Feeling lonely: why it can strike at any age or stage

By Kim Knight

Loneliness can strike at any age and stage. Kim Knight examines the condition that affects more than one million New Zealanders.
Feeling abandoned and alone is almost a normal thing for teenagers, says Auckland university's Dr Terry Fleming. Photo / 123RF
Feeling abandoned and alone is almost a normal thing for teenagers, says Auckland university's Dr Terry Fleming. Photo / 123RF

The anorak was olive green with a brick-red lining. The hood was pulled tight around my unmade face, recently exited from my unmade bed.

It was 3pm on a Sunday. Raining. I was not walking a dog, nor towards a friend, nor to anywhere other than out. Out of the foetal position. Out of my mind.

"You forget what you feel like on your own," I wrote in the blank book with the black cover.

"Arms are just for lifting. Pushing into sleeves and sinks of soapy water, picking up a book, propelling my own hands through my own hair. It was a surprise when you turned over. Breathed on the space inside my elbow. I remembered what I felt like."

All the lonely people. They come from bullying texts, busted relationships, new babies and old age. Divorce and death, lack and loss. The dumb detritus of one-night-stands (see above) and connections that just don't stick.

Six years ago, the New Zealand General Social Survey found that one in three people over the age of 15 - about one million of us - had felt lonely in the previous month. Age Concern has reported up to 9 per cent of older New Zealanders feel lonely all or most of the time.

In 2013, Census figures showed 11 per cent of New Zealanders, or 355,000 people, lived alone. Half of those said they had felt lonely in the previous month, compared to the one-third of those who shared accommodation with others.

Statisticians estimate that, by 2023, half a million New Zealanders will live on their own.

All the lonely people. Canvas found them at every age and stage.

Remember that first time? You were 13 and your mum said you looked a-maz-ing. You hadn't been a teenager long enough to hate or doubt her, but she was wrong. Because Emma, Olivia and Sophia said so. Because Emma, Olivia and Sophia, who were your friends yesterday, said you were a basic bitch today and so it began. Self-doubt. Self-consciousness. The fear and lonely loathing of being 13.

Kathryn Barclay, from the New Zealand Association of Counsellors school counsellor advisory group, says adolescence is when you start to figure out where you belong.

"Who am I? What's my worth? They are totally comparing themselves to their peer group, with this absolutely driving need to fit in."

Every teenager, she says, will experience some degree of loneliness.

"Absolutely! They say things like, 'I walk into the classroom and everyone's looking at me and judging me.' Someone could have 100 positive comments and they remember the two that are negative.

"Kids will tell me that the popular girls have such a great life - and the popular girls will tell me that being at the top of the pyramid is terrible, because their friends are going to backstab them ... If you're away from school for a day, the power base shifts and when you come back, they don't talk to you. So even the Queen Bee, or the most popular, can experience exclusion."

Self-esteem grows with self-confidence. When teens find their place - in music, sport, art and other activities, they become less vulnerable. Barclay identifies two high-risk areas: gay and transgender teens who are dealing with wider societal prejudice, and teens who feel torn between peer groups, particularly as a result of family pressure. "Kids talk about putting a mask on for their family and then putting on another mask to belong and fit."

Teens are biologically primed to band together in peer groups, says Dr Terry Fleming, senior lecturer in youth mental health at the University of Auckland.

Lonely is a label that is a bit more socially acceptable than grief.
Deborah Hill Cone

"And it's almost a normal thing for teenagers to feel abandoned and alone. If they don't get invited to one party, it seems like a catastrophe ... a kid who might have been happy to spend time alone isn't necessarily so relaxed about that as a teenager."

Parents need to step up, she says. Role model social confidence; train your kids to fake it till they make it. Endlessly talking about loneliness, or leaving them alone in their room (at the potential mercy of digitally driven bullying) is not the best fix.

"If I had one message to give to parents, or anybody, it's 'take action'. Typically, if you just sit there, it gets more and more overwhelming. Sometimes they need a new circle with new friends and a clean start. Sometimes, as parents, you have to be your children's everything. One of my sons didn't have a lot of friends, and we watched the silly TV programmes with him and went to the movies in the weekend. Kids still need something fun in their life and maybe they'd rather have a peer group, but an adult is better than nothing."

Eat less and less; keep busy, keep moving, don't stop. Drink. Lash out. Withdraw. Sarah Illingworth is remembering her early 20s and a visceral response to loneliness. "Don't talk about my feelings. Talk about my feelings. Talk about my feelings too much. Try too hard to be mates with people and push them away. I guess the eating disorder had its root in loneliness, or at least they reinforced each other."

Illingworth, now 33, is an Auckland-born, Manchester-based freelance journalist and editor at Impolitikal.com. She writes - and talks - freely, about anxiety and the anorexia she developed at 20 and sought treatment for at 26. She says loneliness and being alone are different and, slowly, she has come to understand she often puts herself in a position where one is the consequence of the other.

"So now I tell myself: 'No one's making you do this, dude.' If you don't want to experience the downside of this situation, change the situation."

Illingworth thinks loneliness is an increasingly common experience - transient lifestyles are more possible; technology allows us to do more on our own.

"We're more connected, and have more capacity for connection, than ever before, but there also seems to be a profound sense of disconnection as we adjust to these new ways of interacting with each other. Which can be reinforced if you get caught in the crossfire of other people testing out new boundaries.

"Relationships are less linear and long-term; I don't think that's all bad, but we're still socially conditioned to expect long-lasting, meaningful connection with people, while at the same time authentic, deep connection seems to be being diluted in a lot of ways."

Maybe, she suggests, there'll be a backlash. "I think aloneness gets romanticised - and there is something comforting about anonymity - but, as with most things, you gotta keep the balance."

In 2013, an international wellbeing study found New Zealand - country of mateship, whanau and small-town spirit - performed incredibly poorly in areas of "social connectedness". Of the 23 countries surveyed, we ranked 20th worst for meeting socially with friends, relatives and colleagues. We were the least likely to feel close to people living in our neighbourhoods.

But "lonely", says New Zealand Herald columnist Deborah Hill Cone, is a lazy and unhelpful word - because it implies a cure, via company.

"Going out with people doesn't make you feel any less lonely. You can have some of your most intense lonely moments in a marriage that isn't working, for example, or a close relationship that's not going very well."

Disconnection is a better description, she says: "There's a particular feeling I've had at various times in my life where you just feel like you are an alien and the world is going on and it's like there is perspex between you and everything else."

It was the middle of the night in Manurewa. Hill Cone was sitting in the stairwell, breastfeeding her first baby. She was 37, her husband was overseas for work and she couldn't stop crying.

"Everybody else is warmly asleep and leading normal lives and you're feeling like you're just so disconnected and isolated."

In the daytime, when the midwife arrives, "I put on this great 'really, really, I'm fine, I'm fine'. I'm fine until she left. It's not as easy to reach out."

Years later, (divorced, two kids) she understands. "Living on my own in Manurewa, of course you'd feel like that. But at the time, it's the self-blame, recriminations and self-disgust that goes on top of the original negative feeling."

Hill Cone says you have to be friends with yourself. "But you can't just jump into self-compassion. It's actually f***ing useless to read that you should be compassionate to yourself, because if you could, you would. You have to start by acknowledging that how you feel, whatever your problematic feelings are, are perfectly understandable.

"I think some people who say they're lonely, I think it might be more that they're actually feeling deep sorrow about the fact that life doesn't f***ing turn out how you expected it. You didn't get the thing, and it's not fair that you didn't get the thing. That's actually grief. Lonely is a label that is a bit more socially acceptable than grief."

I phoned my father. His father died when he was 29; a heart attack on holiday at the Greymouth Seaside Motor Camp. My nan had gone a few years earlier. I have memories of scrap wool peggy-square blankets; toast soldiers and soft-boiled eggs. My father seems surprised I want to talk about the loss of his parental anchors; the possibility he might have felt lonely.

"I wasn't unique. It was fairly common, in those days, to lose parents then."

Bruce Knight has always harboured Robinson Crusoe fantasies. When I was 30 and he was 50, he took a sole-charge Department of Conservation job on Stephens Island in the middle of Cook Strait. My mother eventually joined him, but there were six-week stretches with zero physical human contact, just voices on a radio, cellphone and staticky television.

"I realise I need people. But having been a bit of a mental loner, being on my own has never rattled me. Because it's my choice, I haven't got lonely."

The downside: "You've got to be respectful of your environment, how you're doing and feeling. If you feel a bit unwell, for example, you've got to keep your head together. You know it's indigestion, but you can easily tell yourself it's a heart attack."

And the joy? "Being able to have a sleep when you want. Being able to cook what you want and eat what you want, even if it's not good for you. And if you don't want to clean your mess up, you don't have to. Not having to conform to any rules but those you set yourself."

I get off the phone and smile. My dad. The original napping, frying rebel. Days later, it occurs to me I'd never considered my mum might have been lonely when he went away.

Women, the popular narratives tell us, are better at being on our own, because we hardly ever are. We're social glue; connectors. In fact, that General Social Survey showed women were more likely to feel lonely than men. Other factors that increased the probability of feeling lonely included being a recent immigrant, identifying as Asian, having poor mental health, or a lower economic standard of living. In the United Kingdom, researchers found chronic loneliness carried the same health risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

What does lonely look like? Canvas asked Robyn McGill, president of the New Zealand Association of Counsellors.

"We could be quite angry. At things, and the situation. Quite gnarly with friends and family who manage to hang on to things that we have not. We could get into a lot of self-blame: 'I'm in deficit, I'm pathetic, I'm useless, I don't have much to offer anyone therefore no one wants to be around me.'

"We could become cling-monkeys to other people, and just talk about ourselves excessively; we might get angry around social causes, suffer anxiety, sleeplessness or overcompensate with food, or go mad and join every club going."

Humans want to be mirrored, she says. To be understood and accepted.

"But if you're just looking for other people to tell you who you are, you're not going to find out. You have to have some knowledge about yourself. Who am I? Why can I stand on this ground and feel solid and good about myself?"

If I'm wanting other people to tell me who I am I could be continually disappointed because they won't get it right. I've got to have some sense of myself, within myself.
Robyn McGill

McGill, 64, lives alone. She likes eating out on her own; going to movies on her own. She knows where and how to find people, but, more importantly, she says, she knows who she is.

"If I'm wanting other people to tell me who I am, and affirm me, I could be continually disappointed because they won't get it right. I can't keep looking for others to tell me I'm okay. I've got to have some sense of myself, within myself."

The loneliest of the lonely? Younger people, aged 15-29, reported higher levels than any other group, with 18 per cent saying they felt lonely all, or most of the time. People aged 65 years and over were least likely (11 per cent) to feel like that.

Ken Hollay lives in the Far North. He usually has a cup of Bell leaf tea in the afternoons. Today, it's a Bundaberg ginger beer and a phone interview with Canvas from his home in the the town to which his Cockney parents emigrated in the late 1800s.

"I never asked them why they did that. It's so annoying now, I think 'why didn't I ask?' Because I'm the last of our family now. All my older brothers and sisters have passed on and there's no Hollay in the phone book anymore. My two sisters-in-law who acquired that name have passed on. I'm the last of the Mohicans and I'm 92."

Hollay was married for 25 years. He's been living alone for 29 and a half years, in the house he helped build, with the doors that he finished varnishing the night before his wedding.

"We went off on our honeymoon to Auckland and when we came home we moved into our house. We had to go to Auckland to buy a table and chairs."

He has no family, but every single morning, the phone rings. Hollay is one of 1200 New Zealanders who use the St John Caring Caller service that connects people who live on their own, with volunteers who phone to make sure their clients are okay.

"We're never allowed to know where they live and we just get their Christian names," says Hollay. He signed up, fearing he might have a medical emergency in the middle of the night. He wanted to know that, come morning, someone would raise the alarm.

"I think I've had 10 years with this one caller, John. He's a farmer and sometimes he's got a truck coming with cattle so he might ring me quite early, like six or seven, but normally at half past eight. Every day. This morning we were discussing Kiwibank and should it be sold or should it not. Other times we just say hello. He says 'are you all right' and I say 'yeah, I'm all right' and he says 'righty-oh then, cheerio'. And that's all there is to it. But mostly we do have a yarn about something."

Hollay is not lonely. Why not? "I'm just trying to think about that now," he says, surprise in his voice.

"I'm perfectly happy to sit in my big chair and it's amazing how your mind can wander, and you think about things in the past and things that you might do, and you doze off to sleep, wake up a couple hours later and carry on. It's a great life."

Tell Hollay young people are lonely and he's even more surprised. "Why would that be? I tell you what I do notice about the young people these days. They expect somebody to entertain them. When I was a kid I couldn't get home from school quick enough to do alterations to my trolley, or to build a bigger and better kite or to build a tin canoe for down in the creek.

"We were never idle. But now you see these kids kicking empty drink cans along the gutters. Why do you think that is? Is it below their dignity to fly a kite or ride a trolley?"

Hollay estimates he goes to seven Christmas dinners, and seven mid-winter Christmas dinners every year. Clubs, lodges, organisations for the elderly. It's important to belong, to watch and listen to the news, to "get out and see what's going on around the world".

But he has stopped looking at newspaper death notices. Too many of his cobbers in the listings, he says. He has stopped going to funerals. And he doesn't require anybody to attend his. It's in his will.

According to Statistics New Zealand, most Kiwis - 43 per cent - can count between five and 10 supportive family and friends; 42 per cent have 11 or more. Five per cent just one or two and only one per cent have no one.

Jean Cartwright, 71, sits in an armchair in her West Auckland living room. Knick-knacks line the windowsill, grandchildren's portraits are on the walls and her husband is doing the dishes.

"Well," she says, "Twenty-four hours is a long time on your own. Seven days a week. Christmas. Birthdays. You know, they become anxious and they're frightened. I think a lot of them are frightened that should they pass away they could be left there for days, weeks and months. You do hear of that."

Cartwright has been a St John Caring Caller for 12 years. She's had six clients. Right now, she's working with a man called Ken (not Hollay).

"In some ways they become extended family. He's just part of our life. At eight o'clock my alarm goes off and I call him."

They talk for anywhere between five and 45 minutes. Ken gives her gardening advice; she asks about his day. Sport, history and news. He has a "really good niece" who is in frequent contact, but lives in a different city.

"By being somebody there, a voice, it stops some of the loneliness. I know that he looks forward to that call every day, and we have a good laugh and a good talk, and he's a lovely person."

Cartwright calls, until there is no one to pick up. Two of her people have died, one while she was on holiday.

"I rang him before we left here in the morning. I said, 'You just behave yourself for this other person who's going to talk to you while I'm away.' And he said, 'I won't be here when you get back.' They rang to tell me he'd gone. And that was upsetting, because I'd got a real soft spot for him."

Wives who outlive their husbands. Parents who outlive their children. People who become estranged from their families; who shun their communities. There are, says Cartwright, many, many reasons why someone may have no one.

"When you're young you don't understand what it's like to be old," she says. "You go to do something and it's hard work. Young people don't understand that.

"I think there are a lot of grandparents who don't see much of their grandchildren, even when they're little. Parents are working, their lives are busy, they don't have time to go round and see Mum and Dad.

"All they want to hear is a human voice. They just want somebody to talk to. And if for some reason they can't get out of bed in the morning, they know you will follow up."

- Canvas

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