Once, while pretending to work on the second floor of Barnes & Noble, I stumbled upon Nagata Kabi’s “My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness,” a manga-style memoir exploring the author’s mental illness and discovery of her sexuality. I’d heard reviews from gutted gay friends claiming the book was incredibly sad but true to the experience of growing up as a closeted lesbian. I’d only been out for a few months, still growing into this new self, and devoured the book in one sitting.
Loneliness is not the only topic of the book, but it permeates each page like cough syrup, thick and pungent. In a new city, beginning classes at a new school with a new job and a new long-distance relationship, a string pulled taut between Kabi’s chest and mine. I didn’t consider myself lonely, even though most of my time was spent alone. I preferred it that way, so how could I possibly be lonely?
The feeling stretched like a wad of taffy, reaching back into my adolescence of self-imposed solitude. Growing up, words like “autistic” or “lesbian” were exclusively pejorative. My perception of the world and relationships was tilted somehow and without the vocabulary to describe it, I retreated into myself. This mechanism failed in one aspect; I wasn’t going to hide that I was Jewish.
Looking back, I realize now that I had no close Jewish friends. I was one of only a handful of Jewish kids in my school and everyone at my synagogue had known each other for years. I was an interloper, plopped into class in sixth grade with few social skills and a remedial knowledge of Judaism. I had friends, but they were predominantly Christian, some more aggressively than others. I attended youth group, listened to lukewarm pastors while becoming more and more confused, but what else was I supposed to do? Kids need peers and they’ll cram themselves into whatever opaque bottle they can find to acquire them.
I want to stress that this was no one’s fault. Not mine, not my parents’ and not my community’s. Loneliness is a vaporous emotion; like carbon monoxide, odorless as the occupants of the house blame ghosts and each other. I only became aware of it once I left, as so many before me have.
In college, I became involved with the Jewish community. I made Jewish friends, gay friends, autistic friends, and the vapor in my chest dispelled a little. I still isolated myself but less so, finding a balance between chosen solitude and exile. But the Jewish community, as welcoming as it was in Kent, Ohio, still felt inaccessible to me. I was still learning, and though the religion was important to me, a combination of multiple jobs and executive dysfunction kept me from devoting as much time into study as I would have liked.
Then, I met my partner. She wasn’t my partner then and wouldn’t become my partner for a long time, but I recognized something in her. We became close, and when she approached me about beginning her conversion, I did my best to keep up with her extensive studies. She became the link to a world I’d always been observing through a pane of glass.
Love doesn’t cure loneliness. A relationship doesn’t cure loneliness. Loneliness is not carbon monoxide and it cannot be dispersed by fixing a pipe. What eases loneliness is recognition. I realize that my community was incapable of knowing me, that I sought out recognition in dozens of other people. It wasn’t until I could put words to my lived experience that I understood myself.
All of this feels a bit corny. The concept of not loving oneself until one is loved is inherently flawed, but so is the concept that one can produce love from nowhere. Recognition is nuanced and my experience is not universal. All I really know is this: I felt separate from my Jewish heritage for most of my life. That is no longer the case, and I hope to continue building my relationship with Judaism over time.