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Leah McLaren

Only the lonely heed the call of the telemarketer Add to ...

I'm not sure about you, but I sit alone in a room all day and work.

Often I don't utter a word until 5 in the afternoon when the telemarketers start calling. Last week, I did a customer survey on carpet cleaning. The postman rings my bell to sign for my neighbour's packages. I have complex, imaginary relationships with public-radio personalities. (At the moment, I'm irritated with Jian Ghomeshi for failing to notice my new haircut.)

But, beyond all the Facebook loitering and stretch-pant jokes, there's a darker side to solitude: loneliness.

I know I've caught a case of the lonelies when, after a long week of sitting alone in a small room, I have no desire to drink with friends. Loneliness is the feeling of withdrawing when you're actually most in need of contact. It's wariness of connection combined with an intense longing for the very same thing. It's the impulse that makes you leave a dear friend's wedding before the speeches or hurry across the street to avoid running into someone you know and like.

Loneliness is weird, but it has always seemed to me rather normal - in the way that many essential elements of the human condition are. Fat days, for example, or sex dreams about Stephen Harper.

But, according to Emily White, author of Lonely: Learning to Live With Solitude, I'm guilty of trivializing a serious and potentially life-threatening mental-health condition.

White suffers from chronic loneliness, a syndrome (though not officially diagnosable) that afflicted her throughout her life but most acutely in her early-to-mid-30s.



The lonelier I was, the less I knew about myself...Ultimately, I believe we are pack animals...There is no way to meet all your own needs or to be your own best friend. Emily White, author of Lonely: Learning to Live With Solitude




During that period, White was overcome by a feeling of grave disconnection, one that kept her from forming new friendships and intimate relationships and made social interaction of even the most trivial nature a daunting task. Not to be confused with depression, her loneliness is described by her as something "real and purposeful," a "sweeping realization" that the thing she longed for most - meaningful human contact - slipped painfully beyond her grasp.

Today, she is on a mission, as she puts it, to "de-glorify loneliness."

In the book, she takes particular aim at the pro-single movement, as spearheaded by books such as Quirkyalone, Singled Out and Living Alone and Loving It, which put forward an upbeat, glossed-over version of life without live-in company.

"Studies show that more people are living solitary, fragmented lives," she tells me in an interview from her home in St. John's. "While this has happened, we have glorified aloneness. We've got this mantra now - it's a response to how alone we are - that we're all okay on our own. And while there's nothing wrong with going on vacation alone, and there are some people who totally choose to live alone and enjoy it - Anita Brookner, for instance - you don't need studies to show that if you live alone, you're more likely to be lonely."

And loneliness, she points out, has been clinically linked to lowered cognitive function in college-age youth, early onset of dementia in the elderly and, in the most acute cases, increased rates of suicide.

White says her own loneliness may well have done her in, if not for the obsessive research project she embarked on in order to try to understand her condition - that and "the spasm of dumb luck" that led to her meeting her current partner.

After her own journey into solitude, White rejects the notion that lonely people are somehow more existentially aware. One of the more refreshing aspects of the book is her wry skepticism at the notion of mindfulness - the idea that the inward journey of meditation can bring some kind of self-contained spiritual nirvana.

"The lonelier I was, the less I knew about myself," she says. "Ultimately, I believe we are pack animals. Groups can be hard, but you need them in order to self-identify. There is no way to meet all your own needs or to be your own best friend."

As if to back up White's story, loneliness is emerging as the new psychological affliction du jour. It is considered a major symptom of many other psychological afflictions, such as borderline personality disorder and anxiety and depression.

In her case, loneliness struck while she was a high-functioning, sociable, environmental-protection lawyer living in downtown Toronto. Not exactly your typical Eleanor Rigby-type profile.

She offers no magic solution for her affliction - like many people, she spent years in talk and drug therapy, most of it to little avail - but she is a proponent for awareness. "The only thing that was within my power, the only thing that I could do, was to try to understand it, and that does help," she says.

But while White's memoir is insightful and beautifully written, my own suspicion remains: That loneliness is an inescapable part of the human condition - something to be grappled with philosophically rather than pathologized and treated as an illness.

We are born alone and we die alone. And in between, if we are lucky, a telemarketer will phone and ask us to do a survey on toothpaste brands. So please excuse me while I try to connect with humanity by taking this random call.

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Follow on Twitter: @leahmclaren

 

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