A few weeks ago, I made my usual journey back from work on the underground. We hit Canary Wharf at 5.30, which is peak going-home time for office workers. The train stops, the doors open, and in rushes a flood of suited, high-heeled commuters with steely eyes that look at no one and see nothing but the very spot they want to stand in. I’m crushed up against the wall of the carriage in seconds. When the doors slam shut, the woman who’s standing so close to me I can smell the Mento in her mouth gets out her book, flips it open, and hits me in the face with it. I flinch and retract my head as far I can. She doesn’t move her book. Doesn’t even look at me. It’s as though I don’t exist.
This is just one of those things that happen on the regular here in London. Really, it’s a bit of a hellish place to live. It’s a noisy, restless city, full of people living fast, flashy lifestyles most mere mortals can’t achieve. There are landlords who’ll take you for every penny you’ve got, and wide boys who’ll follow you home and shout awful things at you across the street. There are queues and crowds and a constant sense of being seen, overheard, judged. You’re never alone here, yet being constantly surrounded by strangers who see right through you can make you feel extremely lonely.
The scale of London’s loneliness problem is pretty huge. Time Out’s recent City Index showed that London is among the loneliest cities in the world, with 55% of people saying they feel lonely “sometimes”. Compared with other major European cities, that figure is really high. What’s surprising is that young people, who are often thought of as the great socialising generation, are the most isolated age group in London, with 66% of under 24s reporting feeling lonely.
The impact of this loneliness can’t be underestimated. It’s a major factor in common mental health problems like depression and anxiety, and can make us more likely to engage in risky behaviours like drug-taking. No wonder the government has recently announced its first ever strategy for tackling the problem.
It’s good to know that the government are starting to take loneliness seriously. But while we wait for policies to churn through the political mill of Westminster, and budgets to be decided and rescinded and redefined and cut-back, those of us on the ground are left experiencing the effects of loneliness, everyday. How can we heal in places where loneliness is a fact of life?
The experience of loneliness is very personal, and complicated by lots of factors that can’t necessarily be fixed overnight or through sheer willpower. I by no means speak for everyone on this subject. But I can talk about what’s helping me, and that is:
1. Using the internet for good
The old “social media is evil and phones are killing us all” lark is irritatingly overplayed. Sure, too much screen time can be damaging; I feel that when I fall down an Instagram rabbit hole and end up scrolling through Halsey’s pics like why. But the internet has also brought many positive things to my life that are really helpful. I follow activists and creatives whose work brings me joy and new knowledge and inspiration. I also stay in touch with friends who live across the UK and around the world. And I use apps like Meetup to find events and groups in the city where people who share my interests are going to be – like the writers’ cafe I recently found, where I met a bunch of interesting people at completely different life stages to me, but who love to write as much I do.
2. Talking, not just texting
Hearing the voices and seeing the faces of my friends and family makes me feel so much more connected to them than reading their words in texts. There is also something extremely cathartic about actually speaking my feelings when I need to get something off my chest. Perhaps this is the extravert in me showing…but if you can find the energy to do it, I really recommend arranging to meet someone in person or via video call next time you crave company.
3. Reading, a lot
A good story takes you places. Sometimes when I feel isolated, all I need is an hour of reading, and it’s like my brain is reset. There’s something about meeting characters and seeing new places through the power of my imagination that feels comforting and engaging, much like meeting real people and seeing real places. I also find reading a very mindful activity – particularly if I’m reading comics and graphic novels -, which can help me to feel calm and safe when I feel overwhelmed by solitude.
4. Podcasts, especially the funny ones
It’s like having portable friends you can turn off and on when you need to do shit. Ok, that sounds a little sad…but seriously, I do find that listening to people talk is soothing on days when I feel low, and reminds me that there are people out there who share my interests and sense of humour. My Dad Wrote a Porno is a personal favourite; it puts a smile on my face every week, without fail. Reading Glasses, No Such Thing As a Fish, and Harry Potter and the Sacred Text are all solid, feel-good pods too – and there are loads of episodes, which is great for taking long, brain fog-clearing walks.
5. And when none of that works…getting the hell out of the city
Sometimes it’s just all too much and there’s nothing to be done but escape for a while. That’s completely understandable and normal and ok. It doesn’t make you weak if you need a break. Take a train home. Go to the seaside for the afternoon. Or even just catch the underground all the way to zone 6 and wander aimlessly around that huge woodland park at Cockfosters for a couple of hours. I’ve found taking “micro-breaks” away from London – which can be a very intense, over-stimulating, isolating place -, are really restorative for my sense of perspective, and help me feel calm and grounded and human again.
What helps you feel connected? How do you heal from loneliness? Let me know in the comments.