I was 22 and set on a certain path. A postgraduate student, I was doing a master’s at a gender centre, and writing a dissertation about a group of French feminist philosophers. It felt like exciting, important work. Prof Mary Evans – an inspiring gender studies scholar – was overseeing the course and she encouraged me to apply for a PhD. My future, it seemed, was set in stone.
Then I started to feel panicky at the library, where I was spending long hours on my own. I felt both claustrophobic and agoraphobic at once, which made no sense – so I just pushed those feelings away. Then they started to creep up on me in other public places. I remember being in a cafe with a friend and becoming choked by the noise around me. I rushed out into the street, sucking at the air – only to feel panicked about being alone.
It made me feel increasingly desolate, as if I were standing, waving, on my own, dispatched to a desert island, while the rest of the world floated into the horizon, further out of my reach. It only gradually dawned on me what this feeling was: loneliness.
Until a year earlier, I had felt so self-assured in my busy, undergraduate life, surrounded by people I knew well. But those friends had scattered and my sense of sureness had scattered with them. I had met new people but I couldn’t confide in them and so the disconnect grew until I felt as if they were strangers.
The oddest part of loneliness, for me, was the invisibility that came with it. I felt as if the world had begun to look through me, or as if I was made of air. I stopped eating and began to occupy even less space. It was immobilising, too. When I was a child, my mother told us that, while we were at school, she would spend most of the day looking out of the window. That meant hours of sitting and staring. We had emigrated from Lahore a few years earlier, and she felt a terrible homesickness, finding herself alone and friendless in London. I had never understood why she hadn’t simply put on her coat and thrown herself into her new life a bit more robustly – until I found myself stranded in a similarly paralysed state.
The prospect of spending the next few years in a library was terrifying. So, after finishing the master’s, I gave up on the PhD. It felt like a defeat because it was my only plan for the future, but the minute the decision had been made I felt released.
Many years later, I realised that the loneliness had been an alarm signal. I kept ignoring the signal until it began to manifest physically in panic attacks. It was a symptom, and not the cause, of my unhappiness. Once I changed course, away from academia, the loneliness lifted and the hollow inside me started to fill up. It was not that the world was any different but I felt different in it – more my old self, able to relate to others again.
I knew I had made the right decision when I got my first job as a trainee reporter in Middlesbrough. I didn’t know a soul, yet I remember feeling great waves of happiness on the bus ride to work for the first few months of living there. It was the late 90s, but Tony Blair’s multicultural utopia hadn’t quite reached this divided corner of the north-east – there was casual racism all around me, often on the street, often daily. I shrugged it off. I found people I liked. I did some voluntary work. I fell in love with journalism. I had got my life back. I had got myself back.