The lonely generation

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I recently came across a list I had written at the beginning of the summer, enthusiastically titled “Summer Plans!” The list detailed trips I hoped to take to Big Sur and the redwoods, as well as new experiences I wanted to have. The last bullet point on it encapsulates what I was hoping to do: “adventure with friends.”

In reality, I spent most of the summer in bed. The only thing on the list I did was see the movie “Booksmart” (which is a great movie). I spent a lot of the summer going back and forth to transcranial magnetic stimulation appointments and to work, and I spent stretches of hours and days alone.

I have struggled with loneliness the most in the past year. I am, however, objectively not lonely: I have a loving family. I have many friends who are willing to drop everything to spend time with me if I’m feeling depressed. I’ve even commiserated with them over an oxymoronic shared loneliness. I’m lucky to be roommates with my best friends. I have a community of people who I bond with in rehearsals for the theater company that I’m a member of. Despite being surrounded by people in class, at work and in clubs, I constantly feel utterly isolated, completely alone.

It feels melodramatic even to say it, and I know it hurts my friends when I say how I feel so lonely. But this feeling isn’t unusual: In a 2018 study conducted by Cigna, a global health service company, 46% of Americans reported sometimes or always feeling alone. The study also showed that Generation Z is “the loneliest generation.” The problem plaguing this generation has been dubbed the “loneliness epidemic,” which has real consequences: Loneliness negatively impacts health and mortality rates.

Even if I am not alone, I constantly feel the effects of loneliness, and depression makes these effects worse. My brain distorts my thinking and convinces me that no one wants to be friends with me, that nobody really loves or likes me. Depression often leads to social isolation, and social isolation begets depression. My issues aren’t exactly helping each other.

It often feels as though there is no cure to my loneliness. As a senior, it seems like everyone’s theme song is “No new friends,” that I missed my chance and that it’s too late to make new friends before graduation. It seems like it’ll only get harder after I leave school because there will no longer be a contained structure in which there are tens of thousands of people my age.

When I do try to make new friends, I realize that I’ve forgotten all the social skills required to do so. I hear myself fumbling over words, taking awkward pauses, drifting off and drifting away. Successfully socializing with new people is a skill that somehow I’ve missed out on acquiring, a talent I wasn’t born with.

Growing up, my twin sister made all of our friends and let me tag along. Looking at her college friend group now, I can’t help but feel the bite of envy.

But when I told my sister about my jealousy, she said, “It’s not always what it looks like.” She told me exactly what I didn’t want to hear: Even though it seems like she sees her friends all the time from her Instagram, she lives alone and goes days without seeing them. She sees her best friends maybe once a week. As she pointed out to me, time spent with others doesn’t indicate closeness. We don’t have to see our friends every day to know that we have close bonds with other people.

This echoes the sentiments that my therapist often tells me. When I whine to her about how I don’t have friends, how all of my friends have drifted away from me, how they all love each other more than they love me, she doesn’t tell me I’m wrong. She reminds me, instead, that relationships ebb and flow. Sometimes people drift away. But usually, they come back. I know this to be true; I feel closer to some friends than others for a bit, and then the roles switch. If I can see myself doing that, I can’t really blame my friends for doing it, too.

But I want to see my friends every day. I don’t like spending time alone with my own depressed thoughts in my own depressed brain. But perhaps learning to be an adult includes learning how to be on my own and to be able to stand — even like and appreciate — my own presence. Healthy and happy friendships don’t rely on codependency. To be satisfied in my friendships, I want to be satisfied alone, too.

There is a drawing by cartoonist rubyetc in which a little character says, “I am lonely on my ownly, but I am also extremely lovely.” It is a little silly, but it is also resonant, and I think about it a lot. I hope to imbibe that belief: I am worthy of friendship, and I can also stand on my own.

Salwa Meghjee writes the Thursday column on destigmatizing mental illness. Contact her at [email protected].