To me, there has never been anything more lonely than a group of people, all contorted with laughter and rapid chatter, in classrooms, at parties, in halls and houses.
After school events were one of the worst, especially when parents were involved. My own parents usually never came – and when they did, they never made me feel safe, secure. Neither my father or mother were those kinds of people. When you have moved from place to place since a child, struggled with money constantly, and your own father left you, taking all the money with him, it’s hard to feel safe anywhere, with anyone. With every new home I grew attached – to the walls, to the bathroom, my view outside my bedroom window, even if it was just someone’s leaf-strewn courtyard – and each time we had to leave it felt like life was tugged out from beneath my feet. It was scary. The world was quicksand.
To this day, I live in fear of one day hearing a knock on the door and finding a man on our doorstep to evict us. A teacher once laughed at the possibility of anyone attending the school to be unable to afford a car, or the rent, because it was situated in a rich area, and everyone who attended the school came from well-off families, and I laughed along with everyone else, even as my heart sank. My peers feared getting bad grades, or social humiliation; I feared those, too, but I feared homelessness more. Thus, amongst my mingling classmates, who were tucked under a father’s wing, or nestled up to a mother’s side, or linked arm-in-arm with friends, I would often be overcome with such an awful darkness at the awful busyness and cheerfulness and bustling bodies that I would retreat to the bathrooms to cry, not knowing whether my tears were for the pain in my heart, or my terrific headache from all the noise.
Even after watching films featuring partying scenes, where the young men and women meet at diners with fluorescent lighting over fast food, or dance beneath disco lights that trace spots of colour over skin slick with sweat, I feel a peculiar melancholy in my chest at the ease with which people find a sense of belonging with others. The truth is, without sounding too self-pitying, in real life I have not met anyone particularly nice or kind, including my own father. Friends would often badger me, asking what occupation my parents held when I felt too ashamed to tell them, asking when I would purchase a house when I made the mistake I told them I was renting, just renting, renting until we found a house we “liked”. Those same girls eventually discovered my financial situation, and made every effort to remind me of it. On my long walk home from school, one girl told her parents to pull up beside me, asking me if I needed a ride, that it was no trouble, no trouble at all, smiling so wide it was hurtful. Others invited me to birthday parties again and again, until I came, only my gift to the birthday girl was tiny compared to the extravagances everyone else had gone to, so they all grew silent when she unwrapped it, and gushed, words trickling like melted candy down their chins, at how wonderful it was…
I got good grades, back in high-school, nothing particularly impressive, but mostly As, received a few awards. I do not know what it is about me that gives people the urge to try and put me back in my place. I only remember the hatred I received for getting full marks, for being too skinny, for being too quiet. And no matter how badly I was mistreated, I never, not once, fought back or spoke back. My very own aunt sneered at my writing dreams, in front of relatives, and I said nothing in return. Instead, because I felt so powerless and alone, so desperate to please and be loved, so out of place, I renewed my efforts at gaining people’s favor. I idealised young men and women, placed themselves above me, on a pedestal, for their social finesse and confidence, worshiped them even as they bullied me, avoided me, ignored me. To fight back and hold pride in who I was, even if that meant odd, an outcast, was something I did not learn to do for many years, and still struggle with. After all, I had no friends to back me up, no father or mother strong enough to bolster my self-esteem, and nothing to find solace in except books and the rhythm of words and my own imagination. It is hard to defend yourself from an enemy when you are scared of something creeping up on you from behind.
As a result of all this, I was depressed and anxious for a long time. Still am, on some days. But more debilitating than the depression and the anxiety was the self-hate. No-one at school appeared to like me, understand me, or accept me; they were loud and brash, strong and unthinking, while I was sensitive and quiet, “no fun”. Well, it is easy to have fun when there is reason to be. Putting on a mask of joviality when almost every soul in the world who has crossed your path seemed to want to hurt you is almost impossible. Life, experienced by someone who was different and bullied and shy and quiet and sensitive and unloved, was a land where others had been bred, from birth, to be monsters – while I, somewhere along the line, was born a tiny bird, existence a matter of hiding and escaping and fear from the swiping claws.
Yes, I have been mistreated, underestimated, bullied, abandoned, physically and psychologically abused, on multiple levels, all amplified by my innate sensitivity – yet, even so, I have found it in my heart to forgive every single person who hurt me so. It wasn’t easy. It will never be easy. For the longest time bitterness and rage bred in my gut, great coils of shadows twining around my heart. For the longest time I did not trust any human who I met, for somewhere in there, experience told me, was evil, selfishness, hatred. Pain. Yet holding onto that pain, in the end, hurt nobody but myself; and though I will never forget what they did to me, I can forgive.
These experiences have longer-lasting wounds than a little coldness to my personality. Whatever environment you grew up in as a child, depending on whether it was validating or invalidating, carries with you into your adulthood, as it did with me. Once an outsider, always an outsider. No matter how many kindred souls you might meet through the internet, no matter how many kind people you encounter, there will always be that part of you that is looking in the window, than sitting in the chairs behind it. You will always feel a sense of inadequacy around those who effortlessly form connections and fit in with other people. In large crowds and gatherings, you will always feel alone, and unseen.
My theory is that other people, who have not undergone the experience of being a social pariah, are better able to maintain delusions against their existential loneliness: relationships, family, love, colleagues, friends. Being on the outside gives you a unique perspective. You are, more than anyone else, aware that we all live and die alone, and that all that matters is to live a life satisfying to yourself. As you grow older, more illusions, like the desire to impress people, or money, also become clear to you. So in the end, you find self-worth through crafting a personal meaning for yourself, rather than letting others dictate how you feel or think, whether you cry or smile. For me, I desire, in my lifetime, to spend as much time as possible drowning in the waters of my imagination, floating across the waters from one country to another, encountering a nearly endless series of strange lands – and to share such dreams with other people, in the form of books. This hope alone has dragged me through many a bad night.
And, really, my loneliness or pain or suffering or sense of apartness does not matter, just like nothing else, under the sun, really matters, in this ephemeral business we call existence. Everyday, a thousand hearts in the world cry out in pain that I will never experience in my lifetime. Even those who seem to have everything they could possibly wish for – a successful career, a house, a job, a spouse, children – are not always satisfied with themselves, because smiles and photographs and closed doors can hide anything. At this point in time my goal is not to be happy or beautiful or wealthy, but to die, satisfied, in knowing I spent my time on this planet the way I wanted to, wrote the books I wanted to, did what I wanted to do, read as many books and soaked in as much knowledge and life experience as I could.
What people do, with their short, short lives, is what matters; we could not care less how hard it was for them to write that book or win that game or score that job or stumble across that theory, or how miserable they were or how much they were bullied as children. To other people, you are merely a cipher who can spit out services, make a sandwich for them at the corner store or make an entertaining film. You only matter to people as much as you help them. So, as an outsider, you must live for yourself, in a way that feels true to yourself, and that way, you will find yourself, and be yourself, and find a little satisfaction amidst the loneliness and anguish, until the day all pain ends.