Times of change are when we most feel lonely.
This includes me.
You don’t seek out and then read articles about loneliness as a gay or queer man unless you’ve come to the realisation that you’re lonely. The stigma and shame you feel is real, and it takes a lot of courage to even engage with the subject.
You’re courageous for opening this article. I’m proud of you. Let’s start getting you connected to yourself, those most important to you and to your community.
This article was written and published on Ngunnawal country. I wish to acknowledge and respect the Ngunnawal people’s continuing culture and the contribution they make to the life of Canberra and the surrounding region. I would also like to acknowledge and welcome other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – and other First Nations people - who may read these words.
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Recently, I was part of a workplace seminar in which some recent (and yet-to-be-published) research on loneliness and connection was being discussed. It identified times of change as some of the times humans report feeling loneliest.
Since learning about the findings of this research, I’ve been reflecting about when I’ve felt the loneliest throughout my life so far. I’ve noticed that loneliness in times of change applies to me, too.
Let’s explore some of the times in my life that I felt the loneliest.
1. Early years of high school
I attended a Catholic boarding school in regional Victoria during my six years of high school. I lived at that boarding school from the ages of 12 to 17.
I distinctly recall the first few months at school. I was 12-years-old and felt really out of place. I lived in my imagination a lot as a child – mainly through an impressive society I created out of Lego – and that outlet was not available to me when I was away at school.
I was surrounded by boys who were sporty, loud and rough. I was none of those things.
I recall feeling utterly alone and desperately looking forward to term breaks so I could get home for a two-week reprieve before returning for another term.
I struggled to feel that I belonged around the other boys at school. I was bullied and lived in fear for much of Year 9. This coincided with uncomfortable realisations that I was attracted to other boys and I was so scared that I would be found out, beaten and excluded. I learned to reduce the risk of being bullied by making myself a small target and doing whatever it took to feel that I had friends and fitted in.
There was a lot of loneliness during my early teenage years when going through puberty’s changes and adjusting to life away from home.
2. Starting my mid-life crisis
It was 2016. I was in my late 30s. My family (wife and two children) and I lived in Seoul where I was posted for work on a diplomatic posting.
It was the third time that I’d lived outside Australia over the preceding 14 years.
I realised that while I continued to live my dream and living internationally and representing my country, I felt hollow and empty. I felt that life was a dream where I merely observed what was happening around me and nothing felt that it was really involving me.
I went through my symptoms and I didn’t feel that I was experiencing depression. I simply wondered what more there was to life if I was part of a loving family and had a job that I’d worked so hard to have. If this was success, I didn’t feel it.
Things weren’t OK, despite appearances.
For someone who’s learned five languages and can use English well, I didn’t have the language to describe how I was feeling. How could I ask for help – or even ask someone to listen to me – if I didn’t have the words?
I had a wife and family who loved me (and they still love me…). I felt like I shouldn’t have felt like I did.
I was terrified that my sexuality – which I’d worked so hard to repress for much of my life – was playing a part in this unravelling. The person who would normally support me – my wife – was the person I’d hurt the most if I was to speak my truth.
I wanted to talk with someone else, but it felt like I had no one in my life who I could pick up the phone and talk to. I’d been bouncing in and out of Australia between stints of living and working overseas for so long that I felt that I had no one who I could talk to beyond exchanging small talk and pleasantries.
This was a very lonely place and time for me. Realising that these thoughts and feelings may have been loneliness (which they were) made it even harder. I desperately did not want the thoughts and feelings I was thinking and feeling to be loneliness. Loneliness seemed so heavy and sad.
I resolved to deny the thoughts and feelings by throwing myself back into my work again. Only, it become tougher to avoid them.
What had helped me numb and avoid uncomfortable thoughts and feelings previously wasn’t working anymore.
I felt trapped, empty and alone. Until I spoke up.
3. Coming out
My former wife and I decided to separate in August 2019. We were living in Wellington (New Zealand’s capital city) at the time.
We were living there on her diplomatic posting. I was a stay-at-home Dad and was writing and podcasting at The Lonely Diplomat.
We supported each other in the time before we decided to split. However, I felt very lonely once I came out to live life as a gay man.
In the 18 months that I’d lived in Wellington to that point, I’d lived life as a married straight man with two children. The people in my social circle were like me: married, straight and with children. They’d formed their relationships with that version of me. When that changed for them, I guess that they didn’t know how to respond.
They responded by giving me space. I really needed them to step forward.
In the weeks after our decision to split, I vividly recall needing a hug, but there being no one to give me one.
I didn’t know many gay men. I didn’t know the bars or any details of the local scene. I got on Grindr and started meeting some men – including my beautiful partner, Jeff. I became friends with a group of amazing gay men. I felt like I belonged, but only to a certain point.
I really needed a hug from someone who knew me longer than a few weeks.
4. Working on loneliness
Yes, as The Loneliness Guy I still experience loneliness. It’s often lonely working on loneliness. Ironic, right?
I spend most of my days sitting at the dining table working on and around the topic of loneliness, how it affects humans and encouraging you and other humans to take steps to move beyond their loneliness.
It’s a privilege and a joy to do this, but there are not many people around me who do this work.
Previous to working on The Loneliness Guy full-time, I worked for 23 years in the Australian Public Service. It was a career that provided many highlights and – just like any other career – was very frustrating at times.
I worked with great people – great friends – who I saw most days. When I left that career and become a full-time solo entrepreneur, I knew I’d be swapping working with a team to work alone.
I don’t miss the frenetic nature of the work, but I sometimes miss the camaraderie of working in a team.
Realising this in 2022 was powerful for me.
Social media becomes a powerful tool of connection, advice and support. It’s awesome to have a group of people – academics, public policy experts, mental health professionals and other passionate advocates – around the globe who are also working on helping humans feel less lonely.
If there are any people who know about the importance of building and maintaining soul-nourishing connections with other humans, it’s those who work on loneliness. We all know the importance of having feeling genuinely connected.
We use social media for good. It’s wonderful. But…
Sometimes it’d be nice if they were next door so we could go and get coffee and chat.
The common thread
Like you and almost everyone else, I’ve often felt lonely at times of change in my life.
Be that change puberty and transitioning from a child to a teenager, moving cities/countries, ending a relationship, coming out or changing career.
Learning this and reflecting on how I approach change in my own life can feed my loneliness, I feel that I can better support you as you negotiate change in your life.
My life is always changing. Yours is too. Life’s always changing, even if I don’t want it to and I choose to deny or avoid it (as I did with my sexuality for almost 30 years before accepting that part of myself).
It’s good to know that I’ve got the skills and strategies to feel connected again during these times of change and have built a great team around me to support me through them.
No, it’s not simply ‘good’. It’s powerful. It’s reassuring.
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There’s a stigma to loneliness and the stigma can make you want to try and solve it or fix it yourself. 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 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.
I’m right here for you when you’re ready to learn ways to feel connected and reduce your loneliness during times of change. Be sure to check out my services page for more.
I’ll also having a coffee and a chat with you on this topic for the next episode of my podcast.
Please, join me from Saturday 8 April 2023 for Ep. 55 – My loneliest times.
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 Services page if you feel that you need the services of a licensed helping professional where you are in the world.