The Language of Loneliness

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I never realised the word ‘tired’ is in the past tense, until I started learning Russian. There’s a Russian saying Я устала как собака (YA ustala kak sabaka). In English, “I’m as tired as a dog”. I remember staring at the suffix “ла” trying to figure out what I’d done wrong when conjugating the word. Eventually I accepted that languages don’t make sense, and I don’t understand Russian well. It was only today that it occurred to me that “ed”, too, is a past tense suffix, and saying “tired” in the past tense is not some peculiarity of the Russian language.

I have written 7 novels, and countless essays and poems and diary entries; I live and breathe words. But I’ve never spent much time considering English as a structure, rather than an easy flow of communication. Sometimes I try to detach when I’m listening to music, try to hear what the words actually sound like when divorced from their meaning. I don’t know what English sounds like; it’s something that envelopes me when I speak and read and listen, it’s been with me from the moment I was born, it feels more like an instinct than something I learned throughout my life.

Language is one of the many ways we bond; it’s a shared experience, and shared experiences are at the heart of human connection. It’s the most basic way we build community.

I don’t have much of a community these days. Does anyone?

There are a lot of anniversaries coming up this month. One year since the last class of my undergrad degree. One year since I last did improv and theatre – that whole part of my life is gone now; it used to be the centre of my world. One year since my best friends moved away overnight. One year since the country went into a “three-week national lockdown” which has yet to end. I try not to have regrets – I spent so much of 2020 looking backwards that I almost lost myself in the what-ifs. I’m done with fantasy, for now. But if there’s one absence that continues to gnaw away at me, a pain that I can never fully ignore, it’s the loss of my community.

It occurred to me yesterday that I cannot be sure that 90 percent of my classmates are not centaurs. It’s so odd to spend hours with a group of people every week and only see their heads and shoulders. I’m used to it; of course I’m used to it by now. But what if I turn up to our graduation and everyone else has four hooves and a tail? There are three weeks left of classes, and then the remainder of my degree will be me spending quality time alone with my dissertation. There are three weeks left of classes, and I’m scared it’s too late to make friends. Why didn’t I try sooner? Why did I let fear and anxiety stop me from initiating something, anything?

If this was an ordinary year, we would have all met in September and January. We would have gone to a pub or a café after class, and after the initial awkward get-to-know-each-other stage, we would have broken off into smaller groups. I would have had a best friend, and maybe even a boyfriend (I’m more attractive in real life than I am over zoom, I promise!). We would have had flat parties, and I would have lain on the floor, wine-drunk, and asked them “do you ever think about existence?” and told them about every time I ever got my heart broken, and all my hopes and fears and travel stories. I would have had a community.

I have friends, and I love them dearly. I have a best friend who is simultaneously like my wife and a conjoined twin with whom I share a brain. I have friends I can bitch to, friends I can cry to, friends I can go on long walks with and plot a hypothetical authoritarian regime with and give my extra baked goods to. I have friends. I love, and I am loved. But community comes from shared experience, and almost all my friends moved away, and we study different subjects at different universities. I didn’t expect to be the last (wo)man standing, I didn’t expect to be the one who stayed behind. I love Glasgow, it’s the first place that truly felt like home to me. But I wish I had a community here again. The other week I sent my best friend three minutes of voice messages where I explained the arguments of why Russia could be considered a petrostate. Every week I excitedly talk about what I learned in my Russian Foreign Policy class, and my friends listen because they love me, not because they’re remotely interested in the geopolitical ramifications of the Nordstream 2 pipeline. I want friends I can talk to about academic stuff, friends I can be nerdy with and have them respond in kind. Friends who know the particular agony of having to do maths in Russian, or read Russian number poems.

I am so glad I chose to do this master’s course. I applied for it on a whim last August, to buy myself time when I was directionless and miserable. It changed my life. I want to do a PhD, and eventually become a lecturer. My one impulsive decision helped me figure out what I want my future to be. I am so grateful for the life I have, for everything I’ve learnt and all the ways this course has helped me grow. But when I imagine what it could have been like in a different year, my heart hurts. If I love this course now, imagine how much I would love it if I wasn’t lonely, if I had gone through this year surrounded by people. I imagine a world where I could hang back after class and ask my lecturers lots of questions, ever the teacher’s pet. I imagine a world where I would have friends to go for coffee with after class, friends to study with and gossip with and simply coexist with. I want it so much it hurts!

If I was a braver person, with a different history to the one I have, I would simply write in the class whatsapp group and ask if anyone wants to meet for a walk. It would take me 30 seconds, two sentences. But a cynical voice in the back of my mind asks “what if no one replies?”

It occurred to me today that I have never made the first move in a friendship. I used to be shy and have bad social anxiety, and I relied on more extroverted individuals to take me under their wing. It worked; almost everyone who chose me genuinely liked me, and I didn’t have to worry that I was forcing my company on them. I usually had an inkling of who I would bond with, certain people stood out, and I knew their energy vibed well with mine. But I did nothing until they chose me.

It took me until I was 22 to get over most of my anxiety. That was about six weeks before the lockdown started; timing has never been my strong point. I learnt how to be friendly and sociable, to make small talk and engage with others without (as much) fear. If I had the opportunity to be in a group of people now, I know I would make friends. I’m vivacious and excitable, I have a wide range of interests and I can hold a decent conversation. I’m witty and funny and intelligent. I bake excellent muffins, and give amazing hugs (not a useful skill at this moment in time). I am good at being a friend (I have received many drunk texts from my friends which attest to this fact).

I have a bad case of Eliza Exceptionalism, where I convince myself I am the only person to have ever felt the way I feel. Logically, I know it’s not true. Everyone’s lonely, everyone’s anxious and scared to reach out and form connections. But in my head, I assume it’s easier for everyone else, that the whole world around me is paired off in neat little groups of two, and I stand watching from the periphery.

Today I learnt how to say “I feel sad” in Russian. “Мне грустно” (mne grustno). My lecturer asked if I feel sad. I said “Да, мне грустно”. Yes, I feel sad. He said that we all feel sad during lockdown.
There’s something beautiful about learning another language, particularly one with a different alphabet, where writing out a basic word feels like stepping into another world. I love words, I love language, I love writing and speaking and expressing myself in any way I can. I struggle to express myself in Russian. Even when I learn the grammar rules, I don’t have the vocabulary to put that knowledge into practice. I reduce my thoughts and feelings and interests to simple sentences. It’s frustrating as hell, and here I am romanticising it. I can’t say what I want to say in Russian, I can’t make my words pretty or powerful, I can’t use language as a sword to stab with or a shield to hide behind. I can’t say what I want to say; all I can do is say what I mean. In Russian, I say “Мне грустно” to tell you I’m sad. In English, I write a 2200-word blog to say the same thing. Perhaps if I spoke in Russian more often, I would be able to be direct in a way I can’t in my native tongue. When the only words you can say are the truth, bravery becomes not just an option, but a necessity.

I promised myself a long time ago that I would stop writing blogs about my feelings. I deleted half of my old blogs, and I intend to delete more when I have the time to read through them and sort the oversharing from the decent writing. I became more protective of myself this year, I stopped pouring so much of myself away for free. Or maybe I just became more guarded and cynical. Maybe I will delete this too, when the sadness goes away. But as someone who used to write a lot about her emotions and trauma and irrational fears, and post it on the internet for the world to read, I learnt an important lesson: the more alone I feel, the more I’m convinced my experience is particular to me, the more it is universal. We’re not all in the same boat, every person’s experience is unique, but I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. I’m not the only person who’s sad and lonely and wants to make new friends but doesn’t know how.

The reason I stopped writing blogs about my emotions, my pain, my inner world, was because I didn’t want people to think that’s all there was of me. I’m a full person, with hopes and dreams and quirks and eccentricities, and I don’t always let people see that. Recently, people have described me as “disciplined” and “confident”, which made me realise there’s a huge disparity between how people perceive me, and how I feel on the inside. When I write too much about how I feel, I construct a narrative around myself that doesn’t always match up to who I am in real life. I could tell you who I really am (or at least, who I think I am), but that’s personal; it’s something you should learn over time as you get to know me. So I’ll leave you with this: I’m an optimist. I write sad girl blogs, and listen to sad girl music, and I write dystopian novels set in a hostile version of the future, and I unironically think I would make an excellent dictator. But I am an optimist. Give me a tiny thread of hope, and I will weave it into a magic carpet to fly away on. The sadness will pass, it always does.

It’s natural for the world to feel overwhelmingly bleak right now, especially here in Scotland where it’s two months before there’s even a chance of the lockdown easing. But the days are getting longer, and the weather is warmer. The parks are filled with crocuses and snowdrops, and soon the daffodils will also be in bloom. This year isn’t a write-off just yet, and we have our whole lifetimes ahead of us. I wish I’d made bolder choices; I wish I was braver and more confident and intrinsically likeable. But I know there are so many people I’ll meet in my life who will love me the way I deserve to be loved, so many communities I will one-day be part of. Sometimes I feel like I lost a whole year of my life, but I didn’t lose it. I spent this time learning, and I spent this time growing, and I am better equipped to handle whatever comes after. I’m tired, and this evening I feel lonely and sad, but I’m not drowning in regrets. In everything I’ve done this year, I know I gave the best of me.

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