What’s the Loneliest You’ve Ever Felt?

The author started a project on loneliness by asking this simple question. Many people quickly recounted experiences, often with surprising specificity.

Kristen Radtke

It’s perhaps not much of a statement to say that movie audiences have been conditioned to expect lonely heroes on the big screen. Westerns have long touted the virtues of the lone cowboy while simultaneously fetishizing the isolation of a dame waiting for rescue. Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock reigned in the ’90s with their portrayals of sad, clumsy dream girls. Superhero films have issued unfailingly sequestered protagonists, their power and responsibility separating them from the people they’ve sworn to protect. These are characters who hold within them as much longing as we feel watching them from our overstuffed couches and greasy theater seats.

In these films, certain cues taught viewers how to read this quality: She eats microwave dinners, so we know she is lonely; she has a cat, so we know she is lonely. He calls his parents every day, or lives next door to his parents, or his parents are dead and he is hardened by his orphanhood.

In real life, loneliness can get a bit more complicated, running into notions of self-reliance and the attendant bootstrap-pulling, frontier-conquering, and make-it-on-your-own ideologies that are the foundation of what might be called “American” values. Americans are supposed to have their own space, their own rooms, their fences dividing them from the neighbors. Americans do things themselves.

Researchers claim that loneliness will be classified an epidemic by 2030, and the former U.S. Surgeon General has described loneliness as one of the country’s most pressing health risks. The effects of social isolation are so severe that studies have shown that it actually has the power to remap the makeup of human cells.

So what happens to a society in which independence is so often the goal and isolation is frequently the result? When I started telling others I was working on a project about loneliness, I was surprised at first by how quickly some responded with their loneliest experience, often with immense specificity. I began asking a simple question: “What’s the loneliest you’ve ever felt?”

Many referenced a specific time period or place—“Pittsburgh,” I was told, or “While I was pregnant, and the year after I gave birth.” But many more pinpointed an exact instance as the epitome of their loneliness: “Mother’s Day, the year my grown children weren’t talking to me. The bell rang, and it was a flower delivery … for the horrible woman next door,” and “My first Christmas in L.A., hung over on the couch.” Many of these stories—a selection of which follows below—are centered on newness and moments of change, when recalibration leaves us without familiar tethers. They’re often tied to catastrophe, or the empty stretch of time that follows. No matter how varied experiences of loneliness can be, it seems significant that the emotions it provokes are so widely felt.

“My first weeks in the U.S. My husband started a new job, and my older kid disappeared into school. I took our toddler on endless walks, then watched TV images of planes crashing into the World Trade Center.”

“The first night I spent away from my son, a few months after he was born. I kept hearing him crying even though he wasn’t there.”

“My last month of being 20, I moved to a new city. I’d just been assaulted and dropped out of school. Seattle. The sun never came out. The night I turned 21, I got all dressed up and went to a bar and the guy didn’t even card me. When I said I just turned 21, he looked at me for a long time and laughed once, hard, like, Fuck you. I went to a store and bought a tiny bottle of whiskey and sat alone in my truck and drank it, looking at all the city lights.”

“I planned a birthday party in seventh grade. Only one person came.”

“We left Iran when I was 8. We spent a year in Dubai and then were sent to a refugee hostel in Italy, which was kind of made out of the carcass of an old hotel. Some guy came to pick us up from the airport and he was very official looking. He only spoke Italian. He dropped us off at the top of this big, winding hill. At the hostel there was this one room with a bed, and all three of us—my mom, my brother, and me—shared it. I remember that night we didn’t have anything to eat and we were really, really worried. Once we arrived in America, there was also another similar feeling of total disorientation. By that time I was 10. The first night, we were sleeping in the attic of the people who sponsored us. Everything was different. The weather was different. It was very humid. We were in a stranger’s house. I was hungry in the middle of the night and I didn’t feel okay going down to get anything, because it wasn’t our kitchen, and the food was all strange anyway.”

“Sober and living in a manufactured home in an Arizona retirement community.”

“Subway platform alone, age 13.”

“Living in Missoula in the six or seven months after college, I worked the night shift at a big downtown coffeehouse. The last thing I had to do one night was transfer a large gallon bag of vegetable soup from the crock next to the register to the fridge in the kitchen. When I lifted the bag out of the crock, the bag just sort of disintegrated, and the soup went everywhere on the floor behind the counter. I got down on my knees and put a rag into the pool of soup to start cleaning, and I felt an electric kick go up my arms. Turns out the soup had gotten into an electrical outlet. It wasn’t strong enough to actually hurt, so I just kept wiping the soup up and getting little shocks, and I knew when I was done I’d walk home in the freezing cold and go to bed alone.”

“When I was between 18 and 22, I slowly started realizing how big a deal it was to be awake and conscious and struggling against time—like, all the time. I would nervously list out options as to how I might spend all my time because there was so terrifyingly much of it. I was sort of waking up to myself and realizing that I was going to have to deal with myself, 24/7, forever. And there were so many opportunities for that self to be tricked or hurt or to make the wrong decisions for itself. And all that could happen inside myself while the world around me kept spinning without me participating in it. The first time it happened was at a Miami Subs restaurant in Pittsburgh on a Saturday night while that Eels song ‘Novocaine for the Soul’ was playing on the radio.”