Q: What if you could outsource loneliness?
To promote Mental Health Awareness Week (9-15 May 2022) in the UK. This year the focus is on Loneliness.
According to The Mental Health Foundation, one in four adults feel lonely some or all of the time. There's no single cause and there's no one solution.
Trigger warning: suicidal references
Chapter one - Tar pits
I was at my loneliest when I met Martha. The lovely lady sitting opposite me on the green, corduroy sofa, her auburn hair up in a bun, speaking to me in her reassuringly assertive, dulcet tones. Virtually of course, beamed into my headpiece from the VR clinic room. She was so warm and cuddly; just how I imagined my mother to be.
She had helped me out of the endless lethargy, the hopelessness and the loss of confidence. I used to be high achieving, quite something in fact. So how could a bit of loneliness knock me down like this? I tried to will myself up but it was no use. The dark clouds were suffocating me.
Covid had struck just when I was getting into my stride as a pseudo-adult. My unfurled wings had barely emerged from their chrysalis when they were smashed to pieces. Lockdown was bearable but it was what came after that slew me. The moment of emergence. The return to society. Without wings, I was grounded.
The resulting days were bleak. I binged cringed. Binged so much on Netflix, alcohol, junk food that I would cringe at the sight of myself the day after. I needed help. I couldn’t go on like this. I dialled the Loneliness Help Line (LHL) and pressed #1 for ‘loneliness related to a recent death’. Death of my life, my hope, my tomorrow. That was when Martha came into my life.
I can’t thank her enough for what she did for me. It was a gradual process, no overnight success, with tough times abroad - IRL and VR - being rehabilitated and trained to think using different parts of my brain. I knew I was one of the luckier ones; had the right support at the right time. Others had not been so fortunate and lay in their rooms or…in the earth. I wanted to give back, help others just as I had been but I didn’t quite know how. I needed someone to point me in the right direction. I know just the thing, said Martin.
Martin was in my local am-dram society, a group I had joined on the advice of Martha. He was the the joker of the group, regularly holding court for our amusement and I loved watching him. I wished I was more like him and most of all, I wished I didn’t have to share him.
There’s a group over on the east side, he said one afternoon as we grabbed coffee. Looking for people like us, wanting to actually help others, not just say they do, he said. People like us? My heart raced at the prospect of being scooped into a collective with Martin. Here you go, he said AirDropping a file to me. You’re perfect for it.
Job application: Dear Independent Group, I have 5 years experience working for the Indian Loneliness Society (ILS) in Mumbai and in clinical trails in Greece and Portugal. As you may be aware, the ILS has made advancements in the vicarious healing industry, combining ancient Ayurvedic techniques with science. Although I am of South Asian heritage, I am an EU National living in the UK under the EU settlement scheme. I would be grateful for your consideration. Sincerely, Anvi.
So here I am, in my cubicle at the Independent Group (IG) surrounded by virtual nature, blasting out Wet Leg’s Chaise Longue, dancing around in my underwear. The music drops and Alexa bleats out her hourly socials. Jumpin98 and 48 others liked your photo. You have 3 messages and Inflation reaches an all time high. Music resumes.
My days are spent like this, generating endorphins and dopamine through music, exercise, laughter and meditation with virtual nutritionists and therapists on tap to deal with any build up of anxieties. Sometimes I have to press the laughter button to get an extra injection of bon homie. Sometimes I just have to sleep. External angst like social media and news are regulated to hourly bursts between 9 to 5 to avoid the brain from being overwhelmed. Once I’m fully charged, I get on with the job at hand. Taking on other people’s lonelinesses.
Martin was right, I was perfect for the job. I had what it takes; a combination of empathy, instinct and will power. I could relate, I could feel but I had boundaries. That’s how I’ve survived till now.
Through my many clients, I’ve worked out a magic number - 18 hours. Any more, it becomes detrimental to my health and any less, there’s not enough time for me to work on the loneliness. I either shrink or change their nature, depending on their type. Recently they’ve been more slug-like, vicious even. I’m sure they used to be more good-natured. Depending on how many I have at one time, I sometimes feel like a crazed dog walker, pulled in all directions. When that happens I dial up the meditation and remember why I’m doing this. I care because I was cared for.
Right now, I have a particularly sticky one. So overwhelming that it conjured up images of mammoths drowning in tar pits in my mind. I shuddered. I wanted to get it out of me quickly and return it to its unfortunate owner before it did any real damage. I checked my notes. It belonged to Jemma, a sweet girl with self-absorbed parents. Poor thing, no wonder her loneliness was so clingy.
She was late though. It was getting close to the 18 hours and I could feel the anxiety building up inside. I decided to go to her. All our clients are GPS tagged as part of their contract so it wasn’t hard to find her.
She wasn’t happy to see me. Fear danced in her eyes as soon as I came into her view. I don’t want it back, she said. The lightness I’ve felt since you took it from me, she gushed. I can feel the sun’s warmth on my skin again. Please don’t give it back to me. I can’t and I will not go back there again, she cried. You can’t make me. Don’t make me take it back.
I didn’t know what to say. This had never happened before. Jemma was visibly crying now, so desperate to reject her loneliness. Please, please take it away. Never give it back to me, destroy it, torch it, I don’t care, just take it away, she pleaded. I can’t, I replied. It’s coming up to 18 hours, it’s not good for me, I said. It’s not good for me either, Jemma sobbed, it’s killing me. I can’t go on if you give it back to me. I mean it, she wept, I’ll kill myself if you make me.
I could see the terror in her eyes but the tar pits were growing deeper within my mind. What the hell was I supposed to do?
Chapter two - The weight of loneliness
I hesitated. In that moment of weakness everything changed. I was busy deliberating her fate. My fate. One second I’m all reject her loneliness, return it to its rightful owner, put on your own mask before helping others. The next I was take it for her, you’ve got this, you’re a Loneliness Professional after all, you can meditate through this. The pendulum in my mind was swinging back and forth, back and forth, waiting to settle on the right answer. I was just about to force Jemma’s loneliness back on her when I faltered.
In that moment of hesitation my whole world turned upside down. In that split second a splash of red splattered across my face. Jemma had slit her wrists, the blood spraying in all directions, a drop landing on my lips. I tasted the metallic flavour on my tongue as I wiped the blood away and ran over to help her. Stay away, she screamed, brandishing the knife at me. Ok, ok, I calmly responded, surrendering my hands in the air. I stepped back and watched her as she plunged the knife into her wrist, digging around, wincing with pain, until she found her tracking chip. Flicking it out of her arm, she threw down the knife and made a run for it. Weighed down by her malign loneliness, I tried to chase her but I could barely keep up. She was gone in a flash and I was left alone. Alone with her loneliness.
News travelled like wildfire. Some of my other clients went off radar, removing their tracking devices like Jemma and I was left with an overwhelming weight of collective loneliness. I tried to meditate, exercise, overdose on happy hormones but nothing could keep it at bay. IG’s HR department did their best but they themselves were overcome by the unprecedented deluge of heartache following the lockdowns. I became a shell of my former self, experiencing difficulty sleeping and having chronic body pains. I called on Martha for help but even she couldn’t get me out of my funk. I was being consumed by loneliness.
That was when Martin came to my aid. He had heard about my predicament and felt responsible for getting me involved with the IG in the first place. Guilt was a mistress to loneliness and he became a constant by my side. Every day, I could hear his voice beyond my gloom, trying to cheer me up, telling jokes, singing, reading, recounting his day until bit by bit the sun started coming back into my life. He never left me and his companionship became the light house that would guide me back into safe harbours. I could still feel the particularly sticky one clinging to my sides but slowly the others were dissolving. Laughter returned and I could feel a warmth generating in my heart. A feeling I had never felt before. A feeling that I hoped was love.
I had always felt an attraction for Martin but the tightness in my heart and the rapid skipping of my heart beat signalled the onset of a more profound emotion. The way he held my gaze for a moment too long and his gentle smile showed me that my growing feelings were being reciprocated. We were slowly but surely falling in love.
The next few weeks were the best of my life. Even though I could still feel the weight of Jemma’s loneliness, my spirits were being lifted by our mutually growing love. It was magical. Uncanny even. Defied logic. It was in those moments of wonderment that I realised that our daily lives were geared towards independence and self-sufficiency. The rise of the one generation families, social media that divides the masses and political agendas that encourage nationalism. We shun interdependence in order to protect ourselves from potential pain and in doing so, we invite loneliness in like a vampire. Once in, some of them never leave. Like the one that I took from Jemma. Some stay around forever.
Her loneliness was still weighing heavily on me. I just couldn’t shrink it away or change its nature. It was a cancer growing inside me and I could see how much it concerned Martin. He could see the loneliness draining me further each day and couldn’t bear to see me held down by it. We were starting to fall more deeply for one another and ready to take our relationship to the next level. We wanted to explore one another, become one, but the loneliness would take over whenever things got too intimate. The rejection confused Martin but deep down he knew that it wasn’t me. It was the loneliness, protecting itself.
Let me share it with you, he said one day. Let me share your burden. What do you mean, I asked? It’s too much for one person, he said. Let me help you, let me take a part of the loneliness for you.
Martin was already carrying too much. He was taking up my slack at IG as well as looking after me each day. Could he take any more? Sometimes I would catch him taking a moment, when he didn’t know that I was watching and I would sense a weariness. He had been taking on more clients recently, to save money for our future. We had spoken of getting a place together one day, away from the cubicles of IG, away from the shadows of loneliness, where we could be light and free, growing old together, with other like-minded people, helping each other, caring for one another.
I can do it, he said. Give me a part of your loneliness and I can lighten your load. Let me free you a little so that we can be together. Let me in. Let me love you.
I looked into his eyes and suddenly felt a fear that chilled me. A fear of losing someone you love so much that it hurts. I didn’t want to let this loneliness ruin both of us. It had already broken me. I couldn’t let it break him as well. Sometimes you just have to protect the ones you love, even if it means sacrificing a part of yourself. Wasn’t that what love was?
I was torn. I had never felt like this before. What was I to do? Do I surrender to love or protect him because of it? Do I let him take my burden?
Chapter three - A vision of wings
Sunlight streamed in from the open window illuminating the figure lying next to me. His skin glistened in the light as I watched him sleep. His body moving in time to his soft, steady breathing. Moments before, the rhythm of his body had been more vigorous, more urgent. He had been so hungry for me, all consuming. I had never felt so wanted in my life.
Martin had always made me feel special. From the moment we met at the drama group to the moment I agreed to share my loneliness. He took my load and let me fly. I was light again, with wings. I could do anything.
We explored each other as we had never done before. The lightness giving me the confidence and yearning that I had previously lacked. Over night, I was a different person. Over night, I was happy.
My loneliness changed too. It had been toxic and clingy but it now danced around me like a wisp. It wouldn’t leave me. It was as if it needed me and I felt the same. A reminder of my past heartache, keeping me humble and honest.
The loneliness inside Martin was different. It was like a heavy rock bearing down on his heart and attracted all the other noxious lonelinesses like a magnet. In time he became more withdrawn, sullen even. Not the Martin I had known.
Bit by bit he pulled away. Let me take it back, I would say. Let me deal with it, I implored. It was my burden to handle in the first place but he refused. He loved seeing me as the free-spirit that I was destined to be. I would light up his face whenever I entered the room…until I didn’t. The day when the light in him went out. The day the weight of the loneliness had become too much and he had suffocated in his sleep. He was already cold to the touch by the time I returned that night.
His death broke me. He had been the love of my life. The one who had always been there for me. The one who had taught me who I was, who I could be. Without him I felt vulnerable…alone. A loneliness started growing inside me, like a child, draining all my energy. I prepared myself for what was to come…the dark mists and the endless days…I knew them well. I wasn’t scared though. I kept telling myself that it had all been worth it. Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. The incumbent loneliness agreed. It became a pseudo-companion to me as we waited for the new addition. When it finally arrived, my current loneliness welcomed it with open arms. They recognised a longing in each other. A desire to belong, to have someone to care and be cared for. Together, they became one. A missing piece in each other’s maelstrom of existence.
News of my pair of lonelinesses and their love for one another spread. Their alliance gave hope to those who needed it and became legendary. Stories were told of their influence over other lonelinesses, that they could shrink or change the toxic ones with one whisper. People started seeking me out. We were inundated and often totally wiped out for days after each session. Why do you do it, someone asked. The lonelinesses and I both knew the answer. We care because we were cared for.
I also knew that I did it to fill a void. A void left by Martin. A void I didn’t quite know how to fill other than by throwing myself into my work and making myself too busy to feel. In the past, I would have turned to Martha. Of course…Martha. Somehow I had forgotten about her. Martin had become my support system and I hadn’t needed her. I reminisced fondly of the warm, cuddly lady with the auburn bun. She was the one who had first shown me the true meaning of caring. Without her, I would never had gotten through my first loneliness or met Martin. I suddenly wanted to thank her for everything. Meet her in the flesh. Put my arms around her and show her my gratitude.
I called her but no answer. I looked her up but it came up blank. I asked around but nothing. What had happened to her? Where had she gone? When I was just about to give up, Jake, one of Martin’s friends came to see me. I hear that you’re looking for Martha, he said. I nodded. He told me that she had passed away a year ago. A year ago? That was when Martin passed. Yes, he nodded. It’s no coincidence. They’re one and the same, Martha and Martin, he said. He often used female avatars for his female clients.
What did this all mean? Had our love been an illusion? Had I been deceived? Why hadn’t he told me? The lonelinesses sensed my distress and tried to console me but I pushed them away. Confusion filled my thoughts. Jake saw my anguish and took my hand. Don’t cry, he said. Martin loved you so much. He’s always loved you. From the very beginning when he first met you. All he ever wanted was to take away your loneliness. He did all this because he loved you.
My heart broke. Tears streamed down my face. Martin had loved me. It was real. He’d been there for me all this time. First as Martha, then Martin. By my side every step of the way. By my bedside, constantly lifting my spirits with his jokes, his stories, his singing. He lifted me out of my loneliness. Always. I needed him now, to do it again, to carry me out of this churn of pain. But where was he? Why wasn’t he here? When I really needed him, to help me process everything, to cry with me for my loss…our loss for what could have been? Where was he?
It then hit me. I was all alone. He wasn’t coming back. The realisation knocked me into a deep depression. The secondary loneliness within me started to grow bigger and bigger, quashing its gentler partner. Darkness filled my heart and once again, I was back in that place of mist and fog, where tar pits dot the landscape. I called out to Martin. Let me in, I said. Let me love you again.
He didn’t answer. In my moment of desperation I hoped he could still hear me. That he was still there for me, as he had been before. Of course he wasn’t. He was gone. I was finally giving in to my reality when someone knocked on my door.
I was at my loneliest when I met Marty. He had just moved into the next cubicle and came to introduce himself. I pretended I wasn’t in. I couldn’t face anyone, let alone get out of bed. I wanted them to go away, to leave me alone but he knocked again.
I then heard his voice for the first time. Let me share it with you, he whispered. Let me share your burden. It’s too much for one person. Let me help you, let me take a part of the loneliness for you. You don’t have to bear it on your own.
I felt my loneliness stir. A vision of wings floated in my mind. Let me help you, he said. Let me in.
If you need to talk to someone, call The Samaritans on 116 123 (UK) or 1(800) 273-TALK (US).
📷: Joshua Coleman