I have been writing about family estrangement for years now. I have written about my own family estrangement, other people and their estrangements, and the impact of having no contact with the group of people that were billed to be unconditionally present in life. Recent statistics from IpsosMORI would indicate that I'm not alone - a fifth of families in the UK will be touched by estrangement, which is a figure that psychologists suggest is rising fast.
Thankfully the month of February is a safer time for people in my position: families are off the agenda. There's no Mother's Day to hide from, no Father's Day to ignore and the Christmas festivities are forgotten in favour of Easter preparations. This leaves Valentine's Day for February: the day set to celebrate romance with partners and prospective partners alike; the day for pandering to our loves with ribbon clad gifts and a carefully selected bargain bottle of red.
For many people in our community at Stand Alone, it is our partners, wives, husbands, girlfriends and boyfriends that save us from the isolation and loneliness of existing without a family network. The blow of cutting out abusive family relationships is often softened by the presence of another human. There is lushness to the feeling of starting again with someone else, breaking the cycle, creating a new family-like bond in a relationship that will hopefully have a more functional set of values and skills.
No romantic relationship is perfect, but feeling connected is important: we all need to know that our life has meaning to someone, and particularly when maternal and paternal validation is lacking. Living with the feeling that your life and existence mean very little to anyone at all can create a dangerous state of mind, only worsened by the idea that the reason for your loneliness is shameful. Those who are estranged are too often reminded of the isolating family myth - that everyone else in society is enjoying a functional and close family experience. 'I thought I was the only one!' is a phrase that is commonly heard in our community.
In recent years the dialogue around the word isolation has increased, and the concept of loneliness has been subject to much campaigning. There has been a push towards philanthropy that advertises the idea that everyone 'should' have someone in life, and also that there should always be a good citizen on hand ready to step in if someone finds themselves isolated and alone. On the surface, I couldn't agree more. This was the principle with which I founded Stand Alone. I wanted people who were estranged from their family to know they were not completely alone, and for us to meet others in the same position, and so there was a chance that those who needed company and companionship could find it. I wanted to help people find a new sense of family within those that did not have a functional biological set up.
After listening to hundreds of people at Stand Alone, I began to realise the complications in the idea of helping people permanently break down the isolation they felt. I say this because many of the people who live with an estrangement from their family talked of the immense struggle to keep long-lasting friendships and romantic relationships, and the wariness they felt towards starting them in the first place. Many people had lived in families where there was an abject absence of unconditional love and trust, and many did not have the kind of family attachments that psychologists tell us are so crucial in forming the skills to trust in others.
For many that had been fundamentally let down by their family, to have the strength of mind to believe that other people in society would not hurt them in the same way as their family seemed like an insurmountable task. What happens if trusting someone hurts me again? This unfortunate reality is all that many people at Stand Alone know of human connection. And it is this principle that serves as a barrier to starting and maintaining relationships with others.
Thus, society needs to re-think its current understanding of what constitutes social isolation. Strong relationships are at the centre of a healthy society, and are the key preventative measure for mental health difficulties, dependency and homelessness. However, much of our isolation is emotional, and in my view it's not always about the physical absence of another human that is the heart of the issue. It's about lending people who have experienced a dysfunctional and abusive start in life the skills to really feel a sense of trust and togetherness with others; preventing vulnerable populations from overly safeguarding their emotions when others try to reach out.
The next government would be wise to pay much greater attention to the impact of family breakdown and estrangement. For me, it's not simply enough to pay lip service to the idea that everyone should have someone to make them dinner, or indeed only facilitate closer physical togetherness with others.
I'm lucky enough to have a therapist, who has helped me to work through the experience of being estranged from my family. We talk about the occasional intense paranoia and panic I feel towards my partner - moments where I am convinced he will do what my parents did. 'If you can't trust people, you can't collaborate with them,' my therapist said, quite matter of fact. It made me recoil in my seat, wondering if there was a formula for trust that I was missing. 'Do I just believe and hope?' I asked.
Therefore, this Valentine's Day, I urge you to celebrate collaborations of all kinds, and celebrate the trust that you hold in equal part to the love. As it is this trust that makes the world go around.