In December 2019, I anxiously awaited my Spotify Wrapped results, eager to know what they might reveal. I learned that I’d spent 44,000 minutes on Spotify that year, with 32,000 of those listening to podcasts. On one hand, I was low-key impressed to join the 1% of the population who could say the same. But in the back of my mind, it seemed excessive. I was a bit alarmed.
Playing podcasts throughout the day was part of my daily life. I needed background noise to complete all tasks: chores, revision, essays, errands. Sometimes my choice of podcast would actually be quite anxiety inducing. Yet I still preferred it to silence. Excessive noise made me forget that my life was actually very quiet and it dawned on me that I was really lonely.
I grew up in predominantly white Brighton and my friendships up until university had been very transient. For each year of school, I would have one or two friends who I would spend lunchtimes with but those friendships would usually dissolve over the summer holidays. I theorised this was because I was Black and a first-generation Ghanaian and so didn’t fit in. So when looking for universities, I was adamant about moving somewhere culturally diverse. I chose Nottingham. University wasn’t the utopia everyone promised, but by the second semester of my final year, I had really found my footing in my church community and was starting to make some friends. Having to leave the city and move back to Brighton was a real shock to the system.
Life after uni became monotonous: my days were spent working, going on walks at lunchtime and scrolling social media in the evenings. The only thing distinguishing the weekends was extended Netflix sessions. I ate a lot of sweets at that time, as a way to bring pockets of joy to each day. Without anyone to talk to outside of my immediate family, the days all blended into one and my self-esteem sank lower and lower. I was so acutely aware of my loneliness that, when I’d stopped to think about it, the sadness literally sent sharp pain up my back and arms.
I also couldn’t avoid the memes that said “If you don’t have friends, you’re the problem” or “Don’t date a girl who doesn’t have any friends”. You can’t help but internalise it. There was something about being lonely, particularly in my twenties, and the desperation for connection that felt so embarrassing, so shameful. Noise and sugar could only drown the silence so much and the more I tried to escape my loneliness, the deeper I sank.
I was determined to change my life. Prior to relocating, I focused solely on remote job opportunities and in 2021, I was lucky enough to find an amazing role in the third sector that allowed me to make the move back to Nottingham in 2022.
Remote work, however, comes with challenges. Because you spend so much of your time alone, you have to consciously fill your life outside work to compensate. I was so eager to connect with people and escape loneliness that I overcommitted myself when I first moved to Nottingham, saying yes to every gathering from new people I met at church. I quickly learnt it’s almost impossible to have four nights of social outings a week and also thrive at work, eat well, work out, sleep enough, be available for family, and be a present friend. As I hadn’t found my tribe in this time, I still experienced waves of loneliness. But it no longer felt so hopeless — I was now part of a wider community of people I could reach out to.
In hindsight, I had romanticised the city because of my university experience, so I thought I could probably pick up where I’d left off when it came to developing friendships and community. And in some ways I could — like when a room became available in a house with girls I went to university with. It felt like home from the start. I’m very close to my family, so moving to a city where the neighbourhood and my housemates were already familiar made leaving them far less scary.
In other ways, it wasn’t quite so easy. I went back to the church I attended as a student, hoping it would be a vehicle to make friends. But most people I knew from four years prior had left and I had to start over. It was a bit awkward at first. Someone can create the perfect environment for you to find friends, but you still have to be intentional and reach out to find your people. I pushed myself to get stuck in and attend social events, even when I didn’t feel like it. I took people’s numbers and followed up with them. It took effort, but eventually I started to make good friends. I don’t take for granted the environment my church has created for me. “Church-hurt” — the emotional and spiritual pain caused by negative experiences in a church, such as abuse of power, betrayal, or judgment — is a real thing; I know it’s not easy to find the right one, and I can’t imagine where I’d look for friends had I not had my faith.
Today, my friendships are truly the most beautiful thing about my life. It looks like being on the phone or voice-noting when doing my groceries, hosting my friends for dinner, game nights, going on walks, watching TV together, chatting in parks, celebrating birthdays, being there for someone when they’re upset, and celebrating when someone gets a promotion, new job or new house. It’s being fully known by your people and having them walk alongside you.
Perhaps the most profound lesson church has shown is that community is multilayered, stretching further than just your intimate circle of friends. There have been countless times within the past year where I’ve needed and have found the wisdom, friendship and mentorship of someone older than me, someone in a completely different life stage. These connections also bring such colour and richness to my life.
Toxic positivity encourages us to see loneliness as an opportunity to focus on ourselves, or to join Pilates classes and reach out to others. It’s not bad advice, but it stings whenever I hear it, as though I didn’t try hard enough, and it minimised the profound mental and physical effects that loneliness was having on my life.
Moving across the country to find friendships showed me that community is possible, and we all need it. Maybe we need to be better at admitting that we’re lonely, because many of us feel this way. Maybe we need to try harder and be intentional with the people we meet. For me, it was about listening to my gut and making a big, bold move.