They say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. This was true for my client growing up. For her, breakfast was important for reasons other than the tummy-filling, get-up-and-go energy fuelling it was supposed to be. She was the only one in her family of six who ate breakfast: ‘Nobody else felt hungry in the mornings, but I did. There was one place set for me at the table’, she said. Her breakfast was always the same; porridge with chunks of banana that would melt and merge with the steaming hot oats. Her mother said it was good for her, that it would fill her up. As a little girl, however, it just wasn’t what she wanted and it never tasted quite right. She felt the porridge too soft, there was nothing interesting about its texture; there was no bite, no feedback. She also found it was too sweet, because the banana was normally one that had been left to languish in the fruit bowl. She was quiet as she ate. But so that she didn’t feel too alone at the breakfast table she created an imaginary companion: she pretended Goldilocks was there to share her porridge.
Now, as a woman in her thirties, my client didn’t need an imaginary companion anymore; she was spinning around in a huge and hectic social circle. Yet in our sessions, we seemed to keep circling back to a particular sense of disconnection she was experiencing much of the time. One day, after telling me a story about an evening out with work colleagues, she appeared unable to say something out loud. She looked at me. It was a look that said ‘I know that you know that I know’. I felt like I did know how she might be feeling, so I named it for her: ‘I understand that you socialise a lot. You’re never alone. But I wonder if you feel lonely?’ There, I had said it: The L word.
As a nation, it has been said that we are in the throes of a loneliness epidemic. But in our own individual worlds, loneliness walks the tightrope between private, secret and shameful – it is the feeling more than any other that we struggle to own. Loneliness has a lot of company; it sits with vulnerability, embarrassment, weakness, worthlessness and unlovableness. Naming all of these feelings is an important part of therapy. In fact, the name takes away the shame. For my client, it created a safe space for us to talk about how she really felt and what she truly wanted from other people in her life, both present and past; because lonely adults have often been lonely children.
There is something Goldilocks about human connection – we are always looking for that ‘just right’ amount, and the right kind. This is important because loneliness is not just one thing. Psychologists suggest that there are important differences between being alone and feeling alone. How many people you have around you does not necessarily add up to how connected you feel. Social loneliness is about being isolated and not having a social network. Emotional loneliness, however, is the absence of one-to-one closeness and not having someone to share with and talk to – and I mean really talk. Confiding matters for both a healthy mind and body, yet individuals today are at least three times more likely to have no one with whom to discuss things that are important to them compared to 25 years ago.
My client was emotionally lonely. She had many social somebodies in her life but what she longed for was a special someone to attach to, who would be consistently there and who would be sensitive and supportive. Someone real to have breakfast with. Later that session she told me that her breakfast of choice these days was far more savoury; houmous on a thick slice of toast. Houmous; the epitome of meze. I smiled. She laughed. Sharing food for breakfast. It was just right.
My recipe for crunchy chickpea granola was inspired by this story.