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Nighttime loneliness: The monster under the bed

By Niki Colet Published Jun 18, 2021 5:00 am Updated Jun 18, 2021 7:49 pm

For the past several months, I’ve struggled to go to sleep. Every time I’d get under the covers, a profound weight would descend upon me like a heavy blanket. I knew what was woven into my nighttime blues: loneliness and sadness and emptiness, all intertwined.

I became afraid of ending my day, and so I would put it off, cramming my evenings to the brim. I did all sorts of things to fill the space: text friends, scroll through social media, respond to Instagram stories, have transatlantic FaceTime calls, work on projects. I was running on fumes, but too afraid of the alternative to acknowledge just how exhausted I was. 

Here’s the thing about busyness: It doesn’t leave any room for difficult emotions. The second you shut down the noise, your real feelings come flooding in through the cracks, rushing in like rainwater from a storm. Visceral and heavy and uncomfortable to sit in. 

One desperate night, I found myself lying in bed, completely depleted, in tears for no reason I could articulate. All I knew was that it was a little past 10 p.m. and my room was quiet and it was freaking me out. I felt a niggling sense that I was truly, deeply alone, and that I would be alone forever. I turned to Reddit (as one does) and found myself down a rabbit hole of anecdotes and advice. 

The article posited the idea that if overwhelming loneliness makes it hard for you to sleep at night, it’s because you’re not letting yourself feel those feelings throughout the day.

“Me (23F) — always so lonely at night, what do single people do??” “WikiHow: How to Cope with Being Alone at Night — 14 Steps.” Surprisingly, the standout of the evening was an article from a website called “Park Slope Therapist,” a therapy service aimed towards men. The article posited the idea that if overwhelming loneliness makes it hard for you to sleep at night, it’s because you’re not letting yourself feel those feelings throughout the day. 

Park Slope Therapist had a point. I was always optimizing, always doing something. I rarely allowed myself to rest. I didn’t even know what that might look like (and to be completely honest, I’m still not sure I do). I hardly gave myself the time or space to be still enough to feel my feelings. Bedtime was often the first real moment I had with myself all day. Of course it was overwhelming. When I thought about it that way, the grating fatigue I was feeling suddenly made sense.

I considered the advice and decided to give it a shot. I began by taking a more discerning stance on personal projects outside of work. I would attempt to follow through with the “one or two main tasks a day” rule, when I could. I started to draw firmer boundaries around my “free” time, too: no more Facetimes on weekdays, and only one or two (virtual) hangouts a day on the weekends. I used to be able to do more, but I had to be realistic about my current emotional bandwidth and adjust accordingly. 

I find a great deal of solace in remembering that I don’t need another person’s acknowledgment to prove to myself that I am here. Loneliness is the biggest monster under my bed, and it’s about time I get better acquainted with it. 

I realize that my routine might sound a little extreme. In this era of isolation, we can’t always prescribe coping mechanisms that were used in “normal” times; they no longer apply. While an entire evening without screens would have been healthy in pre-COVID days, it can also be a recipe for emotional self-alienation in quarantine. 

However, it’s helped me to practice self-compassion: by asking myself what I really want to do, without feeling beholden to anyone else. When I find myself completely devoid of energy and unable to carry a conversation, I have a choice: I can 1) push myself to continue communicating, at the expense of feeling like I’m burning the candle at both ends, or 2) give my body a break, even if it means allowing the messages to pile up. 

Yes, it does open me up to an existential dread that I may be pushing away those I care about. But I find comfort in knowing that the people who truly love you will understand. In the middle of a spiral, my friend Jenn texted, “The people who want to stay in your life will.” I know I’d do the same for a struggling friend, too. It’s weirdly been so hard to figure out how to sustain relationships in this pandemic. These days, I don’t have much energy to keep socializing virtually, but after a few weeks of self-isolation, I also start to feel like I don’t exist. 

Suddenly laden with a lot more free time than I’m used to, I’ve been struggling to figure out what to do with it all. I’m still trying to internalize the idea that it’s okay to rest — you don’t even necessarily have to earn the “right” to do so. In a poem she shared on Instagram, my friend Marla Miniano writes of “coming clean about needing to be nourished,” as a reminder to rest and slow down. When I asked her about the poem, she told me, the world doesn’t ask as much of us as we think it does.

I’ve been taking a stab at practicing quality alone time, leaning into more quiet moments throughout the day. If I feel lonely or sad or empty, I let it be. A lot of this, I realize, is also just learning how to be okay with being alone. Without feeling afraid it’ll be forever, or assuming its presence is a reflection of my character.

Some of us are just alone because of factors that are out of our control, like circumstance and timing. Maybe we haven’t met our people yet. Or maybe we need to reconfigure what connection means to us, in whatever form of company it may take: love, friendship, family, or, simply, a general sense of acceptance. Maybe it’s down to recognizing that we are enough, just as we are. If you’re secure in knowing that you’re all right, maybe you won’t always need another person around to convince you that this is so. I find a great deal of solace in remembering that I don’t need another person’s acknowledgment to prove to myself that I am here. Loneliness is the biggest monster under my bed, and it’s about time I get better acquainted with it. 

As a recovering workaholic and people pleaser, I don’t get to practice this all the time. But when I do, it does help. By the time night falls, I’m used to all the feelings I’ve allowed myself to feel throughout the day. They’re prickly and a little cumbersome, but when I let them become familiar to me, I don’t fear them as much as I used to. 

I can retire to my room at a decent hour, with a cup of tea and a book, and have an ear pricked to what’s there. I am able to acknowledge that the silence brings up a void of sadness. And still, I keep sipping my tea and reading my book, because it’s what makes me feel like me. I sit in the emptiness. I accept its presence. On good days, I know that it won’t be forever. But I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t exist anymore.

Photo Art by Adrian Paguirigan