Behind the Mask: A World of Isolation and Loneliness

At the beginning of 2020, wearing a mask to cover your mouth and nose when you went out of the house seemed unthinkable. Yet, it was only a short time later masks became part of our everyday life. Even when life starts to return to something like normal there will be those who, like me, will continue to wear one. These are the physical masks, the ones we can see. I find them comforting; for once people can see the mask I am wearing, rather than the invisible ones that I spend my life living behind. I have many of those. More of those than the masks I wear when I go out of the house.

I use my invisible masks to disguise how I am feeling. It is easier that way. If I say I feel lonely, then I am asked “how can you be lonely when you have your son living at home?” But, you can be lonely with someone else living in the house, just as you can when you are on your own. Likewise, you don’t have to be literally isolated to experience isolation.

Both loneliness and isolation can cause mental health issues. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted this as more people, due to lockdown, have felt isolated and lonely. I read about cases all the time and can relate to them, but how do you explain to someone, who doesn’t suffer from either, what it is like to be isolated, lonely or both? More importantly, what can be done to alleviate or at least mitigate being isolated and lonely? The first step is to talk about isolation and loneliness, to explain what it is like to suffer during these circumstances.

The Mask of the Lonely Child

I am an only child, one who imagined a world where she had siblings. My parents were in their late thirties when I was born. Their friends’ children were older than me. For reasons I never knew, they chose to send me to school on the other side of town. During my early school days, I only saw my school friends during school time, never holidays. It was only when we moved when I was eleven, that I went to a school that I could walk to and saw my friends – both during and after school.

As a young child, I developed resilience to spending many hours on my own. Where we lived, there were no children of my own age nearby. Instead, we had neighbours who, when they saw me, would take the time to talk to me. I loved the attention I received, but when I was back at school and I heard my peers talk about what they had done during the holidays and weekends with their friends, I couldn’t help but feel envious, though I never showed it. Instead, I smiled and hoped someday I too would be able to see my friends after school.

The No Mask Years

Yes there are times when a mask is not needed. Times when we look back and say, “Those were good days”. During my teens, I spent time with my friends and took an active part in school activities. Life was good. Oh there were the usual teen dramas with my parents, they had their views about my life and I had mine, but for the most part it was a fun period in my life.

In my twenties, I spent time abroad. I learned very quickly how to talk to strangers in a safe way. During my travels, I have had some wonderful conversations with people in airports, on planes, in bus depots and on buses. Shops and restaurants were also good places to talk to people. There were very few times when I was travelling or living abroad that I could honestly say I was lonely. When it happened, I rolled with it. My confidence was high and I was fearless. I didn’t hide behind a mask.

This was to be the last time I was to face the world as me, not putting on a front, pretending to be someone else. Full of confidence, I returned to the UK and started to build my new life.

The Mask of Motherhood

From when I was little, I always wanted to be a mum. I babysat and worked as a nanny. I loved those times and look back with many happy memories.

After giving birth to my eldest son I was on a high. Life was wonderful, I had a beautiful son, we had our own home, and my husband had a good job. Then I crashed, but I couldn’t let anyone see how low I was feeling. I had been told I would be such a good mother, that I wouldn’t be one who would require any support. I lapped up their words and listened to their praises. I believed having my own children would be like a continuation of caring for other people’s children. It isn’t. Looking after your own is a full time twenty-four hour a day job.

When my elder son was around two months old, I mentally crashed. I suspected I was suffering from post-natal depression, but was too embarrassed to seek support. After all, I was perceived as Super Mum. I worried constantly about whether my son would reach his milestones, how his health was. This wasn’t just the regular concerns of a new mum; my imagination went into overdrive with thoughts of serious illness and major problems with his development. I did once share my fears with my husband, but he told me I was being overly concerned. I never voiced them again.

With my second son, I was more relaxed and when I did hit a low point, I was prepared for it. Yet, I never said a word. All my fears about my children were kept firmly inside my head.

For a time, I took both boys to a Mother and Toddler group, but then my eldest caught a sickness bug which was passed onto my husband and me. My husband was firm in his opinion that we should not return. We didn’t. The boys had each other for company. I had the TV, and sometimes my husband when he was working in the UK or not falling asleep on the sofa.

We did have neighbours, but I never would admit that there were days I was suffering mentally and feeling lonely. I worried how my husband was coping when he was away on business, worried if I couldn’t get our cat in at night. Worried if one of the boys became sick. Worried if my husband was still going to have a job due to the constant threat of redundancies.

I never showed my inner turmoil to anyone. To the outside world I was the “perfect” mum: the one who others trusted to look after their children, the one who helped out at her son’s school. The one who children went to. The one who other mums turned to for advice. The one who didn’t appear to have a care in the world. If only they knew about how I longed to open up and tell them that once I was behind closed doors, all my worries flooded my brain.

These feelings continued throughout my children’s childhood, teenage years and on into their adulthood. It is only recently that I have found out that my boys did see me struggle. They knew there was something amiss, but didn’t understand quite what it was. They stepped up and helped in any way they could.

My husband was not that engaged with the boys unless he had an audience. Then he was “super dad”. I, in my deluded way, accepted his behaviour and lack of support when we were at home, and put it down to him not being used to children. I was the one who had the experience of caring for children; therefore it was up to me to be the parent. I am not sure what role I expected him to play.

In public, he acted as the proud father. In private, he did as little as possible. When our first son was born, he strutted around boasting about him. With our second child, he couldn’t wait to go away on business.

Six weeks after our younger son was born, we went to his sister’s wedding. My husband was one of the ushers. I knew I would be on my own with the boys, and was a little concerned as to how they would react throughout the service. Fortunately my younger son decided he needed feeding just as we arrived at the car park. Rather than attending the service with the boys, I stayed in the car and I fed my son.

I next saw my husband outside the church, he barely acknowledged me. We then went to reception. It was during the meal that he suddenly took notice of both the boys. Our elder son was sitting next to him, while I was juggling eating and holding the baby. All of a sudden, much to my surprise, my husband said he would hold the baby while I finished eating. With much trepidation, I handed the baby to him, wondering how my son would react to being held by his father. While he was being held, he burped and threw up on his father as babies do. I waited in anticipation for my husband’s reaction knowing how much he loathed it when the children did throw-up. He laughed it off, wiping the baby and himself. For the rest of the day he made a good story out of the incident. When we returned home, it was all back to normal. I put the boys to bed, and he switched on the TV and fell asleep.

To the outside world, we were a well balanced couple when it came to parenting. Behind closed doors, it was a very different picture. I was expected to be a “good” wife to him, devoting my time to his every need. I did. Somehow I managed to balance his needs and caring for the boys. Looking back, I now understand that it was at the cost of my own mental health. There was no “me” time. I didn’t have anyone I could talk to. Even in a two parent household, parenting can be lonely.

The Mask of the Strong Woman

This mask is the one I wear most often. I double mask it with others. It is also the one I have worn the longest. I was wearing it before the boys were born. I wore it on my wedding day and on my honeymoon, when I was pregnant and when my husband and father were at loggerheads. I am wearing it today. I hate it.

No matter what life has thrown at me, I get up in the morning and the first item I put on is my strong woman mask. I am ready to face the world. In reality I am not. I hear the words “You are such a strong woman”. Inside I scream “No I am not”. Even if I said them, I wouldn’t be believed.

I managed when my husband was away on business, I managed when we relocated to the USA, and all the time we were living over there. I even managed when we moved back. I was praised for how I coped when my husband died, and for how I coped with the subsequent aftermath.

There was another move after he died, and by then I had moved so many times I could do it in my sleep. Leigh needing help? Don’t be daft, she is strong. She was terrified. The move was the easy part, it was the location that was the problem. My elder son was going to university in the same area where my in-laws lived and so it made sense for my younger son and me to move to the same area. What I never anticipated was how lonely I would be and that I would be ostracised by my in-laws. All my network of support was left back where we used to live. When I hear the people talking about forming bubbles during the lockdowns, I am slightly envious as, apart from my elder son, I have no one to form a bubble with. It is close to four and half years since we moved and I can count on one hand the people I am in contact with in this area, apart from my son. This number also includes my landlord. That is how isolated and lonely I have been since we moved.

Hiding behind the mask of a strong woman is a very lonely one. One who is afraid that if she asks for help, she will be rejected. I have discovered that I have lost confidence in being able to meet new people in a social environment, and this has led me to having social anxiety. I believe this loss of confidence has been caused by the long term emotional abuse that I was subjected to during my marriage.

The Mask of the Widow

Legally, I am a widow. Take the recent census; I had to classify myself as a widow. I can’t say I was happy about it, because I prefer the term ‘single’. Dutifully, when asked on forms to state whether I am single, married, in a partnership etc, I check the box that says widow. Given I was married to an emotional abuser; being reminded that I was married is not reflective on how I feel.

However, there were times when I have relished wearing the mask of a widow. The first time was on the day my husband died. I went from knowing nobody from his place of work to knowing two, who took me to the hospital – and then when they brought me back home, offered to stay for as long as needed. Instead, I said both my son and I would be okay. It did occur to me that it might be an idea to let the only neighbours we had much contact with know about my husband. They had given us their telephone number the first time we had met them, and had welcomed us to the area. I found their number and phoned them, and they immediately came over.

In the months following my husband’s death, I had more social contact than I’d had in years. I enjoyed the attention I received. However, since telling those people who had supported me that I had been emotionally abused, I have hardly heard from any of them. The truth be told, some I haven’t heard from at all.

The Mask of the Smiley Face

We were still living with my husband’s parents for our first Christmas in the UK after living in the USA for fourteen years. The boys were only five and two and half when we left, so didn’t have many (and then only vague) memories of Christmas in the UK. I had plenty, and was dreading the Christmas period.

The closer Christmas came, the more isolated I felt. I tried to focus on the beginning of January, when we would at long last be moving to our own home. The house was going to be full; my husband’s two younger brothers would be staying. One had a family, one did not. There would be a total of eleven people in the house. On Christmas Day, his sister, her family and some members of her husband’s family would be coming. As someone who stresses out over loud noise, I became anxious, as I knew from past experience just how loud my husband’s family were.

For the first time, it hit me just how dependent I was on my husband’s family. Thanks to an incident during our time in the USA, I was estranged from my own family. I couldn’t even phone my widower father. Instead, I smiled and made comments about how lovely it was for us all to be together for Christmas.

On Christmas morning my husband, sons and father-in-law went out for a walk. I wasn’t invited. For a time, I was the only one who was up. My mother-in-law appeared. I tried to explain how lonely I was feeling. She made some placating sounds, but I could tell she wasn’t interested. In the end I returned to our bedroom. When the boys, their dad and grandfather returned, it was the boys who picked up on my mood. They did their best to cheer me up.

For the remainder of the Christmas and New Year period I put on my smiley face mask and laughed and joined in the Christmas merriment. Inside I was lonely and felt disconnected from them all. Recently I found this quote from the actor Robin Williams:

“I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone, it’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel all alone”.

That quote sums up that Christmas.

The smiley mask is the most difficult to wear, because you are forcing yourself to be happy and jolly when you don’t want to be. There are many times when I have felt like an outsider. I don’t like nightclubs, but have been to several. Each time I have been, I have forced myself to wear my smiley mask and pretend to have a good time. The reality was I wished I was anywhere but at the nightclub.

Behind the Make-up

I put on the make-up and I am a different person. The heavier the make-up the more outgoing I am, in other words I am more extrovert than introvert. Take the day of my husband’s funeral. I plastered on the make-up, foundation, two layers thick, triple layer of mascara, plenty of blusher and red lipstick. I was a confident woman. Nobody could see the confusion I was going through on that day.

The words that were going through my head during the service at the crematorium were not the ones my sons and I had written. I had no idea where they came from. How do you admit to those that were coming up to with words of comfort that you were actually enjoying seeing everyone, meeting new people and catching up with family? It was fun to socialise. It was also good to be the centre of attention. These are not what you say at your husband’s funeral without coming across as heartless.

Yes, I will admit it was fun to dress up in my red dress and sparkly shoes. The make-up I wore gave me a place to hide, and gave the appearance I was putting on a brave face. The truth was I was using the make-up to hide a very confused person.

My husband’s funeral is not the first time I have used make-up as a mask or even a shield. His last Christmas was difficult. My elder son was staying with my in-laws whilst he went to college. He had chosen to stay there for the Christmas holidays. I can’t say I blame him because the atmosphere at home was becoming toxic.

The three of us, my husband, my younger son and me were going to my in-laws for Christmas Day. My husband wanted to leave early. I didn’t. I can, when I need to put on make-up quickly. That morning I didn’t, I deliberately took my time. It was heavier than I had been wearing but I needed all the help I could get to get through that day. I was having flashbacks to the first Christmas after our return to the UK. The difference was this time I was wearing my mask of make-up, and wasn’t prepared to show any emotions. It worked. The day was as awful as I thought it would be. There was talk of us returning the following day, but thankfully my husband refused. Not because he didn’t want to see his family, but because as he was driving, so it would have been another day when he couldn’t drink alcohol, or not as much as he wanted. I knew his motives, yet my face didn’t give them away. I spent that day smiling and laughing, and pretending to have a good time, yet I was lonely and isolated in a crowd of people that I knew. Little did I know that less than a month later I would be spending time with many of those same people as we all said our farewells to my husband!

The Mask of the New Kid on the Block

I remember my first day at school. My parents had waited until I was five before sending me. When I went into the classroom, my teacher terrified me. She was tall, stern looking, wearing glasses and was Miss. I was the only child who wasn’t wearing a school uniform. I wanted to go home.

My school years as an infant and junior, I do not look back on with any fond memories. Nor do I have any memories that make me smile during my early secondary school years. I started at one school, we moved in the New Year and I started at my new school in the middle of January. At least this time I was wearing a school uniform. It took me at least a year and half before I stopped feeling like the new kid on the block. I started to enjoy my school days from that point on.

Whilst I was nervous about travelling abroad – more the flying – I had no concerns about being lonely. For someone who is shy and reserved, I jumped right in to each new experience. I wasn’t worried when I got married, and we moved to our home which was in an area I was unfamiliar with. After all this was someone who had travelled the world, and could talk to anyone and make friends easily.

I don’t know if it was because after my son was born and I was suffering from what I now know to be post-natal depression, but I found it hard to talk to anyone. My life revolved around my son and husband. This continued through the birth of my second son, right on until we moved to the USA.

When my son started school in the US, like me, part way through the school year, but unlike me he enjoyed it. I liked talking to the parents when I dropped him off and collected him. Those were good times. Even when my husband was away on business, there were people I could talk to. The boys had playmates whose houses they visited, and their friends came to our home too.

The move to Oregon was a shock. There are many good memories about the state that, when times are tough, I recall to help me out of my dark place. I even imagine being able to move our house out of its location and place it closer to town where I would have access to shops and activities. I now realise that the choice of location was deliberate on my husband’s part. In California, the boys and I had friends, in Oregon, we did not. Had I understood he was an emotional abuser in California, I would have had a chance of getting out of the situation. People I could have turned to. Fortunately for him, I didn’t, and he made sure that in Oregon there was virtually no chance of my escaping. It was a very isolated and lonely existence.

I felt like an outsider, an experience I had never felt before in all my travels. It was unnerving.

The Mask of Covid

Whether or not you are lonely, I am sure we can all relate to how Covid-19 has changed our lives. Mask wearing in the literal sense has become part of our everyday lives. Shoes on, coat on, mask on and out we go. Sometimes we need to wear them in our accommodation or at work too.

Initially I was concerned I would find the mask claustrophobic and did practice wearing it in the house. Now it is second nature. If need be I will even wear two. The only problem I have is my glasses steam up, but that is a small price to pay to keep safe.

I find there is something comforting wearing it when I am out. I am literally hiding behind a mask. There are times when I feel invisible and I like it.

What has surprised me is that there has been a positive with the mask of Covid. It has liberated me from covering up my past, my fears. I have been lonely, am lonely, there are times the isolation is overwhelming. So how come I have felt liberated, able at long last face my fears, and to stop covering up my past. It is because we have been restricted in what we can do and what we cannot do. Out of nowhere resurfaced a part of me that I thought was long buried. The part that says: if it seems impossible then it is something I want to do. Tell me I can’t do it, and I will do all I can to prove you wrong.

The physical mask of Covid has to some degree eliminated the mask of make-up. I have continued to wear those thick layers of make-up when the need has arisen. However, more recently I have been wearing the basics, eye shadow, mascara, eyeliner, and blush. As I discovered lipstick can make a mess of the inside of your mask. There are times when I do wear both make-up and a mask, but more often I don’t. Even for Zoom meetings I don’t feel the need to wear make-up. That isn’t to say I haven’t, I just don’t always feel the need. It is quite liberating.

I am finally being true to myself. No longer do I feel the need to hide behind a mask, pretending everything in my world is fine. It isn’t, I am still lonely despite having my son living with me. I feel frustrated that I want to get on with my life, but will do so at my pace, and only when restrictions are lifted. I have to remind myself that it is better to be safe than sorry. I don’t want to constantly be concerned about heading for another lockdown, as I am sure no one else does either.

The Loss of Identity – Who Am I?

Who am I? I stare into the mirror, wondering who I am, the face stares back at me. I ask my reflection, I receive no reply. This is what I found both being isolated and lonely has done to me. I don’t know who I am. I am certainly not the young woman who went travelling around the world, nor the one who worked. I am more like the little match girl lighting her matches and seeing visions of a happy family life. In my case, this includes a husband who truly loved me.

Isolation is a tool of the emotional abuser, which in turn leads to loneliness and eventually to loss of identity. Before I became involved with my husband, I had an active social life and made friends easily. Once we started dating, slowly, my life began to revolve around him. For the majority of the time, if we went out, we went out as a couple, and eventually as a family. There were very few times throughout the time we were together that I went out to socialise on my own. When I did, it was briefly, an hour or two to a neighbour’s house. Upon my return, I had to recount in detail what had happened during my visit. He had a way of asking that it didn’t appear to be an interrogation of sorts, but that was how subtle he was at controlling me. These brief moments of socialising without my husband were few and far between. Instead, I came to rely more and more on him to counteract my loneliness and that was exactly what he wanted.

Slowly without me understanding what was happening to me, I lost my identity. Leigh became Mum and Wife. Somewhere inside me, I was yelling to be released but I was trapped, unable to be heard. The person that I had become was and is still a shell of her former self, a lonely woman. My identity is starting to be heard and I am listening. How long it will take for my true identity to emerge, I cannot say. I know I will never get back the fearless girl of her twenties. I suspect I will be a mixture of her plus a heavy dose of the cautious, nervous person that I now am, but I will still be me. Someone who has weathered the twin storms of isolation and loneliness and is still standing to tell the tale.

What Happens Next?

The following is the response I wrote to a recent Rest Less social media post, “What, if any, have been your positive effects of lockdown?”

“Realising I want to get out into the world again. I have been living in my own version of self imposed lockdown for far too long, afraid of being hurt, but now it is time to start living. I will credit Rest Less for this, not just the community but those that I am in contact with who run the Rest Less site. They know my story and have been supportive.

“The community has also been a very positive factor in helping me want to move forward. I do enjoy participating in various conversations. So yes, being part of Rest Less has been a positive effect of lockdown.”

Loneliness and isolation come in many forms. We are not all recluses, hiding away in our homes, some by choice, and others having no choice. There are many forms, and it can happen at any age. I experienced it when I was a young child and it has continued ever since. Not all the time: there were, as you have read, periods in my life when I didn’t experience loneliness or feel isolated. Those were the good times. I keep asking myself what was the difference between then and now. The answer is simple: in those days when I travelled and lived and worked abroad, I wasn’t in an abusive relationship.

The loneliness and isolation I felt as a young child was different to the loneliness and isolation I suffered as an adult. As a child, I grew up around adults, but was envious of those I went to school with being able to play with their friends. There were also visits to my grandparents, and to the rugby club that my father was a member of on weekends. It wasn’t all bad as I can now see; however as a child, I resented not being able to see my friends, or even being able to make close friends because of how far we lived away from them.

What I never anticipated was that as an adult – who married who she thought was a good man – I would be subjected to years of loneliness and isolation. Not only did he subject this abuse upon me, but my sons. If anything, this hurts me more than what he did to me. They didn’t have a choice; but I did.

Just because you appear not to be lonely, this doesn’t mean you are not. You can be lonely in a crowd, or in a home you share with family, friends, or acquaintances. There are few positives about the pandemic, but one I have noticed is that the subject of loneliness is being talked about more often. Whether anything will be done to address what has the potential to be a major issue in society remains to be seen. The fact we are openly talking about it, is in my view a major leap forward, and that is a positive development in a time when we all need some hope for the future.

Additional resources about loneliness, and coping with loneliness

Can you relate to Leigh’s experiences of loneliness and isolation? Do you have any tips for tackling loneliness and isolation that you’d like to share? Or perhaps, you’d just like to get a discussion going? Leave a comment below or connect with others on the Rest Less community forum.

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