The loneliness lifestyle: On lockdown and solitude
By: Alex Creece
I keep my social distance.
That’s not a COVID-19-specific thing. It’s my schema – my behavioural blueprint – and it just so happens to be trending this year.
As you’d expect, this is my first pandemic. But the (un)social landscape is so familiar, so well-practised, that I feel like I’ve come home to something that’s always around the corner, waiting for me.
Image by Yaron Topp
I seem to exist in diametrically opposite images:
First, I have beautiful, beautiful, beautiful friends, many of whom are fellow queerios. I have a wonderful dog and exceptionally supportive colleagues. I am lucky. I would dare describe myself as #blessed.
But, I am a lifelong loner. I haven’t had a hug since February, and I’m not convinced that I can blame it on COVID-19. Even in non-pandemic times, it’s typical for me to go days without talking, and weeks without social outlets. In school, a teacher called me “brave” for showing up each day. Later, I bit her. This is a cursed image.
There are arduous journeys interweaving these truths. Different trials, different errors. But I struggle to predict the through-line of my disparate selves – which is the most accurate? Which will prevail?
When I’m 50 and my silliness, my intensity, and my difficulty are no longer endearing, what will be waiting for me – the love or the loneliness?
As a child, I was terrified of truly being seen, but achieved no more social success with the (non-surgical-grade) mask I wore for camouflage. I failed as myself, and then as the persona I constructed to avoid myself.
As I grew older, I felt the creeping of my sexuality as further evidence of failure – some type of inability to correctly perform womanhood. As Jack Halberstam identifies in The Queer Art of Failure, “lesbian is irrevocably tied to failure in all kinds of ways.”
Out of my failures, I developed too many faces. How could I thrive in my dichotomies of extreme silence and chaotic babble? My urge to people-please, but my limited capacity to understand others? My naïveté, but my ungentle edges? The pressure of heterosexuality, but the misery of its sticky grasp?
How could I unravel my selves?
During my teenage years, I stopped asking these questions altogether. I accepted defeat. Rather than wrangling with interpersonal rejection – and intrapersonal confusion – I adopted them as routines. I let the mogwai out to swim, learned to shack up with my gremlins.
My cohabitation with loneliness took different forms. A schema shapeshifts.
Many times, it emerged as pure surrender – reject yourself before they can reject you. As Daria flatly states, “I’m so defensive that I actually work to make people dislike me, so I won’t feel bad when they do.” (Unsurprisingly, she’s one of my favourite characters.)
Other times, I became the fringe member of friendship groups. A well-meaning person would adopt me into their circle, but I could rarely transmute this connection into something beyond pity.
On occasion, I’d graduate to the role of pet project – the cringy one, the evidence of their charitability, but not the one to be seen with in public. They’d add me on Facebook before ‘liking’ a page called Being nice to the weird kid so they’ll spare you in a school shooting <3. (Remember when ‘relatable’ Facebook pages were a thing?)
Sometimes, I was the subject of mutual dislike, vulcanising the camaraderie of a core group, us-versus-them style.
A clique proudly wearing the title of The Unpopular Group deemed me “too unpopular” for their ranks – rationalising that they may be low on the school’s social strata, but at least they were intellectuals with good personalities.
And look, it’s true that my personality was very supressed back then, but I’m proud to say I’ve never been a self-proclaimed “intellectual”.
My schema became sneakier in adulthood, setting me up to fail in new ways.
In some instances, I would experience a sort of platonic love-bombing. People would assign me as their best friend shortly after we were introduced, all guns blazing.
Scared to be scathed, I would tell them about my pervasive social problems, that I’d struggle with certain things, only to be brushed off with: “I love your quirks”. But when these exact “quirks” emerged, when I finally got comfortable enough to be human? Shocked Pikachu face.
Being chewed up and regurgitated hit hard, even when I anticipated these inevitable failures. I lashed out. I let the big emotions run amok. Out came another dichotomy – being too much, but not enough.
Then fast-forward to today: my mid-20s.
Pandemic notwithstanding, I somehow live my grandest dream – a life containing beautiful queer friendships. Yet I still haven’t made the mental jump into this reality.
How do I unbrand myself as a loner? And should I? These past experiences continue to shape how I hold myself, how I conduct these friendships.
I still try to pre-reject myself. I still assume the role of conditional friend or potential object of disdain.
When your cool friends come around, I expect you to shove me into the drawer like a well-used vibrator. I carry those vibrator vibes (but not in a clitillating way). And I see each genuine expression of kindness as a star-crossed love-bomb in disguise.
It’s difficult to go so long knowing yourself as unlikeable, and then trying to wake up to a world where you’re maybe, actually, just kinda… alright?
I feel like Homer Simpson reading Owning Your Okayness. And I’d been doing a pretty solid stretch of exactly that, up until 2020. Now, the schema is back in full force, playing angel and devil on my shoulders.
The pandemic, and its necessary solitude, reattunes me to the taboo of long-term loneliness.
When binge-watching for comfort, all I notice is how frequently pop culture conveys human connection as a stable, transformative achievement. Stories of protagonists overcoming anything with the right team of wily sidekicks. Or the power of love saving the universe.
In our own community, we pride ourselves on abdicating heteronormative demarcations of success – typical career paths, marriages, families – but there’s still an expectation to be a well-connected queer. After all, if you don’t have 100 mutual friends with every queerio in your area, are you really even gay?
There are so many ways to be lonely. As queers, many of us have experienced this in multitudes. And these don’t just dissipate through the power of love.
For me, the loneliest words have been “find your people”. Don’t worry, when you get to university, you’ll find your people. And I didn’t. Not really. I’ve slowly built up some friendships here and there, at last, but there’s no cohesive, seamless group of my people.
As poignantly expressed in Nagata Kabi’s My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness: “Maybe I had a place to belong, but it wasn’t something definite, like a seat. It was flowing and formless. Perhaps inside of me, perhaps outside of me.”
My friendships evolve, they strain, they entangle. People are not mine to simply have; they are connections I must find ways to nurture. And I currently don’t know how. I’ve reacquainted with loneliness so intimately that I’ve forgotten its alternative.
In my home, I store all of my possessions in plain sight, or else I can’t find them. You can play peek-a-boo with me, and I’ll be highly entertained. I buy food I’ve already hoarded because when the pantry shuts, its contents stop existing.
As I write this, I’m an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital. Again. I’ve kept it very quiet; hardly anyone knows I’m here. Even in this setting, I get mistaken for happy, non-lonely. But my social world, my affinity for those beautiful queer friendships, is undoubtedly hidden behind cupboard doors.
Or maybe I’m just in the pantry myself. (I guess it’s kinda like the closet, but snackier.)
My loneliness isn’t all imaginary imps and insanities either. There are tangible barriers too, beyond the skew of my schema. These create their own distance, even at the best of times.
I’m autistic, for one thing. Welcome, instant source of alienation! I may be managing myself more sustainably than when I was younger, but it still permeates everything in my life – particularly in social contexts.
Every facial expression (or lack thereof), every stutter on a phone call, every choice of emoji, every uncomfortable stretch of silence.
Not to mention that tending to my needs often gets in the way of my wants – namely, my need for regular solitude, but my desire to not be fully isolated forever.
I also live regionally. I’ve found that lot of my issues with proximity are less geographical and more attitudinal.
Australia has a strong culture of local pride – Melbourne versus Sydney, Inner North versus South of the Yarra, ‘potato cake’ versus ‘potato scallop’ (it’s totally ‘potato cake’, though). And anything beyond the city limits is like The Lion King’s Elephant Graveyard: the place beyond the light, where no one goes.
When I meet new people in Melbourne, often one of the first questions is “what suburb do you live in?”. When I say that I live regionally, the reaction tends to be disproportionately strong – is it shock? Bewilderment? It’s something, for sure.
Of course, I live where I choose, but perhaps people don’t realise the factors behind this decision – income, singledom, difficulty living in close quarters with others, inability to work full-time. My need for sameness, comfort, sensory stillness. My access to well-established supports.
There are limited queer spaces in regional areas, but my apparent status as a bumpkin seems to immediately set me apart from the cool metro queers.
I’ve also learned the hard way that uprooting yourself simply to become more accessible to others often proves that this wasn’t the issue after all. Just as wearing a masked persona never solved the issue of my unpopularity.
My interactions are punctuated with these slips of unbelonging – not acting right, not living in the right place, not being part of the gang.
And then comes my schema, looking for those differences. It teases out the gaps – the things that go wrong, the events I’m not invited to, rather than living in the moments of success, or the times when I’m welcomed openly.
I know I have people who love me. In some ways, it’s an insult to them that I’m so tied to my self-image as a loner – like, how dare I disregard our friendship? But I can’t deny that my schema remains, ever ready to erupt like a blind zit.
I was originally going to twist this story into a positive – a queer loner finds queer friendship, and the results are zesty! And in some ways, that’s true. We’re a pretty zesty bunch.
But it’s also not that simple. There’s no immediate salve for the lingering loneliness, the hard-earned loneliness, the ping-ponging loneliness that’s always served back. Not even exquisite queer friendships.
Loneliness can imprint on you like a gosling. You can grow up, move on as much as possible, but the second you slow down, that full-grown goose can find you again – barbed tongue and all.
I’m caught in a literal goose chase. But I also know that this is expectable with my history, my challenges, and our good ol’ global pandemic.
I don’t need a pitying hug, though. I haven’t needed one since February, and I’m not about to relax on my social distancing now.
Alex Creece is a writer, poet, student and average kook living on Wadawurrung land (Geelong, Victoria). She also tinkers with other people’s poems as the Production Editor for Cordite Poetry Review. Alex was awarded a Write-ability Fellowship in 2019 and a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship in 2020.
This article first appeared in Archer Magazine #15, the FRIENDSHIP issue