A break-up at 38 made me realise how lonely I am

Lying on a camp bed in the living room of my unfurnished house, I stared at the ceiling.

At 38 years old, I realised that I was completely alone for the first time in my life.  

However, I felt optimistic. I’d broken up with my partner of 15 years over lockdown and escaping the house we’d shared to a space of my own was cause for celebration. At that moment, I was excited about my future. 

When my relationship ended, I was aware enough to know that I’d need support. After 15 years together, so much of my self-identity would be tied up in that relationship, so I wanted to know who I was without it. 

I sought out a therapist and came to the first session armed with a mental list of issues that I wanted to deal with and professed my grandiose plan to ‘make friends with loneliness’.  

But, although I was aware of what I was to face, I was emotionally unprepared for it. 

From my parents’ houses to shared flats at university, to the homes I built with my ex, this was the first that I’d not shared with someone. Moments like stocking a fridge that was mine alone and painting the walls in my colours were liberating, but I soon found the silence overwhelming and unsettling. 

We’re taught that being active, sociable, and popular is the most important state we can inhabit, and any vulnerability is not conducive to that

Although the freedom of being single led to new, fulfilling relationships that were fun and cathartic for my lowered self-esteem, when the last one ended with upset, it led into a period where I was more ashamed and alone than I’d ever felt.

I’d fallen in love with her, but the impact of my longterm break-up was still being felt and ended up affecting things between us.

I didn’t feel I had friends to turn to, either. I’d spent so long tending to a broken relationship that I failed to nurture or replenish other ones in my life, most of which had become stagnant or fallen by the wayside.

Men maintain friendships very differently from women as they grow older, especially those in relationships, often making it difficult to make less formal, periodic plans – and certainly don’t encourage emotional openness.  

They often keep things at a surface level, with friendships based on banter and silliness and bravado. While they can be fun and grounding, it also feels like we’re not encouraged to share our emotions or anything deeper. I worried that if I did, it would be seen as ‘weird’ or not received well.  

I felt like a ghost, unable to tell anyone how I felt.

Because, there is undeniably shame in isolation. Especially for men. We’re taught that being active, sociable, and popular is the most important state we can inhabit, and any vulnerability is not conducive to that.  

Initially, I turned to work. I have a successful career and spend hours talking to stimulating people in my working day.   

But my colleagues are based across the country, and the world, so they couldn’t prevent my weekends stretching out in front of me, long and quiet. A colleague’s innocent question: ‘How was your weekend?’ was quickly dispatched, as I’d not spoken to anyone for 60 hours and had nothing to share.   

It was only then that I realised what loneliness really was.  

Therapy was intensive and I ran headfirst into working through a range of seemingly disparate, yet related, issues.   

I discovered that I’d been suffering with depression, on and off, from an early age. Feeling a sense of lacking, not just in myself, but also in my surroundings and other people.  

The realisation that I’d felt alone for most of my life made me reach my lowest point and I decided to take a break from all forms of social media.  

I felt suffocated by the incessant comparisons I was drawing between everyone else’s lives and my own, and seeing faces of people I missed. This was the first step in active control that I took.  

I found Andy’s Man Club through local posters; a male support group designed to give men a network to share their feelings and experiences with. It sounded exactly like that I needed, but I still had to force myself to go.

If I couldn’t share how I was feeling with my family and friends, how would I feel about opening up to a group of men I’d never met? 

When I did go, I heard a range of men of all ages and backgrounds share their stories of drug abuse, unemployment, relationship breakdowns, and even abuse they’d suffered. 

Throughout their stories, loneliness and isolation featured heavily and made me realise how common it was, and how uncommon it was for us to share our feelings about it in this way. 

As I attended more Andy’s Man Club meetings and my therapy continued, I began to realise that loneliness was an unspoken pandemic, and a major factor in my depression. Understanding my feelings more, how, and when they change and how I respond to things allowed me to make more active choices for how to manage them.   

Alcohol was increasingly making me anxious, which fuelled the loneliness, so I stopped drinking for the longest period since I was teenager and tried to give no weight to planless Friday nights or bank holidays. 

I kept myself occupied through whatever I could, reading book after book, carrying out DIY and even writing poetry to express my feelings.   

I took myself on holiday and made plans for more. I reconnected with estranged family members whose non-judgemental care was overwhelming. I did mental health awareness training and launched a wellbeing initiative at work to encourage colleagues to share. I opened up to friends whose empathy helped.

I was developing coping strategies without knowing that’s what they were and began to see the return of my wellbeing, as opposed to happiness.  

I look back now over the last three years with a sense of pride. Facing the most difficult challenges of my life has led me to uncover and accept significant things about myself.   

I’m no longer ashamed to share my emotions or depression, I wear it openly. That openness makes me feel closer to people than I ever have, including myself.

I’ve made new friends and I no longer punish myself for spending time without other people.  

Of course, I still feel lonely, but I’ve come to embrace solitude as a positive, and loneliness as controllable. It may not be my friend just yet, but we’re fond acquaintances and that’s a vast improvement. 

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