Living away from family and friends is often cast as a sort of adventure. In early 2007, just as I was beginning my memoir, Lonely, I announced plans to leave my home town of Toronto and travel nearly 2,000 miles to the remote island of Newfoundland. What I was met with, most frequently, were cries of "How exciting!" and "Lucky you!"
And I did feel lucky, at least initially. Like any stranger to a new place, I revelled in the new areas to explore and the new customs to watch and wonder over. That phase, what I think of as the exhilaration phase, lasted about six months. Then something began to nag at me. I started to notice how alone I was. I was living with my partner, but I had no social circle. I hadn't planned on this. I'm 40, and I've made friends easily since about the age of two. I just assumed, when leaving Toronto, that I'd arrive in Newfoundland and make new connections.
Newfoundland isn't like the UAE. There's no constant stream of new arrivals. There is a university here, however, and since my partner is a professor, I thought I'd befriend the other new lecturers. I quickly realised, however, that the new professors often had young children in tow, and that they were too overwhelmed by the twin tasks of work and child-raising to have much time for socialising. But I didn't lose hope.
In late 2007, I turned my attention to the writing community, thinking I'd forge links through the local writers' guild. The fact that I was "from away", however, and not working on a book about Newfoundland, meant that there wasn't a lot of common ground between myself and the other writers. To make matters worse, I was writing a book about loneliness, a subject that had the unfortunate effect of triggering discomfort or flat-out panic among the people I was trying to befriend.
In 2008, I became more systematic in my friend-seeking. I signed up for belly dancing classes and meditation retreats. I volunteered for causes ranging from environmentalism to housing rights. I sat through board meetings, manned information booths about whales, walked dogs at the pound, volunteered to befriend an elderly person and experimented with delivering meals on wheels. I was suddenly a lot busier than I had been earlier, but not one friend came out of this process. No one.
By the end of 2008, I was still telling myself that someone would materialise. After all, I was used to the cultural message that friendships were easy to obtain - or at least easier to obtain than romantic relationships. The standard notion is that finding a sweetheart is a struggle, but that friendship is simple: all it takes, after all, is for the right person to appear at the right time. But what if that doesn't happen? What if people don't appear? In Newfoundland, where there's virtually no in-migration, social networks are quite closed; most people aren't, as the Seinfeld joke goes, even "interviewing" for new friends. In the UAE, people might simply give up on the hard work of making friends, since they know the connections in question might disappear in a year or two, as friends move on to new jobs in new countries.
Most researchers stress that we need two things to avoid loneliness: we need a partner for security, and we need a group of friends or colleagues for the simple pleasure of sharing jokes, telling stories, and enjoying a sense of solidarity. If friends are missing from life, the result can be a sense of isolation, a strange feeling that you don't know enough about your environment, and a sense of being emotionally poorer than those with close connections.
One of the main problems associated with friendlessness - aside from the isolation - is the sense of self-blame that can set in. "What's wrong with me?" I'd ask myself, as I left belly dancing class, cute skirt in hand, alone. The loneliness I wrote about in my memoir was mostly about being without a partner, and I could make sense of that sort of aloneness. There were countless narratives, from Bridget Jones's Diary to Harlequin romances, about the difficulties of finding a mate.
But I didn't, and don't, see the same sort of narrative attached to friendlessness. It's considered slightly uncommon to lack friends. Many of the people who I interviewed in my memoir, and who I hear from now through my blog, are so embarrassed by their friendlessness that they describe a process of pretending that they do have friends. It's time we recognised that friendlessness - and the accompanying loneliness - is a legitimate problem, especially among people who, for work or personal reasons, have to move far away from their established support networks.
"It took me seven years to find a friend," someone recently told me, and my blood ran cold. I'm now entering my fourth year of being without friends. I wonder whether I can handle three more years of this ? three more years of not having anyone to swap secrets with, and feeling as though I don't belong. I'm not sure I can handle it. I have fantasies of somehow rearranging my life so that my partner and I are back in Toronto, and I'm once again part of a group of close confidants. But life's not that easy. We can't pack up and leave the situations we've found ourselves in, especially if we've made a commitment to a new place.
We can, of course, try harder to make friends. We can join sports leagues and sign up for continuing education classes. Or we can try to adjust to being on our own. But I don't like this latter option. I don't want to adjust to a friendless future. I want something that has been maddeningly hard to achieve: good friends in my home community. I shouldn't feel as though I'm coveting something when I see two female friends laughing over coffee at a local café. I shouldn't be able to count in years the time it's been since I've had that experience myself.
Lonely: A Memoir (HarperCollins) is out now