Within this fast paced city, why is isolation a rapidly growing crisis, especially amongst young women? Faye Nottage investigates.
Many of us have experienced the sensation of loneliness and the occasional bout of isolation at one stage in our lives. For some it is only fleeting, a rare spasm on a dull Friday night at home perhaps. For others it is a form of suffering, a heightened enduring sense of isolation punctuated only by rare moments of feeling involved and integrated.
But with an abundance of social networking sites at our fingertips and with the promise of a ‘poke’ or a tweet at the click of a button, we are still a nation of lonely souls crying out for quality person-to-person interaction, with London considered to be the loneliest city of all.
Loneliness is a continually growing ‘crisis’ within society and, contrary to popular belief, it is not just our mental state that chronic isolation has a big impact on. Our physical health can also be put under intense pressure and be at great risk. The Daily Mail has reported that “lonely people are more likely to develop high blood pressure over time.” This particular research, carried out by Dr Louise C Hawkley from the University of Chicago, followed a group of participants over four years to determine the link between loneliness and blood pressure, and those who felt isolated proved to indeed have higher blood pressure. The Daily Mail again reported that “lonely women could be at greater risk of breast cancer”, claiming that the stress and anxiety caused by isolation can accelerate and increase the growth of cancers. And The Daily Telegraph have even suggested that the feeling is contagious with the capacity to “spread like a cold”, “lonely people tend to spread their outlook on life to others, and over time the whole group of lonely, disconnected people move to the fringes of society”. Adding to these statistics, The British Social Attitudes Survey has discovered that visits with friends and family members are dropping, and there are more people living alone, with 32 per cent of homes in the UK now housing just one person.
However, it is not only the alone that experience this deep sensation of isolation. There are a growing number, especially amongst young twenty-something women living in London, who battle against the mood. These can be those with apparently active social lives, busy careers, hundreds of Facebook ‘friends’ and overworked Blackberrys and Iphones. The lonely are not easy to spot. In 2010 alone The Samaritans received 4,957,574 contacts, 46.8% of which were woman. They also recorded that 53.7% of these, whilst not suicidal, were distressed, upset, isolated and lonely. We are not living these ‘Sex and the City’ style lives, full of joy and daily quality interaction. Are we secretly more Bridget Jones than Carrie Bradshaw? Within this dividing city there is a new breed of woman emerging, and she is hounded by deep solitude and seclusion.
Take Louise Tweed for example, a 24 year old living in London with an exciting job at an advertising agency, a bustling social life and an impressive circle of friends. Despite this seemingly gregarious life, Louise finds it almost impossible to shake the deep sense of unbearable loneliness and isolation that has “plagued” her for the past six years. Louise describes it as a “constant niggling feeling” and one she is ashamed of, “I thought it was something only old people experienced, something that would perhaps happen later in life.” However, Louise’s chronic isolation began at the young age of 18 after moving from her hometown of Hastings to London for university. The thought of moving from a close-knit community to a big city gave her ‘nervous energy, twinges of sadness and extreme anxiousness’.
Whilst university is widely considered to be one of the greatest times of a student’s life, where you can live it up every night and cement life-long friendships, Louise fell into what she calls the “black hole of isolation”, where she has continued to dwell and which is a feeling that has followed her into her everyday life, albeit in secret. “I feel so ashamed of my loneliness; it is much easier to wear a mask of happiness than to share what you truly feel. I just can’t admit to anyone – ‘I’m lonely’.”
But why are we so lonely? What are the main causes of chronic isolation amongst young women in London? Why, in our busy, cosmopolitan, social networking obsessed and career-driven lives - where people constantly surround us – do we still feel alone?
In a recent Facebook survey, 85% of those asked blamed our dependence on sites such as Facebook and Twitter for many of the problems surrounding isolation. They concur that rushing home from work to speak to as many people as possible on a social networking site is in fact not a social life. Substituting human interaction for the glare of a laptop screen or smartphone is robbing us of that ever-so-important face-to-face quality time with friends. And if we are not receiving notifications and tweets every few minutes, it makes us feel even more alone. A recent post on the popular website Post Secret only confirms this idea, “I never realised how much people didn’t want to talk to me until I got an IPhone”. Perhaps it is with this ease that we are able to contact friends every second throughout the day, from the simple touch of a button, that is creating a society of isolated individuals.
With some admitting to the feeling, it is a troubling thought to imagine just how many other people are, and to what extent, hiding their chronic loneliness from those around them. As the novelist Doug Coupland said, “forget sex or politics or religion: loneliness is the subject that clears out a room.” But why the reluctance to discuss the subject? In a 2010 report, The Mental Health Foundation marked loneliness in Britain as having reached ‘epidemic’ proportions. And yet there is still a sense of ‘hush-hush’ surrounding the topic. Why, in today’s vastly voyeuristic society, is loneliness still considered to be a social taboo?
In the recent Facebook survey again, 90 per cent of those asked agreed that loneliness is indeed a taboo, with some arguing that admitting to the sensation is ‘lame’ and even talking about it seems ‘desperate’. With such an attitude, it is understandable that we are now experiencing somewhat of a ‘loneliness epidemic’. Some would argue that the feeling has always been rife, especially amongst young women, but society has failed to acknowledge the feeling and there has so far been no attempt to tackle it and its causes.
One such person who has set out to do just this is author Emily White. A former lawyer who now works as a writer and policy advisor, suffering from her own “overwhelming loneliness”, Emily came to write and publish her book Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude in January this year. But why dedicate a book to this feeling? “Because I had to. There was no other subject for me, no other interest. I’d been having trouble with loneliness my whole life, and – by my mid twenties – my loneliness had become overpowering. I was lonely every day, all day”. Emily admits that whilst she had social interactions, these did not seem to dislodge her persistent sense of aloneness. “I felt crushed by loneliness. I thought about it, I dreamed about it, and – when it came time for me to write – loneliness flowed out of my pen: there simply was no other subject”.
Emily confesses that writing about loneliness has helped put an end to the taboo that surrounds it. She concurs that the apprehension to admit to isolation is “rooted in stereotypes of the lonely as socially awkward, or clingy, or depressing. But nothing could be further from the truth”. Every lonely person she spoke to demolished those stereotypes. “I talked to people from all over, and they were all friendly, open, and curious. Some were funny; others were quaint. They came from all walks of life, but they all had one thing in common: they struggled with loneliness.”
Understandably, with so many considering aloneness an unspeakable subject, many have questioned why Emily would want to write a book about chronic loneliness. The subject, they hint, is embarrassing; its best kept unmentioned. And loneliness, they say, isn’t “real” – at least not in the way that depression or bipolar disorder are real. Emily believes “right now, loneliness is something few people are willing to admit to. There’s no need for this silence, no need for the shame and self-blame it creates. There’s nothing wrong with loneliness, it is not a mark of defective personality or terrible social skills, and we need to start acknowledging this.” Loneliness, she adds, is something that “simply happens to people, and people deal with it as best they know how.”
Nowhere, it seems, considers loneliness and isolation as much of a taboo than in London, the same place that 80 per cent of those asked considered to be the most isolating cities of them all. But why is this city believed to be so dividing and harsh? Perhaps it’s the crowded pavements, the busy hordes, how we incessantly avoid eye contact with fellow commuters, or the competitive nature of business and industry. Whilst there is not just one answer, there can however be an attempted solution. Someone who understands just how lonely and isolating London can be is Victoria Jenkins. Originally from a small village in the North-West of England, Victoria relocated to London for work and her feeling of isolation, she describes, was almost “instantaneous”. I didn’t realise until I arrived in London just how big a city it is and how difficult it is to arrange to meet up with others”. She describes how she only knew a handful of people at first and gradually lost touch because “if one friend lives in West London and one in East and you happen to live in South for example, coordinating with people can be a challenge and more often than not you end up spending most nights alone”. But why, in her opinion, is London such a lonely city? “London is huge. Some people think of London and think Big Ben, Trafalgar Square trendy bars and nightclubs, but the reality is that it is sprawling. It is almost like you are spoiled for choice”. Victoria agrees that the city can be overwhelming, causing some to feel as if they do not fit in anywhere. “I believe that in London you can tend not to make friends for life because there is always something new happening or someone new who appears in your life… You tend not to rely on people as much and become more self-sufficient, which can ultimately lead to seclusion”.
In an attempt to ensure others do not experience the same segregation she felt after first moving to London, Victoria set up her own online community Friday Night Sucks. The website aims to “revolutionise” member’s social lives by acting as the middle man for those seeking company for events, functions or just general nights out. She agrees with the taboo surrounding the sensation, “you would be surprised how many people feel exactly the same way you do, but are too embarrassed to admit it”. And with over two thousand members in only its third year, Friday Night Sucks alone proves just how segregated we have become as a city.
But are there other solutions? How can we prevent ourselves from falling into, or indeed pull ourselves out of, our very own black hole of isolation? Perhaps stepping away from the glaring, insensitive laptop screen and breaking up with Facebook or Twitter (like journalist Grace Dent) for a while would help? Or even trading in your top of the range Iphone for the humble Nokia 360 could be your greatest savior. Stephanie Jane, 23 from London found this to be her biggest liberator, “by getting rid of my smart phone and quitting social networking sites like Facebook, I could no longer see the seemingly ‘great lives’ that everyone was posting about. I was no longer aware of insignificant statuses and wall posts and as a result stopped comparing my social life to others. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made, for my own sanity atleast.”
Maybe igniting the seemingly lost art of actual face-to-face interaction is the way forward. As old hat as it may sound, perhaps joining a class, be it floristry, painting or even knitting, would help us create real relationships with like-minded people. This could rid us of our own isolation and in turn prevent future young women from experiencing the chronic aloneness that so many already endure.
Whilst it is clear that loneliness and isolation are very much still considered to be social taboos, embarrassing sensations to admit to, and to some dismissive problems, it is important to acknowledge the fact that at one point we may all experience these feelings. Loneliness can attack anyone of any background and at any stage, perhaps you’ve recently lost your job, are in the midst of a ‘quarter-life crisis’ or simply feel lost in this fast moving city, speaking out just might help you battle it. And as Victoria Jenkins says, “If you are brave enough to stand up and speak out, people will thank you for it.”