This article was originally published on VICE Netherlands.
While the pandemic has had a profound effect on people feeling alone and isolated, loneliness was a problem way before lockdown stymied our social lives. In 2018, The UK appointed its first ever Minister for Loneliness, while in 2019 27 percent of young Americans said they had no close friends.
Friendships and social interactions are a primary human need, and research shows that people between 16 and 25 have better mental health and cope better with stress when they have close friends. But the reality of life as a young person without friends isn’t often discussed, because it can be embarrassing to admit that you’re lonely.
VICE contacted Join Us – an organisation that facilitates meet-ups between young people who struggle with loneliness – which put us in touch with Miel, Emma and Olivia*, for a chat about what it’s like to be young and friendless, and whether it’s worth asking for help.
No one talks about how hard it can be to make friends. I was embarrassed by it, especially in early puberty. The outward image you project is very important, and having no friends is so pathetic. For a long time, I felt invisible to people my own age. Last year, I turned 18 – I’d just changed schools, and invited a whole bunch of classmates to celebrate my birthday, but nobody came. That’s when I realised that if I didn’t do something, I’d be lonely for the rest of my life.
I’ve always had a hard time making friends. In primary school things were OK for a while. I went to school in a smaller town and it was easy to hang out with friends after class. But from the time I was eight, I went to a special school – I was diagnosed with PDD-NOS, a disorder on the autism spectrum. My new school was in a city 30 kilometres [18.5 miles] away. My classmates and I were similar, but I didn’t feel a real connection with any of them. I also stopped hanging out with people after class. Maybe because of my autism disorder, social skills aren’t easy for me. I also tried to make friends while playing sports, but I quickly figured out I don’t really like team sports and I’m not competitive enough to play, either.
When I hit puberty, I started to miss real friendships. I wanted to discover things, go out, hit the bars, have adventures. I felt a strong urge to expand my horizons, but I didn’t have anyone I could do that with.
Summer breaks were especially hard. I had all the time in the world to do the fun things I wanted to do, but I didn’t dare do them by myself. So I often ended up not doing anything. I also struggled during the times I wasn’t doing very well. When a family member passed away, for instance, I really wanted to talk to someone outside of my family about it.
You often see people with huge friend groups on social media. Seeing that makes me jealous. I’ve often wondered whether I’m too old to make friends at this point. Sometimes it seems like everyone has already decided who they want to hang out with for the rest of their lives. I know that sounds dramatic.
After that party for my 18th birthday, I decided to get in touch with Join Us. I read in the paper that they introduce people to other people who suffer from loneliness. At first, it felt a bit intense to go to a meet-up, because I was embarrassed. But it turned out to be a very good decision. That very first night, I clicked with someone, and at some point a friend group began to take shape.
Now, we have a great time together, which has really boosted my self-confidence. This year, for the first time, I had fun friends I could invite to my birthday party. It was a world of difference from the year before.
I’ve never had many friends. In elementary school I had one female friend and we’d sometimes hang out after class. At the time, I wasn’t bothered by it, because I didn’t know better. But I started having a really hard time when I got to high school.
I was already suffering from low self esteem after being bullied in elementary school. The bullying stopped when I got to high school, but I still didn’t manage to make friends. I switched schools a few times, and every time I tried very hard to meet new people. At first, I often thought it was going pretty well, but then there would be a class party and my name would be one of the few that wasn’t on the invite list. I’d also ask people I felt a connection with if they wanted to do something after school – but it didn’t seem like anybody wanted to or had time. After a while I started to feel embarrassed, so I stopped trying. I didn’t want to seem pushy, either.
I’d always invite more than ten people to my birthday party, but I’d be lucky if three of them showed up. Big holidays like New Year’s Eve were especially hard for me. I remember tagging along to [the parties of] my parents’ friends who had kids my age, but they’d made it very clear before I got there that I wasn’t allowed to sit at their table.
For a long time, I was sad that I didn’t have friends. I was mad at myself for years, and I felt so stupid. I didn’t understand why everyone was able to make friends, but not me.
When I was a teenager I began noticing that boys started wanting to hang out with me. I was so starved for company, it put me in a vulnerable position. At one point, I was sexually assaulted by a boy I met up with. I became suicidal and was sent to [Dutch mental health association] GGZ. There, I was diagnosed with PTSD and depression. They allowed me to go through recovery at home, under strict supervision. I could still go to school, but my every move was monitored. I couldn’t do anything alone anymore.
I finished up at GGZ a few months ago. I’ve learned so much about myself. It’s clear now that my self esteem needs to improve. I decided to get in touch with Join Us, and that’s helped a lot. They’ve challenged me to bring out the best in myself, but I’ve also learned that you don’t have to hold onto friendships that take more energy than they provide. That can be tough, especially if you don’t have many friendships, but it’s very important.
I’ve always been a very social person. I had plenty of friends in high school and there was always someone around to spend time with. But after I finished school, all of that changed.
I get overstimulated very quickly and easily run out of energy. My high school friendships seemed to happen naturally, but they crumbled once I graduated and stopped seeing those friends on a daily basis. Suddenly, I had to put in a lot more effort to create connections with other people.
To this day, those connections haven’t happened – at least not in the Netherlands. I often go to Aruba for holidays, and I’ve made friends there. We’re so close, they’re almost like family. Maybe it’s easier because I’m more relaxed there. Getting to know people in the Netherlands can be very emotionally draining for me. Keeping up a budding friendship takes a lot of energy, and because I don’t have a lot, I just leave it be.
Often I’ll feel like going for a walk with someone, or going for a drink in town, but I don’t really know who I can go with. So come Friday night, I open a bottle of wine by myself and try to have a good time alone. Weekends can be tough, because you have so much time to do fun things, but for me there is nobody to do them with. I’m so baffled at times: I’m a social person and I want to, so why can’t I?
In summer, I see so many pictures on Instagram of friend groups going to festivals or out for drinks. It looks like a lot of fun and it makes me jealous. In those moments, I have to remind myself that social media isn’t real life. Thankfully, due to the pandemic, there were hardly any festival pictures this year.
Quarantine has made it even harder to see people. Because I’m very careful, I haven’t met up with anyone for months. A few months ago, I thought, ‘If I don’t see anyone soon, I won’t make it through this.’ That’s when I reached out to Join Us.
So far, I’ve only met people through the organisation on Zoom calls, but it’s really helped keep me going. I’ve also learned that being lonely is nothing to be ashamed of. For a long time, I thought something was wrong with me, but meeting other young people who suffer from loneliness has helped me realise that there are so many fun, nice and sociable people who have the same issue as me.