I have recently given a lot of thought to my relationship with food
over the past 10 years. Severe anorexia necessitated refeeding
programmes; compulsive overeating caused me massive distress. Now I
realise food is an answer to a basic human need:
It is when I have felt most lonely that I have acted
self-destructively with food. When I started at university I did
not know anyone else on campus and had no one-to-one tutorials.
Feeling shy I could not socialise. I would go for days without
speaking to a single person. My weight dropped to below four and a
half stone. Being in hospital meant I suddenly had company. But at
18, and the only one suffering with an eating disorder, I still
felt isolated. During periods of overeating it feels like my only
friend is food. I fill up the emptiness with anything I can
When lonely I am more introspective, like I’m the only person
suffering distress. My problems seem insurmountable. Being lonely
for weeks and months on end is soul destroying. It is as though you
are invisible – you are looking at the world through glass.
Everyone else is participating, you are just existing. I have
attempted suicide when feeling very alone.
Even when not physically lonely you can still feel you are on your
own. Mental distress is isolating and loneliness in turn increases
depression. Being absorbed in the noise in your head means you do
not have the motivation to meet new people. You feel inhibited
around others. Even visiting the hairdressers can be difficult
because they ask “are you at work today?” Your conversation feels
limited – you do not have the life someone else your age typically
has because you missed out by being ill. To other people the answer
may seem simple – get a job. But working alongside other people for
five days a week seems overwhelming when you are used to solitude.
Sometimes loneliness is self-imposed. It is like a punishment; of
not deserving other people. When in crisis your focus is on getting
through those painful moments and not on seeing others, although
loneliness makes things worse. While I admire other service users I
am friends with I know they are not always available because of
their own distress.
I deal with loneliness by structuring my week. On three weekdays I
do voluntary work and take telephone queries at the local citizens
advice bureau. Once when I was off sick for a few weeks due to
self-harm they sent flowers with a card saying “from your friends
at the CAB”. It meant a lot to me. At weekends I go to the cinema
both days. I can shut out feelings of desolation by concentrating
on the big screen
Social care workers should talk to clients about isolation brought
on by lack of social contact and experience of mental distress. It
does not mean we are too needy – only human.
Alex Williams is a volunteer and uses mental health