“My life felt empty and unreal and I was embarrassed about its thinness, the way one might be embarrassed about wearing a stained or threadbare piece of clothing. I felt like I was in danger of vanishing, though at the same time the feelings I had were so raw and overwhelming that I often wished I could find a way of losing myself altogether, perhaps for a few months, until the intensity diminished.”
—Olivia Laing, The Lonely City
Reading The Lonely City, I’m increasingly struck not by how much I relate—I expected that—but by how far back my feelings of loneliness go. I’ve been marked by loneliness as far back as I can remember being a social creature: around fourth grade.
Fourth grade was the year the “nice girls” stopped playing with me on the playground at recess, and I couldn’t figure out what I could have possibly done wrong. I was too young to recognize myself as any sort of weird. I didn’t have the cognitive self-awareness to accept my own awkwardness, nor did I realize that on some level it wasn’t about me. It was human nature for them to draw lines in the sand to differentiate “us” and “them”, and I was just a convenient scapegoat with my awkward looks, my tucked-in shirts, and my self-proclaimed bookworm status. I didn’t understand, at nine years old, that my passions and self-presentation were socially unacceptable.
The following year, in fifth grade, Depression struck me—although, again, I didn’t have the language to describe it as such. One of my most vivid memories of that year is the day I made myself late to school because I couldn’t stop crying. I was begging my mother to let me stay home, but I couldn’t pretend I was actually sick. I couldn’t explain what was wrong either; it’s not as if I was being directly bullied, more that I was made to feel separated, apart. I was late to school that day because my mother, despite her deep respect for rules and timeliness, didn’t want to drag her 10-year-old out in public projectile crying. That day I encountered two important social lessons: the necessity of keeping up the appearance of normalcy, and the stigmatizing nature of inexplicable sadness.
Fifth grade was the first time I can remember being what I now describe as depressed, the first time I saw a counselor, the first time I confronted my own difference. Because the only “reason” I was sad, the reason I dreaded going to school each day, was how silently separated I felt from my peers—because I wasn’t truly accepted—I wasn’t popular.
As a child, I craved the deep connection promised by having a “best friend,” yet I was constantly disappointed by the reality of those friendships. Friend after friend let me down, betrayed me, disowned me, or even just moved away. The friendships that would have been easiest to maintain, such as the neighbor two doors down, never held the intimacy I craved—perhaps because my mom was always comparing my behavior to this girl, who seemed to do no wrong but also seemed, in my opinion, to have no substance. I didn’t just want intimacy, either: I wanted the friend who would lift me out of the dungeon of the uncool. I wanted to belong to a group of girls. I wanted to be popular.
I wanted to be widely liked by my peers, and instead, I was mostly invisible. My many attempts to break out of my prescribed role, to be seen, to infiltrate The Group, never worked. (Read: the year I joined cheerleading, when the cheer squad inexplicably became uncool.) The harder I tried, the more I reinforced my own loneliness, the more I etched the mark into my skin.
The few deep friendships that survived these years did so because of our difference, our being set aside by our peers. One of my best friends and I bonded over being spurned by the same womanizing ninth grader, being on the outside of our church youth group clique and at our respective schools. My other best friend and I connected over our disdain for math and having interests not shared by our peers—in fact, despised by our peers as being “nerdy.”
Maybe high school popularity doesn’t matter when you’re an adult, but its effects linger. In my post-college years, I’m haunted by the fear of “missing out.” This fear, I’m realizing, goes as far back as fourth grade, when I feared missing out on the fun, formative experiences, from exclusive slumber parties to the right lunch table—even as far as parties I was never invited to in high school and college. Even when I did gain entry to those types of events, I never quite felt like I belonged there. It was more about my own anxiety than it ever was about having fun. Even when I was present, I was missing out.
I’d like to say that at 26, I’ve grown out of all this. I have, for the most part, and I certainly have the tools now to analyze how and why my experiences were this way. I have an understanding of Depression and Self-Hatred, a growing knowledge of sexism. I recognize now that I couldn’t be cool because I never quite did femininity right, because I was too damn smart (smarter than I ever realized). The system was designed to keep out anyone who threatened change, as I did when I wanted to be a band nerd and a reader and a cheerleader at the same time. Even when I tried to disguise my weirdness, it was still always there, right alongside my hunger to achieve what I’d been missing. Eventually, I got tired of pretending not to be myself, which was the first step in becoming the person I am now.
The impulse remains. I grew up into a culture obsessed with appearances, addicted to social media, permanently attached to our smart phones. By the time I hit college, nothing felt real until someone Out There knew about it. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that half the reason I moved to New York was out of spite, a need to prove myself, to be part of it, to make people jealous. In reality, living in New York wasn’t terribly different from living anywhere else: I still woke up inexplicably miserable from October to April (thanks, Seasonal Depression!), still worked dead end jobs that barely paid the bills. I still felt bitter deep down and I was still terrified that I was missing out.
The hardest part of leaving New York almost four months ago was that old dream of being Part of It All. Despite the fact that I rarely ever felt like a confident, important part of a specific scene in New York (and when I did feel confident, it was under the influence). When I left, that’s what I was truly afraid of giving up: my hard-earned confidence, my ability to talk to a stranger in a bar, my sense of being deeply imbedded in the action. I’m still fighting to gain perspective on it. I was part of it, but I fell right into the clichéd hole the city gave me: the underemployed, anxiously depressed novelist who waits around for someone to hand her a book deal. I wan’t unique or special anymore, must another body on the subway, another kid behind an espresso machine, another self-consciously giggling woman at a bar, another writer desperate for fame.
Don’t get me wrong, I needed to leave, and I’ve never regretted my decision. Even out in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania, though, I still struggle with feeling like I’m missing out. I don’t have anything amusing to post on Instagram, and I haven’t written a blog post in months. I’ve fallen off social media, sticking to the backseat, where I scroll through other people’s lives, making comments here or there. I’m too afraid to offer up my own insights because as much as I fear being invisible, I also fear being seen. I’m afraid of being marked as boring, as not doing adulthood properly, even as being anti-feminist in the way I live my life. Even now, I’m still marked: lonely, outsider, weirdo, nerd. I’m marked, and I am marking myself.