• Feelings of hopelessness can be hard to manage, and hard to talk about

  • Therapist Frances Hollingdale explores the universality of suffering and hopelessness

  • A professional therapist can help you manage difficult feelings – find yours here 

A problem shared is a problem halved, they say. But what if you have no idea what the problem is? What is the point of talking to anyone about it? Might as well talk to the wind.

The home where I grew up was on a busy main road by a bus stop. The blanket of deep rhythmic rumbling Routemaster buses coupled with the reassuring hum of traffic to form the sound backdrop to our lives. But from time to time, the peace of an early evening would be shattered by the cry of the ‘Why-Oh-Why Man.’

I never saw him, but would often hear him loudly lamenting a bus he had just missed.

‘Why, oh why, oh why? Why me? Why always me? Why, oh why, oh why?’

He would scream his frustration helplessly into the void until the next bus came. Safely inside our walls, we would giggle to each other, ‘Ah. The Why-Oh-Why Man is here again.’

I have been re-visited a number of times by the Why-Oh-Why Man. The feeling that forces are ranged against me, life is hopeless. I will never get what I want, let alone what I need. Then the smallest frustration becomes a huge issue. Everyone else seems to be able to get on the bus, why not me? Why, oh why?

‘It’s only a bus. There will be another one soon’. It doesn’t help.

The source of a problem may sometimes appear obvious. Relationship and family issues, loss, grief, illness; changes at work, lack of money or time, feeling bullied or belittled. Or it may be something that has happened long ago that is hard to shake off. As difficult as it might be, there is something to talk about. Something inside that feels a need to come out.

But when life seems fairly ok and there’s nothing massive to complain about, what voice can be given to a sense of frustration, unhappiness or even despair?

Hopelessness may feel like a gnawing emptiness, a lifeless desert where nothing can grow. Life is hollow. At the same time, this emptiness weighs heavily, dragging through day after day. There is nothing to give, nothing worth having.

As the weeks turn and the seasons change, instead of colour and life, there is a constant tinge of grey. As Oscar Wilde wrote from prison, ‘It is always twilight in one's cell, as it is always twilight in one's heart.’*

Between an outward, social self and a hidden real self, there lies a secret prison of isolation. Within its walls, nothing can be touched or understood.

In the search for relief there are numerous distractions and strategies. Living through others, focusing on their problems and concerns in an effort to turn the internal spotlight outwards. Chasing excitement and meaning through a constant feed of social media, social activity, work, sex, TV, gaming, holidays, exercise, drugs, or alcohol can seem an effective way through. Keep moving on and leave it behind.

Things that were once pleasures may become obsessions and addictions. Cynical and weary; numbing the pain seems the only escape.

But we are not alone.

From our very earliest days we rely on others around us to help us make sense of the environment that we find ourselves in. As we grow in intellect and stature, the need to find meaning through our relationships with others remains, despite the idea that managing on our own is the only adult way to be.

Suffering is a universal human experience which in itself may form the basis of a deep connection with another person. Throughout history, religions and cultures, people have felt moved to make sense of despair: in music, art, poetry and storytelling through books and films. Sometimes there is no other purpose than simply to scream out how it feels. So what happens if the call is received by someone? Is there a helpful response? Can it even be heard?

A therapist is first and foremost a listener, but this can be mistaken for a blank screen or a brick wall. However, in active listening there can be a response; something drawn from another perspective.  Together, there can be a way to form a dynamic and creative partnership in a safe, professional space. It takes commitment, time and courage from both parties.

The answer to the question of individual or collective suffering may always be just out of reach. Psychotherapy offers an exploratory journey, all the while trying to make sense out of the nonsense together. There may be many pitfalls, alongside rich discoveries of illuminating brilliance or a piece of simple, yet deep understanding.

The Why-Oh-Why Man of my childhood may always be just missing the bus. Maybe one day he found someone to listen and understand with him; maybe he could find some meaning in it all.

And in finding meaning, there might even be hope.


Frances Hollingdale is a verified welldoing.org therapist in WC1, London

Further reading

How to manage feeling sad

Understanding and managing a depression relapse

EMDR therapy transformed my life

Depression: the symptoms and when to ask for help

5 ways to manage overwhelming emotions