The lonely girls: The epidemic of isolation
When actress Rachel Weisz admitted she felt alone in her 20s, she lifted the lid on a taboo subject among young women, writes Gabrielle Monaghan
Published 09/07/2015 | 02:30
I had never really wanted to leave Vienna. But, in 2002, I packed up my five-year life there, said goodbye to friends, and came back to Dublin. My youngest brother was seriously ill and I needed to be in Ireland.
Shortly after I settled into a studio apartment in a renovated church, I came down with a bad dose of the flu. I hadn't had time to buy a television, so I had nothing to distract me for those two weeks I spent in bed but books I'd already read. My family was on the other side of the country, so for those two weeks, I never saw another human soul.
The loneliness that consumed me during that period abated when I went back to work. But I continued to struggle to pick up where I had left off with friends from college and to meet new people, despite the night classes, gyms and online dating I'd dipped my toe into.
As the Celtic Tiger parties raged on, I was spending a lot of my time reading books and newspapers in cafes and whiling away the hours by watching the lives of others. I was often told my 20s would prove the best time of my life, and there were plenty of times when that was true (usually when I managed to stop worrying incessantly about what other people thought of me).
But, in all, my 20s felt like one big party I wasn't invited to. Thankfully, that was back in the stone age, before the arrival of Facebook, when it was only my over-active imagination that told me I was missing out on the fun other people were having.
And I cultivated the art of enjoying being alone long before I was treated to photos on Facebook of happy-looking people enjoying cold beers in sun-filled beer gardens.
Loneliness is typically imagined as a condition that older people suffer from; the bachelor farmer who lives three miles away from the nearest neighbour, with only his sheepdog for company.
The under-30s are expected to have the most hectic social lives of all, hanging out with flatmates, spending a couple of nights a week out on the town, generally relishing the freedom of a responsibility-free existence. But for many in their 20s, it can feel like an isolating, unsettling period.
Because of the way social isolation is portrayed, there is a stigma attached to young people admitting they feel lonely, especially in a world that is more interconnected than ever before. The shame of depression and anxiety is gradually eroding as more people talk openly about their mental health.
But loneliness itself, which can contribute to these disorders, often remains an unspoken taboo among the generation that is supposed to be living it up.
One woman who has been frank about it is Rachel Weisz, albeit from the perspective of someone who has left it behind. The 45-year-old actress recently said that her 20s were the loneliest years of her life.
"I'd eat pizza at home by myself, rent movies, all the clichés. It was hard sometimes but you hope eventually you'll find the right partner," said Weisz, who is now married to James Bond actor Daniel Craig.
Half of all Irish people aged between 16 and 24 feel like they have no one to talk to at all about their problems, according to a survey released last week by the Samaritans, and some 72pc of that generation feel lonely even when there are people around them.
The research was released to coincide with #TalkToUs, a new campaign aimed at getting people to contact the Samaritans.
"Loneliness is among the top five reasons for people calling us," said Catherine Brogan, executive director at Samaritans Ireland.
"The generation in their 20s all seem to be talking to each other on social media, but often they don't feel they can share what they are struggling with, such as not meeting the expectations others have for them or expectations they have for themselves. And there's no human voice on social media."
Ciara McCullough, a 23-year-old photographer who lives in Newport, Co Tipperary, discovered this for herself.
A glimpse at Ciara's life on Facebook would once have revealed an image of a popular girl who loved playing rugby, soccer and camogie and went out all the time.
But when the depression she had been suffering from began to take a serious toll on her life, Ciara found the amount of friends she had amassed through social media didn't count for much.
"When I really needed someone, I felt there was no one there," says Ciara. "I felt I couldn't call any of them. You can have one million and one friends on Facebook and still feel alone."
Rather than dismiss Facebook as a source of her woes, Ciara sought professional help and began, for the first time, to be honest online about how she was feeling.
She shared her experience of depression and is no longer reluctant to reveal when she is having a bad day. She is now an ambassador for See Change, an alliance of organisations that works to change attitudes towards mental health problems.
The under-30s are far more likely than any previous generation to be conditioned that their 20s are supposed to be the prime of their lives.
I grew up on a diet of sitcoms with casts of characters with glamorous social lives and ever-enduring friendships (Friends, and later, Sex and the City), but I was never exposed to the carefully edited images of other people's seemingly perfect lives that bombard the current crop of 20-somethings on Instagram.
Had that been the case, I don't think I would have realised that social networking sites are, for the most part, personal public relations machines.
"Facebook is not real, because you are just putting your best foot forward all the time," says Paula Coogan, a 27-year-old who coaches 20-somethings and 30-somethings on their personal lives and careers.
"People stalk those they went to school with, compare their lives with them, and come away feeling wanting."
As for me, I'm now in my late 30s and relish any time I spend alone, even if too much of that time is spent scrolling through Twitter.
But I no longer take at face value the perfect lives people curate for social media. If a friend posts images on Facebook of the five-star trip her husband "surprised" her and the kids with and adds the hashtag "#blessed", I'm happy for them.
But I know they're unlikely to share photos of themselves covered in baby vomit or having a raging row on the plane home.
'I thought my 20s would be golden and I'd be rolling in money. But I found myself on the dole queue instead'
In early 2014, it seemed that the world was at Stefanie Preissner's (pictured right) feet. Solpadeine Is My Boyfriend, a play she wrote and starred in about Ireland's millennial generation numbing themselves from the perils of emigration and job insecurity, had sold out in Ireland and she was on tour in Australia.
But, two weeks before the performances were due to end, she deleted her Facebook account and returned to Ireland.
The German-born playwright and actor had been diagnosed with depression three years earlier and didn't feel she could express how she truly felt on Facebook. Instead, she felt under pressure to perpetuate the image online that she was living the high life at parties and theatre events.
"On paper, I was a successful writer and director and I was trying to pretend I was having a brilliant time," says Stefanie, now 27 and an ambassador for the See Change mental health organisation. "But I wasn't. And I just had become exhausted and incapable of keeping up this persona I had created.
"There is huge pressure for people in their 20s to have the time of their lives. People in their 30s often look back and say 'I had no responsibility and all of this free time'.
"But it's not carefree - it's very stressful to try to sort out your life in time for your 30s. And my expectations were so high because I grew up during the Celtic Tiger. In my teenage years, it looked as if my 20s would be golden and I'd be rolling in money. But I found myself on a dole queue instead.
"I wanted to get off the internet for a time and meet actual people. So I deleted Facebook to see who would get in touch."
When Stefanie's birthday rolled around that April, she received six text messages.
"It was a far cry from the 250 comments I got on Facebook on my birthday the previous year," she says.
"It was a revelation that these people who sent me texts were absolutely the only people who remembered my birthday without being prompted by an app on their phone. That was a bitter pill to swallow.
"I started to spend a lot of time by myself. It was uncomfortable at first but I started to enjoy it. I wasn't feeling so isolated anymore because I wasn't dependent on other people's company.
"I stopped smoking and eating sugar and I now have a healthy selfishness that combats isolation. The opposite of isolation isn't necessarily a connection with other people, but being comfortable in your own company."