This pair of books by Emily White came to me at a strange time. Earlier this year I came down with a very weird case of laryngitis. Part allergic reaction/part bizarre cold (it’s entirely possible that I came into contact with Covid-19 before the official counts started), I was without a usable voice for six weeks, during which time I tried to go out and be social but failed miserably because I couldn’t talk loud enough to take part in any kind of conversation. I was feeling isolated and lonely (I’ve never found social media to be particularly “social”) and picked up Lonely thinking it might offer some solutions.
White was a Toronto environmental lawyer who left her practice to become a writer. Her loneliness did not stem from actually being alone with no social supports, however. She had family, friends, co-workers, and neighbours, but felt disconnected from all of them. She explores the differences (and similarities) between depression and loneliness, as well as the stigma attached to the admission of being lonely in an extroverted world. Ultimately she deals with her loneliness by getting out into the world where she meets her partner and is able to move away from the anxiety that has crippled her.
As an almost-reclusive introvert myself, I’m not sure I agree with the theory that we need big social circles and engagement — that seems to be something cooked up by extroverted social butterflies — but having at least one person who respects and treasures you can go a long way to forcing the lonely feelings to abate. Published in 2010, Lonely ends with White finding happiness and acceptance as she moves to Newfoundland to be with her new partner.
Fast forward five years and Count Me In, published in 2015, sees White having returned to Toronto, alone. She and her partner have split (she doesn’t go into the details of why) and she is missing both a significant other in her life as well as the strong community ties she had while living in rural Newfoundland. So she begins exploring the options available to her to find some sort of accepting community.
She tries religion, drawn towards her strong Catholic upbringing, but ultimately feels rejected because of her sexuality. Eventually she finds an accepting LGBTQ2S group for queer Christians but many of the other religious groups she explores don’t work for her, often coming across as pushy or too rule-oriented.
There are many places where we can buy a sense of community ans acceptance, such as yoga studios or gyms. After a few attempts, White makes a point of avoiding these, both for the false sense of camaraderie they create (everyone is your friend if you’re paying them to be), and the expectations to be part of a group even if there is no real connection; she gets weirded out by a group of fellow swimmers at a pool who expect her to participate every day.
White finally finds her people in the local community garden, and to some degree in animal rights groups, but also discovers that she’s got personal limits that she cannot cross. Attempts to volunteer make it clear that many organizations just don’t want outsiders to take part (I’ve had my own experiences with this situation).
The best advice she is able to offer is along the lines of “try everything”, because it can take a lot of work and effort to find the right group(s) for you. And that didn’t seem to come from a place of introverted excuses but a genuine desire for finding true connection.
I read Count Me In just days before the Covid lockdown started, so my own attempts to find outside connection are now on (possibly permanent) hold. My misanthropic personality is actually okay with that (I’m in lockdown with my husband and the dog, and I’m actually in a better emotional state than I was when I was voiceless but able to physically interact with others), and my take-away from White’s books is that it’s important to figure out not only what we enjoy doing/sharing with others, but also how much time and energy we are able to offer in group situations.
White makes it clear that she barely has the answers figured out for herself, so readers should definitely approach these works as a memoir as opposed to any kind of self-help tome, but in honestly sharing her own experiences, she creates a space for others to explore their own perspective and that itself creates a type of community and sense of belonging that could be the seed for something more.