It is now our sixth loneliness post, and I want to say that eating well, exercising, and sleeping (Copeland 5) are all that you need to carry on through the hardest times. But, though all of that helps, simply listing them seems acutely empty for so painful a problem. The best I can do is give you two lessons to try and learn to grow through time. We’ll get to those.
What do you do if you are just plain… lonely, and the depth of that word is like an anchor that’s stuck at the bottom of the ocean, within a cavern, underneath all the weight of the ocean? You feel like you are drowning and you have felt that way for a while. This is extreme, chronic loneliness, and can seem very much like depression. Sometimes they go hand-in-hand because feeling isolated and hopeless are, indeed, symptoms of depression.
Anyone who has studied loneliness in any capacity (or at least all the ones I have looked at) seem to agree that there is nothing in socioeconomics, gender, culture, or geography that separates the lonely from the non-lonely. This is what the Loneliness book says: “The interaction between a genetic bias and life circumstances that constitutes loneliness is generally beyond our control. However, once triggered, the defensive form of thinking that loneliness generates… can make every social molehill look like a mountain” (Cacioppo 31). Everyone gets lonely – young and old, weak and strong, introvert and extrovert, mentally unstable and mentally stable. And, inside a lonely person’s brain, their executive functioning is being inhibited, making it hard to cope. This is why a teenager who feels left out will react in what an adult might call an “irrational” way. But it is, to them, a crisis that sometimes feels like a life or death situation. And we can talk about that more on day seven.
Changes in your everyday life – like jobs, moving, family dynamics, finances, marriages, deaths, divorces, parents over-working, changing schools – can lead to this perceived crisis. I am happy here in New Zealand with my very attractive, kind husband, but all of these changes have led to feelings of isolation (I mean, I am, literally, on an island). This perceived isolation leads to loneliness, and loneliness makes every little hole in the road seem like the Grand Canyon.
As a preacher’s kid, I’ve been to a lot of funerals in my life. I’ve seen dad get calls when older people living in the nursing home passed away, and when he’d get calls about sudden deaths as well – heart attacks, strokes, accidents – unexpected, horrible tragedies. Innocent children or teens die suddenly or after having cancer, good fathers and mothers get sick, a friend commits suicide. All of these seem to dig a void that can’t be filled. And, like we said before, the simple word loneliness can’t even begin to describe how we feel. You have to push through, but it seems impossible.
I wish we could just take a little pill to ease the pain, like ibuprofen or something. But it is painful. It is torture. And so, in the in-between, when time is all you have as an anecdote, you need to push through. You have to. You need to be strong when you have no strength. Most people see this as impossible. But there is hope. There is a way to break through and there is a time when you will see the hope, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
The best advice I have for this, and I hope it eases even some of your pain, comes from one of the greatest lessons my own mother has taught me. I have blogged about this before on my travel blog, and I feel like it is the most helpful thing I can give you. I use it almost daily – for more than just loneliness:
Look at the big picture. I’m visual, so I think of this like a pointalism painting, which is one of those paintings made up of thousands of differently coloured dots. You get close to the painting and all you see are the dots. Nothing makes sense. But when you stand back, you see a beautiful picture.
No matter how bad the situation is that you’re in, there is meaning and purpose in the big picture. Today is a dot – sometimes a very large patch of dots if it’s a defining life event – that is just a portion of your life. Some experiences are part of the background. Some are part of the foreground and make up pieces of your life that you will remember forever. But, they are all fragments of the bigger picture. We have to look at that bigger picture and get perspective. Look at the other pieces – the good ones. How does what you have experienced enhance your life story? What do you learn? Who can you help now that you’ve been through it?
Honestly, sometimes I got upset when mom would tell me to “look at the big picture” because sometimes it’s hard to stop looking at the dot. Sometimes when people try to help us, we just think that they don’t understand what we are going through – and most of the time, they don’t. They aren’t us. And in the really hard times of my life, it was worse – from finding out my crush liked another girl to my dad being in a car accident and in a coma. But, when I let her mantra help me and I took a step backward – then another – then another, I began to feel less overwhelmed. Less like an anchor stuck in the bottom of the sea, unable to be pulled up or to float, and more like I could swim to the surface and breathe.
Help yourself. Be good to yourself. We know that loneliness affects our brain’s functional control; thus, we know that it is extra hard for lonely people to make good decisions for themselves. Lonely people “know better than to gorge on ice cream, berate co-workers, sleep around, or yell at their [spouse] for bringing home the wrong kind of jelly” (Cacioppo 48). But it’s just harder to keep self-control when we are lonely, but there is power in reminding ourselves that we are worth taking care of. Even science says so.
We need to practice mindfulness if we’re lonely. Ask, “Will this help me?” If the answer isn’t yes, then do your very best not to do it. If I eat a piece of cake (I have sensitivities to gluten, milk, and especially sugar) – even if it’s to make someone else feel good – then that hurts me. It doesn’t help me. If I am skipping breakfast, I need to revisit that decision and ask, “Will it help me to skip breakfast?” The answer is no. But, we have to be mindful of all of it, every day – sometimes every minute. After a while, it gets easier and you don’t have to ask any more. For me, it has to be often and regular
I’ve also learned that helping myself helps others. And that is worthwhile.
So, in the waiting, the in-between, when you’re stuck and can’t get free, I hope that looking at the big picture and taking time to help yourself can get you loose enough to make it to the surface.
Missed something? We don’t want you to feel left out. 🙂
Check out the rest of the “Loneliness Series”:
1. Loneliness: It’s All of Us
2. Loneliness: The Problem, the Paradoxical Virus, and a Cure
3. Loneliness: Finding the “Inner” Person
4. Loneliness: Finding the “Other” Person
5. Loneliness: Finding Meaning in What you Do
6. Loneliness: For the In-Between
7. Loneliness: Understanding Loneliness in All People
8. Loneliness: Helping Others, Helping Yourself
9. Loneliness: Finding the “Upper” Person
10. Loneliness: Final Thoughts on an Un-Final Topic