Everyone I know has a different description of their loneliness. For example, mine is a vacuum. Not quite the Henry Hoover kind, unfortunately, but the kind that sits right in the pit of my stomach like a nauseating, empty void. It’s that same loneliness, in all its different forms, that millions of people silently battle with each day, yet it’s rarely mentioned aloud. Ironically, loneliness itself has therefore become an incredibly lonely issue – one that is experienced by many but talked about by a few. This loaded silence meant that, until recently, that I believed my own experience of loneliness just simply wasn’t normal.

As someone who loves her own space, I never understood how I could also feel lonely within it. Ever since childhood, my happy place revolved around me, a brand-new LEGO set, and cartoon shows playing on repeat. But despite enjoying my alone time, that vacuum of dread and loneliness still managed to consume my thoughts on a nightly basis. It was then that I was first introduced to the assumption that being alone automatically resulted in loneliness, and so I did the exact opposite. I surrounded myself with people; attending parties, gatherings, quiz nights, clubs, until almost every second of my time was spent with anyone but myself. In my mind, the louder my social life was, the quieter that loneliness would become. In reality, this was far from true. The room could be full of people laughing, dancing and having a good time – the furthest thing from being alone – yet in that moment I had never felt more isolated or disconnected. It seemed like the more crowded a room became, the smaller I was and the larger that empty void grew until it completely overwhelmed me. I felt like I had failed on some level, in my social life, in my independence, and in my own capability as an individual.

Those unspoken assumptions and the stigma surrounding the term loneliness began to feed me this belief that I was both a burden and a failure, cultivating a self-doubt that questioned how I could ever escape my loneliness when not even a room full of people could “fix” what I was feeling. It is this same stigma that continues to equate our loneliness to weakness and instead of allowing ourselves to feel and confide in those around us, we are shamed into silence.

It was when I decided to open up about my loneliness to a few people that I realised just how many others felt the same way I did. All different backgrounds, all different ages, and each of them experiencing their own kind of loneliness. Rather than questioning myself and trying to “fix” what I was feeling, I started to instead question the stigma that surrounds such an issue and to expose the shame culture that made me believe I was ever in need of fixing to begin with.

In doing so, I realised that feeling lonely doesn’t necessarily mean being alone. Loneliness can be found in the most crowded of rooms and in the emptiest of spaces – it affects us all in different ways with each experience just as valid as the next. Loneliness is not weakness. It is not failure. It does not lessen our independence, nor does it reduce our capability as an individual.

Knowing that, I stopped attempting to suppress my vacuum and instead began to acknowledge it – to sit with it and allow myself to feel. Once I recognised that I no longer had to run from my loneliness, I slowly began to enjoy my alone time again. I rediscovered my happy place (which still very much consists of me, LEGO and back-to-back cartoons) and the joy that comes with my own company.

During Mental Health Awareness Week this year, let’s challenge the unspoken stigma which labels loneliness as a ‘one size fits all’ issue. In place of that stigma, I want to reassure you of the validity of what you are feeling and to encourage you to not only check in with those around you that are physically isolated, but also those who outwardly appear to be the least alone.

Regardless of what our loneliness looks like, whether it’s a silent vacuum or a swirling anxiety, whether it’s loudest in a crowded room or an empty space – we are far from alone in facing it, and it’s time that we broke the shame culture that tells us otherwise.

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