Good Grief

My doctor is changing their patient portal, so it was suggested I download my charts for archiving.   One diagnosis in the list caught my eye.


It’s on there because they know I directly cared for my parents in their last decade.

I don’t think, though, my doctor understands how grief is part of the trans experience.

He likes the idea that I am “trans-natural,” as opposed to the patient who got bottom surgery in Montreal and they still refer to as “he.”

The lifetime cost of being trans and not being mirrored, instead being shamed, dehumanized and erased, well, that’s not something he comes close to understanding.

Loss and denial has always been at the centre of my life.

The things that I cannot change — like society’s view of guys-in-dresses (1999) – have always been huge, much, much bigger than what I do have the capacity to change.   My Aspergers parents, my own nature, social expectations all had to be accommodated through my æsthetic denial.

Now, that ocean of unshareable, unbearable grief has swelled around me with no way to manage it other than my fading raw mental discipline.

In Grief Works, Julia Samuel shares stories from her twenty five years of being a grief psychotherapist.   The clients she talks about have finite, understandable grief but even that brings up deep seated issues that they need to engage and work through rather than avoiding for the comfort of those around them who would rather they be “brave” and silent.

My long, deep and profound experience with grief means that I often see ghosts walking.   People wrap themselves in illusions that they cannot afford to let die, clinging to the way they believe the world should be and end up railing against anyone who challenges that treasured belief system.

Worse, they see that experience of grief reflected in me just by looking into my eyes.   I understand that the reason my writing is so hard is because it carries that cycle, not just of rebirth but also of the death it requires.   Everybody wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die, going through hell to burn away our comforting illusions and being left with the crystalline and challenging truth of what is.

In contrast to those who “don’t talk about death,” the need to engage the scarcity and loss that was in my life came very early for me.   I was the target patient, the scapegoat who spoke up, named “Stupid” in the family for illuminating that which my mother would prefer to keep in shadow, not playing along with imposed expectations.

In my day, at least, you could never emerge as trans unless you were stubborn as hell, not pounded down by social convention and the desire to be liked.   For me, just keeping my head down, creating a peril-sensitive bubble around myself and bulling my way through was never an option.

As a femme, I had to stay in touch with my own feelings so I could connect with the feelings of others, engaging their stories with respect and compassion so that I could hold them tenderly in my own patchwork model of the world.   Building understanding was at the heart of my mission, helping to take care of others by helping them understand and address their own emotions and needs.

To hold open the space for them to change, to be a change agent and shaman,  facilitating growth & healing in the world, I put my own expression in the background.   By keeping my desires in the background, I could be the concierge, the gatekeeper, escorting others through the liminal space of emergence.

People, though, heal in their own way and their own schedule, so while I could be there to help negotiate their transformation, they were not able to be there for me, not able to understand my experience, not able to enter, affirm and mirror my own grief.

Struggling with grief has made me aware and thoughtful, but it still leaves me with the waste products of a life where rather than learning to trust my essence, able to show it with delight and affirmation, I had to learn to attenuate myself, working to kill off the bits of me that others found too damn much.

I was seen as corrupt, perverted, shameful, incomprehensible, rude and awful.

Hiding became my requirement, using my big mind to manage and conceal my breadth and depth.   I was diagnosed as kind of having depression but I knew the problem to be suppression, the need to heavily police myself in a world that seemed to offered no solace, no sympathy and no safety for hearts like mine.

It is the grief for my own required deaths that enveloped me and the grief that as my own grief and my own awareness of it deepened it cast me farther and farther from simple human connection.   Instead my links had to be processed and modulated, valued for being of service rather than simply being lovable.

The limits of the audience have been the limits of my life so my strategy has always had to be to make the best of what I can get rather than mourning for what I needed and was denied.

Grief has been something I had to manage rather than being able to share.   This has left me weighted down and gun shy, staying alone rather than having to be triggered again in a way that brings down my structures, breaking beyond the scant resources and depleted wherewithal left after tolerating a lifetime of grief.

Love is inside of me and I have given it freely.   My grief, though, is how others find me too complicated to love back, too honest, too big, too queer.   They struggle with the demands this rapid and pounding society makes on them, their own humanity consumed by a million other obligations and stresses.

I understand.   It’s okay that they don’t love me, at least on a conceptual level.

On an emotional, human level,  though, it causes me grief.

Outcomes And Coming Out

Why do we fear coming out?

It’s because we have been taught that the outcomes of that openness can be dangerous and disastrous.

Coming out stands us to lose our friends, our family, our job, our status, our desires, our expectations.   All the time we spent staying in, hiding the truth inside of us was a commitment to avoiding the potential negative outcomes of being out, an attempt to hold onto what we have rather than risking it for the unknown, the terrifying, the queer.

The promises made to us about what we can have if we just stay straight and play by the normal rules are burned into our brain.   Pleasing people around us, doing what they want and value is what should bring us success and happiness, not fapping about and being queer.

Coming out demands that we stop fearing the possible outcomes and instead choose to do what we believe to be honest, noble and right.    Emerging means we have to choose our own pride over our own shame, degradation and compliance, risking the consequences for rewards that are internal rather than socially constructed.

As long as we are committed to what should be, trying to hold onto the outcomes that we believe we have been promised, to results based in our own expectations we are unable to be open, to be present and reap the rewards of the divine surprise.

Working the process demands letting go of imagined outcomes and instead holding onto the struggle for honesty, engagement and pride in our continuing choices.

The hard part of becoming new is almost always clearing out the old.   The grief for the loss of expectations is profound and deep (1994),  as they form the stick we have internalized to prop up our compliance and our connection to the constrained expectations and assumptions of family and friends.

How, though, can we open to the new when we are always mourning for the outcomes we believe that we deserve, the results we think we should be getting?

Like everything else in life a commitment to process and a commitment to outcomes are not binary, not mutually exclusive.  Working the process requires evaluating the outcomes to identify better choices, achieving mastery, and striving for better outcomes demands finding better ways to achieve our goals and objectives.

If we make choices based on working the process and they don’t work out the way that we hoped, we can take heart that our intentions we proud, that we did the right thing and learned something.

If we make choices based on creating desired outcomes and they don’t work out the way that we hoped, we can easily be broken, seeing our work as leading to failure, waste, shame, frustration, anger and heartbreak.

Buddha was clear that it is expectations that lead to pain and suffering.   When we know how things should be and they don’t match that assumption, we see loss in how we missed the mark, how we didn’t get what we believed we were promised.

When we are fully present, though, accepting even what we didn’t want as lessons that can open miracles of new sight, we are able to find the good, the possible and the powerful in even outcomes that we feared may happen.

No matter how comfortable we believe that holding onto compartmentalization is because we fear the possible results of being open, honest, actualized and integrated is holding onto pain and shame.   Our expectations become a stick that can batter us,  locking us in a box of our own programming.

The “What the fuck!” and “Fuck You!” aspects of coming out, the releasing of fears and the rejection of those who would try and shame us, both depend on trusting that if we make good, powerful and proud choices, committing to emergence, learning, growth and healing, then the good outcomes will take care of themselves, even if those results are something we cannot yet even imagine for ourselves.

“Shoulda, woulda, coulda,” gets us stuck in the past, trying to will our own wants over the possibilities and love that actually exists.   Being mired in expectations denies us the power to work the process and co-create our future with mindfulness and wit.

The leap beyond fear is the leap into the moment, letting go of the illusion of certainty to embrace the beautiful flow of life.

Coming out never offers guaranteed and perfect outcomes, but clinging to our wishes only offers the certainty of denying and constraining the grace of our heart.

Making proud choices is the only way to become new beyond imagination and to find the possibilities in locked deep inside your soul.

Fire & Ice

Trans is hot.

It is a wild white heat in your heart, burning Eros that calls you to break the mould, cross the lines, break the boundaries to claim your own essential truth beyond norms and expectations.

This culture, though, is cool.

It expects a tame chill compliance, a frosty bearing, a kind of insulated sameness that follows the norms, does the expected and tolerates the demands with a icy countenance.

That contrast between fire and ice is where trans people — where all people — struggle with their essential duality, trying to both fit in nicely and stand out bravely at the same time.

Even the biggest hailstone which smashes down to earth starts as a speck of dust.  It seeds into rain, but then that rain gets trapped in a freezing layer, bouncing up and down in the air as layers & layers of ice form, accretions of frozen water that isolate and harden it, growing in weight until it is big enough to crash through the updraft winds and plummet to the ground.

How many layers of ice do we carry around our hot, trans soul?   How do they change our shape, limit our options and turn us into a hammer rather than being fluid?

We seem to become the iceberg, 9/10 hidden under the surface.

Many of us, though, know that that huge, hidden bit is where our mass, our drives and our baggage really lives, hidden away and hopefully frozen forever, out of sight and out of mind.

For most people, that submerged bit isn’t something that they think about.   Their focus stays on what they can easily see.   They just wonder, sometimes, why others are acting erratically, but they usually write whatever they don’t quickly understand down to laziness or stupidity.   They respond by habit and emotion, following unconscious patterns rather than doing the work to be present and rational enough to look within.

They are not only responding to the shape of our ice, they are reacting with patterns frozen deep into their own ice, shaped and stored as defence long ago.

To own our own spark, that blazing light created in our heart, and to move past the habits which became solidified as we were bounced around in the atmosphere, we have to become aware, become expert at looking into the iceberg.

Once we are willing to look within, facing the fears we froze deeply into us, we also gain a new vision to look outside, seeing how others are engaged in the fight between their own imprisoned heat and the walls of ice built to contain that passion in a world that demands cool compliance.

The need to dig down into our own frozen habits to find, explore and expose our own essence makes us both powerful and scary.   It leaves us trying to find ways to be cool to the touch while owning our own heat, since we learned early that it is our fire that sets other people off, bringing shit down upon our heads.

Owning my own fire while also being cold enough to be of service has always been by own bête noire.   My deepest knowledge is that I live in a world where no one gets the joke, mirroring, understanding and affirming what I share.

This lead me to learning to manipulate others, first with tricks and later with honest, authentic techniques to create an area of agreement which helped them move forward.

The cost, though, to maintaining this cold façade, this deliberate and consciously modulated front has always been enormously high.   It leaves me able to serve others by dint of will but unable to help myself, the cost being just too high.  Mechanistic duty is functional, if costly, but personal salvation is beyond feasible, lost in a lifelong well of loneliness and grief.

When I feel my own issues welling up, I only have cerebral techniques to manage them, icy and dry, as in handling microbes stored in cryogenic hibernation.   Allowing them to come back to life brings up the real possibility of drastic infestation beyond any possibility to lull them back down into a place of apparent chill functionality.

My heat was so early defined as shameful, queer, disgusting, incomprehensible and worth punishment that from my earliest memory I had to try and kill it, using ice to compartmentalize my own heart so that it would not lead others to attempt to destroy me.

I regularly thank my mother in the sky for the gifts of life, the divine surprises I have been given, even as I ask to be released from a place where I see the space for rational thought, deep compassion, and the intention of understanding to be more and more driven out by craven manipulation and self-indulgent blindness.   My life becomes a pawn in their storytelling, sharpened to meet their political purposes by slicing away my beautiful nuance and ambiguity.

The official solution, I know, is to go cold again, frozen into a dogma that isolates and entombs my feelings so that I can fight without having my tender femme heart dragged into the public mêlée.

My journey, though, has been about finding my heart again, about owning it, no matter how battered, scarred and worn it may be.   My own trans process is not about changing my clothes or my body but rather about changing my mind so that it melts around the beating truth of my heart.

This leaves me vulnerable in a world where silencing and erasing challenges is more valued than engaging the truth that others bring, where frozen is practical because hot is terrifying unless it is approved and enslaved.

I can only activate my own freezer compartment for short bursts now, after a lifetime of overworking it, and always at a high price.

I have a hot nature in a world that demands frozen cold brittle toughness.

And that, well, the cost of that thermal shock (2015) is just too high.

Sex, Sexy, Sex,

The reproductive sex of a human body defines the experience of a person in the world.

This is what feminists separatists want us to know.

They are not wrong.

Every person who went through puberty with a female body remembers moments when, after their body matured, they were challenged by the gaze, the lust and the aggression of male bodied people who saw them as objects of desire.

That shared experience, combined with the shared possibility and call of being a mother, is wrapped in the cultural training and expectations that society has created for being female in the world.

Every transperson has to find a way to engage this truth.   I have heard transwomen claim that they were always female, always women, even though they didn’t share the experience of going through puberty as a woman.   I have heard others dismiss the whole concept of gender, calling the difference in experience irrelevant.

My own assertion is that sex & culturalization counts, but that who we are inside, the shape of our heart, counts more.   It is the content of our character, not the shape of our skin that defines us.    I am male, went through puberty as a male, but that doesn’t mean I am culturally a man.  Gender roles are based in choices, in cultural training, not simply on biological difference.  Showing myself as a woman is a more honest expression of my nature, a reflection of my heart, my vision and my choices.

Biological sex counts, though.   There is a reason that transwomen dream of being femaled, of being seen and understood as female.    We may want to be femaled only for the night, like a crossdresser or drag queen, or femaled forever, like a transsexual woman.

Being sexy is, I have found, rooted in our sex.

The experience of being sexed in the world is at the heart of being sexy for female bodied people, be that experience scary, offputting or lovely.  That sense of being seen as sexed is at the core of being seen as sexy, where we add attitude and accoutrements to the display of our body.

Because sex is an embodied experience, so is sexiness.   Without embodiment, sex is just a hypothetical idea, be that a teeny-bopper’s crush or a crossdresser’s fantasies.    Even romance novels seek to convey the embodied experience of perfected sensuality, from high heels & tight bodices to the eventual crashing of the surf inside our heart.

Our bodies determine much of our experience in the world.   Pretty is embodied.  Sexy is embodied.   When you ask students if they thought their life would be better if their body was better shaped for their sex, they almost always say yes, whatever they perceive that ideal shape to be.

We become typecast by our appearance as we learn what choices work for us.   It may be difficult for a petite blonde to pull off intimidating, impossible for a burly brunette to be effectively cute.    The boundaries on our expression become the bounds of our identity as we learn to work what we have got and hide what we find queers the deal.

Being cast in the sexual fantasies of another person, expected to play the role that they find hot while never surfacing anything that challenges their identity requires walking a narrow line.  The world is full of pushy bottoms wanting to keep control while transferring responsibility onto another person,  demanding that their own ego be fed at any cost.

Yet every truly intimate relationship is built on creating a safe space to get naked, naked physically, emotionally, mentally and creatively.   This is why all transpeople are politically bisexual even if we have well defined desires, because we want, we need our partners to embrace all of us, even the bits where our biology and history cross conventional assumptions.

The fear of failing to meet the expectations of others who desire us when we show another facet of ourselves is common to all women, but especially terrifying for transwomen who lack the basic training that comes from being seen as a girl amongst the boys.   We are constantly reminded of the dire possibilities that exist, even if considered statistics show us to be no more vulnerable to violence than other women. (2006)

Being sexy is far from simple for transpeople.  For we older transpeople, who grew up in a far less understanding and accepting world, one where we had to struggle even to find our own limited awareness, sexy isn’t something we can go back and pick up from out of the ashes.

Without a clear and consistent sex, having the kind of clear and consistent sexuality which gives you the standing to find the power in flirting is almost impossible.   This is why the dream of passing as the sex more associated with our choices will never go away, even if we understand that the cost of that passing is losing the strength of our multi-faceted stories as we struggle to police our choices and conceal our biology & history.

It’s hard to be sexy without standing, but without being sexy we can be denied the shadow of sex: love.

Unless people find us desirable in a way that they want to have physical intimacy with, how can we bond in deep ways?

Even if they find our shimmering titillating on some level, until they identify that intimacy as something they can be proud of, sharing it with friends and family, how will we ever be received as loved and lovable?

Sex is the basis of sexy, yes, but sex is also the flip side of love.

Our bodies shape much of the way that people respond to us, for good and for bad.    In a culture where breeding is paramount — a heterosexist culture — creating a primary and deep rooted division based around reproductive biology serves the economy and the power structure.

It also, though, attempts to deny non-breedstock the power of sexiness, a kind of eugenic force to erase marginal beauty.

That denial, laced in the narrative of deceit and panic, has not only denied us the power of sexy, of public and affirmed sexy beyond being erotic freaks, it has also denied us intimate and loving relationships.

Being sexy without love, starting with the love of your own sexuality, is impossible.



I am beginning to suspect that there are only so many times that you can save your own life.

For straight people, the ones who take well travelled paths, this never really becomes a big problem.   They love the idea of a little bit of reinvention in their lives, something to spice up the daily.

Queers, though, who have had to blow up their lives just to try and get breathing room to survive, look at this requirement for reinvention very differently.   To us, it’s not about changing your style, it’s about fundamental restructuring, and that takes a lot out of you.

Rebirth requires reconnection.  The requirement to start all your relationships from scratch, even the relationships with people you have known all your life, is excruciating, but unless you do it, you will be stuck with their old assumptions about you.

Reconnection requires building links with people in a new way, physical, emotional, mental and creative understandings that transcend simple assumptions.

Every time we are reborn, for reasons from inside ourselves like needing to surface authenticity, or for reasons outside ourselves, like engaging loss, trauma and service, we become deeper, richer and more complex. Fold upon fold creates points of connections, understanding of linkages, more context that leads to a more penetrating, informed and knowing vision.

More rebirths creates more depth.   More depth makes it harder for other people to link to us in an intimate way, even if it also makes it easier for us to link to other people, having moved beyond the routine and unconscious to the present and sensitive.

This makes every rebirth harder because it moves you farther and farther away from simple & indulgent, moves you closer & closer to awareness & spirit.

So many people resist rebirth because they resist transformation, letting go of what no longer serves them so they can leap to a higher level.   We don’t want to feel the separation, the requirement to forge new relationships, the fact that we have to be willing to fail and fall to achieve a new level of mastery & ownership.

Those of us who commit to rebirth do it to save our own life, but every time we do it, we pay the cost.

I learned very early the requirement to take ownership of my own mind, my own heart and my own soul.   There was no comforting network for me, no easy space where I didn’t need to be hypervigilant, always conscious of controlling my choices to stay safe and to try and get what I needed.   I learned to protect others, my sister and father, long before I even reached the puberty that would finally betray my heart.

Every rebirth moves you beyond the conventional and towards the exceptional.   While people can be there for rebirth they understand, ones that they have experienced, like a child growing up or becoming a mother, transformation past those expectations demands a huge amount of self empowerment, going beyond boundaries to go places beyond the norm.

The limits of our personal reserves are the limit of our rebirths, the constraint on the number of times we can save our own lives.

When we create new relationships with people who can mirror, affirm and empathize with who we have become those reserves are conserved and even extended.   When we are unable to find people who can meet us where we are now, who instead try to fit us into their own limited understandings and beliefs, we don’t get the nourishment and feedback that we need to keep going, to keep growing.

I am happy that I have been able to help others blossom, releasing their old habits, assumptions and fears to find new and better ways to be in the world.   I am not so happy that I haven’t been able to find others to help me.

Being aware of how far I am from the comfort level of other people is very tough.   They, as my life-myth goes, don’t get the joke.  Mostly, they suspect that if I can’t pull back and package myself in a pleasant and normative way, a way that they find attractive, then maybe something is deeply wrong with me, because they are sure that they are fine.   If I would just take their advice, just make the choices that worked for them, then I wouldn’t be so damn queer.

How queer is too queer, too individual & wild, and how queer is not queer enough, too assimilated & compliant?   This is the key question in the LGBT community, based on the primary duality (1994).

No one is an island.   To live without touch, without intimacy, without mirroring, without love is to run dry, no matter how early we learned to be self-sufficient, learned to be individual, learned to save our own life. Loneliness, “the loneliness of a long lost tranny” will catch up with you and grind you down, leaving you without the resources for rebirth.

Going backwards, though, is not possible.  You cannot unsee that which you have seen, cannot unknow that which you know, no matter how much denial,  ignorance and compartmentalization that you invoke, at least in my acute experience.   Awareness is a journey that takes you beyond, so any return is of you transformed, bearing gifts that do not fit well into conventional society.

How many lives can one invoke?   What happens when rebirth takes you so far beyond the comfort of others that you no longer can get the human touch everyone needs?

I am grateful everyday for the surprises of my life, the learning and the delights that come as gifts.   Working to share what I have gained is still important for me, even if that work has very limited rewards.

But I am beginning to suspect that there are only so many times that you can save your own life.    Rebirth has always increased my spiritual life, but it has created costs in my earthly life, pushing me away from ego and Eros that might feed the flesh.

There may be another huge divine surprise waiting for me, more rebirths that take me into the bosom of humanity rather than away from it.

But there may also be constraints on how much discipline, mastery and magic any one person can invoke in one cycle.


Holidays are for sharing.

They are moments when we come together and share ourselves; stories we shouldn’t forget, principles we value, relationships that formed us, beliefs that strengthen us, connections that feed us, people that we love.

It is this sharing in a moment out of time that makes holy days and holidays very special and important to our deep humanity.

The simple milestones, like the summer’s first burned hot dog of the season or the ritual of leaving flowers at a grave, offer ways to honour the cycles of life, the bits that stay the same as we continue to grow, develop and take on new phases.

For me, though, that sharing doesn’t happen anymore.   When it used to, I was the one who had to make the events, prepare the dinners, create the echoes, but now, alone, well, the creations for one don’t have the resonance.

This week they celebrated the anniversary of the film “Love Actually.”   Christmas was less than six weeks after my father died, less than two weeks after my mother died.   I deliberately found a copy of that film to put on, a simple way to pay respects to the many facets of love.  What I remember, though, was my sister’s friend, the only other at the table, dismissing the film with prejudice, saying that it was bullshit, that love was bullshit, a loser’s game.   He kept saying that I must, as a guy, like these fights, and I just knew that my broken feminine heart would never be seen.

Now, on this holiday alone, I think of a professional I met last week who promised they wouldn’t be freaked out by my writing, because they saw me as sharp and valuable, but who never followed up and when I reached out dropped only a two line polite response.   Nope, freaked.

I know that I could attend a public kind of event, a lunch at the senior centre or a town parade, but I also know that I wouldn’t be visible there.   Sure, I could engage and affirm the sharing of others, but what I share, well, too much crackpot for them, too much crap for me.

The hermetic life feels like destiny, being marked for it when I had to learn to play alone as a child, without safety in the midst of a narcissistic fury. Today, I may understand the reasons for that tempest, may have context, but that doesn’t make up for the loss.

“My other clients come in and tell me why people around them are doing bad things, but you are unique in going on to explain why they have no choice but to take those actions,” a psychologist told me thirty years ago.   I was taking care of others, even others who hurt me, from my earliest days.

I share, I share, I share, but what I don’t do is expect people to listen, understand, engage and mirror what I share.   They have their own challenges.

On a holiday, though, on so many holidays, for so long, well, that leaves me  isolated and depleted.   I can’t even sneak the text of a table grace that I knew my parents wouldn’t understand to my sister so I can at least feel I shared something, even if she never really reflected what I offered.

Communities are too often formed by rejection, defending boundaries by creating alienation.   How can they be the in crowd unless someone else is on the outs, frozen into Siberia for not being one of us?  Returning the gifts that I struggled so damn hard to own, the awareness of connection, compassion and love, leaves me battered and bled dry.

I know how to be alone, but holidays, well, they are for sharing.  Sharing was never easy in my family, never easy for a queer little kid like me, but now it feels almost impossible, and any hope of that changing, no matter how much I try and find space, well, desiccated.    It’s not like I have less to share as I age, or that I have less need, rather I become more spiky and crenellated, more difficult for others.

But it’s a holiday, and while pulling marked down bratwurst from the freezer and cooking them with a tin of 2015 dated sauerkraut may be nice, well, with no one to share them with, no one to make the potato salad, ripples stop dead at the rotting garbage on the kitchen counter.

Holidays are for sharing, sharing everything from food to chatter to love, sharing all along the axes of intimacy, the breadth and depth of spirit, the celebration of milestones and journeys.

I am who I am and that’s not going to change drastically in the autumn of my life.  Being the same person, though, and expecting different responses from others, well, that seems like a bit of lovely, wishful, insanity, the kind that just opens the way for more heartbreak.

So I share, but without expectation of even the simple amenities of human contact.

May you value your sharing, those holidays and holy days that are time out of time for connection and caring, full of nourishing presence, food and love.  It may be easy to take them for granted, to skip over them like banal obligations, but when they stop happening, when they never really happened, you will miss them.

This I do know.

Lonely City

Even psychiatrists and psychologists,Weiss [Loneliness: The Experience of Emotional and Social Isolation] thought, were not immune to this near-phobic dislike; they too were liable to be made uneasy ‘by the loneliness that is potential in the everyday life of everyone’. As a result, a kind of victim blaming takes place: a tendency to see the rejection of lonely people as justified, or to assume they have brought the condition on themselves by being too timid or unattractive, too self-pitying or self-absorbed. ‘Why can’t the lonely change?’ he imagines both professional and lay observers musing. ‘They must find a perverse gratification in loneliness; perhaps loneliness, despite its pain, permits them to continue a self-protective isolation or provides them with an emotional handicap that forces handouts of pity from those with whom they interact.’

According to work being carried out over the past decade by John Cacioppo and his team at the University of Chicago, loneliness profoundly affects an individual’s ability to understand and interpret social interactions, initiating a devastating chain-reaction, the consequence of which is to further estrange them from their fellows.

When people enter into an experience of loneliness, they trigger what psychologists call hypervigilance for social threat, a phenomenon Weiss first postulated back in the 1970s. In this state, which is entered into unknowingly, the individual tends to experience the world in increasingly negative terms, and to both expect and remember instances of rudeness, rejection and abrasion, giving them greater weight and prominence than other, more benign or friendly interactions. This creates, of course, a vicious circle, in which the lonely person grows increasingly more isolated, suspicious and withdrawn. And because the hypervigilance hasn’t been consciously perceived, it’s by no means easy to recognise, let alone correct, the bias.

What this means is that the lonelier a person gets, the less adept they become at navigating social currents. Loneliness grows around them, like mould or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact, no matter how badly contact is desired. Loneliness is accretive, extending and perpetuating itself. Once it becomes impacted, it is by no means easy to dislodge.


At the same time, the body’s state of red alert brings about a series of physiological changes, driven by gathering tides of adrenaline and cortisol. These are the fight or flight hormones, which act to help an organism respond to external stressors. But when the stress is chronic, not acute; when it persists for years and is caused by something that cannot be outrun, then these biochemical alterations wreak havoc on the body. Lonely people are restless sleepers, and experience a reduction in the restorative function of sleep. Loneliness drives up blood pressure, accelerates ageing, weakens the immune system and acts as a precursor to cognitive decline. According to a 2010 study, loneliness predicts increased morbidity and mortality, which is an elegant way of saying that loneliness can prove fatal.

At first it was thought that this increased morbidity occurred because of the practical consequences of being isolated: the lack of care, the potentially diminished ability to feed and nurture oneself. In fact, it seems almost certain now that it is the subjective experience of loneliness that produces the physical consequences, not the simple fact of being alone. It is the feeling itself that is stressful; the feeling that sets the whole grim cascade into motion.


The intensity of my reaction – sometimes a blush; more often a full-blown blast of panic – testified to hypervigilance, to the way perception around social interaction had begun to warp. Somewhere in my body, a measuring system had identified danger, and now the slightest glitch in communication was registering as a potentially overwhelming threat. It was as if, having been so cataclysmically dismissed, my ears had become attuned to the note of rejection, and when it came, as it inevitably does, in small doses throughout the day, some vital part of me clamped and closed, poised to flee not so much physically as deeper into the interior of the self.

No doubt it was ridiculous to be so sensitive. But there was something almost agonising about speaking and being misunderstood or found unintelligible, something that got right to the heart of all my fears about aloneness. No one will ever understand you. No one wants to hear what you say. Why can’t you fit in, why do you have to stick out so much? It wasn’t hard to see why someone in this position might come to mistrust language, doubting its ability to bridge the gap between bodies, traumatised by the revealed gulf, the potentially lethal abyss that lurks beneath each carefully proffered sentence. Dumbness in this context might be a way of evading hurt, dodging the pain of failed communication by refusing to participate in it at all. That’s how I explained my growing silence, anyway; as an aversion akin to someone wishing to avoid a repeated electric shock.

-- Olivia Laing, "The Lonely City: Adventures In The Art Of Being Alone"