Surely my friend Amy would rescue me. She was a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-conquer-the-world kind of person, crushing it in her own career; if anyone could help me solve what was wrong in my life — which was more or less everything — she could.
Here’s how it would happen: I’d bike over to her apartment, and she’d draw up an elaborate blueprint that would help me get my writing career on track. From there, everything else would follow: I’d make more money and gain prestige, which would give me the confidence to attract and keep love. It didn’t seem like too much to expect, not from Amy.
But on that colorless February afternoon 10 years ago, when she welcomed me into her Brooklyn apartment, ready with a pot of Earl Grey tea, the map I’d hoped for didn’t materialize. Instead, as we sat facing each other on her couch, Amy gave me some seemingly glib advice: “Become a regular somewhere,” she said.
“A regular,” I repeated. Like Norm from the old sitcom “Cheers,” that out-of-work accountant who subsists on cold beer and free nuts?
“It doesn’t have to be a bar,” Amy said. “But working from home like you do can be lonely. Why not find a place where they’ll expect you, get to know your coffee order, miss you if you don’t show up?”
I left Amy’s brownstone weak with disappointment. Still, she had been right about one thing: I was lonely. I’d kicked off the new year with a breakup, and, though my ex-boyfriend and I weren’t right for each other, I missed him. I’d started avoiding my friends because my longstanding insomnia intensified after the breakup and made the interactions even more exhausting; sleeplessness was sucking all my energy out of me. Exhaustion and isolation made my depression intractable that winter. Only walking alleviated it.
After the conversation with Amy, I spent weeks pacing my neighborhood. I was wandering down the main drag in my Brooklyn neighborhood one night when I noticed a tiny shop, warm with light. The front of it was all glass, framed by wrought iron. Inside were a dozen square wood tables arranged in a neat grid.
The menu in the window offered only ice cream, though the place, without a single fluorescent light, looked like a sushi shop. When I stepped in to ask if they sold hot drinks, one of my favorite albums was playing: “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” by Neil Young with Crazy Horse. That ice cream shop quickly became my hangout on the evenings when my loneliness was most dizzying.
The comfort I took from it wasn’t just about the ambience or always hearing some great record on the stereo. It was more about the young workers there. Jordan from Nebraska, dark-haired and big-eyed, drew me in first. His abundant energy was always visible: When he shook a scooper, he could’ve been break dancing — a wave started somewhere below his waist and passed through his whole body, resolving in a flick of his wrist. One night early on, he tossed his broom aside and sat down across from me to ask what I was writing. He wrote a little, too, he said.
Next I got to know Eric, an actor with a chiseled face who was busy auditioning whenever he wasn’t making sundaes; when he told me he had been turned down for a role, I told him about how 25 publishers had rejected a novel I’d written.
Then even quiet James, with his goatee and perennial grin, started to acknowledge me: “Hey Maura,” he’d say. “The rooibos is for you, right?” I felt like a special guest.
The ice cream shop was so busy that the guys and I rarely got into deep conversations, but I was actually grateful for that. Though my sleep problems were constantly on my mind, talking about them with friends made me feel worse.
But in my favorite place, the unspoken moments were a tonic: catching Jordan’s eye as other customers peered into the display case or getting a grinning nod from James as I walked in. Those little gestures made me feel less alone. They suggested I belonged somewhere.
Often, the people we’re closest to — family, romantic partners, good friends — anchor us to the world. But more casual, low-stakes relationships, like the ones I made at the ice cream shop, can play a meaningful role, too. Sociologists call them “weak ties.” And a body of research suggests that they can help us feel less lonely, increase our empathy and improve our overall sense of well being.
The weather eventually warmed. The trees began to bud; the days got longer and hot. Jordan let me know he’d be returning to Nebraska, though he didn’t want to talk about why. Next, Eric said he was pulling up stakes, too; back in the Midwest, he would pay less in rent and be close to his family. Then the third one of us left — not James, but me. Something needed to give; it was New York. Leaving was tough, but necessary.
Sometimes, a small change can help you build the strength for a more significant one. Which is, I think, what Amy was trying to tell me with her advice. During a time when I was no one — no one’s daughter, no one’s girlfriend — I became a regular. Because I wandered into the ice cream shop that night, I managed to eventually walk away and begin again.
Maura Kelly is a contributing writer at Harvard Public Health; she is working on a memoir about the time she spent as a hermit.
Dr. Susanna Ashton has been practicing medicine for over 20 years and she is very excited to assist Healthoriginaltips in providing understandable and accurate medical information. When not strolling on the beaches she loves to write about health and fitness.