This is the first in a series of personal blog posts about living with chronic (trait) loneliness and state loneliness (I will explain the difference later in this blog post) aimed at helping me map out my own journey with this condition and at getting others to better understand loneliness as a serious public health issue.
Blogger’s Note: Before deciding to message or text me offering your friendship or to go for chai lattes read this post and learn because this isn’t a request for company-I’m good in that department-it is a call for better understanding of a situation many of us don’t even know how to name.
State Loneliness or I Could Die and No One Would Notice
After the suicide of my mother, I found myself in a downward spiral of a major depressive episode compounded by my grief and guilt over her loss. But something else was also happening to me, another feeling was taking over and leaving me feeling absolutely terrified. I was overcome with loneliness as I for the first time in my life was living alone-I hadn’t even been alone when I was homeless-and had no one in my life who could claim to be responsible for me.
I found myself breaking down in tears when asked for my emergency contact and realizing that I had none. I found myself panicking at home realizing that if something happened to me there would be no one to even notice as I mostly work from home with a flexible schedule so no one I work with sees me for days, even weeks on end.
I worried about ending up like Joyce Vincent, who died in her UK apartment and wasn’t found until three years later! A docudrama, Dreams of a Life, has been made about Joyce.
Aspects of her life parallel mine in that Joyce was liked by many people but no one was close enough to notice she had went missing so her body was only found when her apartment got repossessed for rent arrears. An ad had to be put in the paper to find anyone who knew her. In the end, a lot of people knew her, but not anyone who would make it their business to find out how she was doing beyond phone calls and emails.
But Joyce’s reality is the reality of many of us, particularly those of us who have no family or are not close to family.
My mother’s death left me dealing with “state loneliness” where your loneliness is caused by a particular situation. But this situation ended up being compounded by the resurgance of my “trait” loneliness.
Trait Loneliness or How I Teleported Back to Junior High
Yes, we can create our own families but they can often prove to be as unreliable as the families we were born into. After losing my mother, a relationship with someone I had considered a close friend fell apart for a number of reasons which triggered a lot of anxiety about whether I was “too messed up” for people to want to be around and too much of “burden”.
On top of that, I had a number of verbally abusive encounters with people who I knew which revealed that some people in my social circle were being nice to my face but publicly attacking me behind my back. I had not had to deal with such behaviour since Grade 6!
I had worked for years on my trait loneliness-a condition which research has shown has genetic factors -learning to trust people and not be so afraid that everyone was out to get me or was just about to reject me. But my depression compounded by these situations just blew all of that work out of the water and I was just a scared kid again….but this time, there was no mom who loved me to run home to.
So it all made me very socially wary at a time when I really needed to be getting out more. So, I withdrew from getting support from other friends in my life because I wasn’t sure who I could really trust or rely on anymore.
I would post about feeling lonely on Facebook but I worried about reaching out to friends because I was afraid I would lose them too. Posting to random strangers seemed safer as it offered some minor relief-likes and comments help to make you feel less invisible-but it wasn’t the real connection I needed.
I Discover That I Am Not Alone In Being Alone
One day, I decided to Google “Loneliness” and I discovered the memoir of “Lonely” by Emily White. I am so grateful for this woman’s work. This Toronto-based former lawyer wrote this memoir which weaves together her own personal journey with loneliness along with findings from the last 50 years of academic research into loneliness. It is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the subject but also it was a life-saver for me as it helped me to better understand what I was going through. Being able to name my condition was the first important step in working out how to manage it.
I Discover That My Loneliness Is Slowly Killing Me and A Whole Bunch of Other People Globally
Through reading White’s memoir I discovered the work of neuroscientist John Cacioppo, who, in his TED Talk, The Lethality of Loneliness, lays out all of ways in which loneliness has a drastic impact on people’s physical health and why it needs to be seen as a serious public health issue. Loneliness changes us physiologically affecting everything from our sleep to our immune system.
Needless to say that discovering all this just added to my anxiety about ending up dead at home with no one to find me, but it also helped me better understand some of the health problems I seemed to be developing inexplicably at the time.
Managing My Loneliness
Cacioppo’s research has also come up with some treatments for chronically lonely people, which includes cognitive behavioural therapy as well as the E.A.S.E. system.
I started implementing E.A.S.E. into my own life.
E is for Extend Yourself
According to Cacioppo, “The withdrawal and passivity associated with loneliness are motivated by the perception of being threatened. To be able to test other ways of behaving without that feeling of danger, you need a safe place to experiment, and you need to start small.”
As my depression became more manageable after getting some great help from the Ottawa Hospital’s Mobile Crisis Unit, the Civic’s Day Hospital, and regular visits to a psychiatrist, I felt up to starting to reconnect and recommit socially.
This began by committing to tutor my friend and her children weekly. This commitment has proven to be key in my recovery both from depression and around alleviating what was at the time an overwhelming sense of loneliness. For one thing, I had to leave the house at least once a week. Secondly, my help was really needed. Thirdly, I got to socialize with a friend in a family environment. All of this proved incredibly healing.
A is for Action Plan
Recognizing that I had to manage my loneliness, and identifying it as a goal necessary for my overall health has actually been pretty empowering and I have slowly pieced together different activities to ensure that I am socializing regularly with a few people who I feel safe around and can trust.
On top of tutoring weekly, I committed myself to walking with a friend who lived close to me whenever she asked, usually weekly, even when I felt like just staying in my room because of pain, anxiety, or depression. This also helped to get me out of the house. I also found that getting people to expect to connect with me at certain times during the week really helped to address my fear about dying alone in my house unfound for years-a fear I am sure some see as irrational but others will completely understand and relate to.
S is for Selection
According to Cacioppo, “The solution to loneliness is not quantity but quality of relationships. Human connections have to be meaningful and satisfying for each of the people involved, and not according to some external measure. Moreover, relationships are necessarily mutual and require fairly similar levels of intimacy and intensity on both sides.”
It is very important for those of us who are coping with loneliness to socialize with people who we feel safe around and can trust.
Despite losing one friend, as I recovered from my depression, I realized that I had many other friends who had weathered rough times with me and who had, in a variety of ways, made sure to stay in touch with me, even after I withdrew.
These people found ways to make me feel valuable and wanted in their lives. They didn’t make me feel “messed up” or like a “problem that needed to be solved”. They offered me support but also looked to me for support. This is actually an important aspect of the type of relationships that can help to alleviate feelings of loneliness-they require reciprocity.
Cacioppo explains that “one of the things that we have learned is that avoiding loneliness is not about “getting”, not about being a recipient…..We need mutual aided protection. If you are only receiving aid and protection from others, that doesn’t satisfy this deeper sense of belonging. Being just a client of a psychotherapist fulfils some needs, but it doesn’t fulfil that real need to have a rich reciprocal bond…..getting out of loneliness takes reciprocal connections not one-directional ones. If it were just about support, people would not feel lonely in hospital because they are surrounded by it. But we know that people in hospital often feel very lonely.”
I didn’t need people to be nice, kind or charitable to me to help with my loneliness-I needed to feel that I had something to offer.
E is for Expect the Best
According to Cacioppo, “The need for patience does not end once we begin to find greater happiness in our relationships. Even if any of us were perfect, inevitably the other people we come to know will have different perspectives. The prototypical wedding vows, “for better or for worse, in good times and in bad,” are a public proclamation of the ever-present likelihood of interpersonal friction. Even the best friends and the partners in the best marriages will disagree and hurt each other from time to time. Success in the face of this reality is served by not magnifying the moments of friction by over-interpreting them.”
The people I have felt comfortable reconnecting with as I have moved forward with my recovery have mainly been friends I have had since my late teens and early twenties. I realize that the reason why I feel more trusting of them is because they have stayed in my life for so long, despite moving from Ottawa, getting married, and having children, and have seen me at my worst on more than one occasion. They are also all people who I have had some kind of conflict with or have disappointed at some point in our friendship. But the friendship survived not because they wanted to be nice to me but because they genuinely wanted me in their lives and I wanted them in my life too. Taking comfort in the survival of these relationships, whether or not I see these people once a week or once a year, has been incredibly important as I have moved forward with managing my loneliness.
At this point in my loneliness management plan, I am not up to engaging with any new people although I have become open to building deeper connections with people who I have already known for years and who I feel won’t jeopardize my emotional safety. People I don’t feel safe around socially I just avoid.
My future posts will delve deeper into this subject. I hope this post whet people’s appetite to learn more about loneliness.
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Thanks for reading.