How to be Lonely

After an unwelcome, careless slip of the tongue from a peer, an anonymous Colorado College student comes to the rather painful realization that their loneliness permeates past their inner world and is actually apparent to others. At times informative, at times anecdotal, at times reflective, this piece grapples with solitude: its pervasiveness, its weight, and the various ways it can move one to do peculiar things.

Anonymous Issue, 2015

Anne Hathaway once declared, “Loneliness is my least favorite thing about life.” Well said, Anne, well said. I reckon that true—incessant loneliness is a universally unpleasant experience, falling somewhere between not being able to find a misplaced wallet and anal fissures. As if the accompanying feelings of sadness and despair aren’t enough, loneliness also hits you with unwanted symptoms like disrupted sleep, higher blood pressure, weakened immunity and lower wellbeing. These realities are compounded by any quick Google search of the word “loneliness,” which yields article titles like “Loneliness More Likely than Obesity to Cause Premature Death” and stock photos of children crying. Maybe the Internet is not the greatest source of consolation. 

It is perhaps unsurprising that contemporary society has become preoccupied by its fear of loneliness and of disconnect and dissatisfaction with the surrounding world. From far too young an age, we are jabbed with pejorative reminders to evade loneliness and isolation at all costs, receiving warnings that we ought not end up a loner, a loser, or, for heaven’s sake, be perceived as an open “Battlestar Galactica” fan, whether we’ve even seen an episode of the show or not.

We are social creatures, so the theory goes, and any committed social Darwinist might point out that there’s something evolutionarily off about that “loner.” Experiencing loneliness indicates an unwanted isolation and displeasure with one’s social position. It assumes an element of rejection and difficulty in forging connections that we’re told are so critical and central to personal happiness. And herein lies the real tragedy: our fear of loneliness has made it so much more difficult to accept it as a possible reality and to take constructive steps towards alleviating it. When experiencing loneliness, we dance around any possible contributing factors, constructing excuses and loopholes in a feeble attempt to distract ourselves from thinking about the origins of the condition. What follows is my account of four years of loneliness on the Block Plan; the processes of trying and giving up, of understanding a thought process and the ongoing journey of coming to terms with loneliness. 

During the winter break of my junior year, a Colorado College classmate sat in my family’s living room before a group of my close high school friends in what turned out to be an unfortunate happenstance. The CC student hadn’t been invited, per se. Unfortunately, both of us happened to reside in the same suburban area, filling this boy’s apparent requirements for an impromptu visit. And so there he was, sitting across from my old friends—real friends—as I stood nervously between them. The two worlds stood in utter opposition. I imagine this general scene is familiar to plenty of CC students who, like me, were waiting in terror for that awfully trite set of questions about themselves. As if on cue, a particularly close high school friend asked the aforementioned CC classmate how people view me at college. Without giving his answer a second thought, my classmate simply replied that nobody at CC knows who I am, only to then go off about some sick ski line he’s recently slayed or whatever—I didn’t catch the last part.

It took a while to understand what exactly about the comment had cut so deeply. He spoke the truth, if in a careless fashion, as I was aware that I hadn’t found the sense of collegiate belonging that all bright-eyed freshmen seem to expect. As a statement of fact, the truth hadn’t bothered me. Nor did the conflicting nature of my CC and non-CC world and my different experiences of belonging in each. What hadn’t occurred to me—and had stung most—was that my loneliness and isolation was so noticeable that an apparent friend could, without thinking twice, point out my impotent cries on the CC social radar. I had been found out. What I’d believed to be a deeply personal and hidden feeling of loneliness was apparently in plain sight to those around me. I’d fooled no one, if only myself. What was already an ugly sense of self began to tumble out of control; if someone else could see my struggle, my case of loneliness must have been a conspicuous one.  To anyone else, there would seem two clear, logical responses:

  1. “Thank you, friend. I will take your comments in stride and will make more of an effort in the future.” 

  2. “Get some social awareness, you prick.” 

If either of these proved too difficult, I could always talk to a professional and work out the various social snags in the comfort of the Boettcher Health Center. But to this day, I have not taken such productive routes, and my available free counseling sessions at Boettcher remain at an untouched six. Doing something about my loneliness only seemed to confirm its presence, a fact that I hadn’t been able to admit. As I continue to experience loneliness, I have found it almost impossible to ground the feeling in logic or rationality. Every so often, I escape the inner confines of self-criticism, only to resume my latent Catholicism, turn my head to the sky and ask the good Lord what I have done to deserve such a fate. Surely some aspect of my personality or a set of actions triggered my isolation and needs to be corrected. Why does the kid with soft-serve dribbling down his shirt at Rastall have friends, and I don’t? 

That I had my loneliness pointed out by someone else brought immediate attention to my actions, the habits and quirks I had developed over a three-year period. And so began an ongoing attempt to shake complacency, and to at least approach the ridiculousness and illogic that accompanies loneliness and resultant social anxiety. 

College was going to be “the best four years of my life,” Suzie, my 60-year-old cigarette-smoking high school counselor, had told me. Only it didn’t really end up that way. My CC career began in typical fashion, starting with a ceremonial case of dengue fever contracted from a dreadlocked peer (he had returned from his gap-year in Nepal; it was really “eye-opening,” and he wanted everyone to know it). I put up with LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” at the Video Dance Party because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. I sold out, creating a persona centered upon a newfound “fascination” with skiing, despite having been fairly indifferent about snow before. I even conditioned myself to nod and smile when prospective friends put on Skrillex. “The bass in this is very good. Skrillex is quite talented,” I’d say, fooling no one. I guess my idea of reaching out had been to construct a new personality, something agreeable to others. For reasons that elude me four years after the fact, my early freshman year friends left for greener pastures, while I was never “CC enough” for the others. Invites to Rastall (my barometer for social capital at the time) dwindled, and I responded, in turn, by limiting my own invitations to others out of concern of being bothersome. Sure, in order to make friends, you need to be a friend (or something), a fact pressed home in plenty of emails from my mother. Although, at the time, and even today, my reticence to reach out was based not in some form of vengeance, but rather in fear. I reasoned that if no one wanted to spend time with me, why burden some other poor unsuspecting CC classmate with my presence by inviting myself to dinner, risking further rejection and deepening my own isolation? It seemed that withdrawing was the safest bet. If I didn’t reach out, I couldn’t possibly bother anybody.

From the end of freshman year, loneliness had staked its claim. I was far more concerned about drawing negative attention than I was with forging positive connection. Consequently, things like eating became a complicated process. I’d only consider doing so in public if I had a big enough hardback book or my MacBook with me to serve as a sort of shield, a justification for my eating alone in the presence of the perceived judges of the CC social court. Eating with my friend, MacBook, was just one of many habitualized tactics employed to limit social risk. What Sun Tzu did for war I seemed to do for achieving isolation and loneliness. Such tactics include, but aren’t limited to:

  1. Never say hello first. If you don’t say hello, there’s no chance that you’ll say something stupid or, worse, that they won’t respond. 

  2. Take the long way to class (you know, that scary dark one by the ice rink). Sure, you have to get up a bit earlier and risk bumping into the odd strang(l)er, but that’s a risk you must be willing to take in order to avoid the far scarier CC student body. 

  3. Excessive yawning. I’ve found that I tend to release a big, 15-second yawn when I see someone approaching. I guess it’s a natural excuse to close your eyes, and who would dare interrupt someone that sleepy? Of course, the implication of yawning as somebody walks by is that you find the person boring or distasteful, so be careful. Use sparingly. 

  4. Make a beeline for your Worner Box when entering the mailroom. It buys a good 60 seconds, and, if you’re really good at it, you can fumble your combination to add another 30 seconds and look busy in the student center. 

  5. Avoid eye contact. Sure, it’s a sign of low social intelligence, but this way you’ll never know if the person’s scowling or giving you an approving once-over. 

It’s worse when I actually submit to conversations because it all becomes terribly perfunctory. The question “What Block are you in?” seems to be the go-to, a safe enough question to avoid any hate, if not boredom. I keep the focus squarely upon a conversational partner, asking questions as if to demonstrate a genuine interest, but really it’s just a stilted attempt to appear congenial and keep the conversation moving. When it finally wraps up, I flee. A little piece of me seems to disappear with each interaction, as I willingly sacrifice arcane thoughts and observations in order to be perceived as how I think I’m supposed to be. My inability to let go has led to the illusion of a normal and healthy life.  

My early struggles soon developed into a full-scale panic, culminating in late winter nights spent filling out transfer applications only to withdraw them after questioning whether or not a new environment or school would even make a difference. Everything became ordered around the analysis of each little social interaction as I overanalyzed the positive and negative aspects of every encounter. The grimacing face of a Worner desk assistant or the unreturned “Hello” of an acquaintance walking by were conceived as personal slights, indications that I wasn’t wanted and didn’t fit in. In reality, these people had likely paid little attention to their responses. Maybe they had been having an awful day or simply hadn’t heard me, but this is irrelevant in my limited and self-centered perspective. Ultimately, every interaction had to speak some greater truth about how others viewed me. 

Such is the nature of loneliness and its consequent feelings of social anxiety and insecurity. It is all-encompassing and tends to grow with neglect. Not unlike the suspicious lump that eventually develops into a cancerous tumor, loneliness, when ignored, expands, metastasizing to envelop its host. Sure enough, as loneliness sets in, the less adept individuals become at navigating social waters, owing to their avoidance of social situations and overwhelming concern of further rejection. While difficult to explain, each social setting that I enter I view through an unshakably negative lens, with a clear idea of everything that could go wrong. This happened recently at an off-campus coffee shop. Of course, the only open seat was situated directly across two students who I knew and who knew me. Normally, this wouldn’t have been an issue—that’s what my MacBook shield is for, after all—but I was on, at the very least, “Hello” terms with one of them. I knew what I had to do; all that this situation required was a “Hi,” maybe I could even get away with a simple nod before escaping back into the safe glow of my laptop. Regrettably, habit took over before I could take the appropriate step: I didn’t say hello and I avoided eye contact, opening my laptop and inserting headphones. Safe. Only I wasn’t safe, because people tend to talk amongst each other. 

Later that evening, a concerned friend questioned why I’d ignored a nice, approachable classmate for a full 30 minutes at a coffee shop, having been separated by all of three feet’s-worth of table. That the classmate might have appreciated a “Hello” hadn’t really occurred to me. If anything, I felt that I was performing a favor, avoiding being a nuisance. In my focus and obsession with what could have gone wrong, I’d managed to fulfill my own prophecy. Worse still, I am only ever able to recall the unreturned smiles, the imagined grumpy tones, the dinners I never received an invitation to. The negative memories manage to accompany me for every new encounter without the positive ones, leaving me little more than a nervous wreck.

I strategically developed on an affinity for pastimes that favor solitude. I became somewhat of a music connoisseur and an extremely strong student, since my great deal of spare time seemed to favor such activities. I compensated for my lack of human interaction through long and fruitful, if one-sided, relationships through a screen. I stepped into a mid-range paper supply company in Scranton, openly debating the merits of Pam or Karen on behalf of my good friend, Jim. Hell, every once in a while, I’d venture over to an all-women’s prison, typically very concerned with Piper’s behavior. Sometimes I’d even indulge in joining a certain misanthropic and curmudgeonly Jew in cursing the world and those around me. Television in particular affords an option to be around people and watch them without being watched myself. It became the ultimate anesthetic. I can’t possibly be socially burned by the TV, as the TV is not capable of making fun of me for “accidentally” turning on "Dance Moms." TV was a way to cope and has since been something to abuse. Just as sleep has become a temporary and intermittent escape from CC, TV allows me to live a much more interesting and fulfilling life, if only an episode at a time. 

“Nobody at CC knows who he is.” It hurt to hear, but I suppose it was sort of galvanizing in its own way. Granted, I didn’t do anything about it at the time, or in the months following, or in the years since that I’ve spent ruminating. I remain trapped in my ways. I still make sure I’m wearing headphones at all times, even if I’m not listening to music. I still stare at my shoes as I walk to and from class, recognizing that they don’t offer a way out, or any sort of relief.

Loneliness is illogical. The very fear it creates and insecurity it produces profligate in the mind, making the problem worse than it needs to be. It makes quick-fix behavior alluring at the expense of solutions. But if my experience with loneliness has offered anything comforting, it’s the reality that I lay at the center of the equation. Ultimately, it’s my perception and overconsumption of daily happenings that influence my feelings. I don’t think loneliness is done with me, but I suppose, if anything, I’m grateful to have begun grappling with it at all.

Archival Issue | March 2019