Are You Lonely? Cornell's Three Suicides Raise The Issue Once More

Cover of "A Good Talk: The Story and Skil...
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Today’s New York Times carries a letter from the president of Cornell, a campus struck by three recent student suicides:

In a time of unrelenting connectivity, through Facebook, Twitter and our smartphones, paradoxically it is too easy to stop connecting directly with those most able to help our young people. What is the way ahead?

First, we need more research into the factors that lead to suicide in this age group and how to identify those at greatest risk. Second, on our campuses, we need to forge ever more effective partnerships among students, parents, teachers, counselors and administrators in support of our students. And third, students must learn that it is smart to ask for help.

The story about the suicides has prompted 258 comments, so far.

Some of you will remember the chorus to “Eleanor Rigby” a Beatles’ tune, about “all the lonely people — where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?

I think about loneliness a lot.

I work alone all day in a suburban apartment. I can hear my neighbor’s voice through the wall that separates our living rooms — she, too, works at home, but is a deeply private person socially. I can hear the radiator hissing and the fridge humming and the wind outside. That’s it.

If I want to speak with someone, I have to pick up the phone — always reluctant to impose upon friends who are all busy parenting and/or working — or leave my apartment and set up a face to face meeting with a friend, many of whom live a 45-60 minute drive away, many of whom are already swamped with family, work, commuting. Sitting in the library or coffee shop simply surrounded by other people we don’t know isn’t the answer.

Two of my friends are, like me right now, also on medication and ordered to rest as we recover slowly from severe hip or back pain. It leaves us alone and isolated (thank God for email!) in our homes.

There’s an interesting piece on this by David Dudley:

Whatever happened to good old-fashioned conversation?

I’m not the only one who has been struck by the eerie quiet that surrounds us nowadays. “We have all these invisible walls built by iPods and cell phones,” says Daniel Menaker, who crusades for traditional, face-to-face connection in his new book, A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation. “Not to be apocalyptic, but I’m very worried. There’s a social obligation to be available in a public space.”

Though hand-held devices now encroach on some treasured preserves of good talk—restaurant meals, an afternoon at the ballpark, the privacy of your car—Menaker’s chief villain isn’t technology per se but our work-obsessed lives. A job culture that demands always-on connectivity is flooding our days and nights with the clipped conventions and I-want-it-yesterday expectations of the work-place. The result: a nation of hyperconnected hermits, thumbs furiously working our BlackBerrys, each of us a master of an ever-smaller personal universe.

And a new memoir about being lonely by Emily White, a Canadian former lawyer living in St. Johns, Newfoundland, recently excerpted:

I lived alone for six years in my 30s, and those years were a period of relentless, almost savage loneliness. I ate breakfast alone, ate dinner alone, went to sleep alone, and woke to an empty apartment. On weekends, if I didn’t have anything planned, I saw no one.

Through all of this loneliness, I couldn’t shake the sense that there was something profoundly wrong with me. I’m 40, and I’ve been described as a member of the “Friends” generation. That is, even if I was living alone, I was supposed to be part of a hip, sassy gaggle of friends — a group that would make me feel as though I were part of a family, as though I weren’t, in fact, so alone.

But I wasn’t Carrie on “Sex and the City.” I had lovely friends, but they were busy with jobs and families. My real family was on the other side of town, and my sisters were raising kids. My work (I was a lawyer) wasn’t particularly social, and I didn’t belong to clubs or a church group.

The aloneness began to unravel me. I didn’t feel able, as one selfhelp writer advises, to see myself as my own companion. I didn’t want to cook dinners for myself as though I were having company. I wanted real company, and without it, my life began to fragment…My sleep fractured: I fell asleep in the living room, above my neighbors’ den, so that I could hear them talking in the evenings…

In fact, everything I went through when alone and lonely was empirically normal. I’ve spent the past five years engrossed in loneliness research, and I’ve seen all my symptoms and traits — the headaches, the wakefulness, the warped eating — evidenced among lonely individuals.

I lived alone for many years, ages 19-23, ages 26-30 and for six years after my divorce. I know how loneliness can gnaw at your soul. The more lonely you feel the more needy and grabby you can become — so uncool! so not fun! — that friends withdraw or you pull away from them, compounding the closed loop of solitude.

I don’t find it very easy to make friends. I once did, living downtown in Toronto and Montreal. I found it terrifyingly impossible in the 18 months I lived — survived, barely — in rural New Hampshire, where my then-partner was doing his medical residency, therefore gone most of the time and exhausted and mono-syllabic when home. I have never felt so disliked. We’d entertain, and no one would reciprocate. Everyone was married, pregnant or breast-feeding and we had no kids or plans to have any.

I live now 25 miles north of Manhattan. I can see the Empire State building from my street. But days, weeks, can go by without human contact unless I initiate it.

I don’t think I’m any less likeable than before. My sweetie is a lovely guy.  We love to cook and entertain, (very rarely reciprocated), and are planning a party for next month.

But, here, I’m wildly unconventional — no kids, unmarried (long-partnered), low-ish income in a wealthy area, no graduate degree surrounded by doctors and corporate lawyers. People don’t know what to make of me, or find me (?) intimidating, I’ve been told.

So — I chat with neighbors in the laundry room, in the elevator, at the mailbox or garage. I chat with our local businessmen, whether Hassan who sells great cheese or Gregg, from whom I’ll be buying window caulk tomorrow or Jose, who works the counter at the dry-cleaners or Mike, the shoe repairman. I talk to my Mom and Dad more than ever before, far away in Canada.

People need face-to-face contact, warmth, humor, conversation. We need to share a laugh and a raised eyebrow. We need a sliver of free cheese (thanks, Hassan!) or a juicy bit of gossip (thanks, Aqeel, our pharmacist) or just knowing we do still belong to a larger community.

It’s a terrible taboo to even admit you’re lonely. Loser! It’s one major reason I went to work a part-time retail job, just to be around co-workers and to enjoy (as I often did) meeting customers.

Doesn’t everyone have a ton of pals eager to hang out with them?

No. Not when everyone seems to be staggering under the multiple and often competing demands of: school, grad school, family of origin, their own babies and kids, aging, ill or dying parents, often living far away, their partner, their work, their hobbies, their new side-business(es), health issues, their sports or recreational or musical commitments.

It’s a minor miracle anyone, anywhere, has time to talk.

Do you?

14 thoughts on “Are You Lonely? Cornell's Three Suicides Raise The Issue Once More

  1. citifieddoug

    I have time to comment on blogs. I also really like living alone, by the way. My former long-term girlfriend used to tell me she’d marry me as soon as we could afford his-and-hers houses. Which I bring up to illustrate, we who enjoy solitude prefer the company of other loners.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    doug, I know people like you and blogged this week about Mort Stone, a friend and former NYT staffer who lived in his own apartment on the same floor as his companion of decades but not with her. If people can afford it, it’s a great choice for some.

    I agree that intimacy can be an acquired taste and shared quarters, certainly small ones, requires compromise.

    But I’m speaking more, here, about loneliness in general — not just whether one lives alone. I think singlehood looks so great when you’re bored of being married or sick of your kids that moment.

    Even loners need help if they’re pretty sick or recovering from injury or surgery. I’ve been through that and it’s no fun.

    1. citifieddoug

      I understand. The strength of the appetite varies but the underlying need seems pretty universal. I was trying for irony.

  3. Yes, being around people does help, but it doesn’t always address the underlying reason why someone is so depressed they want to kill themselves. Just being physically isolated from people does not always induce feelings of loneliness either.

    Some people who are so depressed that they commit, attempt to commit, or seriously think about committing suicide can feel lonely in a crowded room. I felt that way because I was so deep into my own feelings of depression that I isolated myself from everyone, even when they were in the same room with me. I detached myself emotionally.

    People who are in this state of mind need serious help, and being around other people can even make things worse. My sister is in this situation because being with her siblings and their families only magnifies her sense of loss of her own family to a very bitter divorce. She is isolating herself from us.

    I reached out to get help because I knew if I didn’t I would go through with my thoughts of suicide. I didn’t want to leave that scar on my children, my husband and the rest of my family. But some people can’t even get to that point because they are hurting so badly internally that suicide seems to be the only way to end their pain(which it isn’t, but when your mind is hurting that badly, you can’t think straight).

    I don’t think my sister is to the point where she will kill herself, but I do worry about it. My attempts at trying to get her into therapy, which has helped me, have been fruitless. I just hope she gets through this on her own, in time. I keep myself involved in her life as much as I can, but I can’t force it. All I can do is be there for her when she is ready.

  4. john

    There is a difference between being lonely and being alone, and, as we see, the two have nothing to do with one another. I have experienced crushing loneliness surrounded by family and friends all because I wanted to be in the company of another person I happened to be missing. And, because I also work from home, I have gone weeks without seeing anyone in order to hit a deadline, and barely noticed the lack of human interaction. But said, there is nothing worse than when loneliness strikes. Most people most of the time can deal with it, but when depression hits, it’s hard to know what you can do for yourself or those you care about. In those moments, there is some unquantifiable thing that is needed. We can either change our perspective, our environment, or both to shake off the funk, but even that is somewhat superficial.

    Maybe it comes down to relationships with people. I personally enjoy all these new forms of communication we have and feel “that which defeats loneliness” with a number of people I rarely speak with, but these connections or points of contact are just modalities, it’s really about the content or the depth of what gets communicated that matters. In other words, talking is so much more than just using your mouth these days when an email, a chat, or some other blurb, in whatever form it takes, has the ability to make us feel closer to one another.

  5. Caitlin Kelly

    flan, thanks for sharing this.

    I agree with you, and have been through a few extremely severe moments of depression — even thinking of suicide a few times — and know that being around others can feel crazy when they are so…healthy and you feel so useless and broken.
    I was invited to attend a friend’s wedding barely a month after my husband walked out on me after seven years. I know my friends were really offended, and dropped me, but I simply could not, however selfishly, bear to attend a joyous event celebrating committed love right then.

    And you do detach. I did. I was **very** fortunate that when I really hit bottom, which was actually a year later, (and I did know enough about depression I was recognizing some of its classic symptoms in my behavior), my best friend was a psychologist. One Sunday night, I told her how I was feeling and she ordered me (!) to tell my boss — a very tough, scary guy — that I had to take some time off, immediately, for health reasons. I was again very, very fortunate; because I am normally an animated and social creature, my weirdly withdrawn, silent behavior in a very small staff meeting in a very small room was immediately obvious to all. As I tried to stammer it out, he told me that he had been treated for severe depression, recognized it in me and compassionately said to take as much time as I needed — luckily, a week at home.

    It’s very frightening to feel that depressed and I have seen it in others. You can feel very helpless.

    john, I think a clinical depression actually needs a professional to diagnose and treat it. I have never felt anything like it and pray never to again; that was in 1995 or 1996.

    Your larger point is very true….we need deep talk, not chitchat or small talk. I feel very lucky to have found here such lively, fun, smart followers and commenters who take the risk of sharing some powerful stuff. I personally tend to have a small circle of old, dear friends, ages 20-something to 70-something, but what we have in common is impatience with superficial BS.

    Especially as we age, and more friends and/or loved ones die, I feel a more powerful urge to connect more deeply. We attended a memorial service this week and it was so moving to hear people reminiscing with such fondness and amusement about the man we were there to honor.

  6. inmyhumbleopinion

    Just to further comment on the Cornell situation, undiagnosed depression in teenagers is probably the scariest of the sub-groups prone to suicide, because they don’t have enough life experience to know “this too shall pass”. And their semi-developed brains make them more impulsive than the rest of us, doing irreparable harm before they’ve thought it through. Worse, once one does it, another vulnerable kid has the thought put in their head, making these incidents somewhat contagious–the likely scenario at Cornell.

    My heart goes out to the parents of these kids who probably had no clue their sons and daughters were depressed–after all, they got into Cornell, didn’t they? As a parent of teenagers, that false sense of security scares me to death.

  7. April Peveteaux

    Caitlin, I think it’s interesting that you talk about living in rural (well, 25 miles north of NYC isn’t necessarily rural, is it?) areas and connecting that with loneliness.

    We’re about to leave New York City and one of my biggest fears is the isolation. And we’re moving to LA! There’s just something about being able to walk out of your front door and connect with people, especially when you’re in a profession like this and work from home. I’ve always said that whenever I’m in a bad mood (even slightly depressed) if I take a walk around my favorite neighborhoods in New York, I instantly feel better.

    Isolation is not good for depression. Now, anxiety, maybe…

  8. Caitlin Kelly

    Imho, I know the terrible suicide stats from researching my first n
    book — 50 percent of gun deaths are suicide and teen boys most often die from suicide or homicide. Even one of the most ardent pro-gun writers, Paxton Quigley, a woman, said no home with a teen boy in it should have any sort of ready access to firearms as a consequence of this sad fact. I would urge you, as a concerned mom, to ask lots of persistent nosy questions about where your son(s) are spending their time — many people own guns and may keep that private. You don’t want to find out the hard way that your child was exposed to that potential risk.

    April, I don’t consider my home rural, clearly suburban. NH was hideously isolating for me — the nearest big city, Boston, was a 2 hr drive away. I really miss downtown city life, that I had in Toronto and Montreal. But you know the cost of NYC apartments!! I’m typing this in our one fun, local cafe. A sanity-saver.

    I actually really like L.A. and feel sure you’ll find new friends there.

  9. Caitlin, thanks for this good post and for stirring all these fascinating, if not altogether merry, thoughts. I’m from the other side of that coin: youngest of 4 daughters who were all quite close (at least, to me if not always to each other) I have always sought company to excess, which means I’m over-involved and often overloaded. Too many Groups, too many Causes, almost too many friends except there is no such too-many, so when I despair over too few hours in the day I at least usually remember to count my blessings. I think even those of us who are constantly attached to many others still hit times of loneliness and can be blind-sided by it. Or maybe it’s loss. Having recently lost my oldest sister I am still seriously grieving the loss of the one closest to me a year ago; we were on different coasts but still joined at the hip. But here’s the reflex fix-it from the Ridiculously Gregarious of us (we can’t help it): reach out. Especially those who don’t need to reach out, reach out to find someone who does. Life is really, really too short not to. Superficial connectedness today is easy, but as someone pointed out above we need the face-to-face. Or the truly meaningful. If you can make a superficial connection about something meaningful – as you have to wish those students might have done – it’s hard not to let another into your life, and often that lessens the loneliness. I have absolutely no idea if the above makes any sense, but as I said, we Ridiculously Gregarious (or maybe it’s once-a-mother, always-a-mother) can’t help it. Peace & cheer up there.

  10. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks Fran….I love the concept of Ridiculously Gregarious. Sounds like a garage band and I’d wear the T-shirt. I admire your zeal but it can lead to burn-out.

    You know how the earliest childhood photos reveal who you are — or who you will become? I have one on my wall of me at…3? I’m holding a bag of cookies, holding one out and looking a little anxious. That sounds about right.

    I enjoy Facebook and T/S. But nothing beats being in the same room — today, as I walked jauntily (walking! pain-free) into the dry-cleaners, Jose at the counter (who has seen my recent hip agony) said “You’re walking with a spring in your step.” Bless him for seeing, literally, and noticing.

    That does not happen without face to face meeting and paying careful attention to one another.

  11. Pingback: More people talking about loneliness | Lonely

  12. edna

    Several years ago I moved to a new city for work. It was my 3rd city in 3 years. I was so lonely and very angry, tired and hurt about being so lonely for so long. I joined a bible study to make friends, and those sweet people were so welcoming. But I was the most miserable person in the room. Here I was connecting with others, which was an answer to prayer, but every time I contributed to the discussion, but grief, anger and bitterness spilled out. I’m sure I was pretty unbearable and definitely unlikeable. But I am so grateful for their patience towards me. They extended love when I really was unloveable. Not that I’m in my 4th city in 5 years, I can look back at myself and chuckle. And while I still experience loneliness in my new city, I am learning that on those rare occasions that I do get to connect with others, I need to be careful to be the person someone else would want to be around. Thanks Caitlin for the article.

  13. Caitlin Kelly

    Edna, that’s a lot of moving. I changed cities five times in six years and it was way too much. I made very good friends in two of them and the last, a rural area, was total hell. I’ve never been so lonely anywhere. I think it really takes time to settle into a place and find some kindred spirits. Glad it’s working better for you now.

    I find NY the loneliest place I’ve ever lived. I have dozens of professional acquaintances and many people I enjoy, but true friends? People you can call when things (not only, but they do) really hit bottom, not just for a quick coffee? No.

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