You don’t have to be alone to be lonely

The question remains, how can such a reportedly “happy” society in such a small country where we all know one another and where we can barely turn the corner without bumping into a relative, be in the grips of so much loneliness? 

A 2022 national study carried out by the Faculty for Social Wellbeing concluded that the majority (54.6%) of Maltese people feel lonely.  The loneliness is felt most among children/teenagers (ages 11-19) and those over 55. 

A short feature which has been produced to accompany the study is a collection of stories from people who chronicle their experiences and why they feel this crippling solitude and isolation. 

As the interviews revealed, there are as many reasons for loneliness as there are individuals.  Depression, anxiety, a marital break-up, lack of immediate family, financial problems, losing a job, health issues, the death of a loved one, an empty nest, old age, and even retirement can lead to the feeling of being disconnected from society and plunge one into a downward spiral of overwhelming darkness and despair. 

One of the most poignant, heartbreaking interviews was that of a man who was wrongly jailed for two years after his daughter falsely accused him of molesting her. Although she eventually retracted her testimony and he was released, and even despite the fact that the original sentence was declared null - the trauma is still there in his eyes and his voice as he describes how he was humiliated and ostracised. 

Being alone and feeling lonely are, naturally, two very different things and are undoubtedly down to one’s character and even genetic make-up. I know people who live on their own who are perfectly happy and content with their own company and would not have it any other way. Others go through bouts of panic and fear because they desperately need people, but for some reason find it hard to establish and maintain relationships. Sometimes their neediness works against them as they can come across as too clinging which turns people off, so it becomes a vicious circle. In contrast to this, instead of reaching out and connecting with others, some simply withdraw and become reserved, falling deeper into melancholy, often with tragic consequences. 

But, the question remains, how can such a reportedly “happy” society in such a small country where we all know one another and where we can barely turn the corner without bumping into a relative, be in the grips of so much loneliness? 

Certainly, as we look back at the rise of mental health issues, we can all pinpoint COVID and the lockdowns as being the turning point when things got noticeably worse.  Some managed to emerge unscathed from the weird circumstances of those years, but others continue to feel the aftershocks and waves of what in Maltese we call “dwejjaq” (the blues). 

In youngsters, the inability to connect has been traced to an addiction to the internet and social media where comparisons to their peers can be highly damaging.  The social fabric has also changed, with more fragmented families which make even celebrating the festivities a challenge in logistics of where the children will spend their time. There has also been a rise in people who are single, which allows loneliness to creep in, sometimes insidiously. 

During the feature, one interview explains how the study came into being. Lecturer Dr Andrea Dibben recounts how a nearby elderly neighbour died at home without anyone noticing and his body was only discovered after four days because of the unfortunately foul smell.  How can it be that no one called or visited him, and that he was so very much alone that his demise was only discovered accidentally? It is a chilling and sobering thought to think that behind the closed doors of our houses and apartments there might be people who are perishing and no one cares enough to notice that they have not been seen for several days. 

On hearing this story, the Dean of the Faculty, Prof Andrew Azzopardi decided that they needed to embark on a study to research and understand this issue. The first study conducted in 2019 revealed that 44% of the population felt alone. Within three years, this had gone up by another 10%. He makes it clear that this study does not include migrants because collecting that data would be much more difficult, but he is convinced that this would push the percentage up even more. 

As COVID showed us, we are social beings and while the enforced isolation and separating us into bubbles might have helped to curb the spread of the virus, it also triggered a lot of underlying psychological issues. The mind is a strange yet powerful muscle and it is not always easy to explain how it works and why some are resilient in the face of adversity while others collapse and cannot cope. At times, it is not even adversity which can create havoc, but a bottomless pit of unhappiness perhaps linked to childhood or other trauma which has never been healed. 

Take the case of Friends star Matthew Perry who died recently at the age of 54, whose life, on the surface, seemed to be perfect. He achieved fame at a young age which he enjoyed for 10 years on arguably one of the most well-loved (and still watched) sitcoms. At the height of its popularity, the Friends cast were making a million dollars an episode. What more could one ask for, right? Wealth, stardom and everything which they can buy… at your fingertips. 

Yet even while filming Friends, Perry was already addicted to substance and alcohol abuse. In his autobiography, published in November 2022, he explains the fluctuations in his weight over a number of seasons: “When I'm carrying weight, it's alcohol; when I'm skinny, it's pills. When I have a goatee, it's lots of pills.” 

It’s telling that he began drinking excessively as a teenager at the age of 14, then continued with vodka along with Vicodin, Xanax and OxyContin. As often happens, he became addicted to the pain killers. Even though he was surrounded by cast members who were literally his friends, he still struggled with his demons, entering rehab more than once during the series (which explains why his character Chandler was sent to Tulsa). Despite all his wisecracks, the man’s loneliness was evident throughout the autobiography. It was similarly palpable during the Friends’ Reunion aired in May 2021 during which his bloated appearance, his haunted eyes and his morose expression spoke volumes. I don’t claim to be a prophet but I felt an inexplicable pang at seeing him like that, coupled with a sense of foreboding. 

As news of his death spread, which was due to “excessive use of ketamine leading to accidental drowning”, I was tremendously sad, but I cannot say that I was really surprised. 

The lasting image of his final Instagram post has stayed with me, a man alone in his hot tub, set against the glittering lights of the LA skyline. It looks beautiful but also underscores his aloneness. 

Last year, the New York Times had interviewed him about his book and this paragraph now takes on a renewed pathos: “Failed relationships were among the hardest things to write about,” Perry said (“I’m lonely, but there’s a couple of people on the payroll to keep me safe”), though he hopes to marry and have children in the future. “I think I’d be a great father,” he said. 

In fact, from everything I have read, it was his failure to have a family of his own which added to his deepening depression.  By all accounts it is a tragic story and one which everyone should read if only to really understand how crucial relationships and social connections are for our wellbeing. It doesn’t necessarily have to be actual blood relatives, but it could be a family made up of friends, which ironically, is the very theme of the sitcom itself. 

Although solitude which we seek ourselves can be peaceful, we are not meant to live as hermits either. There is help out there for all those who wish to reach out and we ourselves can be that helping hand by reaching out to others. Personally, I believe it is worse to sit at home and wallow in self-pity and probably the best way to combat loneliness is to do volunteer work and help other people - it opens your eyes to the plight of others and gives your life a purpose. There is no better antidote than that. 

Wishing all our readers a Happy and less lonely New Year.