Mental Health

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Alone she stands

Sad and desperate or independent and strong-minded? Experience means that living alone can be a double-edged sword

Tanya Sweeney

Published 15/02/2014|02:30

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Tanya Sweeney

For the first 11 days of 2014, I spoke to no one. Bedridden and wild-eyed with walking pneumonia, I spent New Year's Eve – the one night when everyone is pretty much obliged to socialise – locked in a fever dream, speaking in tongues to myself about cabbages (I think).

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Well-meaning friends offered to drop in – "I'll even just stand outside the room if you want" – but they were sent packing fairly sharpish. A few days in, as with any illness, I felt lonely and vulnerable, like I'd been the victim of a huge injustice.

By the time Day 11 rolled around, I was in full-on Greta Garbo mode, comfortable in my lengthy self-imposed exile, even if I did wonder how I'd ever return to polite society again. Fortunately, my absence had been noticed. Well, sort of. "We knew when you weren't on Facebook that something was definitely amiss," admitted one friend. My family, curiously, were none the wiser.

It seems it is possible to fall through the social net, however temporarily. Yet even in the full bloom of health I crave and savour solitude. John Donne once wrote "No man is an island", but then, I'm no man. Many people would shiver at the prospect of spending as much time with themselves as I do. I live alone, work alone, holiday alone (adhering to no one's itinerary or whims but my own), dine alone, go to the cinema and theatre alone. I feel lucky – the chance to regroup, escape the muzak of other people's lives and have quality time with yourself is a luxury, and I'm hugely protective of it.

Living alone suits me perfectly – not having to make inane small talk, no wondering about who will clean the toilet bowl, no wrestling for the remote control, no designated shelves in the fridge. All that even before we mention the simple, unfettered joy of getting to sleep in the middle of the bed.

Even as a toddler, I couldn't get enough independence. "You were always running away from us any chance that you got, desperate to be on your own," my mother used to say, accusingly.

Yet here's the thing: I can afford such bravado about being alone. I'm a young-ish urbanite working in a sociable and dynamic industry where I speak to people all day long. I have a circle of friends that I can dip in and out of at will. Far from being all Miss Havisham about it, my house is full of music. But I'm acutely aware that these variables are saving me from an altogether darker existence.

And so the first question is this: does solitude mean different things to different generations? Does a Facebook feed packed with inane chatter and banter protect me from outright loneliness?

"Research has proven that Facebook can make you feel more alone," says Fiona O'Doherty, a clinical psychologist at the Beacon Clinic (Beaconconsultantsclinic. com). "Research states that the more people you know on Facebook, the more isolated you feel. You spend all day checking out the positive – always positive – things that people put on there."

Certainly, there exists a stereotype that older, single people are lonely, disenfranchised and isolated.

The story of retired butler James Gray (85), who posted an ad imploring people to spend Christmas with him after a 10-year streak of being alone on the big day, seemed to cut everyone to the quick. It went viral because it tapped into most people's primal fear of being alone and clean out of social options and outlets.

It seems that not even the glory of an Oscar-winning career can inoculate one from loneliness. In 2012, Brenda Fricker (68) admitted that she lives in Dublin's Liberties area largely alone with her memories. "I go to a therapist once a week, purely to have a conversation and to hear another human voice," she has admitted. "You get so bloody tired of nobody listening to you".

Our reaction is invariably pity, and I suspect that this says a lot more about us than it does Brenda Fricker. We've been conditioned to think of solitude in many ways: as the fate that befalls loners and misanthropes. Culturally, we have a real problem with it.

In his book 'Solitude', Philip Koch pinpointed our problems. He said that we see solitude as unnatural, psychologically dangerous, escapist, anti-social and, perhaps most significantly, pathological.

Tabloid tropes and narratives rarely help in this respect. Serial killers, paedophiles and society's 'problem people' are often tagged as loners. They're the folks that neighbours invariably describe as people who "keep to themselves", as though this may be the cause or the result of their behaviour. It rarely comes into discussion that they might live alone simply because they want to.

Although it's often the worries and projections of others that can induce fear and loneliness, the cautionary tales also evoke terror. In 2012, the body of 62- year-old Alan Moore, who had lived alone in Wexford town for 10 years, lay undiscovered in his house for more than three months until someone noticed that the Christmas lights were still twinkling in his front window.

While the incident was put down to the isolation of older people, another tragic occurrence in the UK gave many younger singletons pause for thought. The skeleton of 38-year-old Joyce Carol Vincent was found in a London bedsit in 2006. She had been dead for almost three years, yet by all accounts she was popular, fun-loving and sociable. How a thirtysomething's absence could go unnoticed for so long in a city of eight million people is something that has no doubt shaken most solo-dwellers to the core.

Even pure evolutionary biology claims that humans aren't hardwired to be alone. "As psychologists, everything we do is measured within relationships and other people," says O'Doherty. "Humans are distinguished from other animals because of language and our communications."

Biology notwithstanding, the number of people choosing to live alone is growing steadily. The 2011 Census indicated that there were 392,000 one-person households in Ireland. The number had grown significantly in the five years before that, increasing by 62,500.

A recent study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council also found that women who live alone rate their lives as happier and healthier than if they live with someone else. What's more, people having the place to themselves will be an important social trend during the next decade, accounting for 80pc of the growth in households by 2026, according to official figures.

On top of that, market research firm Euromonitor International has claimed that the number of people living alone globally is skyrocketing, from about 153 million in 1996 to 277 million in 2011 – an increase of around 80pc in 15 years.

What of the psychological effects of being alone? Does it, as we seem to assume, bring on depression or mental imbalance? Dr Claire Hayes, clinical director at the depression and anxiety charity Aware (Aware.ie), differentiates between those who are alone by choice and those who experience isolation though bereavement or empty-nest syndrome.

"If someone is on their own and struggling because they're thinking, 'No one's bothered with me and everyone has this great life', they will feel vulnerable, especially if they have been used to being with someone else for years," she says. "That then becomes part of their self-identity, which can be a problem. If the solitude gets to them, yes, it can cause depression.

"A lot of it comes down to how we get on with ourselves. Some people are comfortable with themselves, others are harsh on themselves, and this can create difficulty. On the (Aware) helpline, it's a question of acknowledging these feelings and seeing what your options are."

O'Doherty agrees that there are various shades of solitude. "If you're alone for reasons of avoidance, or it's caused by a mental health reason, or it's a solitude that arises out of negative experiences and a conscious effort to cut people off; if we feel there's a lack of choice in our lives, it implies a lack of control, and that can be stressful and frightening," she says.

I'd be the first to admit that when you live alone, your behaviour goes largely unchecked, paving the way for nana naps, microwaveable meals and unseemly piles of dirty laundry. Solo-dwellers I know will admit to not showering for days or watching four hours straight of some braindrain TV programme such as 'Take Me Out'. That time supposedly set aside for painting, yoga or bread-making? Yeah, never happens.

O'Doherty also claims that during those unpleasant dark nights of the soul, the power of the mind can often overtake reason and logic, occasionally leading to a disturbing inner dialogue.

"Being alone can be a form of sensory deprivation," she says. "In a purely practical way, you are cutting off information to the senses, and the brain makes sense of an experience without anything else going in. No contact with people can distort your thinking."

She also makes a distinction between genders: "Men are more prone to saying, 'I'm not into the party scene, I just want to read a book or play music'. Women live their lives – and this, granted, is a generality – in a social and caring environment, and they want to achieve caring for others. There's a reason empty-nest syndrome isn't associated with men."

I may find my solo existence liberating and nourishing now, but what about down the line? Am I more prone to actual loneliness, or will I be more susceptible to lonerism and misanthropy? Not strictly so, according to Sean Moynihan, CEO of Alone (Alone.ie), a voluntary organisation that offers a befriending service and crisis support to older people.

"The people we delivered dinners to on Christmas Day are just like you and me," he says. "Some have been married, some even have kids in other parts of the world. All of them would say that they never thought loneliness would happen to them, or that they'd have ended up using a service like ours."

There has been a steady rise of people, young and old, looking to access Alone's services – something that Sean attributes not just to the rising numbers of older citizens, but to a wider societal disconnect caused by long working hours and broken-down social circles.

"Our natural view is that the country is more isolated than the city, but that's not always true," he says. "It's possible to be very isolated in the city. The good news is that it doesn't necessarily happen to everyone. Older people are stereotyped as frail and lonely, but in many cases they are linked-in and quite happy."

We've long been told that staying in contact with family and friends and investing in those relationships is the best way to insure against emotional malaise. And for those that crave seclusion, exacting a balance is key.

But while that's possible in many cases, in other it's not. After all, it's the quality, rather than the quantity, of connections that really matters. For now, life with its infinite possibilities stretches ahead of me, and youth and ability are on my side. And next year, I plan to consign my memories of less-than-illustrious New Year's Eves to the scrapheap with a huge party. Well, if I feel like it.

Tanya was photographed at the Light House Cinema; lighthousecinema.ie

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