When meandering artfully around the Andy Warhol exhibition at the Tate Modern the other day I came across a remarkable phrase in which Warhol claimed to have suffered with “social disease”. Whilst this sounds more pleasurable than any venereal illness it still has an ominous echo, so I will clarify its meaning. Succinctly, it can be defined as an overwhelming desire, urge and need to go out every single night even when one’s body is giving them every physiological reason not to. Does that sound familiar? Well, let me just raise my hand in the air at the hypothetical social disease help group (HSDHG) and admit that I have been a long-term victim of this illness and suffer deeply from it to this day. There, I’ve said it and I’m not ashamed, in fact, at first, I was amused and delighted by the relatability of Warhol’s statement, but upon thinking in depth about my social tendencies, I realised there is a problematic and shadowy underbelly to my desire to consistently be around people.
I believe at the grand age of 6 I was asked about my biggest fear and whilst other children said “ghosts”, “spiders”, “the dark”, “green cars” and “wasps”, I replied with “loneliness”. Only one other child, who I believe was more psychologically twisted than me, managed to compete with my reply when he bluntly said his biggest fear at the age of 6 was “death”. As you can imagine the teachers were rather concerned for our mental states, though in retrospect we were a delectably misanthropic pair, the two horsemen of premature Sartre-esque existential angst. Yet when I, as an older being, consider my biggest fear, I still rank loneliness above everything else. I do not think I am unique in this thought. However, the problematic aspect of my fear is how I define loneliness and this, I believe is the root of my social disease.
When you type in “happiness” into google the first result it generates is an almost tautologous and unsatisfactory dictionary result in which happiness is defined simply as ‘the state of being happy’. Although happiness is not the conceptually direct opposite of loneliness, I am using it as an example to demonstrate the complexity of our relationship to abstract notions and this will be important throughout this piece for a number of reasons. My discussion of loneliness also cannot occur without a correlative discussion of happiness. That is the theoretical side of things established, now onto the conceptual exploration. Happiness has been philosophically debated since antiquity by thinkers such as Socrates, Aristotle and Plato; it is one of the most essential threads of the fabric of human existence and yet it is so hard to know what constitutes happiness and from where happiness is derived from. Is being happy simply about having sex, drinking wine and eating (sounds quite good to me) or is that too little, is it something more? Does one have to be virtuous or achieve some sense of ‘flourishing’ in order to be truly happy? Is happiness also moral goodness or can you behave immorally and also be happy? It is actually really bloody complex when you think in depth about the nature, origin, scope, and quality of happiness so it’s no wonder we sometimes struggle to identify the things in life that make us happy and content. Where this plays into my discussion of my social disease is that I feel happy when I’m around people and in fact derive an immense amount of contentment from knowing that people like being around me too. I thus spend a large amount of time people-pleasing because I think I have become programmed to derive my happiness solely from others. This then relates to loneliness in the sense that if I do not go for that coffee or that night out or that drink or lunch or brunch or house party then my mental state plummets at a hearty velocity and I feel instantaneously very lonely.
Now, what the above paragraph implies is worrying so I will restate in a summative statement. Essentially if I am alone, even for minimal amounts of time, I immediately feel lonely and this should not be the case. It is also frustrating because when I’m in my chaos of attending a plethora of different things in one day, I have a serious yearning for some solitary downtime. I am therefore caught in a real paradoxical bind between wanting to be alone and also not wanting to be alone which, I can assure you, is a hefty psychological strain. Furthermore, I am also fully aware that one should be able to draw happiness from within oneself, by oneself and for oneself. This self-awareness is firmly and entirely in place and yet I still seriously struggle with achieving my own happiness without relying on validation from others. I feel horrific amounts of constant pervasive social guilt; that if I say no to someone on one occasion then I am disliked by them, will not be invited next time and that no one likes me. I then feel unhappy and start to dislike myself and berate myself for being a let-down, for being boring, even when I’m in bed with a temperature that would warrant my attendance at said event as both impossible and ridiculous. This is genuinely how my mind process spirals; it goes from “sorry I can’t come to the 9th night out this week because I’m exhausted and fatigued and hungover and miserable” to “I am a let-down, and nobody likes me”. Yes, I have to say even myself that when you phrase it as above it sounds INSANE! This is because it is insane and seriously unhealthy. So, this is where the social disease becomes insidious because in my case my ‘social disease’ may actually be more of a self-disease or a psychological one that I pass off jokingly as a social one.“Ahaha I’m such a party animal, can’t believe I haven’t slept in 48 hours and consumed enough beer to fuel a fighter jet” (social disease façade) is much easier to say than “I struggle with liking myself and being happy with myself and so rely constantly on exhausting myself to make other people happy so that I’m happy” (genuine problem). Also this comes across as slightly narcissistic. I'm pretty sure I am not the source of other people's happiness and people probably don't care that much if I'm not there but it still feels to me as if my being there is an affirmation of friendship, respect and trust, hence why I say I think me attending these events does cement some happiness in other people. Pretty intense self-diagnosis, right? Sorry, this was never going to be a happy go-lucky piece of writing!
I am yet to fully understand why this happens, but I believe there are four key reasons, which all work in tandem to generate this absurd process:
1) I do just genuinely love people
This is quite simple. I think I like validation from people and derive a large proportion of happiness from that validation because the people I know in general are pretty wonderful and so it is obvious that one would feel rewarded, satisfied, thankful and happy when such people actively express that they want to spend time with you. I don’t think this warrants further elaboration and this alone would not be a problem if the other three processes listed below were not also operating at the same time.
2) Social media and the phenomenon of FOMO
I use social media all the time, but I paradoxically and quite frankly believe it is one of the most destructive things on the planet for politics and information (this can be spoken about another time) but above all, for the psyche. It is a system that is now so multifaceted and so pervasive that it is near impossible to escape it unless one wants to essentially become disconnected from modern society. It both validates me and shatters me. When I see stories of my friends out I feel happy that they are happy but at the same time when I have taken that singular day to rest I am immediately hit with pangs of jealousy, guilt and yes, there it is, a profound sense of loneliness because they are all together and I am not. Fear of missing out is deeply connected to the social disease I’m talking about. Quite bluntly it would be ok if I just minded less about missing out. But this is impossible because of social media. In order to mind less about missing out one also has to be reminded less about the lack of attendance in question. There is a painstaking correlation between minding and reminding, it works hermeneutically. Thus, I think I would be far happier in my own company and far less lonely if social media was either non-existent or in its primitive beginnings.
3) I am often quite unkind to myself in general
This bit is quite hard to write about and a really serious problem on a lot of levels. I don’t really wish to delve into why I am unkind to myself or harsh on myself so often but brutally stating the fact: I really can be my own worst enemy. I overthink, I self-berate, and I often repress a lot of what I feel. When I am with people, I just don’t really have the time to do this and so when I am alone, all that I repress rears its nasty head in full force. I wouldn’t spend my time or enjoy spending my time with a person who constantly put me down or behaved cruelly towards me so it’s no wonder I don’t necessarily enjoy spending time with myself when I am the person who is doing that. A lot of why I don’t like being alone is therefore because I can be pretty damn shit to myself (putting it eloquently). Being happy alone would therefore require a serious rethinking of my entire treatment of self. Not easy chaps, not easy, but I’m getting there and anyone who also suffers with this (because I know I am not alone (god the irony) in doing so) then you can also change how you treat yourself and learn the capacity for self-kindness.
4) My understanding of loneliness is incredibly skewed
This is the real crux of the issue. In reality I am incredibly lucky to have a relatively large and brilliant family that love me deeply. Also, through a mix of shear extreme luck and my own efforts I have managed to somehow nab myself a wide, far-reaching network of superb friends, some of whom are as good as family to me. I get a constant stream of messages in a day, I am connected, I am called often, written to, invited to things, called for advice and sent pictures of things I may enjoy or like (genuinely so touching, I can’t even express how happy this makes me when people associate the minutia of life with things you are passionate about, just wow). Above all, I know and feel often that I am loved and cared for and appreciated and some people really don’t ever get to feel these things with the same force and depth that I have felt them. In this sense, and because the people I know are of excellent calibre, I am never actually, genuinely lonely in its traditional or fundamental sense. This is hyper-self-aware and hyper-self-awareness is brilliant in theory but hard to apply practically. Whilst I know all of this it is just sometimes so hard when I am having one of my mental spirals to remind myself that my perception of loneliness is in fact illusionary because it feels very tangible and very real. Thus, I think this point and point 3 (above) connect inextricably. I need to learn that when I am alone, I have not lost all those people. Prepare for a very cliché analogy: you can’t see the stars in the day, but it would be ridiculous to claim that they all fell out the sky and only return at night when I can then see them again. I also need to learn that when I am alone I have myself and could spend so much time with my kinder, better self - this would mean I would be alone but not lonely. Fixing my absurdly flawed perception of loneliness is thus something I have worked on extremely hard throughout quarantine and have done so with at least a little bit of success! Hurrah!
If anyone else suffers with this then I have found a few things that have helped. I now dedicate entire days to being “me-days” where I buy a facemask, get out a good book, spend time writing, have a bath and all round treat myself like a boujie bitch. I then feel I have achieved things and feel healthy and rested which means I then like myself and thus think, oh we’ll hang out with her again. This has helped ameliorate 3) and 4) to an extent. I also had a social media ‘story-detox’ for a little while where I stopped posting on my public stories so often, though this is creeping back into habituation. Sometimes simply turning off your phone is very helpful. Finally, I have just started saying no to things when I really know I'm not up for them and whilst I still find it really hard, I am learning that saying no does not make people hate me, that I am not a let-down and that I have limited energy for limited activity. It’s a slow old road and whilst elements of my social disease are destructive and awful, I do know that the flip-side is that I have a bloody good time in life and that my memories are defined by laughter, excitement and vibrance. Thus social disease is all about energy, both physical and mental energy. I now know that I just need to tip the balance a little more towards having energy for just myself and learning that this does not result in loneliness but in time for reflection, rest and happiness.
I wonder if Warhol felt the same…