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On Loneliness: 5 things to help you through the season of togetherness

When Andy Williams first sang It's The Most Wonderful Time of Year in 1963, little did he know that it would become, more than half a century later, an anthem for many to get them into the spirit of Christmas, a time for family, friends, a sense of warmth and belonging, and perhaps a time where we take stock of all that we have. For some though, it is a bittersweet season where the togetherness of the time elevates emotions of emptiness and loss.

The feeling of loneliness is palpable. Even if you're out and about and have a ton of friends, when it comes to Christmastime, it seems to heighten the feelings of what you don't have rather than what you do. Christmas is a season of wistfulness isn't it? And in that wistfulness is a sense of emptiness. In 2014, an official study revealed that "Britain is the loneliness capital of Europe." Things didn't seem to get much better when just this year the Office for National Statistics released figures that stated 2.4 million British residents suffer from chronic loneliness. The

Independent reported in April this year that "Loneliness has reached epidemic proportions in the UK, where researchers estimate that up to one in four people suffer from it. This number will certainly rise as the population ages, as more people live alone, and workplace automation further weakens bonds between people." Being cloistered in one's own space where most of the time is seen as a luxury, during the holidays that space becomes cavernous especially if there are no plans to head out to see or welcome in family or friends.

When I worked in television news, Christmas wasn't a time to stop. News is a 24/7/365 operation. The company would have a lottery system of who would get Christmas off and who would get New Year's off. It was a strange time for me as on the one hand, I didn't want to work at Christmas as it felt like I would be missing out on all the fun that everyone else was apparently going to be having. Yet on the other hand, it was a way to keep me busy at time when I was reminded most about being so far away from family. I had good friends who were in a similar position. We would make the best of it by having our own celebrations if we weren't working. But I still found it hard and that's why working on Christmas often felt easier. Regardless, being on my own, away from my family who weren't living a car, bus or train ride away at a time when seemingly everyone else was living a loved up existence wasn't fun. I found I didn't even want to go out because I was embarrassed for feeling lonely and I didn't want anyone to know that I, someone who had a great job, friends, a loving family, who was healthy and for the most part happy, was lonely. This is what Christmas does to some of us, even those of us who are strong, independent, intelligent people.

The writer Joyce Carol Oates said her greatest fear is "the possibility of loneliness." There is one Christmas that comes to mind that saw me face that "possibility" as the holiday season approached. I wasn't working that Christmas. I didn't have any plans. I felt this dreadful weight on my mind, and a lump in my throat as we neared the Day. I remember meeting a friend early Christmas Eve for a coffee, then after going our separate ways, I went to the local supermarket and bought some food that I hoped would cheer me up. I remember being surrounded by people rushing around grabbing last minute food and gifts, festive music playing everywhere. I just felt like my mind was in a fog. When I got home I made myself dinner, watched a movie and then went to bed, dreading the feeling of waking up to an empty house on Christmas morning. And when I did wake up, it was quiet everywhere. I made myself a cup of tea, some breakfast and watched Christmas movies for much of the day. Little did I realise as I neared the end of the day that, I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I wouldn't have been able to verbalise it that way then but looking back that weight I felt the days before was gone. I felt like something inside had just dissipated. While Christmas Day was quiet, there was no drama. I had no expectations which meant there were no disappointments. I had not felt so relaxed in a long time. I realised that the fear of being alone on a day that was all about not being alone, a day that was all about togetherness, the fear was worse than the reality. And what began as loneliness morphed into a restful solitude.

The thing is, I've been alone at Christmas maybe a handful of times in my life. I was among the lucky ones where I knew I had people in my life who cared about me and that this feeling of loneliness was temporary. For many people this is their daily existence. They are alone. Their families are either gone or estranged. With an ageing population we will see that even more. The late Jo Cox, the British MP who, before her murder in 2016, raised the issue of loneliness in the country after her own feelings of isolation during her time in University. She set up the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness in response to the debilitating effects of loneliness that she had seen surface in her constituency. The commission released a report which said, after a year of research with dozens of non-profit organisations contributing, "that nine million Britons suffer from loneliness: fourteen per cent of the population. Among vulnerable cohorts, the rates are much higher. In a survey of the well-being of disabled Britons, half reported feelings of loneliness at least once a day. More than a third of elderly people reported being overwhelmed by loneliness." The British government even appointed a Minister for Loneliness to tackle what is now seen as a massive social issue, one that has a wider impact on the country's healthcare and social systems. Prime Minister Theresa May said in October this year, "loneliness is one of the greatest public health challenges of our time." Her government launched a strategy involving all governmental agencies, the private sector, and charities to not only help bring people together through additional funding in order to create more spaces in community programmes but to also keep loneliness in mind when crafting and making policy decisions. The government is also partnering with the Royal Mail (in some areas) to have employees check in on those who may be vulnerable and/or isolated.

Feeling lonely is a weight on one's heart and one's soul. As much as we want to be around people, the more time we spend on our own, the more difficult it is to come out of that state mentally as we don't want to be pitied and we are embarrassed for even feeling that way in the first place. And as we see the twinkling lights of Christmas everywhere, people laughing together in pubs and restaurants, and see shops full of people buying gifts for loved ones, we feel like we are in a bubble desperately wishing we could join in with the festivities but knowing we can't. Loneliness doesn't discriminate and it isn't something you can detect in someone easily. Even a person who seemingly has everything can be lonely. And the holidays are a time when emotions are heightened because we also assume that everyone around us is having a wonderful time. When I was a kid, Christmas was when I would imagine everyone was having a Hollywood movie type celebration with food, family, laughter, presents, and fun. I imagined everyone had the perfect family enjoying their perfect food. According to University Health News, "the biggest causes of holiday depression symptoms is unrealistic expectations...the myth that everyone else is having a good time and engaged in loving family relationships." It's a myth that while we would like to believe (and would want it to be true for our friends and family), it isn't always the case. Family stress, underlying issues that have simmered all year tend to come up to the surface at family gatherings at Christmas. I guess it's because everyone is stressed about wanting to have a good time, wanting everything to be perfect, and expectations about how things should be, that any little perceived glitch or wrong word said can just unleash all those feelings in a tirade.

Now that I have a husband and a little boy, a family of my own, I am ever so grateful for being busy this time of year. I even have come to enjoy the stress of the season because I know what it is like to not have that. For us, perfection is defined by us and how we want to feel. And how we want to feel is full with chocolate and mulled cider. My husband always makes a big deal out of the holiday. I call him Clark Griswold from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. And I feel blessed and thankful for him. And while on (tiny) occasions I do think about those quiet days where no one demanded my attention, where I would wake up and stay in my pyjamas all day and watch tv, I see our tree with the sparkling lights, I see the excitement on my son's face as he dives into his advent calendar for his daily chocolate treat, and my heart just fills with happiness for this gift. The four us (our cat Gracie is such an important part of our family), enjoy the build up to Christmas. But I also am acutely aware of those who don't have their families around them.

The season of togetherness is a time of immense sadness for those who have lost a spouse, a partner, a parent, a child, a sibling, a dear friend. It is the toughest of times for those who all they have left is memories of times past. And while we can't change the reality of life for them, we can perhaps offer some solace through a distraction via a visit, an invitation, a phone call. Acknowledging them and their feelings to let them know they matter and that their emotions are valid will go a long way in helping them deal with what is undeniably a painful time.

If you're alone or feeling lonely and dreading this time of year here are a few things to remember, things that I learned after spending a few lonely Christmases:

1) While it felt like I was the only one in the world who was alone at Christmas, I realised afterwards that I wasn't. There are so many of us out there who aren't fortunate enough to be around loved ones. Knowing that, eased the disappointment of expectations not met. The expectation of being around people.

2) Once I accepted that life didn't feel great at that moment. I accepted that for that moment, I was sad and lonely. Fighting it and pretending all is ok is hard work. I eventually learned that it was ok to feel that way because sadness and loneliness are important indicators to help give us, as the actor Tom Hanks described in an interview, "the vocabulary for what’s rattling around in (our) head." They are indicators on what we don't want or have, and hopefully help propel us to what we do have and perhaps towards getting what we want.

3) After hearing from friends and their stressful times over the holidays, stress over partners, parents, etc., it was easy to see that the hype we see everywhere about Christmas is really just hype. It's an aspiration. The advertisements are selling the dream festive family setting. It's not necessarily the reality for the majority. Perfect families and a perfect life don't exist. It's like social media, only the filtered images are shown and flaws are photoshopped away.

4) One thing I have learned about life is that it changes constantly. I knew my goal was to have a family of my own one day and I worked towards that by trying to become self-aware, understand who I was, my patterns, especially thought patterns. As I focused on becoming an emotionally healthier version of myself, I started to have hope that things will change because I deserved to be happy. I started to get myself into the mindset of 'you never know what the next minute will bring.' If I was feeling lonely I took care of myself and did whatever I could to ease myself through the season and particularly Christmas Day. For me, movies and mince pies, yummy food helped immensely. Remember, the fearof being alone at Christmas is worse than actually being alone.

5) Finally, it goes back to the very first point of remembering there are others who are going through the same things as you. After a few Christmases that I spent I alone, I made a conscious decision to see if some friends wanted to get together, even for just a meal. There is comfort in sharing the weight of the season but there is also comfort in knowing we could help each other with feeling less alone. Doing that took me out of my own head, it gave me perspective to think about those who were less fortunate than me, especially the elderly who will find this time of year hard.. If you know someone who will be spending this Christmas on their own, even a phone call can help someone feel less invisible.

I wish all of you a healthy and safe holiday season, whether you celebrate Christmas or not. If you're having a quiet holiday and feeling low, please know I will be thinking of you and sending the best wishes for you out into the universe in the hopes that you will find your way towards a happier 2019.

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