Christmas Eve morning
I wake up on Christmas Eve morning. No work today; the house is quiet. I have no partner, no children living at home. I am lonely. According to The Office for National Statistics,1 I am not alone. There are almost 2.5 million people aged between 45 and 64 who have their own home but no spouse, partner or children living with them.
Loneliness, of course, affects people of all ages. A study by Independent Age 2 has shown that severe loneliness in England affects 700,000 men and 1.1 million women over 50; and a survey by the Mental Health Foundation3 found loneliness to be an even greater concern among young people than older people.
My house looks festive. I made an effort with the decorations a few weeks ago for the benefit of my young granddaughter. Should a guest appear, I have mince pies and a drink or two to offer. It all looks set for a happy Christmas – but it won’t be. I am all alone – lonely on the inside as well as being physically alone. Loneliness is not the same as being alone.4 It is possible to be alone without being lonely and I remember times when I preferred to be alone, to retreat from my work, for instance, or to do certain activities.
This, however, is loneliness. I am 53 years old and single on this Christmas 2014 – no one to kiss under the mistletoe!
It’s not just this Christmas; it’s been like this for a few Christmases. Loneliness can be cumulative.
I am conscious of my own thoughts of blaming others: ‘They should know I’m all alone’, and ‘They should know I’m lonely’. Anger emerges along with sadness. I have found the best thing to do is to accept my thoughts and feelings. I know all the theory, I’ve read all the books, and the jury is still out on what constitutes loneliness. If I am to understand loneliness through psychodynamic theory, I must reflect on my time in the crib. Or I could align myself with Rogers who, when addressing loneliness, explained that current happenings create loneliness and it is intrinsically linked to self-worth.5 An existentialist like Moustakas6 would say that acceptance of loneliness is the only way. It is fundamentally part of the human experience as we are all alone with ourselves anyway. When I take a cognitive view of loneliness,7 I can easily understand how my thoughts play a part. I attribute the meaning of loneliness to endings, transitions, and self-development. People have left me and I have let some people go from my life. Perhaps I have gone too far in reducing my social interactions.
But no matter what the theorists say, loneliness, to me, is a feeling deep in the pit of my stomach, and when I really acknowledge it, it rises right up from the depths of my stomach like a tsunami wave, travelling past my diaphragm, lungs and chest up to my throat and out through my eyes. The tears begin to flow. Through long sobs, I finally let it out.
Even a place of worship can be a lonely place. At my church, I hear the priest pray for those who are lonely but he seems to be praying for those outside the building and not for those who are here in the room with him. I listen to his words intently, looking for hope, looking to the future. While I am listening, I remember others who are lonely. I also have gratitude for the doctors, nurses and fire service personnel who carry on working throughout the holidays.
I am back from church; the house is quiet and once again I am alone. I have a quiet drink, a sandwich and a bit of comedy relief on the telly.
Christmas Day morning
Awoken by the beautiful sunlight, I am still alone but more at peace.
I have learned, over the years, to make Christmas morning special. Through my own creativity, and talking to my therapist, I have developed a strategy to get through Christmas morning alone. I draw on feelings of excitement from Christmases past. I organise a Christmas breakfast of pancakes and fruit for myself. I put on some uplifting music.
I turn towards the presents under the tree. I came across the idea about five years ago that I should buy myself a present. This year, I ended up buyng myself three! I came home and wrapped them and now, on this Christmas morning, they are sitting under the tree, waiting for me to open. I try and convince myself that I have forgotten what they are! There are two others under there from friends; it’s good to be remembered.
Then the messages come – telephone calls from the family and texts from friends, all telling me to enjoy Christmas Day. I am in a better place, at peace with myself and others. I am grateful that I have not lost the capacity completely for connecting with others.
Writing this article has left me wondering how it will be received. I have, for years now, deliberately concealed my feelings of loneliness from others. I have anxieties that I will be judged a social failure, unattractive or, at worse, self-absorbed. At best, I hope this article will raise awareness of loneliness, particularly among our clients.
Because the problem, of course, is not just confined to the Christmas period. Research by the Campaign to End Loneliness8 shows that more than half of over-75s say that television is their main source of company; one in 10 report only having contact with family, friends and neighbours once a month. What’s more, loneliness can be harmful to our physical and mental health.
Holt-Lunstad’s review,9 for example, has shown that lacking social connections is a risk factor for early death comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Social networks and friendships not only have an impact on reducing the risk of mortality or developing certain diseases, but they also help us to recover when we do fall ill.10 Being lonely also makes you more prone to depression;11 and having a mental health problem can also make you feel lonely.4
Dealing with loneliness by experiencing it, entering into dialogue with it, helps me to understand what is less than apparent in any emotional appraisal.12 To help me move into 2015 with hope, I will end with the words of Peplau and Caldwell:13 ‘The experience of loneliness is never chosen, but choice may be involved in the events that precipitate and/or maintain loneliness.’ I can dwell on the fact that I am lonely, or I can find ways of making connections with other human beings.
Elaine Davies is a CBT therapist, supervisor and trainer.
5 Rogers C. On becoming a person: a therapist’s view of psychotherapy. London: Constable; 1961.
6 Moustakas CE. Loneliness. New York: Prentice Hall Press;1961.
7 Beck AT, Rush AJ, Shaw BF, Emery G. Cognitive therapy of depression. New York: Guilford Press; 1979.
9 Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB. Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. [Online.] [accessed 15 November 2014]. doi: 10.1371/journal. pmed.1000316.
10 The Marmot Review. Fair society, healthy lives. Strategic review of Health Inequalities in England post 2010. London; The Marmot Review; 2010.
11 Cacioppo JT, Hawkley LC, Ernst JM, Burleson M, Berntson G, Nouriani B et al. Loneliness within a nomological net: an evolutionary perspective. Journal of Research in Personality 2006; 40: 1054–1085.
12 Sela-Smith S. Heuristic research: a review and critique of Moustakas Method. Clearwater US: Infinite Connections; 2012.
13 Peplau LA, Caldwell MA. Loneliness: a cognitive analysis. Essence 1978; 2(4): 207–220.