On Loneliness and Anxiety: Adam
Adam should be content with his life. He has a great job; his boyfriend spends every weekend with him and his friends organise plenty of social nights out for laughs fuelled with free-flowing prosecco. Yet almost every night Adam suffers from insomnia, anxiety and a deep sense of loneliness. He dreads nighttime as this is when his mind begins the relentless chatter “I’m so lonely – What if I lose my job? – I’m so bored – What if Shawn gets bored of me?, – We rarely have sex these days… perhaps he has met someone – I would never meet anybody else. Not now. I’ll be alone forever – Oh god, what has happened to my self-esteem? – I am such a loser!”
“It goes on and on,” he tells me during one of our sessions. I have been seeing Adam for a few months now. He came to therapy to get more clarity on his professional choices and social life. His ex-partner was a heavy chems user and their lifestyle started negatively affecting Adam who decided to terminate the relationship. The therapy was going well and Adam’s life took a positive turn. He got promoted to junior producer, he started dating Shawn, met new people and then… the pandemic happened.
“I thought when the restrictions ended, I’d feel better!”- Adam spits his words in anger.
“It feels like my life has been put on hold for the last 2-years. And the unknown… The unknown drives me mad.”
“The unknown?” I asked.
“Not knowing the future. It’s like my mind has been trapped. I’m torturing myself with all these questions I cannot answer. The uncertainty is overwhelming. I don’t know what to do, how to cope. I feel so alone in this.”
Undoubtedly a universally human condition, loneliness has a long if uneasy history specifically with homosexuality. The trope of the lonely old gay man is still very much in people’s shared consciousnesses and for decades was deemed to be an inevitable ending to the gay “lifestyle” – the consequence, if not punishment, for living outside of the heteronormative existence. As a therapist, I still hear this being reported as a response of parents to their child’s coming out.
Yet where social attitudes have thankfully started to move on and many contemporary voices have rejected the notion that being gay is intrinsically lonely as pathologising, what cannot be denied is that we are all living less connected lives. Lives that are being lived through our phones rather than in person.
So, how does loneliness link to anxiety? It has been broadly researched that a child’s development is predominantly determined by their relationship with their primary carrier, most commonly – parents (Klein, Bowlby et al.). At times of stress and emotional turmoil, the child tends to turn to their parents for nurture, guidance and comfort. Imagine a young baby in distress, loudly crying – in this preverbal stage, it’s the only way to let the mother know of their discomfort. A containing and confident mother would start to investigate the child’s tears by talking to them gently as she checks their nappy for wetness, their hunger by offering the bottle or their tiredness by rocking the baby to sleep. Now imagine the same scenario with a first-time mother, slightly anxious and unsure of her capacity of looking after a newborn. She may do the same, however, her actions may be more frantic, she could get distressed when the baby won’t stop crying, and she may panic and start imagining the worst while dialling her GP for a quick consultation.
Depending on which of these two environments the baby grows up in will determine their unconscious model of capacity to self-contain and deal with stressful emotions. In therapy, the term is secure or insecure attachment style (a theory formulated by John Bowlby in the 1950s and further developed by Mary Ainsworth in the 1960s). The research says that securely attached adults can cope better with stress, separation, relationship issues and self-esteem. Insecurely attached adults tend to either avoid the romantic commitments and cut off from their emotions (especially the difficult ones) or are anxiously clinging to their partners needing safety and constant validation and reassurance from them. Attachment and the threat of losing connection often link directly to our feeling of loneliness and helplessness.
Adam can’t remember much about his early childhood, but he tells me the story of going for a swim with his dad when he was about 3. When Adam enthusiastically skipped towards the sea a massive wave flipped him back onto the shore. He ended up choking and hurting his knee on the wet sand. His father picked him up and comforted him enough to stop crying and he forgot about the injury. However, when Adam’s mother saw his slightly bleeding knee, she panicked. Anxiously, she started looking for a bandage in her purse while shouting at the father accusing him of a lack of responsibility. Adam remembers bursting into tears convinced that if his mother was distressed, he should be too.
We wondered together about this story and what we can assume about his attachment style. He said, “OMG! I’m insecure! I panic every time I’m in trouble. Regardless of the situation. It can be about my boyfriend leaving me when we’ve fought, about me slightly screwing up something at work and being fired, about dying alone during the pandemic. Is that it? Is this why I’m worried so much recently?”
“It may be one of the contributing factors” I wondered with Adam. “However, even though we tend to be the products of our childhood, it doesn’t entirely define us. People can change during the socialisation process, through other relationships, experiences or therapy. When trying to understand certain behaviour, it’s helpful to think about the triggers.”
“What do you mean?” Adam looked puzzled.
“A trigger can be a person, an event or a thought. Triggers can ‘push our buttons’, and provoke a feeling or a response. The series of lockdowns had, in a very real sense, disconnected us from all the certainties that we know. It is a huge trigger.”
“That makes sense: insecurely attached person + lockdown x loneliness = disaster!” -Adam jokes.
“Well, using your math equation analogy, one can say that loneliness is often described as the difference between the level of connectedness you have compared to the level you need. This is unique to the individual which is why it’s misleading and unhelpful to compare ourselves to others, especially other people’s social media accounts. We can feel lonely even when surrounded by other people. We may not be consciously in touch with these feelings but what we do know is that we spend hours of the day aimlessly scrolling through Grindr looking for “someone.” Evenings are filled with binging on Netflix from the moment we get home to the moment we fall asleep, just to fill the time. Have you ever forgotten your headphones on the commute to work?’
“Yeah, that’s the worst!”
“What was that like?”
“It’s too quiet. I get a flash of emptiness. I’m not sure what that is.”
Even when our feelings of loneliness and anxiety are more in our awareness, we try to ignore them. Like a swimmer relentlessly treading water in a deep pool, we stay afloat with distractions (overworking, gym, worrying, apps) whilst anxiously trying not to acknowledge what’s beneath. Much like the swimmer, there is no curiosity in finding out what it would feel like to sink into the void, we simply avoid it to stay alive.
At the same time, we say to ourselves, I should be ok in my own company, right? I shouldn’t need to depend on others for my happiness, should I? Often loneliness and the need for attachment are seen as a defect; something of a weakness. There is shame in admitting to being lonely. We tend not to tell people and deny it when asked. And the intersection of shame and loneliness has a particular resonance with gay men.
Neither loneliness, anxiety nor an insecure attachment style are, in themselves, anything abnormal or specific to LGBT+ people. What is more subtle yet urgently important to recognise, is how the isolation of the lockdowns connected with the unique experiences of the gay community and could trigger past traumas. When the first lockdown hit, many people returned to their families for moral and perhaps financial support. As a marginalised group, gay men have not always fit into traditional social structures. To borrow a line from RuPaul, “You know, we as gay people, we get to choose our family. We get to choose the people we’re around. You know what I’m saying?” During the pandemic, traditional queer spaces became illegal. Places for gay men to meet like bars, clubs and saunas, which admittedly had already been disappearing for years, were closed. House parties were raided and once again shame was cast on those who transgressed either criminal or moral codes.
In its most painful echo, the very human need for closeness, for intimacy, for sex became the enemy. Loving connectedness once again mutated into disease spreading in the eyes of the people and, in the absence of facts, fear about the causes, its spread and the demonising of a minority group became a way to defend against our own anxieties. For the older generation of gay men, this must be a painful reminder of the AIDS epidemic. Although ironically written and filmed before COVID, Channel 4’s ‘It’s a Sin’ not only poignantly showed the similarities between the two tragedies but highlighted the differences. Whereas COVID has received the machinery of a national response in the form of clapping for medical staff, fast-tracked vaccine programmes and the solidarity of government, the survivors of the AIDS crisis must remember the injustices of their experience of the 80s when people were dying unacknowledged.
Although treatment options have improved and the horrors depicted in the show are mercifully a million miles behind us, many younger gay men still identify with the trauma and stigma experienced by the characters. Adam brought this to our session after watching the last episode.
“I found it really hard to watch. It’s so sad” he said with slightly watery eyes.
I enquire more.
“The hopelessness. How they were just left on the ward. I don’t understand how parents could turn their back on their children like that?! They were all alone.”
“It’s painful to watch,” I say as I offer him a comforting smile.
Adam isn’t alone in his sadness. Many have been touched by the frank and moving scenes of ‘It’s a Sin’ and have also identified with the strength and courage of the young people so accurately captured by Russel T. Davies.
I discuss with Adam how he relates to the story and what connections he makes to his current situation. We explore how to ensure his individuality and uniqueness don’t get drowned in the sea of loss. I point out that although we are all weathered the same storm, we were not all in the same boat. This appears to allow him to find some empathy for how he’s feeling. “Talking about it helps,” he tells me.
“I don’t feel so alone knowing that other people are experiencing similar problems. It makes it seem more normal if that makes sense?”
Although Adam’s situation hasn’t ostensibly changed, how he feels about himself and his relationship with his emotions has shifted. By talking it through in therapy he has been able to normalise his feelings of anxiety and loneliness. Rather than overwhelming another person with his feelings as he feared, talking to someone and sharing his concerns calmed him and surprisingly allowed him to be more comfortable with the uncertainties of life.