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Emigration can be very bad for your health

The title of this blog entry was originally going to be “The flip side of freedom from fear”, but nobody would have read that. If I’d titled the companion piece to this piece “The main reason I’m glad I left South Africa” instead of “The noise in the night”, I’d be rivalling Traps at the top of the leaderboard.

Alas, in blogging, the title is everything. So let’s see how this one does.

First I need a convenient segue from the previous posting — about the (relative) freedom from fear of being attacked — and tell you about how I walked home from the Hayden Orpheum cinema on Military Road at 11 at night, a distance of around 3 kilometres.

The highlight of my walk was spotting a Tawny Frogmouth perched on a road sign around the corner from the apartment block where I live. (I love this bird, one of my favourites. It’s a type of nightjar on steroids. Hilarious looking thing.) A middle-aged woman with a British accent out walking her fox terrier asked if I was looking for someone, so I pointed out the bird to her. She was fascinated; she had never seen one before. “I’ll go and tell my mum to come and have a look,” she said, before we went our separate ways.

Walking alone late at night is not something I would dream of doing anywhere in South Africa (or indeed, certain parts of Sydney or many other cities around the world). But the ability to not live a “safe lifestyle” and get away with it is not my main point here. The point is that I was alone. I’m always alone.

That’s the trouble with moving to another country and leaving your friends, family and colleagues behind. The loneliness, which at times can be gut-wrenchingly painful, a punch to the solar plexus. It’s by far the worst existential angst I have experienced, ever, and I’ve been into profound ennui since the age of nine.

Granted, my situation probably isn’t typical. I’m here alone while my husband is trying to sell our house and sort out our affairs in South Africa. Being made redundant has meant that I no longer interact with others in an office environment. I live in a suburb which is great for pleasant nature walks along the harbour, not so great for making eye contact with people who pass you in the street (greeting strangers is a no-no), let alone striking up friendships with others.

I can go for weeks without having a face-to-face conversation with another human being. All my social interaction is either online or, very occasionally, on a phone. Seriously, if I died in this apartment, nobody would notice until the smell got too bad to ignore.

The inevitable social isolation experienced by immigrants is something that anyone considering a move to another country needs to take into account. Because loneliness is very bad for your health.

For a start, loneliness speeds up the ageing process. Lonely people are more likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s. Chronically lonely people die younger than people with functioning social lives, and the effects of loneliness are as bad as obesity and smoking. Not to mention the people who attempt or commit suicide because they can’t handle it any more.

Researchers at the UCLA Cousins Centre for Psychoneuroimmunology have linked loneliness to alterations in the activity of genes that control inflammation responses. One of the researchers explained, “What this study shows is that the biological impact of social isolation reaches down into some of our most basic internal processes, the activity of our genes.”

I checked out the UCLA loneliness test and not entirely unexpectedly, I scored the maximum, severe loneliness. I suppose that if the murderers in South Africa don’t get you, the loneliness elsewhere will.

As in the case of so very many things, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.


  • During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.