The loneliness of change
Updated: Jan 30
Dark nights of the soul are horrible.
Very few gay men seek out and then read articles about loneliness unless they’ve come to the realisation that they’re lonely. The stigma and shame we feel is real, and it takes a lot of courage to even engage with the subject.
Thank you for being here. I’m proud of you for opening this article. I recognise and admire your courage. Indeed, some of you may be first time guests on my site and have come here because you know Justin. If so, welcome! Now that you’re here, let’s start getting you connected to yourself, those most important to you and to your community.
I'm so very excited to present this article to you. It's been written by my friend, Justin Oberste. Justin and I connected over Instagram and are now in regular contact. Justin is a LGBTQ+ affirmative therapist and lives in Santa Barbara in the United States.
Justin's shared his beautiful soul with us. He's shown us the angst of what we call 'the dark night of the soul' - those times when we feel so lost and alone. He also shows us that these nights, while horrible, are what we need to learn about ourselves and the connection we need.
Our dark nights of the soul are an awful way to get our attention. But, with love and support, we can learn the lessons we're trying to tell ourselves.
That's enough from me for now. I'll let you get to Justin's beautiful words.
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Lately, as I take my dog for walks in the evening, I can feel the undeniable hints that fall has arrived here in the US—the breeze is cool, I can hear the sound of leaves crunching beneath my feet, and there seems to be something different in the atmosphere. This season—with its darker, quieter, even spookier moments—is my favourite time of year and has been since I was young.
This time of year also seems to be an appropriate time to ponder change. While each season has significance and memories associated with them, fall has often held some of the most memorable moments. It has consistently been the season where I've made significant shifts in my adult life. Perhaps another way to describe it, like the trees preparing for winter, is a time of shedding. A time to look at our exterior life and interior self and reflect on the past year's harvest. What could I have done better? What am I now reaping? Who or what should or shouldn't be in my life? Should I have worked harder or laid off the cheeseburgers? With all of this in mind, fall can be a beautiful time of reflection and contemplation. As this season arrives, I also have the familiar sense of my heart reflecting and shifting.
As part of my reflection, I want to share how the loneliness of change greatly influenced my life. I hope you're somewhere comfortable and having a warm cup of coffee, tea, or a nice glass of red wine while I share a small portion of my story and how loneliness has played a significant role in my life.
In the fall of 2016, I found myself feeling empty, numb, and overworked. I tried everything to help alleviate the black hole I was floating in—food, sex, alcohol, work, vacation, art, yoga, mediation, even prayer—but it seemed nothing could fill the void.
I was searching for meaning and significance and craving more substantive, pointed dialogue about life. I noticed my heart yearning to move beyond my self-interest and towards the needs of people around me. I wanted something broader and deeper. And I could feel the loneliness creeping in, but I had no idea what type of change I needed or what unknowns that change might bring. So I suppressed those feelings of loneliness and closed myself off emotionally. Paradoxically, I began to isolate even further, and poured myself into my work even more. When that didn’t work, I began pouring my energy into artwork, hoping for any sort of reprieve. This method didn't work either, and instead made me feel even more empty. It didn't take long for a great depression to consume me—one that would stick around for almost two years—and I thought I had no other option but to allow the depression to run its course with full access to my thoughts, emotions, and desires.
In my opinion, depression can be an alarm of sorts, informing us that something isn't right and a time-out is needed. However, as I let these feelings into my body, I realised that while this was indeed depression, it was also what many before me have called a dark night of the soul—a time of deep reckoning with who I am and what I see as true. During this dark time, I began to see that the tools and mechanisms of survival I had learned to use in my teens, twenties, and early thirties were no longer sufficient to keep up with my own interior evolution—deep heart changes, expanding ethics, and developing ideals. I suddenly felt as if everything I had learned up to this point in my life could no longer provide answers or prepare me for what lay ahead.
Still, I was determined to find a way forward and I sought professional help. I looked for LGBTQ affirming therapists in my area, and unfortunately there were none. In fact, I couldn't find any professional help that wasn't affiliated with faith-based therapy practices. As a survivor of Religious Trauma and Conversion Therapy, I found this deeply concerning. When I couldn't find professional help, I began to open up to close friends and safe family members about what I was experiencing. Through many late-night, heartfelt, tearful conversations, I begin to shift my thinking, gradually seeing my depression—my dark night of the soul—not as inherently harmful or an unsolvable dilemma but as a pathway to profound change.
As I considered this pathway forward, I began to think about people I've read about or followed on social media who had echoed themes and ideas similar to what I was experiencing. I took a risk and reached out to two people I followed on social media at the time. One person in particular, who lived on the other side of the country, had a therapy practice and body of written work that had always stood out to me. I felt he was a trailblazer and maybe could offer some great insight. Frankly, I never expected to hear back from anyone I contacted. But lo and behold, I did, and I felt instantly relieved and terrified. It was scary to put myself out there, but the beautiful dialogue that began gave me a sense of hope—however small—and hope was a feeling I hadn't felt for quite some time. I had unexpectedly discovered what felt like support and renewed motivation. Even if I didn't know when exactly to jump or where I would land, it gave me just enough bravery to feel like I could take that next leap of faith.
A few months later, in the fall of 2018, the time came for me to take that leap. I quit my job, and a few days later, I received a phone call that a wildfire close to Los Angeles threatened to engulf my uncle and his family's house. They were safe, but the fire had caused some significant damage in their neighborhood. It was clear that they needed both physical and emotional help, so I flew out the next day. It was my first time on the West Coast and the first time I'd seen my uncle in years.
While I was visiting and helping my family, I met up with the two individuals I had reached out to via social media. Through those conversations, I ended up taking an interview at an incredible grad school, which I would apply to later on that trip.
After enduring some of the most vulnerable and lonely times of my life, it seemed the universe was opening some wonderful doors.
Fast-forward to an early spring morning back in Greenville, SC, where nearly all of my earthly possessions were stuffed in the backseat of my car. I waved goodbye to my fiancé as I drove away from our home, taking a deep breath as I began the cross-country trip that would lead me into a new chapter. I knew I was on my way to Los Angeles to begin a masters program in psychotherapy, but I had no idea of the intense changes ahead.
It was a long and beautiful car ride, and I was fortunate to have one of my closest friends tag along for the journey. All I could think about, though, was the tremendous risk and sacrifice I had just made. I was leaving behind a successful career, my house, my closest friends—even my partner and my beloved dog. I felt crazy, anxious, and absolutely terrified.
During my first full year of graduate school, I lived the nomad life. With limited funds, I found myself living alone in various sublets all over the city—occasionally even living out of my car in Malibu. I missed my dog and my close, intimate friends. Because of the long distance and lack of communication, my ten-year relationship deteriorated quickly, ending completely not long after my first quarter of grad school. It felt like a divorce with absolutely no closure. I recall one of my professors in my family therapy class saying that 75 per cent of relationships end when one partner gets a grad degree in psychology. I was now a part of that 75 per cent.
A month later, on the evening of 11 September 2019, I found myself in the path of two cars that hit me from behind at high speed. When the paramedics pulled me out of what was left of my Nissan Altima, I walked toward the ambulance, glass cracking beneath my feet, and saw the interstate littered with clothes, books, and other debris—artifacts from my life, scattered across the road.
For the first time in my life, I felt utterly alone and profoundly defeated. Everything I owned lay literally in pieces around me, punctured by metal and glass shards. The paramedic told me I should not have survived this accident. That car wreck symbolised the state of my life, relationship, thoughts, and everything I knew to be true.
At this crossroads, I truly felt I had lost everything. But it was in the depth of this despair and loneliness—this extreme confrontation of my pain and failings—that honest, profound change was able to take hold in my life. Losing everything forced me to truly let go—to shed what was weighing me down.
A yearning for connection gave me the courage to look deeply into the eyes of my teachers, fellow students, and close friends. And leaving behind many of life's distractions awakened me to the magnificence of a single breath. In this quiet loneliness and emptiness, I realised that we are conditioned to believe that income, expertise, and accolades are the mark of success.
But true transformation is a paradox.
It is in letting go of our assumptions and biases that we can grasp great truths. It is often the depths of suffering that will lead us to the heights of great love. And it is often in the midst of great darkness that the beauty of our humanity can shine fully. I had to allow the feelings of loneliness in to find profound change. That change—as scary and uncertain as it was—was the unavoidable pathway which has since led me to a new vocation, a new love, a new city, and—I hope—to a deeper sense of home in my ever-evolving, authentic self.
Justin Oberste MA, AMFT
30 September 2021
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I don't know if I've ever read a description of the horrid dark nights of the soul that's contained such grace and eloquence. My soul connects with these words: their beauty and the life within them.
Indeed, I experienced multiple soulgasms reading these words as I readied them for publication here.
Thank you, Justin. Thank you for sharing some of your story and insight with us. I deeply admire your courage in doing so. I know it's been tough for you. Courage is contagious and I know that you've helped someone, somewhere to persevere through their dark nights of the soul towards learning who they are through your words, wisdom and lived experience.
I simply cannot wait to see what happens as you continue to put your beautiful self into the world.
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Loneliness is awful and it’s tempting to try to solve it or fix it yourself. Trying to do this defeats the purpose of loneliness: you’re meant to reach out for support. Please, reach out to your partner, a friend or someone in your orbit who you know is trying to put themselves into the world just like you are. That could be me through my mentoring services. That could be a therapist or a counsellor – including a crisis counsellor. That could be a coach. It could be a combination of all.
Be sure to check out my services page when you’re ready for my support and guidance.
Want more love, support, soul-nourishment and inspiration from Justin? Join me and Justin for a coffee and a chat in the upcoming episode of my podcast for gay men ‘Connection over Coffee with The Loneliness Guy’ from Thursday 14 October 2021.
Important notice: All views expressed above are my own/the authors and are intended to support, challenge and inspire gay men to consider the issue of loneliness and increase awareness of the need for authentic connection with themselves, with others and their communities as an antidote to chronic loneliness. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional. Please consult the Resources page if you feel that you need the services of a licensed helping professional where you are in the world.