In my work, trying to resolve some of the challenges we face in providing healthcare for our homeless population, I am frequently reminded by those who are experiencing or have experienced homelessness just how lonely living on the streets can be. How days can go by when no one makes eye contact or says hello. Recreating that human connection is one of the simplest and most meaningful things that any of us can do to show we care…
‘Loneliness is the new cancer.’ An incredibly powerful statement from a respected colleague, made to an important gathering, very recently. At the time it was painful to hear, and I deliberately chose to push it away, but there is no escaping the reality and context of the need to repeat this statement out loud. Because I am here, at a time in my life where I am frequently alone, and awaiting My Cancer, and wondering what this means for many of us who have inherited places in this world that we didn’t exactly choose.
I slept out last night. I slept out, with valued colleagues and friends to raise money for and awareness of the spiralling number of people who face homelessness in our ‘civilised’ society. And, as I had almost certainly anticipated, I met my demons at 3 am.
My own life has, somewhat of my own volition, been difficult of late. And, were it not for an upbringing that strongly emphasised the equality of women in our society, I too could be facing imminent or, even, current homelessness. This visceral experience landed hard as I lay in a damp, dark abyss, staring up at the cathedral roof, listening to homeward bound revellers & the urgent sirens of our emergency services. Feeling insecure and unsafe, despite the 500 other committed individuals who tried to sleep around me.
So what is Loneliness? And what is Being Alone? Are they a different entity, or one and the same?
I hope they are different. I spend my days surrounded by lovely, amazing, inspirational people. I have vibrancy and pleasurable challenge in my life. I am respected and valued. I have purpose. And this is a wonderful thing.
But I am also frequently brought back to a space that only I can inhabit and control. Where only the thoughts in my head can alter and influence the path that I am on.
What I think is different is that I am only a ever a moment away from reaching out. From asking for human contact and help. There are many people who I can, could and do turn to for solace in moments where being alone is simply too much to bear. And when I do, a blanket of love wraps around me and I know that I am valued, supported and safe. And then things are okay. For a little while, at least.
What was impressed upon me so clearly in the short time last night that I was expected to emulate the life of one living without a home is that not everyone has that safe place or person to turn to. And that thinking of home, as disrupted as it may have been for me in recent times, was enough to see me through some dark and disturbing hours on one cold, damp November night.
So, as I shift my world view to even further align with what I know deep down in my heart is right, and what in our society is so incredibly unjust, I think I see that there is a difference between Loneliness and Being Alone. The two may coexist, but for some of us, the latter comes at a price but is not without its liberation. The former occurs when ‘aloneness’ becomes an unavoidable and intractable state of affairs.
There is no moral to this tale. Merely observation. And a need to capture a powerful life experience that laid me bare and accentuated my vulnerability to a painful point that, were it not for the scaffold in my life, I could easily fail to return from.
As I lay out in the cold at 5 am, my friends awoke and drew me back to a place where I was valued and supported. I was chivied to rise and to pack up and return home. I am not broken because life has been kind enough to allow me to find purpose enough to carry on. But for a few fleeting moments, I could have stayed on that wind swept, leaf strewn ground. And, for a few fleeting moments, I saw and felt what many others have to bear…