A day before we go into a second national lockdown, a lot of us are wondering how we’re going to manage all over again. While most of us understand the argument for this renewed isolation, loneliness brings its own dangers – especially for middle-aged men, who are traditionally not the best at addressing that sort of problem verbally. I know, because I’m one of them.
Five years or so ago, I was, by any measure, not OK – a phrase that recently went viral, and to which I will return. My marriage had come apart as a result of my own actions. Obsessed with work and increasingly pessimistic about my prospects, I had become an inadequate husband, father and friend. I was drinking too much and engaging almost not at all with the various privileges and joys life still had to offer me. I was occupying a similar mental landscape to the one from which Edmund O’Leary, a divorced father of twin sons from Surrey who was struggling to find a job during the pandemic, last month took to Twitter to send a cri de coeur.
“I am not OK,” it read. “Please take a few seconds to say hello if you see this tweet.” That was it – but was enough to spark a global, spontaneous rescue effort.
I am not ok. Feeling rock bottom. Please take a few seconds to say hello if you see this tweet. Thank you.
— Edmund O'Leary (@emerald1910) October 16, 2020
Many thousands of people sent messages to somebody they had never met, and about whom they knew almost nothing, but who had expressed a simple human need: the need to connect, to admit that things were going badly, and offload some of that mental burden onto people able to help shoulder it. The story caught my eye because it is very similar to the plot of Contacts, my new novel – and there are also striking similarities to the plot of my life.
But where his tweet was the equivalent of a distress flare screaming into the sky, I wasn’t even able to muster a telegram.
There is nearly unending chatter – in the form of mental health campaigns, slogans, memes, ad posters depicting two bulky-but-vulnerable men enjoying a pint – about “the need for men to talk”. All this advice is well meant, but it relies on a set of assumptions: that the thing which is “not OK” can be articulated; that the sufferer can dredge up the mental energy to do the work of articulating it; and, crucially, that the right person is on hand to hear it.
Of these requirements, the last is often the one that gets away. In our 30s, 40s, 50s, we live busy, self-absorbed lives, physically distant even from our closest friends for long periods, dependent on their social media updates to keep us abreast of their current offspring count. If you’ve so much as tried to schedule a quick catch-up, you’ll appreciate how implausible it is to drag a friend away from their family on a Monday night and excavate your deepest emotions in front of them.
This is where digital communication became my salvation, as it was for Mr O’Leary, and for goodness knows how many people propping each other up in the whispering galleries of the internet. It’s become a misleading tenet of our time that the existence of technology has somehow increased the sum of our loneliness. We are all too busy looking at screens to interact properly, we’re regularly told. We fail to “make time for each other” because of social media. Virtual relationships have taken the place of actual relationships: that’s the overriding idea.
What all this overlooks is that, often, non-physical interactions offer a freedom of expression, and a sense of lowered pressure, which doesn’t exist if you are looking in somebody’s eyes. This can make a crucial difference to someone in the troughs of self-confidence which depression sucks us into. When I began the long task of constructing something better for myself, part of what gave me courage was being able to send texts, or direct messages, to friends.
It was easier to be bold and expansive about what I was feeling, and – unlike a phone call – the text could be addressed at the recipient’s convenience: there’s not the same sense that you are crashing into their family outing, fishing trip, billion-pound heist or whatever else they might have on. To say that you are depressed, or losing hope, or simply that you miss somebody and are sorry for the way you might have disappointed them: these, I found, were all things much more easily handled via a screen than in person.
The result, for me, was that I could finally express some of the things that had been pinning me to the ground, and begin living a more emotionally healthy life. The opposition between “real” and “digital” friendships is a false one. Every way we find of sharing ourselves with others is “real”. Phones and computers should not be the enemy. They’re the most powerful tools we have ever devised for connecting ourselves with the hearts and brains of our fellow humans. They’re as good as we make them.
Nobody with a phone is alone (something which was not intended to sound like a slogan, but which is available for sale to any telecommunication giants that might be reading). As we enter a second national lockdown of indefinite length, we need to recognise that we don’t have to be physically with somebody to make a potentially life-saving difference to them. A low-key message on Facebook, or WhatsApp, or whatever platform has been invented by 19-year-olds in Silicon Valley since I began writing this: an investment of a few seconds could produce a difference that lasts very much longer.
And we don’t have to wait for the distress flare. Everything you need to change someone’s day – or year – for the better is there on the desk in front of you.
Contacts by Mark Watson (HarperCollins, £14.99) is out now. Buy now for £12.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514