The question I found myself listening to an interview with you on the radio the other day. I enjoyed hearing how you approach life and relate to people; it resonated with me. Sadly, my reason for writing is less positive.
I’m a 70-year-old guy who, for a long time, has been single and living alone. I took early retirement and volunteered full-time for a charity for several years before walking out in disgust in 2019. I’ve never had that many close friends and in the past five years I have been bizarrely abandoned/rejected by just about all the “friends” I thought I had, including school friends, plus my only brother.
Lockdown was hell by myself and I fell into spending most of my time playing solitaire on my laptop, watching TV and listening to the radio. Since lockdown, I’ve continued filling my days in the same way and I almost never socialise with anyone. I’ve been isolated for the past four years, living life like a zombie, and I can’t see how this will change.
I’ve tried evening classes, speed dating, etc, in the past and they have made no difference. I’ve never recovered from my grammar school forcing me to give up languages – which I loved and was top in – and do science A-levels. Scraping a third-class degree in chemistry was just the start of living all my life as a lost soul. I feel I’ve wasted my life. I see no way out and fear succumbing to dementia, like my father, followed by a grisly end.
Philippa’s answer I felt sad reading your letter and I’m puzzled as to what may be going on for you.
You seem to be falling out with everyone, yet you are nice to me and don’t come over as a curmudgeon in your email. You walked out in disgust from the charity you had volunteered at for a few years, and whatever terrible behaviour you witnessed there seems to have contributed to ruptures happening in nearly all your relationships – as though whatever disgusted you at the charity went on to sour your entire life somehow. Did it change the way you approach life and the people in it?
I’m guessing it is more likely that whatever happened at the charity triggered feelings from your past that you may never have put into words. It sounds as though you have brooded for a long time about having to give up languages and being made to study science. When you were a child, you did not have full agency over your life – other people made decisions for you. This lack of agency seems to have stuck somehow, so that your relationships and your life are still happening to you as though you don’t know how to make things happen for yourself.
You love languages and yet what is not listed in the ways you spend your time is reading in any language. We all need to discover what it is we love and then go and do it. Not to do it for any future self, but to do it because it is enjoyable, interesting, absorbing and makes the best of now. Maybe languages feel like a lost love and to reignite that love may bring up sadness for the lost years. Don’t fear this sadness. It is telling you what you need to do now. It is surprising how hard it can be to indulge ourselves in the things that matter most. Our wishes, our hopes and dreams make us feel vulnerable. We may unconsciously shy away from them because there is a feeling somehow that if we fail at the things that matter most to us, we will then be truly lost.
The courage we need to fail is the exact same courage that will help us succeed. And what you need to succeed at right now is to find something that makes your life meaningful today. It sounds so simple to tell you to do the thing you need to for a fulfilling life – work out what you are feeling; from that, figure out what it is that you want; and from there, go for it – but we can bog ourselves down, stopping ourselves with the “what-ifs” that fuel that fear of failure.
You mention dementia. Now it is possible there have been some changes in your brain that led to all these fallings-out. I am not a medical doctor, but maybe you could get tested as a way of maybe making sense of what has happened. If that is the story, and I really hope it isn’t, there will be resources for you so that you are not so alone with it, for example, ageuk.org.uk.
We don’t have control over all the circumstances of our lives, but what we do have some power over is our relationship with our own self and how we look after our bodies, and over our internal dialogue and how we behave towards others. However difficult relationships are, we all need them and so we need to learn how to cope with the differences we all have from each other.
Philippa Perry’s The Book You Want Everyone You Love* To Read *(and maybe a few you don’t) is published by Cornerstone at £18.99. Buy it for £16.14 at guardianbookshop.com
Every week Philippa Perry addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Philippa, please send your problem to [email protected]. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions