Loneliness was in our lives long before lockdown. We all pretended to be part of one big happy electronic family by zinging back and forth a few heart-shaped emojis to show we cared, but deep down we knew it was just a click of a button that meant nothing. I even sent those hearts to my plumber.
Personally, I have always felt lonely. From childhood, my main motive was to be accepted so I didn’t have to feel alone. And certainly not alone with my parents, who brought the war from Europe into our breakfast nook.
They were steadfast enemies. I would sit in no man’s land as my parents lobbed verbal grenades at one another. I was an only child, and made desperate attempts to glue myself on to gangs or cliques in high school, but was always rejected. I tried to befriend a few fellow weirdo strays; we would roam the high-school halls looking for a group to hang with. We tried to hang out with each other, but it was useless – we were all too creepy and desperate.
Then, at about 16, a miracle happened. I saw Joan Rivers on television and within 24 hours, I had turned myself from a loser into America’s hottest comedian. I was suddenly channelling Rivers and, beyond my control, her lines were coming out of my mouth. Overnight, I was doing standup and got the popular boys. Most of them were gay but who cared? I was the new prom queen.
This is why, when I finally escaped to the UK, I pulled out the big guns and went straight into television. I didn’t even need a script. I was the script, having rehearsed funny lines since my teens. From then on, I was off at the races, building up a persona like plates of armour around me. I made up for the fact that I didn’t fit in with any group by surrounding myself with people who seemingly liked me, mainly for being funny. It wasn’t quite the same feeling as belonging, but it wasn’t a bad stand-in for an isolated childhood.
It turns out that no matter how many people you’re performing in front of, you might as well be in the middle of the Sahara because you have absolutely no feeling of connection with anyone. How can they connect when you’re hiding behind some persona that’s machine gunning them with shtick?
I think many of us spend lifetimes building up a tough front to show the world we’re fine even though we might be dying inside. In the end, no one really likes you for how impressive or accomplished you are. They may admire you, throw you a dinner party and make a speech about how much you’ve achieved, but they don’t necessarily want to hang out with you.
Once I left the narcissistic shores of television, I learned to peel off my persona. It took a long time trying to find who I was before the makeover job and then get to like who she was. Mindfulness helps because of the insight it brings, along with the self-compassion. I know now that people only feel safe and trust you when you can drop the armour and be real.
Maybe this should be the new definition of love and friendship – amour without armour. I’ve noticed, too, over the years, that when I’m with people with whom I can drop the mask, that loneliness disappears into thin air.