Lonely is not a word I identified with much. I’ve always had friends and things to do. I meet people easily, consider myself social and have felt I belonged in various groups.
As I got older, the easy camaraderie of sports teams, school, dorm floors, and graduate school cohorts became a thing of the past. The groups I belong to broke up and faded away. My close friends moved across country.
I was already finding it difficult to maintain meaningful relationships even before becoming a mother, but since having children I have really struggled. Still, I never really considered myself lonely. I had friends, even if they were far away. I had a loving husband that I spent time with. My family remained close and I saw my mother frequently. The staff at my work are warm and supportive. How could someone who was almost always around people be lonely? The word didn’t seem to fit.
And yet I’ve always had the feeling that I don’t quite belong, that while I’m a part of the group, I remain on the periphery. In swimming I was the one who never got the qualifying times needed to compete at a higher level. In drama I couldn’t sing and wasn’t in the spring musical. In high school I was either the AP student hanging out with the partiers or the partier hanging out with the AP students. During senior year my two best friends actually started dating and I became the awkward third wheel.
In the dorms Freshman year I was the one who lived in a triple down the hall from my two best friends who were roommates (though we later would live together for two years). I couldn’t participate in my university’s study abroad program so I had to go to Spain with students from a couple of small colleges in Texas and on the East Coast. My first teaching job was at a district about 30 minutes away, making it harder to socialize with the staff after the school day. Even within the tribe of women struggling with infertility that I met online, I was the one with the fewest losses and the least amount of time spent trying to conceive. I didn’t even have to use ART to eventually get pregnant.
I admit that at least some of the feeling of being on the periphery, or not really belonging, was in my own head. My swimming friends would probably say I was at the epicenter of our social group, but I wonder if I worked so hard to stay there because I was so worried they’d all leave me behind (as they did in the pool). In high school people saw me as belonging to many groups and having tons of friends, whereas I saw myself sitting at the edge of them all, not really belonging to any of them.
And sometimes things happened that cemented my belief that others didn’t feel as close to me as I felt to them. Once I logged onto Facebook to find all my work friends on a rafting trip that I hadn’t been invited to and knew nothing about. I never found out if I was purposefully excluded or they had simply forgotten to include me. Seventeen of my colleagues were invited to a fellow teacher’s wedding recently and I wasn’t. I also haven’t been invited to a couple of weddings of college and high school friends that the “rest of the group” went to. So while I do believe that some of that feeling of not belonging is in my head, I have the evidence to argue that it’s not entirely imagined.
I have always attributed this feeling of not belonging, and my struggles with cultivating and maintaining close friendships in general with depression. When you’re depressed it’s hard to really put yourself out there, both physically (actually going to social events is draining) and emotionally (it’s almost impossible to share your deepest thoughts when they are so bleak). I assumed the emotional distance I felt between myself and those who were physically close was a direct result of depression, just another one of its shitty symptoms manifesting in a life that was, in so many ways, already dictated by the disease.
But now I’m reading the book Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude by Emily White and I’m wondering if that perceived distance is actually loneliness. I never considered myself lonely because there were usually people around, and not just any people, but people I considered friends. I didn’t think you could be lonely under those circumstances, but evidently you can.