Books

Is Loneliness Really That Bad?


Studies have found that the outlook is grim for the chronically lonely. But the writer, an acute sufferer, may have found salvation … from her very own bookcase.



For much of my life, I’ve faked connectedness. This meant lying to family members about events and dates on my schedule—even leaving my visiting older sister behind on my couch years ago because I had a (imaginary) brunch date. Countless times I’d rummage through my purse for my stillborn cell phone (it was vibrating, I’d say) and engage in witty repartee with Myself. If I had the rare guest over (I could not allow any guest to glimpse the isolation in my life), I’d surreptitiously call my landline (from the bathroom), rush to pick it up and proceed with another one-way social charade. This often ended with me speaking the following words into the  phone, “I’d love to, but today’s no good.” I won’t get into the social club I was president of at age 9, and the regular updates of my “It Girl” happenings I gave to my skeptical mother.

These may sound like innocuous bits of image manipulation we’re all guilty of, but the truth is I’ve spent much of my life trying to repel, bury, or straightjacket my experience on this planet as an existential loner. So every time I read about the latest study on the toxicity of loneliness, I feel condemned to an early grave by an inbred time-bomb.

If you don’t believe loneliness has become the illness of the zeitgeist, consider the following headlines: “Loneliness Is Killing Us—We Must Start Treating This Disease” (The Guardian); “The Lethality of Loneliness” (The New Republic); “How Feeling Lonely Can Shorten Your Life” (Time ); “Loneliness Is Deadly” (Slate).

My own efforts to live longer and better—the Zumba classes and the inner-peace-grasping yoga—won’t help the fact I remain alone, and lonely, inside a flesh-and-bone encasement. From that isolated place, like everyone else I engage the world through the small, barred window of subjective consciousness.

Given that fact, it seems the popularly reported loneliness threat has a tautological weirdness to it. Being human will shorten your life, the studies say.

Still, it scares me. For the chronically lonely (I count myself in this group), the health outlook is grim. Research from the University of Chicago, Ohio State University, and University College London shows that pervasive loneliness and social isolation are linked to a compromised immune system, raised levels of the stress hormone cortisol, fitful sleep punctured by “micro-awakenings,” inflammation, increased risks of heart disease and, alas, premature death. Chronic loneliness stalks men and women, young and old. Its effects are more devastating than obesity, according to a study by Brigham Young University.

Researchers point out their findings don’t apply to the loneliness that might temporarily follow a Gwynethy “conscious uncoupling” or swapping one city for another. The studies also show that persistent feelings of loneliness among the socially connected and the physical isolation of those without ties are both, in ways not fully understood, associated with impaired health. Even living alone by choice, whatever contentment not having to share a bathroom may bring, has its health risks.

John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, a leading loneliness researcher, has cited numbers showing that 40 percent of Americans struggle with loneliness. In an interview with beinghuman.org, the man didn’t mince words: “We’re a fundamentally social species, and a social animal that is isolated is almost certain to live a shorter, more miserable life.”  

I can’t decide whether this is alarming news or a no-brainer for those of us for whom loneliness feels anatomical. (We’re flattered, though, that there are now loneliness researchers and loneliness studies.) Long before our experience was quantified for risk, we knew well the physiological withering loneliness brings. In my own case, private health insurers should know the odds are stacked against me: My school years were marked by a stunting sense of exclusion. Adult life has been an ongoing social drought broken up by a few catapulting friendships. Like many chronic sufferers, I have the markers of outward success—satisfying work, travel, Facebook “likes”, even a child who is deeply loved. But a corrosive sense of separateness from others lurks, despite medication and therapy. Still, while my private archive of withered bonds, years of isolated living and aborted social connections is substantial, I’m guessing it’s not much bigger than that of many closeted lonely people out there.

The question, now that loneliness has been widely pathologized, is how to respond once the damage is done. We’re being warned that we need “networks” or, more critically, life-sustaining friendships. I’ve known the exhilarating depths of such bonds a few times in my life. But true, reciprocal human connection is scarce at any age. And the remedying “social engagement”—the breast cancer awareness chili-and-barbecue cook-offs or Matzo Ball parties or scripted volunteering—will make even the most integrated person squirm in her solitary skin. One could go the way of RentAFriend.com, but a good therapist can play a similar role with far greater returns on the investment.

So, in the face of this new public health crisis, how does a chronically lonely person get up in the morning, poorly rested, cortisol sloshing in the arteries, and not have the added burden of fearing an early death?

Like many loners, I learned to inoculate myself with books long before I knew the term “bibliotherapy.” To ward off thoughts of suicide, I’d get my fix of William Carlos Williams urging all of us to rise in the night during a micro-awakening, dance naked and “grotesque” before the mirror and sing out, “I am lonely, lonely. / I was born to be lonely. I am best so!”, as he does in the poem “Danse Russe.” The poem’s speaker is a family man, we learn in the first stanza. His self-celebratory midnight sprees don’t suggest we’re our best selves in isolation. What Williams asserts, with humor and awe and a tenderness for his unclothed grotesqueness, is the absolute fact of our aloneness—chronic or otherwise. In doing so, he restores loneliness to its essential humanity. He also ritualizes it, in the speaker’s secret dance, as a key ingredient of artistic creation.

Even if we’re using our loneliness to fritter away hours on the internet, rather than to create art, we can still take heart in the more ennobling views of our maligned condition. Why succumb to the gloom of disease statistics when you can read Rilke? In The Book of Hours, he tells us, “Now you must go out into your heart/As onto a vast plain. Now the immense loneliness begins,” in a poem that moves from the voluptuousness of summer to the stripping away of winter. The forlornness of the lonely, without social intervention, may be terminal, but it can lead to the kind of difficult self-exploration that gets at what it means to be alive. It’s an often mournful road, Rilke’s, and a transcendent one: “Through the empty branches the sky remains./ It is what you have./ Be earth now, and evensong./ Be the ground under the sky.” For the lonely, the painful disconnection and depletion of the self, in this light, is transformed into an enhanced sense of one’s continuity with all life.

This redemptive take on loneliness doesn’t get much traction in the U.S., where social success and competition both lie at the heart of a national moral scheme. Depression and anxiety have plenty of scientific cache and accompanying medication. But loneliness—the perceived lack of meaningful, human connection and emotional intimacy with others—is a suspect, almost criminalized state. How often do we learn that the perpetrator of a shooting rampage was a “loner”? We are meant to bear it silently: “Unfortunately, talking about loneliness in America is deeply stigmatized; we see ourselves as a self-reliant people who do not whine about neediness,” Jacqueline Olds and Richards S. Schwartz write in their 2010 book, The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century. It doesn’t help that many of us—lonely or not—are wrapped in different therapies of self-justification. Getting rid of “toxic people” is our motto on the path to personal growth. Friends, siblings, spouses, even parents are sacrificed as we erect our artisanal, evolved selves.

Maybe something good will come of all this depressing research, like a loneliness-awareness marathon.

In the U.K., they’re getting close. The Campaign to End Loneliness: Connections in Older Age is a network of organizations that dedicates research and services to the loneliness epidemic in a country where service providers are sounding alarms about the social isolation and neglect of an aging population. The group has hosted conferences and lobbied public officials. Much of the research posted on their website addresses loneliness at all ages. On another front, a series of “Health and Loneliness Roadshows” is planned in Scotland throughout 2015 for social workers and health-care professionals to discuss the impact of loneliness.

These are admirable efforts. Vulnerable populations—the marginalized, the elderly—need dedicated, organized support more than most. But can essential loneliness be assuaged by this kind of institutional bandaging?

When I was in my early twenties, ever isolated, unemployed and helping my mother through her chemo treatments, I considered taking my own life and looked into buying a handgun. One afternoon, in those pre-internet days, I leafed through the Yellow Pages and scanned the listings of used gun dealers. Overcome by a sense of my own ridiculousness, I put the directory aside and went instead for a walk in Central Park. I made my way to the Sheep Meadow and sat on the grass. I had a paperback with me I’d just bought, Dubliners, by James Joyce. I sank into the stories the way one sinks into the kind of unplanned conversation with someone that detonates your small view of the world. There, in those urban lives, were paralysis, loneliness, and a mute grief. I wasn’t an Irishwoman living in early-20th-century Dublin, but a shudder of recognition ran through me. In “A Painful Case,” Mr. Duffy, entrenched in a life of predictability, briefly opens up to the only offer of real companionship ever extended to him. His new friend is a woman chafing against the confines of her own life. They begin to grow close, but he hears “the strange impersonal voice which he recognized as his own, insisting on the soul’s incurable loneliness. We cannot give ourselves, it said: we are our own.” James Duffy ultimately rejects Emily Sinico, and, after learning of her death, is left to regret that “he had been outcast from life’s feast.”

I read for hours, until dusk. A woman suddenly crouched down in front of me and asked what I was reading. Before I could answer, she said, “Bless your heart,” and walked away. Whatever desolation she or I might’ve had in our lives was part of a much larger story. I’d already known this on some level, but spending a few hours with Joyce’s characters drove the fact home. I got up and went back to my mother.

A few years later, as a public-school teacher teaching some of the books that had helped keep me alive, a ninth-grade student described his home life to me in an essay. Both parents worked nights. The silence and isolation of these afterschool hours dwarfed him. All he could do was watch television—for six hours a day. He ate little. Homework rarely got done. He asked me for advice: How could he tolerate being so many hours in his empty home without television? I encouraged him to take a 15-minute break from his TV routine (it stretched from 6 p.m. to midnight). In those minutes, I suggested he read a single page from The Catcher In The Rye, the book we were reading as a class. He might also write a single paragraph in his diary. Nothing more. Small steps, I said. Then he could go back to the TV. Slowly, in increments, over months, my student was able to cut back an hour. Then two. Eventually, he was down to an hour-and-a-half of TV—that powerful narcotic for the lonely. His grades improved. He read more. He could be with himself, alone, at home.

In a medication-glutted mental illness market, books as therapy might seem banal. But, in the U.K., the National Health Service recently launched the “Books on Prescription” program to help patients manage their suffering by reading self-help books. The Reading Agency, a charity linked to the NHS program,  promotes literature and poetry for the depressed through their “Mood-Boosting Books” initiative. Titles include Essential Poems From the Staying Alive Trilogy, edited by Neil Astley, and Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro.

As a lonely child, the first book in which I found solace, at age 8, was Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White. Charlotte’s story gently reassured me, in ways I didn’t fully understand, that my own fears of loss and change were the stuff of life, at least a spider’s life.

Lately, I turn to the words of Jiddu Krishnamurti for some perspective: “If you would understand something completely … you must be near it. You must come to it without any objection, prejudice, condemnation, or repulsion; you must look at it.”

Every day, judging from the growing body of international research (and my own intuition), I brush lightly against people in the depths of their own loneliness. Our shared terrors will prevent most of us from making any meaningful contact with one another. But if anyone did call out for a lifeline, what I’d say to them is this: Feel your loneliness, like an existential brine. That is our lot sometimes, and it’s okay. Also, go to the community barbecue. Volunteer. See the therapist. And get reading. You’ll find out that you have company. Your loneliness has long been chronicled and sung. By not running away in dread of it, you might just become, in Rilke’s words, “a thing ripened until it is real.”

 

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