The pursuit of loneliness: how I chose a life of solitude.
Hayley Campbell quit her job and moved into an empty flat. Here she explains the tough but peculiar pleasures of seclusion.
A room of one’s own: Hayley Campbell finding some headspace at the gym. Photograph: Sam Barker for the Observer.
Since the late 1980s, scientists have been tracking a whale who sings at a sonic frequency higher than any other whale of its species: at 52 hertz, just above the lowest note on a tuba. It sings songs no one answers. Internet societies have been following it for years like sad Ahabs, transposing their own feelings on to it, believing they understand it. Alone in their bedrooms they hunt this whale they believe to be lonely just like them. Talk to scientists and they will say other whales can probably hear it, maybe it’s deaf, maybe the whale’s song is the result of a genetic mutation. But it doesn’t matter: the lonely people have taken this whale as their totem. I’ve followed it for years.
In 2015, I tried psychodynamic therapy for what my therapist called “a loss thing”. Months prior, my grandparents collapsed on their bedroom floor and died in hospital, days apart, from the same case of pneumonia. The upshot was that birthdays make me miserable and trailing their twin coffins into the crematorium on my 29th birthday didn’t feel wildly out of sync with my mood. What followed this – one of the rawest experiences of my life but also one of the best attended birthday parties – was pulling the plug on a relationship that had been comatose for years, divvying up not only books but friends, plus the death of a Labrador I got when I was 12. It felt like the things that kept me tied to my youth – a blind dog, the unchanging 1970s blue bathroom in my grandparents’ house, nearly all of my 20s – were disconnecting their carabiners and pushing me out into space. A loss thing.
Only 11% of lonely people try to solve their loneliness: finding God, joining laughter yoga, scouring the internet
Once you start losing a few things, it’s easier to lose the rest so you can be left alone to think. I left the chaotic house in Hackney that I shared with four guys and their various women and moved into a flat on a street filled with old people and expensive cars. I’m house sitting, so I put my stuff in storage and am living out of a suitcase and a bit of floor – a permanent state of transience. I quit my job in a busy open-plan newsroom to go freelance and pulled up the final anchor of a 9-to-5. I reduced my daily human interaction, piece by piece, to nil.
I have no schedule, no dependants but a cat. I go to the cinema when there’s no one there except occasionally one old man. I watch the credits until the end because there’s no one putting their jacket on to suggest we should go (like me, the old guy has nowhere to be). When I leave the sun is still out, the streets are empty. At night, in hotel rooms around the world, there are writers avoiding deadlines while serving as lifelines for others avoiding theirs: a population of people who have jetlagged themselves over work, who are adrift from their own time zone and friends. We send each other pictures of coffee machines and digital clocks reading 3.12am – flares into the sky. I have engineered a life in which I exist in a rare London with no one in it except for the unemployed, the drunk and the lonely.
Feeling blue: scientists – and lonely people – have been tracking a single blue whale who sings, unanswered, at a frequency other whales can’t hear. Photograph: Sciepro/Getty Images/Science Photo Library RF
It requires a mental strength to be alone even if it’s what you want, to believe you’re not going to disappear or that people would notice if you did. It takes a physical strength not to text the guy you had sex with once to get him to come over, the one who says when he arrives at midnight: “Which one are you again? Are you the journalist?” and you say yes, you were that one, would you like a drink.
In 2014 the Office for National Statistics voted Britain the loneliness capital of Europe and now we’re just a lonely island filled with people getting lonelier, or so 48% of us think. Only 11% of lonely people try to solve their loneliness: finding God, joining laughter yoga, scouring the internet for cures and whales.
Loneliness is a darker thing than just being alone. It’s a stillness that gives you a preview of death
The statistics tell us there’s a “loneliness epidemic”. With an epidemic comes the search for a cure, but loneliness is so much bigger than a cure. You can be lonely in a crowd, a bed can feel emptier with the wrong person in it, and a knitting circle will not fix you. Loneliness is internal and fundamentally existential. Ernest Becker wrote in The Denial of Death that the only thing keeping humans functioning on a daily basis is their fear of death, that if we were to confront our own oblivion we would be frozen to the spot. I think this is why loneliness is a darker thing than just being alone. It’s a stillness that gives you a preview of death; it’s seeing the world carry on just fine without you in it.
You can talk for hundreds of hours in therapy about your fear of death and loneliness, and get nowhere. Therapy is looking inwards where all there is is you, and when you’ve got endless quiet hours to search your soul it can feel pointless inviting someone else to watch you do it. The deepest conversations I’ve had were not with my therapist, but with my boxing trainer. Slumped and sweating in the corner of a boxing ring, you’re too tired to prop up the walls you’ve built to surround yourself and you’ll say anything. It’s like drinking in airport bars with strangers you will never see again. So I quit the therapy. I started spending more time in that room that smells like iron and sweat, and blood and leather.
Six days a week, I take myself to the gym like someone else would take their deranged dog for a walk. For two hours I lift weights, punch bags and cycle until I look like I’ve been dunked in an ocean. At night the place is full of couples training in new Nikes and matching leggings, working toward some goal they have agreed on together; by day it’s people training solo, the place silent but for the piped-in music and the sound of glove hitting bag. In the weird hours I keep, the room is dotted with people sitting mutely on weights benches, staring out of windows or down at phones, silently waiting out the break between sets, resting their muscles as they build them.
Scientists think the lonely whale is a blue whale, one of the strongest animals on earth because of the sheer amount of muscle it needs to keep moving.
There’s an out of work actor who trains for seven hours every day. As each hour passes he changes his sopping shirt for a new one. You can tell how long he’s been there by how many are piled by his feet. He spends those hours on the treadmill, in the weights room, in any group exercise class they’ve got on at the time – in zumba, body pump, prenatal yoga – killing time, sweating through shirts, trying to forget himself. Sometimes we talk, but it doesn’t make a difference. Loneliness is all in your head, but muscle keeps you moving.
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How to make a multilingual relationship work: 6 tips.
We all know there’s a ‘language of love’ – but what happens when love is spoken in different languages? Or, more precisely, what happens when two people speaking different languages communicate in a third language – English? Well, the relationship gets more interesting for sure, but it can also get more challenging. We talked to a bunch of people at the EF office who live in multilingual relationships and asked them how they made it work – these six tips are what they highlighted.
Yes, really. You’ve heard it before, but it’s true – communication is important, and especially in relationships where English is not the first language. After all, misunderstandings can arise quickly (see point 2), and being able to discuss them openly is crucial. The language barrier can also mean that grievances are left undiscussed, since arguing in a foreign language can just be too tiring. Make the extra effort and openly discuss any problems you may have, so things don’t get too complicated down the line.
Whether you’re both learning English or both have a good grasp of the language, misunderstandings can happen. And mix-ups can happen quickly – just think of words like embarazada in Spanishand embarrassed in English. These two words look and sound the same, and probably mean the same thing, right? Wrong. These two words mean wildly different things – one means ‘embarrassed’, but embarazada actually means ‘pregnant’. And the mix-up is pretty common (really)! The trick is to accept that misunderstandings will happen, and to be able to laugh about them.
3. Be genuinely curious.
The more you understand your partner’s culture, the easier it will be to look past misunderstandings. So whether your significant other invites you to attend an, ehm, unusual Christmas tradition (just Google Krampus) or discover a new artist, saying yes will familiarize you with your partner’s culture, and ease any potential frictions.
4. Be flexible and understanding.
Despite the fact that you both speak the same language, you may have different communication styles, which may take some getting used to. In some cultures, indirect communication is the norm – winding, elaborate speech that asks for some ‘reading between the lines’. In other places, communication is all about efficiency, and being honest is key. These different communication styles can also affect relationships, and a comment that comes off as ‘blunt’ to you may just be considered ‘honest’ by your partner. The key here is to remain open-minded and flexible!
5. Be patient.
Accept the few stumbling blocks that might come your way. Whether you have different conversation styles or just haven’t figured out yet how to argue in English, be patient with yourself – and your partner. It takes some time to adjust to speaking a third language and understand where your partner is coming from. (A bonus point one of our in-house relationship gurus mentioned: when you’re arguing in a language neither of you speak perfectly, you actually end up arguing less because it’s too exhausting and too difficult!).
6. Have fun.
At the end of the day, multilingual relationships are extremely enriching and fulfilling. Not only will you get to understand your own culture better, and get to know a new one through your partner, but you will also learn a new language or greatly strengthen an existing skill – it’s an absolute win-win, right?