By Hieu Nguyen
I grew up on the west side of Melbourne. My dad was a refugee and my mum had a migrant background, but both were from Vietnam.
We moved around a lot when I was younger and lived in a lot of public housing. Even so I had a pretty nice childhood.
There was some difficult stuff going on between my parents. I had a lot of trouble connecting with my father as a result of his traumatic refugee experience in the 1980s.
His ability to emotionally bond with me, and to be a good father, was quite difficult for him. I’ve always struggled with that. But my mum, brother and I were really close.
In primary school I knew a diverse group of people. I was a very open child and I loved drama. I was school captain and won the election by a landslide. So I have fond memories of childhood.
High school made it clear I was different
High school was when things began to change for me.
I had a lot of friends but I began to encounter more difficulties and my open, friendly nature shifted noticeably and I began to retreat into my shell.
The unexpected face of loneliness
- Almost a third of 18–24-year-olds say they feel frequently or always lonely
- Only 32 per cent are rarely or never lonely, compared with 71 per cent of older Australians
- 44 per cent of 18–24 year-olds rate their mental health as average or poor
- Loneliness is more prevalent among culturally and linguistically-diverse Australians
Source: the ABC’s Australia Talks National Survey, a nationally-representative survey of 54,000 Australians
My high school wasn’t as culturally diverse as primary school and I faced difficulties around things like masculinity or race that I am still unpacking as I grow older.
Strange things would be said, jokes, and I’d be thinking “wait a minute, can you label that racism?”.
Overall, I would say yes, it was racist but it was indirect. The idea of “micro-aggression” sums it up.
I experienced little everyday things designed to let me know what people thought of me and to signify I was different.
The way I was treated, the small connotations in the way people spoke about me, made me realise I did not fit the mainstream perception of what was considered to be “normal”. I felt devalued as a person.
People from diverse backgrounds will understand that you often don’t have the opportunity to express all parts of yourself.
I used to be someone who was outspoken, a joker. I loved having a go and saying what was on my mind and I felt free to interact with people.
I became someone who didn’t feel the same sense of confidence and outspokenness when I reached high school.
Loneliness really set in at uni
The transition to university was interesting. I went to university with a good group of friends and we met a lot of new people in the first year. There were plenty of events, parties and drinking.
The courses I went to had 2000 students coming in every year. We were all trying to figure out our identities and place in the world and although I met a lot of people as time went on everyone moved on different trajectories and the close relationships I had formed started to fade.
That’s where the periods of instability and loneliness began to emerge for me.
Around that time I went to Amsterdam to study and it was a big adjustment. I had to learn to be by myself. I studied with a lot of people from all around the world and we were all lost, looking for new friends. I made good friends that I know I will have for the rest of my life. I travelled and worked for a while and then returned to Australia in February.
Hieu (right) with a friend, Tristan, spent several months on a university exchange in Amsterdam. (Supplied)
When I arrived home it felt like everything had changed.
I have experienced my peak periods of loneliness since I got back to Australia. These have been some of my darkest days. It’s been quite difficult.
While I was overseas even though I had periods of loneliness I knew I was away and would return to what I had always known as home.
For me home has always meant living with my mum. We have always spent a lot of time together and I’ve relied on her to hang out with, to live with and bounce ideas off. We talk about everything.
The sense of loneliness was highlighted because the stability that my brother and my mother had always offered me started to change.
My relationship with my dad has been very difficult for a long time but difficulties with my older brother were unexpected and then my mum started questioning her place in Australia and returned to live in Vietnam.
Because I’ve been overseas I don’t feel like I am on the same wavelength with the friends I had kept in Australia.
I’ve been left feeling quite lonely and disconnected.
Even though I am working and studying and I’m involved in a lot of things, I don’t really have people in my life that I can connect with on a strong, personal level.
Living in a negative headspace
Loneliness manifests in many different ways. On an everyday level it can be anxiety inducing.
Solitude can be a chance for time out and disconnecting from social stimulus to quietly be in the world. But it can also be difficult when you don’t feel a connection to those around you.
It leaves me with a physical feeling of something missing that’s hard to describe.
When you’re in the depths of loneliness you can get into a negative headspace. Like a lot of mental health issues, you spiral down a path of feeling hopeless and that then affects other aspects of your life.
Part of getting back on track for me was recognising the feeling of loneliness and not trying to push it away.
I need to acknowledge where those feelings came from but also try to get out there and find the spaces where I can feel like I belong again.
For me that means feeling acknowledged and connected to the people around me where there is no judgement, no stress and I can be myself and speak freely.
When you’re in the depths of loneliness you can enter a negative headspace. (Unsplash: Fabrizio Verrecchia)
My loneliness starts in the morning when I wake up feeling a bit anxious.
When I am in that negative headspace the feeling of loneliness is quite physical, the anxiety is visceral.
There is no one I can talk to. I think of close friends overseas or others I could connect to but am not able to be with because I’m in a different city.
I respond by keeping myself distracted and one thing I did to cope was to fill myself up with as many activities as possible but that ended up burning me out.
At first you think this is a good thing because you are getting out there and staying occupied, but when you are not acknowledging feelings of loneliness but just pushing them away it can become very negative.
It’s difficult to come across other people who are lonely because the signs of loneliness are things like withdrawing from social contact and feeling a bit hopeless. Loneliness isn’t about being by yourself but feeling you can’t connect.
The social media curse
Finding connections isn’t always an easy process. I don’t think my generation has the same relationships and ability to meet people in everyday life that previous generations had.
As life goes on it’s harder to meet people and social media is the way that we engage yet it’s also really disengaged us.
There are pros. It allows you to find out about events and find people with similar interests. But on the whole this style of communication is disconnecting.
The anxiety of not feeling part of something can be strong.
I don’t have a partner at the moment and I think that makes a big difference. Partners offer a close bonding relationship and not having that can be isolating.
The everyday spaces that we live in don’t facilitate social connection and because young people go through so many transitions it can be hard to build the kinds of routines that encouraging meeting people and building friendships.
There are not a lot of public spaces that make it easy to feel connected. These are some reasons why loneliness is so common for my generation.
Digging my way out of loneliness
I am trying to re-engage with different hobbies and taking it as an opportunity to meet new people. When you see someone regularly then that puts you on a path to connect. But it can take a long time. You have to be patient with yourself.
If you or anyone you know needs help:
I feel that I have learnt some protective mechanisms and strategies that I can use to alleviate loneliness but it’s going to be some time until I can rebuild relationships.
I have gone through a big shift from living with my mum, to going overseas and now being home where I am expected to make big decisions about what to do next with my life.
I know those feelings of loneliness will return but it won’t be like that forever.
Things are going to get better. Every moment is an opportunity to have a better mindset or build connections.
Hieu Nguyen is a university student in Melbourne.
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