Mental Health Awareness Week - My Story about Loneliness and Widowhood
I would traditionally shy away from serious personal overshares, but I’ve been inspired by reading some others’ posts on Mental Health Awareness Week, and isn’t the point of awareness for us all to be talking about it? So I’d like to tell you a part of my story. If any of it connects with you, or you just feel like it’s time to say something about how you’ve been feeling, I’d genuinely really like to hear from you. Just bop the contact page to tell me in private, or leave a comment if you feel comfortable to.
The theme of this year’s MHAW is loneliness, and I have a story that has given me the most acute experience of that, even if it was mercifully temporary.
I was widowed suddenly when I was 31 - more than 7 years ago now, unbelievably. Over the year or so that followed, although I thought I was rolling along and coping ok (and I think I was, under the circumstances!), when I think back now I can really see the progress I’ve made since.
I’m really sad for that Me, back then, because although she had people around her, there wasn’t a lot they could do other than make sure she hadn’t drank herself into a hole or just eaten cereal for months. To be honest, she was more of the type to fob people off so that she could just get on and succeed or fall to bits on her own terms without anyone watching. It was understandably a depressing time and the ability to say “yeah yeah, I’m fine, I’ll come and do that”, then flake out at the last minute with an excuse, was all too easy under the banner of “oh yeah her husband died, bless her”. And eventually, if you get good enough at evading people and things, you don’t have to any more. And that, it turns out, can be very lonely.
I found it easier to write about that in 3rd person, because I literally don’t feel like that same person any more. It’s like watching a film character, she’s just stuck there in a story.
As well as my family and friends watching out for me, I had amazing support from my employers; and some of the best advice from my boss who encouraged me not to hit any major decision buttons for a good long time. Otherwise I might have quit the job, sold the house, run off and got in to bother somewhere. I did get a tattoo but give me a break haha. Being in your own company can become a bit of an echo chamber, and it would be all too easy to validate the first idea that made you feel safe, and run with that as a life choice. Conversely there were some dark times where I gave too much time and space to the negative thoughts, fears for the future, regrets about the past, etc.
So I found that when I was on my own, time felt very looooong, and after all that solo thinking, utterly exhausting. It turned out that my “good long time” for not making decisions was 4 months - by then it had become crystal clear to me that instead of settling back in to my old life, I felt so fundamentally altered that it just didn’t fit me any more. I couldn’t connect with anything; I was so completely adrift from my old plans, the people in them, and I really didn’t feel like it was a side effect of grief. I had been in my relationship since I was 21, grown up over a decade that had formed me as half a unit that was now gone. Basically, facing that old lifestyle alone, I realised that some of it had been a compromise that I didn’t want or have to make any more.
I had to confront all the things I had been or was still unhappy about. Some were very difficult to look at and unpick but I thought, I’ll never have this kind of clean slate again. What do I want my life to look like?
I was at a social media conference last week on the theme of Resilience, and their opening speaker mentioned something I’d never heard of, Post-Traumatic Growth. I’m not sure of the ins and outs of it as a “thing”, but I think I’m probably a good poster-girl for it.
So I did leave the career. I took my side-hustle art business to part-time level, then gradually full-time. I got brave and spent time at local events for business owners and creatives, and I started to add spending time with people back on to my “important” list. I asked them for advice, I got involved in new circles. I went out with some old friends, made some new ones. Faded out of some circles; some with regret, others for my better mental health. I didn’t leave Northern Ireland. I did start dating, probably sooner than I’d have chosen under different circumstances (newly single lady of a certain age and all that), and I’m always threatening to write a book about that because it is so hilarious, cringeworthy and horrifying that I think that year needs some therapy of its own!
I met my partner around 2 years into my “new” life. We have a one year old boy, a new family home, and if you’d have shown 7-years-ago-me a photo of all of this, I’d have not dared believe it.
I’m not sure how to end this now! I know life will have its ups and downs yet. I’d like to think that the times coping on my own will serve me well for any personal troubles, and equip me to be strong for others. I am grateful that the times when I felt lonely were transient, but I’m mindful about people for whom that feeling is longer-term. I can only imagine how it would feel to be ready and willing for a rich life outside your home, but not have the ability to reach it or the people to help you. I feel so heart-sore for people trapped in war, or to have fled it to a strange place with loved ones left behind. I’ve worked with people who have become estranged from family for domestic reasons, and seen their pain and the impact it’s had on their life. Writing this has reminded me of the good fortune in family and friends; and not just “outside of work” friends but cherished contacts in your community.
If I could ask something of you to finish, it would be to think who you could check in with. Give them a call or text, or even better, a knock on the door. If you're the "old me", maybe try and plan a healthy day out with someone.
I’m sure I’ll be mortified at myself later for writing this, but I think the conversation is important, and when I was really going through it, reading other people’s shared experiences helped me so I’ll just leave this here. Don’t be a stranger x