Preamble from Lonely, by Emily White

Five years ago, I took an introductory painting class. The class was housed in a large white studio, one with huge windows that let in the early evening light. The instructor, a young man with curls and perfectly round eyeglasses, settled a huge stack of books on a table at the side of the room. He’d attached Post-it notes to various pages in each of the books, and he told us to choose a book, and then select one of the paintings to try to copy.

“The goal isn’t to produce ‘an exact replica,” he said, “but to pay attention to things like light, and shadow. Ask yourself where the focal point of the painting is, and how the artist draws your attention to that point.”

I selected a painting I’d never seen before. It was an 1899 print by an artist named Félix Vallotton, called The Visit. I chose it because the color scheme – a mix of purples and blues – was relatively manageable, and I liked the straightforward arrangement of it.  It showed a couple simply embracing at the edge of a room.

I tackled the furniture first, congratulating myself on absolutely nailing a velvety-looking armchair and its accompanying side table. I painted the walls, and a doorway, and a carpet with a pattern of circles and waves. I didn’t paint the couple until the end, both because I needed to block the scene out before I added them, and because they were more technically complex than the furniture and rugs.

I did what the instructor told us to do. I told myself not to paint “a couple,” but to concentrate instead on following the artist’s line. I carefully set out the man’s shoulder, and the straight leg of his trousers, and the fall of the woman’s skirt as it draped over her shoes. I noticed that their hands came together – they were holding them at chest height, as though they had just finished a slow, quiet waltz – and then I ran into problems. The line I was trying to follow disappeared. The area between the man and the woman – where their clothes should have met and mingled, and where their bodies should have brushed up against each other – that area was all darkness and shadow.

This aspect of the painting hadn’t been immediately obvious. In fact, I’d been staring at the reproduction for almost two hours before I noticed it. When I’d first glanced at the painting, I’d seen two bodies. It was only in trying to reproduce the outline that I realized the artist had – through an extremely delicate use of shading – actually fused them into one figure.

And the intimacy communicated by that shadow – even through a cheap reproduction, and across a span of what was more than a hundred years – caught me like a blow to the chest. I’d signed up for the painting class because I’d been intensely lonely, so lonely that I was willing to pay for at least one evening a week that wouldn’t see me returning to my empty flat on my own. Even though the class didn’t offer much in the way of conversation – most of the students were focused on their easels – it did offer company, and it gave me the chance to see my behavior reflected in the actions of those around me: I liked the synchronicity of us all opening our tubes of paint, carefully glancing from palette to canvas, and squinting at the fruit and bottles set up at the front of the room.

As the course wore on, and as I grew more familiar with my fellow students, I told myself that I was doing OK, and that I was managing – with nothing in the way of real guidance – to put some distance between myself and the loneliness that seemed to have followed me for the past several years.

That was before I saw the painting. The sight of the man and woman standing so closely together made me remember what real warmth and proximity was like. It made me recognize what I’d been missing.

You’ve been without that for so long, I thought, staring at the picture. The memory of close connection made my throat tighten; it wasn’t soothing so much as painful and disorienting. I felt as though I were being shown a photo of someone well-loved, and long dead. I didn’t want to be reminded of what I no longer seemed to have.

It was with a sense of defeat that I stopped painting. I was sitting on a hard wooden chair in front of my easel, and I simply dropped my arms to my sides, paintbrush in hand. Suddenly tired, I gathered up my things, and grew quietly angry with my fellow students as they continued to paint. My loneliness, by that point, had become twinned with frustration, with a borderline rage that surfaced whenever I was confronted with the lack of belonging that had come to define my life. I felt the need to escape the studio and lose myself in the summer crowds outside. It wasn’t sociability or a sense of connection I was seeking, but just heat and noise and furious movement – anything that would block out my sudden and searing sense of aloneness.

* * *

I still have my painting of the couple in the living room. For some reason, even though the painting isn’t finished, I’ve carried it through three moves and across two provinces. I think I keep it as an emblem, as a token of how bad things had gotten, and of how much I still had to endure before my life would change and improve. I keep it also as a reminder, not just of my past, but of what might be my future: no one’s discovered a vaccine against loneliness; there’s no prayer or charm or safeguard I’ve discovered that can be relied on to keep the state at bay for good. The painting is a warning, a message from my own life: Do everything you can to keep the state from returning, it seems to urge. You don’t want to go back to those years that you lived.

* * *

Many people, over the course of the past several years, have asked me why I would want to write a book about chronic loneliness. The subject, they hint, is embarrassing; it’s best kept unmentioned. And loneliness, they say, isn’t “real” – at least not in the way that depression or bipolar disorder are real. Every word I’ve written has been penned against a chorus of “Don’t” and “Why bother?”

“It’s too trivial,” I’ve been told, “too shameful,” “too irrelevant.” And it was, after all, just me. Even if my own loneliness was somehow significant, even if it did change my life, derail my health, cloud my intelligence and turn me into someone I didn’t used to be – all of that was just my problem.

One of the things I made sure to do when writing this book was talk to other lonely people. Before every conversation, I thought about my own experiences, and drew up questions meant to probe how closely their battle with loneliness mirrored my own. I used to be a lawyer, and what I was looking for was evidence. I wanted to prove that what I went through as a lonely person was neither immaterial nor unique. I phoned loneliness researchers in places ranging from Arizona to Scotland; I talked to lonely people across the continent. I asked about symptoms, manifestation, mortality, disease, responses, rates. I plowed through hundreds of articles, followed up footnotes, searched the Internet, and paid for out-of-print books that were shipped to me long-distance.

Throughout this entire process, I’ve been fuelled by the conviction that I had to give voice to an experience that mattered, one that affected people far and wide. What I wanted throughout my years of loneliness was recognition. I needed others to see and understand my state as a real problem. I needed others to ask me about it, help me through it, and view it as something valid and potentially life-altering. I also needed to hear other people talking about it. Right now, loneliness is something few people are willing to admit to. There’s no need for this silence, no need for the shame and self-blame it creates. There’s nothing wrong with loneliness, and we need to start acknowledging this through a wider and more open discussion of the state.

The fact that I’m the author of this book is little more than coincidence. The story set out in the pages that follow is my own, but I think any lonely person could have written a similar account. The state, I’ve discovered, is something of a universal, afflicting people from a variety of age groups and backgrounds, and affecting men and women in equal measure. The only thing that perhaps sets me apart from other lonely people is that the worst years of my loneliness coincided with years in which I was repeatedly instructed – as a lawyer – to examine everything. No question was to leave my desk until it had been answered; no argument was to be put forward until every angle had been explored. And so it became natural for me – once my rage had subsided after painting class, and I was back out on the streets of Toronto, walking and walking in the darkening evening – to start asking questions, and begin wondering whether my state had substance, whether it was in fact as significant as it felt.

Given the choice, it’s not a journey I would have gone on. I would have preferred to have lived a life of connection, one in which loneliness did not assault me on a daily and yearly basis. But we don’t get to chose the main facts of our lives. Loneliness was something I was born into, something that claimed me as its own. The only thing I could do in response was to try to follow and understand it, to chart it as fully and cleanly as I could. If it was clutching me, the least I could do was twist in its grip and really look at it. If I couldn’t ward it away, I could at least see it as clearly as it saw me.