Last month, I began working with Elizabeth, a 48-year-old tutor with self-diagnosed depression: she wanted help pushing away the dark cloud that seems to follow her each day.
‘I’ve no energy, I wake up each morning counting the hours until I can go back to bed and I often feel horribly empty inside,’ she told me.
And yet, until a few years ago, she considered herself happy and positive. ‘I don’t recognise the miserable woman I’ve become,’ she added.
Elizabeth isn’t depressed — she’s lonely. Her symptoms are simply masking the real problem. But getting her to face that hasn’t been easy. Somehow, saying you feel socially isolated seems to have become the last taboo when it comes to talking about emotional difficulties, particularly among women in their 40s and 50s.
After all, this is a life stage that so many of us look forward to — a time when we can finally focus on our own needs as the demands of raising a family ease off; a period when we surely deserve to enjoy a more fulfilling social life than ever before.
Dr Sandi Mann revealed why many midlife women experience loneliness and isolation. Naomi Anderson, 53, (pictured) says she feels isolated because she doesn’t have a partner and is always busy with work and caring for elderly relatives
But, for many women, it just doesn’t work out that way. Too often, this becomes a period when friendships start to fall apart. Time and again, a client will end up admitting to me that, actually, this feels like the loneliest age of all.
Often, they’ll have booked in with me for psychotherapy hoping it will help with depression that’s either been diagnosed by their GP or that they’ve recognised in themselves.
This is hardly surprising. Recent government data revealed that 41 per cent of middle-aged women have been diagnosed with a mental health condition such as depression — with a further 18 per cent believing that their problems have simply gone undiagnosed.
But, once I start to delve deeper, trying to get to the very nub of my client’s unhappiness, I often discover the real problem that needs addressing is a crippling sense of loneliness. This rarely comes as any great revelation to me.
After all, this is the age when a woman is likely to experience dramatic life changes that can impinge horribly on her sense of self-worth and ability to maintain friendships — the obvious one being empty nest syndrome.
It can be very hard for a mother to accept that she has a massively diminished part to play in her children’s lives.
And, about now, she might also be experiencing a dramatic role reversal when it comes to her relationship with her own parents: if old age has brought with it a decline in their health, they’re going to need her help where previously she would have been the one counting on them.
As well as being upsetting, caring for elderly relatives inevitably eats up large amounts of time.
As does the way many women find themselves working harder than ever in middle-age, no longer restricted by the time constraints having a young family might previously have put on their careers.
Mandi Hewlett, 40, (pictured) says losing friends as many struggle to balance family commitments and jobs has caused her to feel lonely
The friends it previously felt relatively easy to find time for will be feeling similarly stretched — and, of course, the more plans are repeatedly cancelled on all sides, the less inclined anyone feels to keep trying to make arrangements to meet up.
Take Elizabeth, who is now starting to recognise that she is, indeed, one of around 14 per cent of women her age who experience loneliness at least some of the time.
Her friendship circle has shrunk dramatically in recent years, as opportunities to socialise have become increasingly harder to find.
Her children are in their late teens, meaning the days when she mixed with the other school gate mums are long gone.
Meanwhile, the friends she made at university and during her time as a school teacher are equally overwhelmed with work and family commitments and don’t have the time or energy to make the effort with her any more.
I don’t tell my husband Chris how lonely I feel – Mandi Hewlett
Elizabeth’s elderly mother is widowed and in poor health; barely a day passes without some emergency or other sending her racing over there to put things right.
Once everything on her burgeoning to-do list has finally been ticked off, opening a bottle of wine and crashing out in front of the TV at the end of the day seems far more attractive than trying to persuade a similarly wrung-out friend to meet up.
Unfortunately, her growing dependence on ‘wine o’clock’ to switch off is only compounding the problem: where previously a glass or two was predominantly a part of her social life, these days Elizabeth tends to drink alone.
Booze — a chemical depressant — has now become a nightly crutch that only makes her feel worse. It’s impacting on the quality of her sleep: she wakes up feeling morbid and sluggish before the day’s even started — so, of course, she feels depressed.
She’s also far from alone in this negative pattern of behaviour. A YouGov survey recently put ‘empty nester’ mothers at the forefront of a middle-aged drinking epidemic in Britain, with a quarter admitting that their consumption has increased since their children left home.
Mandi (pictured) says it hurts when friends don’t check how she is. She was diagnosed with a neurological illness last year
Another study found that more than a quarter of middle-aged women are drinking up to three times the Government’s recommended limit of 14 units a week.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth says she also feels emotionally disconnected from her husband, now that the parenting role they shared when their children were younger has gone. ‘We just don’t seem to have much to talk about any more,’ she admits.
No wonder Elizabeth’s life is blighted by loneliness.
As is that of Mandi Hewlett — a 40-year-old teaching assistant who lives in Manchester with her husband, Chris, a retail manager. She has two children, Kelsey, eight, and Jack, three.
Mandi says she’s finding her 40s dreadfully lonely — largely because her friends are all so busy, they don’t seem to have much time left for her.
‘I’ve noticed my friends dropping off a lot over the past few years, juggling family life, jobs, huge mortgages and family commitments,’ she explains.
‘Then last year, I was diagnosed with a neurological illness, experiencing dizziness, tiredness, shaky vision and sporadic panic attacks — and the loneliness really kicked in.’
No one invites me for dinner — and everyone is caught up in their own world – Naomi Anderson
While Mandi deals with her illness, it looks like her friends might well be suffering from a condition I describe as ‘hurry sickness’: they’re constantly pulled in so many different directions that they’ve stopped even attempting to make time for other people.
Mandi says it hurts that they don’t pick up the phone to check how she is.
Even her own mother’s life is so jam-packed, she doesn’t have much time to spare for her daughter. ‘She lives near, but works full-time, my dad lives far away and my sister has four kids of her own and is far too caught up with them,’ says Mandi. ‘I don’t tell my husband Chris how lonely I feel.
‘I feel embarrassed and ashamed and try to put on a brave face. I just wish people were more caring and it didn’t all have to feel so hard.’
Embarrassment and shame are feelings experienced by many lonely women — it’s what made my client Elizabeth so reluctant at first to recognise loneliness was at the root of her misery.
Naomi Anderson (pictured) says she’s surprised how selfish friends can be as she usually isn’t invited for dinner
And yet, we live in an age when wearing your feelings on your sleeve seems to have become an accepted social norm.
So, how can this be? I believe it’s the connotations associated with this emotion that make sufferers feel there is a stigma attached.
Loneliness can be horribly misconstrued — the inference often being that it’s a by-product of not being likeable enough for other people to want to be around you.
But, actually, more often than not, it is circumstances, rather than personality failings, that result in loneliness at this age. It really isn’t anyone’s fault. The problem is that human beings gain a deep sense of validation from having friends.
We are programmed to see vulnerability in isolation — in ourselves and in others. Working in groups is what has helped us to survive so long.
There’s also a currency in popularity — friendships make us feel valued by others, which is something we crave at any age. Being horrified at the idea of being labelled as unlikeable is far from the sole preserve of teenage girls. Little wonder, then, that if you hit a point in your life where many of the friendships you previously took for granted seem to have fallen away, you’ll take it as a terrible blow to your self-esteem.
I’ve had several clients complain that ‘this was never meant to happen to me’. Naomi Anderson, 53, is a doctor’s receptionist from North London. A single mother, she feels permanently stretched by everyone else’s needs, with little time left for her own.
‘I have four children between the ages of 15 and 23, all of whom have different needs — one is at university and the rest live at home,’ she says.
Mandi (pictured) revealed she hides her feelings of loneliness from her husband
‘I’ve got a busy job and an elderly mother in her 90s, and there’s always that sense of being on my own because I don’t have a partner.’
Like many divorcees, Naomi feels that she’s missing out on the intimacy and companionship of a relationship.
Yet it’s the burden of responsibility for every last thing that needs doing that sees her permanently run ragged.
‘I have to do everything, from clearing out the chicken pen in the garden to sorting out the electricity bills,’ she says.
‘I have my mother to look after. She lives alone in her house, so it’s quite a responsibility for me. I go once a week — more if I can — but it’s quite draining and takes up a lot of my time at the weekends.’
Naomi says she feels stressed and isolated and, like Mandi, she is taken aback by how little effort her friends seem to make to ensure that she doesn’t spend too much time alone.
‘It surprises me how selfish friends can be,’ she admits. ‘No one invites me for dinner — they all have big families and everyone is caught up in their own world. They don’t seem to think of anyone else.
‘As a doctor’s receptionist, I don’t function like that. My job is to be compassionate and aware of others and I wish there was more of that kind-heartedness going around.’
I’m not sure Naomi’s friends are being quite as selfish as it appears they are to her: they probably also have far more on their plates than they can comfortably manage, even if it might not always seem that way.
Last week, I talked about how social media bragging can make young women feel like they’re constantly missing out when they compare their lives to the fabulous existences their friends present online.
Middle-aged women can fall for this con in much the same way.
They look at the posts their friends put on Facebook that make it look as though they’re having a fabulous social life and feel even more left out.
But, again, many of these women posting on social media will only be publishing the edited highlights of their lives — they want to appear more popular and socially fulfilled than they actually are.
In truth, they’re likely to feel just as lonely and isolated as so many other women of this generation. They’re just that bit better at covering it up.