I can’t even begin to say how much I have missed writing in this blog. And you all. Writing my thesis on loneliness has left me a bit fucking batty, but I am back, and, although a tad sporadic, ready to write my way into a gay, lonely stir again. Thanks for sticking around.
I recently had the pleasure of being a Keynote speaker at a conference in Collingwood, Ontario on bullying and teen suicide. This event was incredible and I’ve been asked to chuck a few of my thoughts up here on the blog so that they can be accessible to anyone who might want them. I’ll do this in parts because I don’t want anyone to fall asleep at the wheel reading this shit. We need you alive. Also, I’m humbly flying without a net here so please if you have any thoughts on this topic or my rants on it (fears, anger, frustration, experiences, tattoos with big daggers) do get in touch. I am all ears. Well, sometimes I’m all drunk but mostly I’m all ears.
For anyone who has read my stuff before you know already I am lonely. I have always been lonely. I will continue to be lonely. And I say this in happy humiliation. I come from a very small town on a very small island where I grew up around god-fearing Christians, moonshine drinking farmers, and hockey moms. Girls marry men young, have beach weddings, babies, and live in either suburbia, or on their parents’ land.
I, though, am a dyke who can’t cook.
My entire life I felt like the only gay on PEI and was incredibly lonely. Back then everything I did was in secret; everything I thought was in secret. I lived my life in hiding and under this constant threat of being revealed. I knew what happened to kids at my school who were different.
I had friends and schoolmates die by suicide. Some were diagnosed as mentally ill, others were bullied kids, and some were complete surprises—seemingly happy go-lucky people with a lot to offer everyone. No one understood any of it. And yet we never talked about suicide. It was another one of those topics we were to keep closeted for fear it would be unleashed, or spread like Herpes.
But life is changing for our teens. Loneliness, bullying and suicide have been publicly linked very closely in the past year and there has been a lot of media attention on the topics of bullying and teen suicide stemming from a host of North American suicides. In Ontario alone statistics say we are losing two teens a week to suicide and many of those deaths have been connected to bullying: Jamie Hubley, Daron Richardson, Ben Nelson, Jesse Graham, and very recently Caylen Millben, are among the lost.
It’s hard enough when a teen dies, but things get more complicated when we find out that the lost kids were being bullied at school, on the bus, in the locker room, places that are supposed to be safe. for an example of what i’m talking about, although I thought the film Bully played it very safe, it does a lovely job of showing us what some kids go through in their ordinary lives. Bullying is not some spectacular event, it is their everyday.
Keeping in mind that none of us is perfect and all of us and our kids have the potential to be bullies, bullied, and bystanders to someone else’s torment I wonder if we start talking about emotions like loneliness as everyday, ordinary affects if we might help our teens talk about what’s going on in their heads that makes them feel so shyte that they want to permanently check out.
I maintain here that there is a large difference between suicidal thoughts and suicidal actions and talking about suicide and loneliness, needs to become like talking about sex—something we do not shy away from because we are afraid we’ll plant an idea in heads. Loneliness is pinnacle to these dialogues. The fact remains that although some of us have different conditions of arrival than others, all of us get lonely and feel like throwing in the towel from time to time. “Feeling” suicidal, or that life is awful is a lot more common than we think. Being confused about why we would want to live life in this world we have created when we are hurting is not necessarily a terrible feeling.
While terrifying to admit, we can probably all think back to a moment when we were so stressed, tired, sick, angry, sad, frustrated, lost, we pondered the thought of death. We’re still here so there must be some ordinariness around such ideas. Try not to treat kids like dolls, or rare birds. Hearing a teen say they feel as though they would be “better off dead” is not the same thing as hearing that teen say “I’m going to kill myself” which is also not the same thing as them actually doing so. Fatalism and morbidity have become mainstay in a cultural moment where zombie films, epidemics, fears of the end of the world, wars, global warming are everywhere. Kids don’t think about death in the same ways that we did. Death is everyday speak and commonplace. Don’t ignore it, but don’t panic.
I’ve done a lot of work with loneliness. Probably too much according to my friends. What I have noticed though is that today everyone is talking about it. It’s the Voldemort of our time, the Branjelina of depressing emotions. I think loneliness’ newfound celebrity has been greatly misunderstood and misused by academics, health care professionals, politicians, and popular culture. It’s become very profitable. Talked about as an emotional state that is always depressed, sad, and pathetic an almost anxious idea surrounds loneliness that it, and lonely people, need to be policed, cured, and silenced. Definitions of loneliness tend to play a single tune: the lonely are to be pitied and helped back into becoming social.
They’re weirdos, pariahs. They are:
1) the shadow cast in a crowded room
2) the kid at the party who sits alone and makes the adults worry and not know why
3) the introverted teenager who writes sensitive poetry
4) the older woman who stares off too much
5) the immigrant who is too quiet for comfort
6) the two girls who wear black and who keep only to themselves.
These untrusting notions surrounding the lonely person are everywhere in a contemporary culture that rewards people for telling everyone about their business—think Sookie from Jersey Shore who tells us what color her shit is— and considers loneliness an extraordinary crutch rather than an everyday feeling.
And there are a ton of books out there to help us lonely people reassemble our broken, freaky selves. I’ve read many. They don’t work. Look at me!
Really scary though is the social media that has linked loneliness to murderous tendencies, and mass suicide.In recent years there have been numerous examples of children and young adults who have gone on killing sprees at their schools. And loneliness is used throughout these news stories to explain what happened to make these teens suicidal and violent.
Dylan Klebold, one of the teenage Columbine shooters in 1999 was called “the lonely man who struck with absolute rage.”
23 year-old Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho was described as “extraordinarily lonely—the loneliest person I have ever met in my life.”
There are unfortunately many more examples. In all cases the loneliness label is used to isolate and mark the subject as rare and questionable. And that’s all it takes.
And now, the lonely person has become a subject of scientific and medical study. Viewed scientifically loneliness is a condition that scientists think certain populations are born with: a physical, mental, and psychosocial health risk that is contagious.
Claiming emotions are infectious has been long used historically to persuade a terrified public that certain people are dangerous threats to social and cultural safety, values, and norms. Go to horror movies as much as I do and you will see that this idea of emotional contagion is old hat. I recommend watching the horror flick 28 Days Later where rage is contagious. It’s awesome. And very telling.
But using words like “contagion” when describing feelings doesn’t get emotion talked about in productive ways; rather, it gets them feared. It’s not so much what that type of language is saying but what it’s doing. What it does is circulate a belief from trusted authorities—doctors, scientists, scholars, media personalities—that feelings like loneliness are extraordinary and that they only seek out strange people. That these feelings are dangerous and can spread into the “normal” populace in the form of an epidemic– an extraordinary event. Like H1N1 or SARS.
But the thing is, loneliness is a regular, ordinary, boring old feeling we all feel from time to time. So instead of asking what we can do about loneliness, I ask what we can do with it.
In society today we’re supposed to be happy. The cultural industry that gives us Coca Cola and Jersey Shore also tells us to go see self-help gurus, yogis, motivational speakers, and read spiritual guidebooks about finding happy fortune through the power of positive thinking. There are studies out there that can even tell us full countries are happy or miserable and in which hierarchical order.
Feeling lonely is not acceptable when we are supposed to be happily social all of the time. But let’s be honest here: we actually live in a world where there is a lot to be unhappy about. But we’re told we have to cure ourselves of “negative thoughts,” ignore our feelings of frustration, and not critique injustices we witness at school, within our own country, on behalf of our country and throughout the world.
And if we’re being honest again, our teens are growing up in a world we don’t know and that we’ve done a great job of fucking up for them. They are the first generation of kids to be raised around mass digital technology. One major change we have witnessed is the means through which teens and preteens are relating to one another—are making friends, frenemies, connections and romances…and are making sense of the world they are inheriting.
When I was growing up I had my diary, books, and general brooding time in my room or outside to work through my various dramas (of which I had many, and which were very important and ruled my own world at 12-19). There was still gossiping, and backstabbing, and I fought over phone time with my sister, and got upset when the phone didn’t ring for me, I felt left out and ugly, fat and full of zits, but the pressure to be constantly in contact, to be on all of the time, wasn’t there because there were no means. When school ended I got to decharge and be miserable and happy and cranky and excited all on my own time.
Today kids and teens are using cellphones and digital social media to make connections, to have friend break ups, and, be awful to one another. And there is no time in the day when they are not connected to their life at school.
While it might seem from an adult’s stand point the easiest thing to do is to say “don’t log on if you are upset about what your friend is saying,” the impulse to see what has been written about you in a text or on facebook, or what you can write about someone else is intense and exhilarating. You can’t not look. The knowledge that everyone is looking at it anyway, judging you or standing up for you, means that you averting your eyes is useless.
The newness of this Technological moment has brought about a lot of new studies on things like “Facebook depression” and the emotional backlash that might befall young teens who post “Am I Pretty” videos on Youtube, for instance, all in reaction to the terrain our teens are negotiating. The simultaneous alienation and community of some of these sites invite social interactions that expect a multiplicity of subject formations. Sites such as Grinder, Manhunt, and Formspring.com, enable, for a lot of kids, as jasbir puar states, that even the idea of something like “cyber stalking” becomes an expected practice on the road to becoming an acceptable “neoliberal sexual subject.”
For me the most important area we need to work on together, culturally, and politically, is this: We need to teach ourselves how to rethink ourselves as ordinary–neither superior or more normal than anyone else, while understanding what this new technological moment means for sociality and affects such as loneliness.
Returning to the idea of suicide then, dealing with suicidal thoughts and teens is not something that can be wished away or blamed on any one factor. I am pushing that we all make sure suicidal ideation and loneliness become everyday topics. Treating both of these feeling as extraordinary, rare, humiliating, and too terrifying to mention, does nothing other than make them so. Suicide has become glamorized and a celebrity in the media, so the more you talk about it the less glamorous it becomes.