I found my cure for loneliness
When I got back from being overseas for a few weeks recently, it was the first question Mum asked right after, "Oh, lovely to see you."
Then, right on cue: "So, did you meet a nice man?"
Mum asks this every Sunday, week in week out, when I visit her.
Sometimes in the one visit she asks more than once. Sometimes she asks multiple times. Sometimes by the time I leave I have four little crescent-shaped indentations on both palms from my nails digging in.
Mum's just turned 95 and her memory is, mostly, shot. But for her there's absolutely no forgetting that I'm long divorced, long single, long an empty nester with the boys having all grown up and I live alone, and never mind that, these days, I'm happy as a clam with all of that.
It just doesn't compute with her. She's convinced my life cannot be complete without a man in it and that I must be lonely, terribly lonely.
After unclenching my fists and summoning a sunny smile, I usually murmur something along the lines of "Ha ha, more trouble than it's worth".
What I never give her is my stock naughty tip for "coping" on one's own, which is delivered with a knowing wink to the (mostly) female friends who inquire solicitously after me or ask what advice do I have for them about it. (Mum's 95 for chrissake. Explaining to her that part of how I maintain my, um, equilibrium would be the stuff of nightmares.)
But I digress and I don't want to be glib or sound smug because my contentedness these days was a long time (and quite a deal of therapy) coming and there have indeed been dark periods in my life where loneliness drove daggers into my heart and undoubtedly affected my mental health.
It's a topic that's currently high on the public agenda, not least because of the release last week of the seminal Australian Loneliness Report by the Australian Psychological Society and Swinburne University, which is based on a survey of more than 1600 of us and takes in how loneliness impacts people's physical and mental health.
In the survey, one in four Australian adults admitted to feeling lonely, with one in two saying they feel lonely at least one day a week and one in four reporting feeling lonely for three or more days a week. The same number said they experienced high levels of social interaction anxiety (defined as angst "arising from social interactions, in particular, a fear of being judged negatively by others or feeling embarrassed").
Among other interesting findings was the nearly 55 per cent of respondents saying they lacked companionship, with young adults most affected, and 30 per cent saying they rarely or never felt part of a group of friends. And, while a third said they heard from rellies at least once a month, 13 per cent said they had no relatives they could call on for help. A similar percentage (12 per cent) said they had no friends they could call on for help.
So, as Mum might be surprised to learn, loneliness isn't just about losing or shedding or simply not having a partner or significant other, it's about the existence or absence of at least one or two close or reliable friends, with whom you feel comfortable. It's also about families. It's about connectedness, or not, on many levels.
She might also be surprised to learn (though actually we have talked about it) of the impact on me as an eight-year-old of Mum and Dad's decision to move back to Australia, leaving my older brother and sister in the UK to complete their schooling.
Suddenly rendered an only child, I also had to contend with changing schools four times in a year. This was hugely unsettling but also isolating. From then on making friends became a struggle and I developed, I know now, dysfunctional coping behaviours, including attention-seeking, which burdened me for years.
Later, in my 30s with three young children and having had to relocate to north Queensland, far away from family and friends and with the marriage firstly on very shaky ground and, eventually, over, loneliness gripped me in a vice and a fresh crop of dysfunctional coping behaviours took root, including starting to drink too much.
There's no sympathy seeking in revealing this. I figure that, especially in light of the Loneliness Report findings, there's a good few others who'll relate to these sorts of experiences or variations on these themes.
Anyway, after hitting a psychological wall, I sought help and embarked on an, at times, excruciating pilgrimage piecing the personality puzzle together, during which I came to realise how underconfident and uncomfortable in my own skin I was, and that I relied far too heavily on the attentions and approval of others as a means feeling good about myself. The former caused me social interaction anxiety and my feelings of isolation and loneliness could be acute in the absence of the latter.
It was a fascinating and challenging process but finding out who I was and why was enormously liberating.
Now, my skin is now a much better fit and these days I enjoy my own relaxed and much more self-confident company, which explains why I'm content on my own.
Of course, therapy's not a course of action everyone would choose or even needs to take to manage issues like social anxiety and loneliness, but it maybe worth considering.
As is my other red hot tip for "coping" with living alone: a chummy cat and good dildo. Sorry Mum.
Margaret Wenham is a Courier-Mail columnist and editor.