How mindfulness helped me overcome loneliness in London

All the Lonely People: ‘I was holding my breath for the day that I returned to Ireland’

Darragh O’Shea: ‘Over the years I have often felt homesick and very alone. What started as a lump in the back of my throat soon developed into a dull ache.’

Darragh O’Shea: ‘Over the years I have often felt homesick and very alone. What started as a lump in the back of my throat soon developed into a dull ache.’

 

I have not strayed far. I live on a gentrified street in west London, the type of place where Porches are parked straight and dog mess is put in a bag. I left Ireland almost four years ago, calling at Bath, Salisbury, Swindon and Bristol before arriving in London. As a graduate psychologist, there was little opportunity for me at home, only pitiful prospects. So I left.

The UK offered me more of a chance to develop my career as a health psychologist. Turning down offers of further postgraduate education in Ireland, I accepted a place at the University of Bath.

Since graduating three years ago, I have been in regular employment as an assistant psychologist and my career has progressed beyond my expectations. Despite this, over the years I have often felt homesick and very alone. What started as a lump in the back of my throat soon developed into a dull ache in the marrow of my bones. Frequent trips home were followed by long periods of discontent. Loneliness and isolation has a deleterious effect on our physical and psychological wellbeing. I was aware of this, but unsure of how to proceed.

Following a particularly turbulent couple of months at the turn of the year, I felt drained and overwhelmed by all that stood before me. I felt like a bottle rocking on its base, threatening to spill over. In need of support, it was at this point that I turned to mindfulness meditation. The practice involves intentionally paying attention without judgement to whatever is happening in the present moment. At the time I was very busy with work, and my inclination was to “soldier on”. The notion of meditating was not something I felt I had time for, but I needed to try something.

With a little scepticism, I began to test the waters. At first the experience was underwhelming, but with time I began to notice subtle changes. Eventually, thoughts and emotions that I typically buried with work and other distractions began to surface. I came to realise that I had long been using work as a means of avoidance, and that much of my loneliness had been self-imposed.

I realised that for much of my time in Britain, I had deliberately isolated myself from others, with the implicit sense that I was only a visitor passing through. I felt if I concentrated on my work, time would pass quickly. This rigidity only served to fuel my feeling of dislocation, and mawkish longing for the comfort and familiarity of home. Essentially, I was holding my breath for the day that I returned to Ireland.

Perhaps similar to many early career psychologists in the pursuit of professional recognition and respect, I was burdened with unattainable expectations of myself both in my personal and professional life. During that time, I was content letting people believe I was superman; the only problem was I kept tripping over my cape. Mindfulness provoked me to approach these patterns of thought and behaviour, not with rationale, but with compassion.

Over the past year I have committed to daily mindfulness practice. As a result I have gradually developed an awareness of self-critical thoughts and unhelpful comparisons. Increasingly, but not always, I approach these with kindness rather than avoidance. For me mindfulness is an attitude - one that permeates and enriches all aspects of my life. I feel healthier and happier as a result.

Recently I visited a photography exhibition held at the London Irish centre in Camden. I noticed a quote attributed to Mary McAleese etched into the bathroom wall. It read: “The immigrant’s heart marches to the beat of two quite different drums, one from the old homeland and the other from the new”. With this in mind I thought, “Perhaps it’s time to begin moving to a new tune - ‘London’s calling’?

For, in truth, there is no telling how long I will be here. While I am, I have now resolved to make the most of it. I accept it. Instead of struggling with the discomfort of loneliness by throwing myself into work, I have begun to open up to London and embrace it - to draw breath once again.

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