looking at me, and I’d head in our big front door to find my mother in the kitchen, half listening to the radio and making sandwiches for the week ahead. The sight of her alone at the counter always filled me with a sense of dread, with a feeling I’d later learn to call a premonition. It was as though, in witnessing her isolation, I was seeing the shape and content of my own future, as though exposure to her loneliness would further guarantee the advent of mine.
Because despite her gifts—her intelligence, her generosity, and her surprising wit—my mother’s life was marked then by a sort of isolation. What little family she had was in the States, her husband had left her, and she spent her days working with people who didn’t speak English. Her flat, midwestern accent was wrong in Toronto, she was an atheist in a Catholic neighborhood, and she was divorced at a time when you weren’t supposed to be. Sometimes I used to find her in the kitchen—like me, she found it a comforting spot—and she’d be asleep with the lights on, her head resting gently on her arms, a day of work and night school having left her exhausted. Although it shames me to admit it, I don’t think I went to her at these times. I was not so sturdy a child as to lead my own mother to bed. Instead, I’d leave her sleeping and tiptoe back to my own room, where I’d be acutely aware of the emptiness in the house, of the way it seemed to echo around my mother and me in our separate spaces.
I don’t want to suggest that I was lonely all the time as a child. I wasn’t. There were perfectly normal moments of sitting with my eyes closed as Theresa practiced her makeup skills on me, or letting my mother brush and braid my hair, or racing with Stacey on our banana-seat bikes. The problem wasn’t that I was always lonely, but rather that loneliness had presented itself right at the beginning of my life, just as I was starting to define myself. There was no time for me to assemble a self-portrait in which loneliness was not a prominent feature. And this meant that my relationship with loneliness became charged.  I couldn’t dismiss the state. I came to feel, from a very young age, as though it had a special significance for me, as though it were a fuse that was set to ignite.
I can’t see this changing,” I wrote when I was nineteen, a year after I’d left my mother’s house and headed to university. I was caught, at the time, in the difficult interval that many young people face. I’d given up most of my high-school friendships and was trying to create new and more complex relationships in a city hours from home. This transition is challenging enough to trigger loneliness in just about anyone. What was unique about my reaction was the way in which short-term and perfectly understandable feelings of loneliness seemed to portend something much worse. “All I can see is more loneliness,” I noted in the diary I’d begun keeping. “Just more solitude, a life lived at a distance from everyone else.” My descriptions of the state, even when it had barely settled, were full of alarm and intensity. The feeling, I wrote, was “knife-like”; it was something “poised to spill my own blood.”
There are two ways of approaching statements of this sort. On one hand, they display all the melodrama I was prone to in those years. I didn’t, in my late teens and early twenties, seem able to turn my emotional volume down: even without drugs, snow crystals were endlessly mesmerizing and conversations wildly intense; a documentary about the porn industry could send me into a tailspin about women’s rights that lasted for weeks. On the other hand, I was, in the course of all my private scribbling, actually making predictions that came true. In a way that makes me slightly uneasy now, I can turn to pages that are twenty years old—soft, worn sheets pulled from coil-ring notebooks and covered with my eager script—and see myself setting out a great deal of what would eventually happen to me. “I’ll never have children. I’ll never marry. The idea of law school seems deadly to me.” It was as though, during that brief interval when everything was rushed and new, a sort of chronological porthole opened up, and I was able to catch glimpses of what my future would hold.
And loneliness was part of that picture. In the same way that other women might worry—even at nineteen—about never finding a husband, I worried about becoming lonely. Saying that I suspected, in my teens and early twenties, that severe loneliness was going to emerge a problem in later years sounds slightly fatalistic. It’s as though I simply internalized the image of my lonely mother and wasn’t imaginative enough to conjure up a different sort of life. There’s certainly some truth to saying my mother’s modeling of loneliness was powerful, and that I’ve been subconsciously battling it for years. But my awareness of and sensitivity to loneliness went further than that. People with mood disorders often write about having emotionally intense childhoods, of being unnaturally prone to highs and lows, crying uncontrollably, or being queerly elevated by a shift in the weather. And if we accept that loneliness is a psychological problem in its own right—which is what researchers are trying to impress on us—then I don’t think it’s unusual or impossible for someone to have a sense of that problem gaining a foothold in their life. When I became lonely in my late teens and early twenties, I was aware of what I can only describe as the edges of something. It was as though I were seeing someone at a distance and through a crowd, and this stranger was waving patiently at me, confident that in time we’d draw much closer together.
By my midtwenties, I’d turned into someone who wasn’t chronically lonely so much as chronically alert to the risk of loneliness. In much the same way that depressives try to organize their lives so as to avoid the blues—exercising obsessively and getting precisely eight hours of sleep a night—I grew into someone who put the need to avoid loneliness at the center of my life. My first attempt to stave off loneliness involved moving in with a sweet, insanely rich, and paternal redhead named Martin, who was the son of a stockbroker but who had the distinctly rural ambition of becoming a folksinger. He was rumpled, with the J. Crew shirts his mother bought for him falling out of his jeans, and he was talented, but full of insecurities that he tried to offset by finding stories of unlikely success.
“Did you know, sweetie,” he’d say, lying on the futon we used as a couch, tipping his cigarette into the ashtray settled on his belly, and reading the insert from a cassette, “that John Prine used to be a postman?”
“See,” I’d reply, as positively as possible, “anyone can do it. It’s not your background that matters so much as how good you are. And you are good.”
He was: he had a low, smoky voice, one of the most gorgeous I’ve ever heard, and my encouragement of him was sincere. I helped him with his application for a music management program, scanned the lyrics he jotted on the backs of cigarette packs, and cooked while he sang and strummed guitar in our back bedroom. Helping Martin certainly went some ways toward easing my feelings of aloneness. Experts agree that “nurturing” others, in the form of teaching, child-raising, or fostering stray animals, is an excellent antidote to a sense of isolation. The problem was that, in supporting Martin’s dreams of becoming a musician, I wound up pushing him into a world that I couldn’t enter. I didn’t like the smoky bars late at night, or the rehearsals that saw Martin’s friends using my pots and dried bean jars as instruments. I couldn’t handle the endless drinking, and I never knew how to respond to the strange mix of calculation and dissolution that characterized the booking agents and talent scouts Martin was always trying to impress.
We lived a few blocks away from the law school at the University of Toronto. I used to pass it twice a day on the bus on my way to work at a film library. I liked the calm air of it, the way it was surrounded by manicured lawns and wrought iron gates. I’d seen legal dramas, such as Law & Order, and I thought of law as offering a sort of enforced collegiality. When I thought about becoming a lawyer, I pictured long, intense evenings around boardroom tables, hurried conversations in courthouse hallways, and whispered talks behind closed office doors.
“At least you’ll have a paycheck,” Martin remarked one night, as I sat beside a timer and scribbled out answers to LSAT questions. It seemed clear to us both that, in applying to law school, I was choosing a different sort of life over the one he was offering. Oddly, we never really argued about this. Martin seemed resigned to my impending departure; what seemed to bother him was the fact that I was leaving him for something so curtailed and dull.
“Some of us don’t have trust funds,” I replied, rather sharply, and Martin shrugged, as though his wealth had nothing to do with him.
“You could make money some other way.”
“It’s not about money, Martin.”
“What’s it about, then?” His question was entirely genuine. Martin was—to this day—the most gregarious person I’ve ever met. He didn’t have a circle of friends so much as a pack of people who followed him to and fro wherever he went. Being at home with me was as close to alone as he ever came.
“You wouldn’t understand,” I replied, and as soon as I said this, I realized I didn’t quite understand it myself. I didn’t have any real interest in law, and the analytical exercises I was doing struck me as empty and hollow. What I was going for was togetherness, a sort of bounded camaraderie which—much like the army—would see me dressing and behaving like everybody else. Although I could never have said so to Martin, who was socially gutsy, what I was looking for was a buffer, a shortcut into a life so intensely peopled that loneliness couldn’t find me.
At least initially, my little feint against loneliness worked. In my first two years of law school, I was abundantly social, and happy to be surrounded by smart people with big ambitions. Loneliness, of course, continued to present itself, but I actively engaged in what I’d later recognize as cognitive behavioral therapy. When a negative thought about loneliness presented itself, I tried to counter it with a more objective assessment of the situation. If I saw others leaving a classroom without me, I’d tell myself that I’d been slow getting my books, and that I shouldn’t interpret their departure as a sign of anything meaningful. Sitting alone in the library hour after hour, I’d force myself to actually write down my list of friends, in order to counter the familiar voice saying I was friendless.
The problem I ran into in those years wasn’t a lack of sociability so much as a failure to connect. I made a very close friend during first year—a sweet human rights campaigner named Laura, a girl so attuned to injustice that she cried during a mock trial—but for the most part there was a gap between me and the other students.
“How is it that we’re able to do this?” asked Brian, a law student I dated in second year. He was sinewy and handsome, and we were hiking along the edge of a sunlit field an hour north of Toronto. The field was part of a network of trails, all of which crossed private land, and Brian seemed preoccupied with trying to identify the mechanism that gave us free access to other people’s property.
It’s an easement, I thought, dutifully calling up the right term. But the thought of saying the word, of polluting the bright day with talk of laws and rules, seemed exhausting to me. There was a dog rushing toward us on the trail up ahead—the sun glinting off its neat black coat as its paws pounded the dust—and I tried to turn the conversation away from property rights.
“It’s a Lab,” I said enthusiastically. “Did you have dogs when you were little?”
“No. But think. If one of us got hurt right now, who would we sue, the province or the farmer?”
Conversations such as these would leave me feeling half drowned, as though I’d just woken from a dream in which everyone else was speaking a different language. And I couldn’t even blame Brian for being a stiff. He was doing exactly what a law student was supposed to be doing—filtering everything through the sieve of a new vocabulary. I was the one who was, in a sense, refusing to engage with reality. I had daydreams of being a writer, and I’d often leave the law library, cross the street to a different college, and hide in its American literature section, perched on one of the little metal stools that most people use for standing on. I found a novel called Anywhere But Here, and the title seemed to capture the ambivalence I was beginning to feel about my situation. I’d walk into a three-hour securities lecture, look at the students swapping business magazines and doing penny trades on their laptops, and make a wish: Anywhere but here. The phrase became a mantra that popped up whenever I found myself trapped in a conversation about shareholder rights, or interviewing with a tax lawyer, or attending a wine and cheese reception and listening to a senior partner talk about his boat.
There are two lines of thought about the relationship between loneliness and depression. Some people see long-term loneliness as leading to the noonday demon, with aloneness taking such an emotional toll on the lonely person that he eventually runs out of resources and succumbs to chronic feelings of the blues. But it’s also been shown that an episode of depression can leave someone more vulnerable to loneliness. Since it curtails the ability to socialize, creates a certain degree of secrecy, and can hasten the arrival of a double or triple self—in which some people are privy to certain facts, while others aren’t—depression can be seen as a “predictor” of loneliness, with a bout of the blues increasing the likelihood that loneliness will follow in the years to come.
And it was depression that I hadn’t counted on when I’d been drawing up plans for how to sidestep aloneness. In retrospect, I think my failure to connect with people at law school disappointed me, and the constant sense of not saying the right things and not appreciating the right ideas reminded me of all of those afternoons with my father, when I hadn’t been able to enjoy the paintings and sculptures he was trying to entertain me with. Law school comes with a future mapped out—you do your clerkship at one firm, find a job at a different firm, then become a partner—and my inability to imagine myself partaking of this future quickly collapsed into an inability to foresee any future at all. I began sleeping ten to twelve hours a day; my hands shook; I developed a genuine anorexia, in which food tasted like chalk; and it soon became routine for me to start crying the minute my apartment door was closed and my book bag hit the floor.
“Do you feel you might do something?” asked Laura gently, standing in her winter coat and not complaining about the cold. I’d called her from my apartment in the middle of my clerkship at a large litigation firm. It was late at night, midweek, and I’d been overcome by a sense of panic, by a powerful feeling that something bloody and dreadful was about to materialize. Laura had taken a cab to my apartment, and then hustled me into a second cab, which had deposited us on the big wide sidewalk in front of one of Toronto’s hospitals.
“Do you want me to go get someone?” she asked, reaching for my elbow. She had on a bright red hat and scarf, and I remember thinking how cheerful she looked, and how wrong it was of me to infringe on her happiness.
“It’s OK,” she stressed, reading my mind. I felt suddenly exhausted, and began to cry. Even though I’d been the one who’d suggested the hospital, the prospect of stepping into the emergency ward, with its bright lights and injured people, struck me as suddenly undoable.
“Maybe we’ll go home,” I said weakly.
“I’ll go with you,” Laura said, without hesitation. “And make you some hot milk.” She stepped toward the road to call for the third cab of the evening, but then turned back to me with an ultimatum. “We’re only going if you agree to get help. Do you agree?” she asked, in a very lawyer-like tone.
I did. I saw my GP for a psych referral, and in late 1999 was sent to one of the most shockingly attractive men I’d ever seen. In his midforties, with loose brown curls and a perfectly urbane fashion sense—cashmere sweaters, pressed trousers, Prada shoes—he diagnosed me as clinically depressed. After my symptoms stabilized, and I’d mastered the trick of looking at him without blushing, he suggested not just continued medication but the full removal of myself from the environment that was distressing me. My clerkship had to last twelve months, and there was no way I could lobby for a shorter period. There was no real requirement, however, that the whole year had to be spent at the same office.
“Can’t you go somewhere else?” Dr. R. asked, writing out another prescription for Zoloft.
“I’m not sure.”
“Well,” he replied, handing over the script, “you can keep seeing me until your term there ends—and I’m fine with that—or you can come up with an exit strategy. You seem like a creative person. Be creative.”
Feeling the need to prove my creativity, I used the firm’s phone lines for a series of complicated long-distance calls, and wound up arranging a transfer to a government office in Iqaluit, Nunavut, in the eastern Arctic. The idea was to put as many miles as possible between myself and the sadness that had found me in Toronto, and the plan worked perfectly. The North—be it Alaska or the Northwest Territories—has a reputation as a haven for misfits, and I found this reputation to be well earned. Many of the people I met in my s
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