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Writing on Bathroom Walls: Loneliness and Unseen Others

Why do we need to hear what strangers can tell us, especially when we're lonely?

Key points

  • Loneliness isn’t a physical pain, like a broken bone or a severed limb, but it does feel as if something is damaged or something is missing.
  • We most long for what we don't have at the moment:. "The whisper of friends" is sometimes what we need.
  • Solitude differs from loneliness; "Solitude" assumes choice whereas "loneliness" assumes an unanswered desire for connection.

“Rose went into Angel Hall, into one of the stalls, to cry in peace, and when she closed the door, she saw the whole stall was covered with writing, in red and even green ink, question after question that people had posed as if this stall were Dear Abby. What does an orgasm feel like? Why doesn’t my boyfriend love me anymore? Help! I cheated on my exam and I need to find out if the professor knows it! The answers spilled over the door, around the side of the stall. Rose traced her hand along the wall. She got out her pen and looked for a spare space. She wrote: My mother died, my brother is missing, the boy I loved is gone, and I feel lost."

In her brilliant 2013 novel, Is This Tomorrow, one of Caroline Leavitt's central characters is compelled to write the truth, spare and simple, on the wall of the women's room on her college campus. Having locked the truth away from herself, acted as if she has all the strength in the world, performed resilience, and often felt like an imposter for acting as though she was as normal as the other carefree students around her, the locked stall paradoxically gives her the freedom to state the facts of her emotional life. { You can read more of Leavitt's writing at her PT blog.

The scene takes place in the 1960s, long before Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or other forms of social media could grant a kind of screen for deeply personal revelations to be thrown out into the wider world. Permitting a masked declaration, a form of anonymity to disguise one's identity, would become commonplace via the Internet only years later. When Simon and Garfunkel sang "The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls/And tenement halls," in their 1966 song "Sounds of Silence," they were evoking the kind of isolation Leavitt's character feels.

Yet, by the act of writing her words on the wall, the young woman in Leavitt's novel becomes engaged in a conversation that is meaningful to her. She doesn't need to know precisely who is taking her seriously, but she is desperate to be taken seriously nevertheless.

“She went back a week later....and there, filling all the space, were six or seven responses. I know how you feel. Give yourself time. Someone left her the phone number of a detective and the admonition, Call! He’s great—he found my dog. Someone else wrote, Let me know how you are doing. We’ve all been in tough places. Rose rested her head along the wall of the stall. The messages seemed like the whispers of friends.”

"The whispers of friends" is what we long for, I believe. And we most long for what we don't have at the moment: What is absent can become an obsession. There are, of course, moments when being alone is right and good—at those moments we value solitude. Solitude differs from loneliness; "solitude" assumes choice whereas "loneliness" assumes an unanswered desire for connection and companionship. Loneliness is as different from solitude as starvation is from a fast. Significant isolation can happen after a death, the end of a relationship, moving to a new environment, or professional failure. And it can reoccur, in bouts, years after any of these events take place.

These are the times when we want someone to offer comfort, to help us draw strength from the experience, to give us hope (if possible), to suggest that not only will we survive, but we’ll also draw strength from it. What we don’t want is for someone to toss our emotions off with a terse and glib phrase. We feel anxious about making our vulnerabilities obvious because our pain can be exacerbated if it's too swiftly or easily dismissed.

Those who care about us deeply can wound us if they don't pay attention to our true feelings. Yet a brief remark by an unknown entity can offer an authentic sense of connection. A stranger might be able to appreciate, understand, and reassure.

“Rose kept coming back to the stall, reading the questions and answers avidly. It made her feel better that she wasn’t the only one who felt as if she were foundering, that there were answers, and hope.”

More from Gina Barreca Ph.D.
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