A friend of mine and I make it our thing to visit a local vineyard a few times over the summer and dish about life. I look forward to these leisurely afternoons, outside on the piazza overlooking a serene lake circled with weeping willows and dotted with white swans. I feel like I’ve been transported to another world.
One day this past summer, I opened up to her like I rarely do with people anymore.
It was the week that Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain took their own lives and it seemed like all of America was reeling from the news. How did these two people, with so much going for them in life, do such a thing? Were they in pain? Why, oh why, did they do it?
But as I told my friend Amy, I get it.
Her face fell. She was floored. Wholly disturbed by my answer. Made me promise on the spot that I was ok and not feeling suicidal.
I’m ok. I was then and I am now.
But I get it. Of course, I’m assuming a lot here about what led these two wildly successful, talented, and beloved people to take such drastic measures. Maybe it was a moment of insanity, but maybe it was loneliness or despair.
I get that.
I understand feeling so utterly alone you fully believe that your life really doesn’t make an impact on anyone. I know exactly what it’s like to dismiss how other people might feel if I was gone.
It’s times like that when Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote isn’t very helpful:
You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.
On a broader scale, it’s not like I’ve made any major contributions to the world. I haven’t cured cancer. I’m not an entertainer. I haven’t run for office or served my community in any meaningful way. My career was a very big part of my life at the time but the reality is I was expendable. I traveled extensively for work. For years my best friend lived in New York while I lived in Ohio, so close, local, sustainable friendships were not my forte.
So, I get it.
I spent 34 years trying to find someone I loved who could love me in return, someone willing to spend their life with me. No one was interested, including a guy I dated for three years. He broke up with me mid-way through the relationship, then wanted me back. I grilled him on his intentions before I considered rekindling the relationship, and he made it clear that marriage and kids was something he wanted. It gradually became clearer, to him and me after 18 more months, that he didn’t want that with ME.
Everyone I knew was getting married. There were a couple of years there where I had six, then seven, then eight, then nine (!) weddings to attend, until they started to wind back down in subsequent years the same way they ramped up.
None of them were mine.
The lowest point was being asked to sing at the wedding of a family friend five years younger than me. I watched as my family’s anticipation and excitement grew over this wedding; the bride and groom were, and still are, adored. I didn’t even have a date for the reception so needless to say, I wasn’t in a great frame of mind leading up to this event. I wanted to be happy for the newlyweds. I really did. But what I saw was life passing me by in the most visible of ways.
It stung. No one noticed.
As I sang the last note of the final piece after the ceremony ended, I closed the music binder, walked out of the church past the crowd eagerly awaiting the bride and groom, got in my car, and drove straight home while the throng left for the reception to celebrate. I could not bear to witness people’s lives move on, toward togetherness, love, belonging, community. All the things I didn’t have.
It reminded me of the hundreds of times I flew for work, often at night. I’d look down at the landscape, thousands of little streetlights and houses as far as the eye could see, thinking about how each light represented a family, or at least a couple of heartbeats inside each structure. And yet my heart was not among them. It was the perfect metaphor, in a way. There I was, separated from all of that by quite a distance, that vast, beautiful, twinkling, interconnected web moving past me in slow motion, punctuating how far removed I was from all of it.
I felt like a freak. To celebrate this wedding took an inner strength and grace I just didn’t have. They say you should call upon family or friends to guide you through times like that, but I didn’t want to complain. What was the point? I was living through a chronic condition and complaining wouldn’t change the situation.
Besides, not one family member noticed I was missing from the reception. No one checked on me, not that night, not at any point. I fell asleep full of despair that night, convinced that something was inherently wrong with me. I honestly didn’t want to wake up the next day.
Yet I awoke to a gorgeous, sunny morning while the world learned the news that Princess Diana had died in Paris the night before. I wondered why it had to be her and not me that night. The world misses her, and still does, while I have yet to make an impact of any meaningful kind.
It’s been over 20 years since that day but I remember well those feelings of loneliness and despair. I didn’t marry for another four years or date my husband all that long before we married. I have children now. I love them and they love me. They are my world. While I may not cure cancer or leave any kind of significant mark on this world, maybe I make an impact of some kind on them. I do know I am utterly devoted to them, and God willing, I’m not going anywhere.
But make no mistake: when it comes to feelings of loneliness and despair? I get that. I wish that sort of loneliness and invisibility on no one. If I ever made anyone feel that way, I’m sorry. And if I ever failed to reach out to someone who feels loneliness and despair, for that too, I deeply apologize.
And if it’s you feeling this way, please keep going. It gets better. I would give you a virtual hug of belonging if I could. One day, you will wake to a gorgeous sunny day when life gets better. I can’t promise when. It may take longer than you want. But it will get better.
May we all find a way in the coming days to connect with someone who is lonely and hurting. Check on them, even if you have never given a second thought to whether they’re ok. Let people know they matter.