Amiel: I’m hearing a lot about loneliness

Daul Kim, 20, had lots of friends and was hugely successful. Still, she felt ‘like a ghost.’

She strides on the cover of this November’s Russh magazine, hair dyed blond, nipples showing through the sheer blouse and her trademark look—somewhere between a snarl and a sneer. South Korean model Daul Kim, 20, was found hanged last week in her Paris apartment—an apparent suicide. Kim had youth, beauty, success, a boyfriend—and a life ahead that she clearly felt was not worth living.

The newspaper reports said that Kim was battling loneliness and depression. She is reported to have written, “The more I gain the more lonely it is. I’m like a ghost.” Her blog was called I Like To Fork Myself. Even allowing for the mood swings of youth, these are not indicators of equilibrium. One can’t know much more about Kim, especially now that her blogger’s diary has been sealed and the video she made the day before her death is unavailable. Only that she had lots of friends, was mega-successful—she was Karl Lagerfeld’s latest pick for Chanel’s accessories ads—and was busy working on her sideline video career.

I read about Kim while listening—not inappropriately—to Kirsten Flagstad and then Waltraud Meier sing the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde on YouTube. I won’t bore readers with the lyrics, but this is just about the triple-star anthem of loneliness-gone-batty sung by the dying Isolde over the dead body of Tristan. Loneliness, though, is a much more deep-seated condition than simply being alone, and as a serious psychological problem it is difficult to diagnose in the presence of other problems. If your spouse dies or your child has a debilitating illness, the normal reaction is a sense of loneliness. The more difficult cases are those of people who, like Kim, seem to have everything.

Lately, I have become accustomed to people who are at the centre of social life with friends and admirers galore, earnestly telling me how “lonely” they are. One can’t be sure whether this is affectation—a sure sign a condition is becoming trendy—or authentic. Whatever, “loneliness” looks positioned to be the Next Big Thing in psychiatric and intervention trends. The condition appears to peak at two psychologically vulnerable points in life: the late teens and twenties and then in the post-seventies. Demographic trends show Europe and North America with increasingly aged populations prone to the condition, and I’m proud to report that Canada is in the forefront of research studies on this topic. With at least one in seven Canadians now “seniors” and lots in their eighties barrelling away to their nineties and 100s, our nation is in line for one of our famed bronze medals—this time as a top centre of lonely people.

Talented and neurotic people may put loneliness to good use, hence the club’s poster girl, poet Emily Dickinson. For most, the only way to combat the feeling is by seeking company, though for some this very company aggravates the pain. Apart from music, which itself can be toxic by the associations it invokes, my own lumpenprole solution is the television set. The TV is invariably turned on but with the mute button engaged. One becomes best friends with the television’s talking heads, enjoying their company in your home but avoiding the rubbish they spout. My chosen companion these days is the full-figured blond woman on the weather channel who seems perilously close to bursting out of her blouse or jacket as she reaches for northern Ontario.

I have dozens of DVDs stacked on sink tops to take my mind off “things” while in my bath. I’m enjoying a Bette Davis festival at the moment, with my favourite 1944 Mr. Skeffington just edging out Now, Voyager. Claude Rains plays the dream Jew in the film—wise, successful and handsome (if terribly short). It amuses me that in this 145-minute film which pivots on Skeffington’s identity as a Jew, the actual J word is used three times. Drop the soap and you could miss the whole premise.
Unlike those sufferers with full-blown mental illnesses, the psychic fragility behind loneliness is largely predicated on self-absorption. The extent varies but when you reach Kim’s state it is pathological. I don’t say this judgmentally: no mental makeup is blameworthy, only noteworthy. I’d like to reshape my own mind to be more resilient, just as one can reshape the body with exercise and care. But like one’s body type, the mind is a given and there is only so much strengthening you can do.

I don’t expect Kim did much. On her blog, she claimed to be reading Tolstoy. She might have been helped by reading something inspirational like the late Viennese psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Loneliness has some relationship to the existential dilemma that hits every human being when we wonder about the point of life. By the time you really ask this question and certainly before you kick the chair on which you have been standing with noose knotted, you have generally gone through quite a lot. Dr. Frankl, ex-Auschwitz, went through more than any human being should have, and his conclusions are not without use.

Our job, he wrote, is not to look for the meaning of life but to realize that life questions you. If suffering turns out to be your lot, then seize the opportunity to make something of it. Life expects, and no human being is without purpose etc. etc. But Daul Kim was only 20 years old and alone in the mirrored hell of a model’s life. All she could see was her own reflection—and, unlike the camera, she didn’t like it.

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