Author’s Note: This post is pretty heavy lifting, emotionally, but this is one of the reasons that the category “Tuesday on the Soapbox” exists on this blog–it forces me, weekly, to dig into personal, social, political, moral, and ethical issues and really get down to what these problems are really about. If I’m not brave enough to tackle the minefield of my own emotional makeup, then I’m not really doing right by this category. And maybe those who read this post will be inspired to dig down into the detritus of their memories, as I have, and find some beautiful “a-ha!” moments along the way.
If you understand that I fear being lonely–not being alone, but being without people who love me and care for me–then you understand me. It literally rules everything I do. I am the way I am because I greatly fear the moment when I am utterly without love.
One might wonder why I, an only child of doting parents and loving extended family, would have grown up with this type of neurosis. I can give you a one-word answer: school.
Where Loneliness Grew
Everything I needed to know about life, I did learn in kindergarten. I learned that friendships were often political alliances; I learned that they could be made and broken in the same day. I learned that friendships were fragile because people were petty creatures, able to hate you or fear you deeply over nothing. Five-year-olds do all that just as well as 30-year-olds? You better believe it.
I was an only child, desperately seeking children my own age for friendship. But even the first day of kindergarten proved to me that I had royally bungled that attempt. I was exuberant and talked in outlandish imaginative words. I wasn’t used to having other kids to play with, they weren’t used to a weird kid like me, and I didn’t understand their “picking” and “teasing.” All this difference didn’t serve me very well, because soon I was the absolute outcast in the classroom, apparently too different to befriend or even speak to.
The Pattern Continues
Elementary school passed in much the same way–the glass wall between me and the rest of my classmates did not come down over time, but only strengthened. I would attempt to play with the popular kids, and they would laugh and walk away as if I wasn’t even human enough to treat with respect. I would try to talk to the kids sitting on the edges of the playground, who also looked lonely, and they would scream and run away as if I was some terrible monster. It made me feel unworthy to be alive. I had parents who loved me and told me I was a good person–but how good of a person could I be if my entire grade level couldn’t stand to be anywhere within ten feet of me? I was clean, I dressed neatly, and I was good at schoolwork. Despite this, was I somehow tainted?
Whatever was “wrong” with me in the eyes of my classmates has been a mystery to me since those long-ago days of early grade school. All I know is that my role in the school’s social system was established early on, and I was not allowed to move from that Godforsaken role until well into high school. I was the whole class’ emotional punching bag, no matter if you were a “nerd,” a “jock,” a “prep,” or anything else. Anybody could pick on me because I didn’t know how to defend myself against it, and it was apparently great fun making me cry because I gave people what they wanted–a response. I got teased for my hairstyles, my clothes, my grades, the way I walked, the way I talked, my height…absolutely anything and everything they could think of.
And yet, I continued to try to reach out to these people, because they were my classmates, for better or for worse, and they were the best shot I had at trying to form friendships with kids my own age. My life was school and home; I had no neighborhood of kids my age to come home to. I kept trying the same things expecting a different result, hoping that this attempt might get at least one of the kids to respond positively. Some days, after 7 1/2 fruitless hours of this, I came home and fervently prayed to God that I would die in my sleep. And that was just elementary school. Even then, I already knew death would be an escape from the horrible, crushing loneliness I felt.
Loneliness -> Depression
Around second grade, largely due to loneliness, I lapsed into what I now know as my first cycle of depression, which had been immediately preceded by several severe crying fits in the classroom. I cried because of the teasing; I cried because I was hurting emotionally. My second-grade teacher could not deal with me, so she sent me to the office, twice. I was reminded that if I had a third office visit, I would be suspended. I was horribly afraid of that third office visit (what it meant for my precious-seeming permanent record more than anything), and so I began to internalize my feelings so that I wouldn’t be sent to the office and permanently marked as a “bad kid.”
Depression came to join loneliness very soon after, at the same time my teacher began to praise me for my magical “turnaround” in my behavior. If she had only known what she had helped to engender in me; the sadness stagnated within me and festered into a darker emotional infection. My life thus became my schoolwork; pride in my work took the place of friendship. If I could not have friends, then I would just be the best in school and no one could disrespect me for that.
I spent the rest of elementary school in this fog, which only a few people pierced through to become friends; I still remember them fondly and have kept up with them over the years. But I remember also the silences which followed every “cool” comment I tried to make in groups; everyone just got awkwardly quiet, and then resumed talking as if I had never spoken. I also remember the moments of aching for someone to just recognize that I was there, that I was a fellow human being, and being too afraid to make the first move for fear of being laughed at and teased. (Isn’t it funny how our brains focus on the negative memories?)
Middle School: A Fertile Ground for Loneliness Indeed
Middle school did not clear this fog very much; in fact, as my body bloomed into its bigger adult form, I began to be teased for my weight as well as everything else. To think that I had looked forward to middle school, thinking would be better because I was with people from two other elementary schools, and I could make a clean slate of things. Unfortunately, the kids from my elementary school warned the kids from the other schools about me on the FIRST DAY, spreading vicious rumors and lies that they had grown up to believe about me.
By the second day of sixth grade, I was again an outcast, except with three times more people around to either tease or ignore me. But now, instead of just verbal abuse, I was physically assaulted, as well. Other kids slammed my head against lockers, held me against the wall so they could jiggle and pinch my flesh. A gang of six girls got together to torment me in the bathroom, dumping bathroom trash (used tampons and pads) down on my head in the bathroom stall, standing on each other’s shoulders to look down at me while I tried to use the restroom in peace. (Years later, I watched the movie Carrie and envied the title character for her ability to get back at all the hateful people in her life. I was all too familiar with the tactics her enemies used against her; the movie hit far too close to home.)
The Only Defense Against Loneliness
If it hadn’t been for seventh-grade choir, I probably would not be alive today. Choir gave me a sudden reason to live–I was suddenly one of the strongest singers in the choir, and other people depended on me for the voice part, whether they liked me or not. I was suddenly useful. The loneliness sped away when I sung with the group, because I had a purpose and I had people who needed me; it didn’t matter that I was fat, that I wore “high-water” pants, or that I still cried easily. Thus I learned something else about society–as long as I was useful, people would like me. I also discovered that I had a gift for vocal music, and coupled with the writing I had begun to do more of, I began to cling a little more closely to life.
Outwardly, I began to be more self-assured as I left middle school and went into high school. I looked very confident and poised on my graduation day, when I urged my classmates in a graduation speech to “be bold” and grab their futures. All through college, as well, I was considered to be studious, helpful, and well-educated, and people depended on me for help in tough classes. I was eager to help, not only because I enjoyed seeing other people achieve their best, but because they were genuinely grateful for my help and appreciated me.
Where Loneliness Still Blooms
But even as successful and “happy” as I appear, even today in my late twenties, I am actually no more self-assured now than I was back in seventh grade, as my teacher training so painfully taught me. As I watched my seventh-grade students flounder in loneliness and self-doubt, I saw myself…even the “teacher” skin could not cover it. I’m a Magna Cum Laude college graduate, generally well-liked by the people in my life, loved by a wonderful Christian man, and on my way to becoming successful with the writing and music I used to keep myself alive. Yet, I still apologize for everything and do my best not to get in people’s way. My past has taught me to err on the side of being too nice and too friendly. If I am considered “nice” and “friendly,” people will like me; if people like me, they’ll stay close to me, and never betray me.
Yeah, I’m a pretty pathetic person once you get to know me. I’ve been crushed by loneliness and depression for so much of my life that it’s almost more normal than normal. Almost everything about me is a coping strategy–my helpful nature, my humor, my writing, my music, even my gaming. Everything I do helps me deal with the horrible fear of being lonely as I once was, even as I’m surrounded with people who care about me. I live in fear of the ill-considered remark, the unintentional slight, the momentary mistake that leads to someone leaving my life.
With the help of my beloved, my friends, and my family, I am starting to dig out from under this loneliness…but it’s going to take a long time to free myself from these choking vines. But I hope one day I can see others as purely friendly instead of as potential enemies, and be rid of this loneliness at last.