I have dealt with ostracism since early childhood. ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) do not benefit from confinement in a classroom, where bouncing off the walls is frowned upon. In other words, I was expelled from almost every school I attended. I even got kicked out of a special school, which I look back on as an achievement of sorts. Surely being expelled from a school for naughty kids for being a naughty kid deserves some kind of recognition?
But I was also excluded from home and bounced around foster placements and children’s homes like I was trapped in the world’s most depressing game of pinball. Inevitably, exclusion tends to make one feel excluded. Lonely may as well be my last name.
The feeling peaked, however, in early adulthood, when social services thought I was able to look after myself. The unrelenting displacement of my childhood meant I had no reliable support network, few friends and little contact with my immediate family. So, when crisis struck, I was left to the mercy of the nation’s safety net, which has more holes than a crumpet.
My inability to fit in and comply had followed me into adulthood. I got sacked from my first job – although I lasted just over a year, a minor miracle. It was a supermarket gig, and the metronomic monotony of shelf stacking eventually broke my spirit. I started spending more time playing Snake on my phone in the locker rooms than on the shop floor. My manager didn’t appreciate this. Back to the dole queue, I went.
It was just before Christmas 2008. Obama was president-elect. Hope, change and a “yes we can” spirit prevailed. But for me, a section 21 eviction notice landed on my doorstep and shortly afterwards, I got my first – but far from last – taste of homelessness.
A lucky encounter with a former social worker meant I avoided sleeping in a doorway and instead got an emergency place in a hotel. I spent that Christmas alone, skint and hungry – contemplating the dismal direction my life had taken. Most of my peers were either in higher education or beginning their careers; they had sex lives, social circles, relationships, holidays and love. I had failure stacked on top of failure, self-pity and self-loathing.
I finally dug myself out of this emotional cavern in the new year. The pittance I got from benefits meant I had to choose between heating and eating. I chose the latter, so had to look for comfort away from my digs. I ended up spending my days in the last place I thought I’d ever be: the library. The library had a steady supply of central heating, but it also had books – lots of them. After twiddling my thumbs for a while, I picked one up, and it changed my life.
Suddenly, even though I was alone, novels brought me closer to people. They allowed me to see the world through other people’s eyes. Nonfiction let me connect to the world I had felt so estranged from. History books told me the human story of my environment, science books helped me understand how it works, and philosophy books guided me on how I should feel about it all.
I still experience loneliness, I think we all do. During the pandemic, I lived in a tiny room in south London with four walls for company, and little to do, except for ruminating on how alone I was. What I learned from this was that loneliness – for me at least – is a result of living in your head. Reconnecting with the world around you can help you escape yourself. I do this by reaching for a book. But it can be achieved by paying attention to something, anything, other than the noise between your ears.