Life after loneliness: ‘University was bleak; then I found confidence’

One day, after staring at an academic paper for three hours and writing nothing, I went to an employment adviser. He sent me off in a whole new direction

I expected to enjoy university, and when I didn’t I was knocked sideways. I should have done: I was academic, I loved knowing things and equally, I had always thought I was gregarious, and liked having fun. I didn’t think I was bad at making friends either. And indeed, I quickly found a small group of people I got on with. Yet despite all this, somehow I was plunged into a kind of despair I hadn’t experienced before – and haven’t been through since. I couldn’t work it out then, and I can only speculate on it now.

I suspect a lot of people thought it was all because of my blindness, but that’s because if you have a disability, people like to attribute anything that goes wrong for you to that. In truth, I don’t think it had much, if anything, to do with it. One possible explanation was the sheer size of the change in my circumstances. I had gone from an unusual, small and residential school, with just over 70 pupils, to a large, sprawling complex of colleges with about 10,000 students and staff. Everywhere you went was full of noise and bustle, and as everybody knows, you are nowhere more alone than in a crowd.

But perhaps the real problem was that it just wasn’t my crowd! I had left my little special school keen to join the real world, and found myself instead in a world of teenagers being set tasks that felt, to me, monumentally irrelevant to getting on with the business of life.

Whatever the reason, I found myself slipping into an ever deeper morass of confusion and self-absorption; unable to complete work, not wanting to go anywhere or do anything, and, worst of all, not finding anyone who could understand what was wrong. That, at the time, felt like true loneliness.

But it turned out there was an answer: an answer so complete that I believe it changed my life. One day, after staring at a paper for three hours and writing nothing, I left university and went to see an employment adviser at the Royal National Institute of Blind People. He said promptly: “You need to do something practical,” and introduced me to the charity Community Service Volunteers (now known as Volunteering Matters). Within weeks I had been dispatched to York, with the job of reviving an organisation linking people who needed help – anything from decorating to gardening jobs, babysitting or shopping – with young people who could lend a hand.

In reality that meant I was confronted with an empty office, no volunteers, no one who needed help, and Lynda, two years younger than me and equally confused about the future. Amazingly, it was just what I wanted. Over the next year, between us, we turned it round. I visited schools and colleges, drumming up volunteers; went to clubs for elderly people to find out what they needed; persuaded charities to give us money, companies to give us equipment. And I discovered I could talk to people and gain their trust. I found myself sitting in kitchens listening to old chaps telling me their war stories; elderly ladies recounting stories about their grandchildren; and some extraordinary 50-year-old gossip. Despite my blindness, I even found myself selecting wallpaper for a harassed and rather tipsy mother, who couldn’t decide for herself.

People tell me the change in me over that year was startling. I believe it gave me the confidence to go into broadcasting and to believe that however bleak things look, they can change. I guess if there was a trick in my leaving loneliness behind, it is to be prepared to look around that corner. If you can’t change yourself, change the circumstances.


Peter White

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Ruby Wax on life after loneliness: ‘I always felt isolated. Mindfulness helped me drop my armour’
I created a persona to help me fit in – but no one can connect with you when you’re presenting a tough front. Once I left the narcissistic shores of TV, I learned to live very differently

Ruby Wax

22, Oct, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Life after loneliness: ‘At school, I was incredibly isolated – then I learned to build deep, thriving friendships’
I knew the pandemic meant long-haul isolation, bringing back terrible teenage memories. But friends rallied round with two-hour calls and freezing park visits

Lucy Webster

26, Oct, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Life after loneliness: ‘I was a single, isolated workaholic – until I learned to love my own company’
After my second divorce, I was alone for almost a decade. I soon realised that no one was coming to rescue me and began to build a new world for myself

Saima Mir

21, Oct, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Life after loneliness: ‘I felt desolate, invisible, panicky – then I gave up my PhD and got my life back’
I felt the world had begun to look through me, as if I was made of air. When I decided to give up my plan for the future I immediately felt released

Arifa Akbar

25, Oct, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Life after loneliness: ‘I was homeless, hungry, skint and isolated. Then I found the secret of reconnection’
I had to choose between heating and eating – and ended up going to the library for warmth. There I was drawn into other worlds, bringing me much closer to other people

Daniel Lavelle

21, Oct, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
’You feel like a child again!’ Would exercising at 5am make you a happier person?
While 99% of us are still fast asleep, members of the Win the Morning, Win the Day movement are throwing themselves into a dawn walk or swim. We join them where it all started, on a beach in Hampshire

Emine Saner

11, Oct, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Good old days: why body confidence improves after 60
A New Zealand study claims men and women become more satisfied with their bodies over time – bucking the expectations of our youth-obsessed culture

04, Aug, 2021 @5:12 PM

Article image
Seven ways to overcome loneliness
The evidence shows that being lonely is bad for your physical and mental health. But, with support from groups and specialists – and even the internet – you needn’t tackle it on your own

Emily Reynolds

23, Sep, 2018 @2:00 PM

Article image
Memories of office life: at 20 and blind, my workmates pranked me mercilessly – and I loved it
The first time I worked in an office, I was the boss of a group of sceptical youngsters. They looked for my weak spots – then became my first full-sighted friends

Peter White

20, Jan, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
The social biome: how to build nourishing friendships – and banish loneliness
All your daily interactions with others, big and small, make up your social biome, and the pandemic has severely damaged most of ours. Here’s how to reinvigorate it

Moya Sarner

24, Mar, 2021 @6:00 AM