You could die of loneliness in Sydney.
“We never do anything,” I say to my friends, “We’re always getting drunk and we think it brings us closer together, but it just creates the illusion of closeness, a comfortable buffer.”
Then I keep drinking.
Lately death has been all around me. Making sure I don’t forget her. Waving, grinning. Yes, I know you’re bigger than me. I lost a lot of friends to suicide this year. Two of them I found frozen in their final moments. Eyes and tongues bulging, blood pooling in limbs. No notes, no warnings. No grace, only surrender.
I’ve been feeling the loneliness creep up on me too. Creep up and erode.
Sydney is beautiful but it’s a hard place. Everyone’s on guard. Everyone’s gotta make sure they’ve got their brand. Everyone’s trying to protect themselves from something. I don’t know what’s instilled this in Sydneysiders, I just know that it wears me down.
There seems to be little room for emotional honesty. We drink a lot. We drink unholy amounts – and when we get drunk we like to throw our weight around. It’s the closest we get to expressing an authentic emotional spirit. Everything else is just cocaine and real estate.
People are friendly in Sydney. Most people are up for a chat while standing in line, there’s a courtesy that exists here that can fool people into thinking they’re making connections, but what they’re really dealing with is the gentrified gaze. Yeah, some bloke will offer you a bit of change if you’re short for the parking meter, yeah you can strike up a conversation with someone at the dog park for a half hour, yeah you can banter with all sorts of people at the bar, but it’s hard to get much further than that. The borders keep getting redrawn. People return to themselves or their cliques.
What’s most interesting about other cities is your ability to roam around on your own and have a good time. Going out in Sydney alone isn’t as fun. When you go out here, you’ll see clusters of people sitting in pubs or cafes and they’ll be turned inward. People don’t go out to mingle with other groups, they go out to sit with their own groups. Trying to pincer your way through is difficult, because conversation is a stop-gap, it’s the interim of things that has you tightly by the hands – it’s not a promise of something more.
You’ll go out to the pub, let’s say. There’s a group of people hanging out, let’s say. You approach, you chat. But the chat is an interruption, not an invitation. In other cities, hell Melbourne does this better too; in other cities you talk to someone and they invite you in, or you can turn that conversation into something else. A friendship, a relationship, a good time for just that one night, an adventure with a cool acquaintance or the best or worst sex of your life. Who knows what could grow from one hello, there are endless possibilities.
But Sydney makes this hard.
I spoke to some transplants who noticed this. They’ve said things like:
“Everyone talks about the cool stuff they’re doing but nobody actually includes you beyond asking for your Instagram.”
“I feel like I’ve made great connections in Sydney that just don’t develop into actual friendships.”
“Everybody is friendly, but nobody wants to put the effort into being your friend.”
“People here are fucking snobs.”
I went to Los Angeles a few years ago. Despite my disinterest in the city, my short time there was good, great even. Sitting in the car watching this gigantic, sprawling metropolis and its culture of ego passing by. This city of excess, a caricature of itself that seems to eat everything in its path alive. And in this superficial place, I examined the superficial facets of my life. I thought about how I sometimes spend so much energy holding on to something because it used to be good, never minding that all that’s left now is decay.
I thought about how I can have fun with anyone, but there are few I can rely on. How there are a lot of people in my life who feel they don’t need to be there for me, but never fail to call me when I’m needed for something superficial, telling me they love me. Nothing compares to u drunk dialling me at 2am asking for a drug dealer’s number, fuckwit.
I thought about how sometimes we have a fatal tendency to fall in love with experiences and relationships in superficial ways, simply because they mirror the best of our traits and suppress the worst of them. It’s easy to face yourself when every mirror you look into only shows you what you want to see. It’s why social media is the perfect honey trap.
I thought about how Sydney is really good at facilitating this sort of individualistic thinking and feeling. Suppression begets loneliness. Loneliness can be a killer, especially in a city so insular.
Some of us want our names in lights. I do just fine with an impression on the people I love. I don’t understand how a need to impress can take over someone’s life. Who cares what other people think, if the people who actually care about you, think you’re a piece of shit? At what point do they stop caring, because nothing will ever impress you?
That’s what Sydney feels like to me. And maybe it’s time to go, but I can’t tell yet. I have always felt this way, to some degree, about this city. Ever since I had anything else to compare it to – it’s been a startling reveal – and it’s nice to know I’m not insane or imagining things.
Perhaps I’m feeling this more than ever because of all the suicide. It’s all over the media. It’s all we’ve been talking about, amongst my friends and my family. I talk. I talk it out. Talk talk talk. From each conversation grows another vine to strangle all those fucked up feelings. But when the headlines move on, we’ll be forced to as well. We’ll convince ourselves to forget.
I was walking somewhere between Crown and Oxford streets when I got news that my friend had taken his life. The urge to cry began to violently climb my throat. I held it in as best I could; I made it all the way to Taylor Square – then I just let it all out.
People don’t have patience for sadness. They throw lots of tiny, colourful pills at us. Smile or something, it’s a gift, they say. Spin it into sinew. You frighten off the strangers, they say. Bury your sadness into the voices in the background amongst the clanging of glasses. Keep it to yourself. Burrow in for winter. People don’t have patience for sadness, but they love to watch.
A few weeks later I was entertaining a friend who was visiting from Chicago. She’d always complained that Sydneysiders are so damn nice but so damn skittish and it frustrated her.
I said yeah, we’re nice. Because we are. We’re really nice. But nice? Nice is a matter of etiquette. Nice doesn’t give anything away. It’s just window dressing.
Nice doesn’t give a shit if you’re lonely.
Many visitors and transplants alike have spoken about the “new kid” syndrome we’ve got here. I’m inclined to agree that when a new person is introduced to a group of people in Sydney, they aren’t immediately welcomed with open arms. They’re on probation. You gotta prove yourself. You gotta prove that you’re worth their time. That it’s worth it for them to step out of their self-absorption for a minute to make you feel welcome, to feel comfortable, to feel like you’ve got a chance.
We Sydneysiders are ambitious. Some of us take secret pride in that. But there are costs. How can we make time for new people when we’re too busy to maintain our existing relationships? Friendship isn’t supposed to be cordial, temporary, arm’s length or dependent on social standing. That’s not friendship.
I think about the final thoughts that may have swirled around the heads of my dead friends. I wonder if they felt things like:
“I don’t want to bother anyone with my problems.”
“I’m a burden.”
“Everyone’s got something to worry about.”
It all means the same thing. You aren’t important enough to matter. You don’t matter. Tell yourself that long enough, and maybe you’ll be yearning for a dirt nap too.
This city is beautiful, but it doesn’t belong to me anymore, and I don’t belong in it. When I walk through it, I feel like I’m walking through an old photograph. It feels like your old favourite t-shirt. Warped and stretched, torn threads, faded ink. People give me advice, they give us advice like: join a sports team, take classes.
Yeah, so you can say “Let’s grab a coffee sometime,” and they can say “Yeah, I’d love that,” and it never happens, because they’re frozen solid in their active wear and particular routine of self-care.
Yeah, I know when it’s dark at four and it’s raining, that commitment you made to someone when you had a drunken conversation in the bar the night before seems less important. Or that earnest date you arranged with someone in your yoga class suddenly seems less worthwhile when you’re not flooded with endorphins.
But it’s worth it. It’s important. We all matter, we all need to feel it too. That’s where we fall short. In a city so full of itself it pretends not to need anything or anyone else, it matters a lot.
Something inside me keeps telling me it’s time for a change. I think about my dead friends and I wake up every morning with a thirst for a single second of their living essence. And I wonder, when I leave this city, if there will be any more signs of them. Any signs of way back when, as I walk down the street, past the parlour, sip tea in the coffeehouse. Not to say I’m out the door, it’s just coming. I feel it.
If this story has any issues you can find support at Lifeline on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467, MensLine Australia on 1300 78 99 78, Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800, or beyondblue on 1300 224 636.