A Year Ago I Admitted I Was Lonely On The Internet. Here's What I've Learned

A year ago this month, Refinery29 contributed to the ongoing loneliness conversation with one woman's personal story, titled "At Weekends I Don't See Anybody: What It's Like To Be Young & Lonely". In many ways, Michelle Lloyd's story was unremarkable – the 34-year-old, who lives alone in south London, told of how, in spite of having friends, a great job (as HR manager for the charity Dementia UK), various interests, and living in a vibrant city, she often felt lonely.
What was unusual was the bravery she showed by publicly admitting to something that's so common but still shrouded in stigma among young people: that trying to maintain fulfilling relationships with good mental health while working a full-time job, during a phase when you're meant to be having "the time of your life", is damn difficult and, at times, isolating. Lloyd's story was a hitherto underreported side of the loneliness phenomenon.
Having written about her anxiety and depression on her mental health blog, You Don't Look Depressed, Lloyd was no stranger to sharing intimate personal information online. But nothing she'd written before had garnered quite as strong a reaction. The comments flooded in immediately, while news outlets including the BBC and Radio 5 Live picked up Lloyd's story on the back of our story. She was interviewed for a documentary, invited on panels and even became a trustee at Anchor, a counselling service that provides free counselling to those who can’t access support.
A lot can happen in a year – public perceptions of loneliness and who can experience it (that is, anyone) appear to be shifting in the right direction, and Lloyd's story inspired Refinery29's themed content series, Lonely Girls' Club. So how is she doing now? And did she take anything away from the experience? We caught up with her again.
"I agreed to the interview originally because I wanted to raise awareness of loneliness. Whenever I'd read anything about it in the past, it was never taken seriously and as someone who has felt lonely most of their life, I never felt like anyone else got it or felt the same. Up until recently, it was largely only discussed in the context of older people. I wanted to share my story and perhaps help other younger people feeling the same way – not because I felt my experience was special, but because I thought that other women my age, in similar circumstances, might relate to how I was feeling. I hoped people would feel slightly less alone and understood.
Honestly, I felt scared when the article was published. I’ve written quite a lot about my mental health but this was the most honest thing I'd spoken about, and the idea of people reading it and judging me or making assumptions made me anxious. There was added anxiety over the fact that I gave the interview right after I'd broken up with my partner and called off a wedding. I knew a lot of people were upset with me and possibly judging me already. I imagined people thinking I didn’t have the right to speak about loneliness when it was me who called off the relationship. But people will always make assumptions about you and it’s the opinions of those you care about that matter most. I knew they'd be proud, but I didn’t want friends or family to think I was suggesting that they weren’t good enough, or that they didn’t spend enough time with me.

I received a few disconcerting messages – largely from men who assumed I was looking for people to go on dates with.

The response was overwhelming. Nothing I've written has garnered such a reaction – and a positive response at that. Any anxiety around having overshared instantly went away as I was faced with so many people saying they felt exactly the same, and they were grateful for me having shared it. I felt like I'd done what I'd set out to do so it didn’t matter what anyone else thought. A lot of people contacted me through my blog and shared their own experiences – mostly women but some men too, and a year on I still receive emails from people who have stumbled on it from all over the world. It’s given me a great sense of pride in knowing that someone has felt affinity with my words but has also made me realise just how widespread and complex the issue is.
Initially, I responded to everyone individually but it soon became overwhelming – I felt it was my duty to offer to meet up with people, especially those in London. Then the anxiety kicked in – I struggle with social anxiety and meeting new people, and I worry about not living up to people’s expectations. Therefore I sadly didn’t respond to everyone – there were literally hundreds of emails – and I do feel that I let people down. I apologised on my blog, so I hope people understood. Inevitably, I received a few disconcerting messages – largely from men who assumed I was looking for people to go on dates with. They went straight in the bin.
I learned a lot from the experience – I realised my loneliness is sometimes of my own making and is caused by my anxiety about reaching out to people. Sometimes it’s easier to think 'no one likes me' but actually it’s down to me pushing people away for fear of letting them in. I’ve tried – and failed in some instances! – to be braver and strike up more conversations and socialise, and I’ve definitely nurtured some new friendships – some are with people that were already in my life but I perhaps didn’t put the effort in with previously. I now know that contrived socialising isn’t for me, as it puts a lot of pressure on you and feels forced. The best connections are organic and they really do happen when you allow yourself to be vulnerable and let people in.

The fact that I'm female and spoke about being lonely made me easy prey.

I've also become better at enjoying being on my own and realise how important it is to get to know yourself – as clichéd as that sounds. I now take great pleasure in doing certain things alone and don’t feel as stupid or sad as I once did. I took myself to Italy for my first solo holiday and had the greatest time – I pushed myself to do things like eating in a restaurant alone and it wasn't as scary as I thought it would be. Of course, I still feel lonely sometimes but I’ve shifted to feeling more independent and empowered. Some people surround themselves with others because they can’t bear to be on their own, which makes me quite sad – you can’t rely on other people for your own happiness, it has to come from within. I only realised this recently.
Michelle in Italy on her first solo holiday.
Having done many media interviews now, I’ve realised how little people really understand about loneliness. People have told me I just need to join a club or a church or get a boyfriend. Some articles have led with the fact I’m lonely because I split up with someone, which was exactly the point I've been trying not to make – of course, coming out of a relationship contributes to loneliness but it isn’t the main reason. It’s frustrating when people don’t listen and make that the headline and ignore all the other stuff you say.
There was an incident with a stalker a few months after the article was published. A man from Texas repeatedly sent me uncomfortable emails and messages on various channels and even sent unsolicited gifts to my workplace. He started off being kind, but because I didn’t respond it quickly turned into the ramblings of a bitter scorned ex-lover berating me and painting me as a selfish fraudulent bitch. It led to me self-harming again because I was left feeling utterly humiliated and hopeless. The police were helpful, but there was nothing they could do because he was based in the US. I hate to bring it down to gender, but I don’t think it would have happened had I been a man. The fact that I'm female and spoke about being lonely made me easy prey.

There's no right or wrong number of friends to have and there's no one-fits-all fix to feeling lonely.

To anyone in the same position I was in last year, I'd say: show yourself some kindness – you can’t accept it from others if you don’t show it to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up about everything or put pressure on yourself. There's no right or wrong number of friends to have and there's no one-fits-all fix to feeling lonely – do what makes you feel good and to hell with what anyone else says. But also realise that being alone sometimes can be great once you get past the fear. And watch Fleabag if you haven't already. I’ve taken such reassurance from it. Finally, a woman we can all relate to – who's not perfect, but doing her best. The way the show depicts mental health and loneliness and wanting to be loved is the best I’ve ever seen. My mantra is 'be a bit more Fleabag'."
If you are experiencing a mental health condition and need support, please call Mind on 0300 123 3393.

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