Lonely Holidays

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

The holiday season is a time of friends, laughter, gifts – and loneliness. Oh the joy of not being able to be with one’s self! Whether we are coupled or single, loneliness sooner or later will make an appearance in our lives. The holiday season seems to exaggerate feeling lonely, especially when we assume everyone else is having a jolly time.

I’m the guy on Christmas Day who dines by himself at a Chinese restaurant; I’m the guy who goes to bed at 10:30pm on New Year’s Eve. Last Christmas, I watched reruns of The Office. I usually spend holidays alone; I rarely visit my family in Ohio. You’d think that there’d be a tragic reason why I stay away – not so. Overall, my family is loving and kind. Yet I don’t go home. The truth is Ohio stopped feeling like home a long time ago. I’m reminded of lyrics from a song by The Cure, "Inspire in me the desire in me to never go home." The song is titled Homesick.

Over the years, I’ve had time to think about what holidays mean, specifically why I don’t visit family. I’ve also chatted with a number of people about how they spend their holidays and we’ve compared notes. Although some visit their families, they still feel alone regardless if they have people around them or not, which is my experience too. The short explanation is that I grew up feeling invisible in my family and unfortunately still do today no matter how hard I try to relate differently.

For this reason, holidays present themselves as more of a pain in the ass than a time of merriment or joy. Isn’t that the opposite of our general assumptions about holidays? Aren’t we supposed to feel warm and fuzzy, connected and close to family?

Often times, loneliness feels like an uninvited dinner guest. Even among family and friends, it shows up right there by our side – faithful, unrelenting, and without gifts. If your MO is to ignore loneliness, the holidays will challenge that avoidance.

Holidays are difficult because they assume or expect happiness. This expectation is anxiety-producing, especially around family, when you don’t necessarily feel happy. Or if you feel happy enough, you might still feel pressured to be happier. It’s like a friend of mine who once on anti-depressants kept asking herself, "Am I happy yet? Am I happy?" Holidays seem to prompt the same annoying question. Additionally, they remind us of difficult family relationships, past losses, and regrets.

When the holidays roll around, I like to use a cocktail analogy to explain ever-changing mental health. What are the ingredients that go into creating your cocktail of loneliness? Add 2 parts family rejection, 2 parts life disappointment, 1 part un-grieved loss, a pinch of financial stress and over-eating; stir with speedy mind and exhaustion. Voila – loneliness on the rocks! Garnish with one missed opportunity. Monitoring your ingredients can help manage loneliness.

In addition to tracking psychological ingredients, how else do you manage loneliness? Many of us choose addictions. Here are a few favorites – let’s pursue mindless, anonymous sex as a distraction and avoid actually having to feel anything this time of year. Or we can pine away addictively for a savior boyfriend or girlfriend who will erase the nasty, uncomfortable feelings of loneliness forever. Also maxing out credit cards on holiday gifts (including the new sunglasses and jeans for yourself) might do the trick. And of course there’s always the reliable standard – more liquor and more pills….sparkle Neely, sparkle! My point: filling up the empty feeling of loneliness with addictive behaviors never works (well, maybe only temporarily).

The holiday season doesn’t create loneliness as much as it spotlights what’s already there. Keep in mind most gay folks have lifelong relationships with loneliness that start in the early years. I remember as a boy playing Monopoly by myself because no one in the family cared to engage in a Parker Bros. moment. I was both the shoe and the iron at the same time and I’d take turns rolling the dice between the two. I would yell out from the living room, "Mom, I’m winning!"

We gays and lesbians learn early on that being different includes alienation, exclusion, and living as outsiders. One’s relationship to loneliness is as much the product of social conditioning as it is about personal experience and family history. The culture teaches us that to be gay is in fact to be lonely. The lie of the closet is that you’ll be lonely forever. I mean come on, it’s not like you actually believe that one day you’ll ever really be loved – do you? (Insert bitchy eye roll here.)

I wonder about a correlation between one’s ability to let love in and the experience of loneliness. In its simplest of terms loneliness is about the difficulty of being alone. A more complex understanding says loneliness is the all-encompassing feeling that being with oneself is uncomfortable, unbearable, or without value. Loneliness signifies a rupture in the relationship to yourself – an inability to be your own friend. Not being your own friend is about not loving yourself. If you don’t love yourself, chances are you ain’t gonna let anyone else love you either. Do you see how this thinking is cyclical and reinforces feeling lonely and unloved?

Now contrary to what you might have heard about loving yourself, it will not make you go blind. In fact, loving yourself is the anecdote to loneliness. And by loving yourself I’m not espousing some New Age promise based on empty affirmations or suggesting you employ the ever-popular book The Secret (of narcissism) to attract higher self-esteem. I’m talking about down-to-earth, meat-and-potatoes (or tofu-and-rice for our vegetarian friends), enjoyment of your own company. Do you really like yourself?

Now some of you have tuned me out 4 paragraphs ago because you’re still holding out for that special, magic relationship with Mr. or Ms. Wonderful who will one day set you free from loneliness. If you take anything from this article, please remember my definition of relationship is this: "Now we are alone together!"

The solution to the puzzle of loneliness is not about getting others to love you; it’s about making peace with loneliness itself. Learn how to tolerate the extreme discomfort of your own mind’s loneliness and the intensity will begin to decrease. And like all states of mind, remember this too shall pass; it won’t always be as intense or…lonely. The same holds true for holidays – they too shall pass.

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