Loneliness can be deadly

Poster for a New York showing of Children of L...
Poster for a New York showing of Children of Loneliness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Caitlin Kelly

Can loneliness kill? Apparently so.

The New Republic, in this piece, argues in favor of being more social:

Teach a lonely person to respond to others without fear and
paranoia, and over time, her body will make fewer stress hormones and
get less sick from them. Care for a pet or start believing in a
supernatural being and your score on the UCLA Loneliness
Scale will go down. Even an act as simple as joining an athletic team or
a church can lead to what Cole calls “molecular remodeling.” “One
message I take away from this is, ‘Hey, it’s not just early life that
counts,’ ” he says. “We have to choose our life well.”

The story is long and complicated, and its underlying premise argues for more government funding for parents and young children.

But the larger point is an interesting one in a time when we are so connected by technology — thousands of you have signed up to follow me but will never meet me in person — yet often so lacking in true emotional and intellectual intimacy.

It took me a long, long time to make new friends when I came to New York. I was 30, and had always had very close friends and had made new friends easily. It was puzzling and miserable that I couldn’t seem to replicate that here.

But New York is a place where many people come with the absolute goal of making a lot of money and getting ahead and becoming powerful and famous — which all leaves little time to hang out for a few hours over coffee. New Yorkers also suffer the longest commute to work of anyone in the U.S., so even if someone likes you, they’re often sprinting for the 5:14 or the 8:22 back home to their own family.

I found the place annoyingly tribal; if you hadn’t attended the same schools as others, preferably an Ivy League college, you were simply persona non grata. College and graduate school as a sorting mechanism are powerful tools here.

I was lonely for a long time. In the past three or four years, finally, I’m happily starting to enjoy an active social life again, recently fielding two invitations to visit one friend in Pennsylvania and another at her house upstate. Last night, I met one friend, in from San Francisco, for a drink and another for dinner.

(Oddly, or not, they knew one another, having worked together decades ago for the same NYC book publisher and both [!] arrived with copies of their publishers’ new books for me to read. In addition to the three I had just bought {thanks, Danielle!}, I was now coming home carrying nine books!)

It feels really good to have friends you know for sure love you and are rooting for you. We need to be liked and valued, so see someone’s face light up with pleasure when they see us and lean in for a ferocious hug.

But building friendship also requires intimacy and intimacy takes time and effort, two things many of us have difficulty mustering up after a day of hard work (or looking for work) and commuting and caring for our families and pets and ourselves. Intimacy requires trust and being vulnerable and opening yourself up to someone new.

I paid a very high price for being lonely in 1998 when I became the victim of a con man. I was isolated, struggling financially, had not had a boyfriend in two years, was divorced and feeling as low and insecure as I ever have. The vulture swooped in — I was emotional roadkill.

After I survived that ordeal, I immediately joined a small, friendly local church. Living alone in the suburbs, without kids or any emotional connection to others living near me, I desperately needed community. I needed, and found, a place where I could feel safe again, and valued, and heal.

Have you ever felt terribly lonely?

What did you do to alleviate it?

30 thoughts on “Loneliness can be deadly

  1. Loneliness and friendships go through phases – when I moved to the States (Massachusetts), I was terribly lonely – no friends, no family, no job and that lasted until I had my child. Massachusetts was not a great place for me – that Eastern way of things. I have held onto a few friends over the years from different states but hardly ever see them. It takes awhile no matter where I am. Now that I am in Tucson, I am starting to connect with people in groups (poetry workshops, art groups) so I hold out hope that there are some new people coming along. Colorado has been hard but the few friends I have in both places I count as if they were gold coins – we may not have tons in common but we are there for each other.

    1. I moved Toronto-Paris-TO-Montreal-NH-NY between 1982 and 1988. It was nuts. I haven’t budged since, as making new friends can take a lot longer than we’d like. I spent 18 months in a small NH town and have NEVER been so lonely anywhere. It was true hell, no matter how many times we had people over for meals or made an effort — everyone else was married, pregnant, a mother and/or a jogger and none of these roles interested me at all. Brutal. I was very relieved to leave it behind.

  2. themodernidiot

    haha, me? I relish the silence 😉

    Kudos on the social life. May your calendar be ever full of love and opportunity.

      1. I get that, indeed.

        My learning curve, and it’s been slow, is that the world is filled with some truly loving people. You have to trust they exist. They do.

      2. themodernidiot

        yes it is. i joke, but i have a core group of people i trust completely. and the fam is pretty good as far as relatives go. take ’em with a grain of salt. lord knows they put up with my bs 🙂

  3. I’ve felt lonely at times, but never terribly lonely. I think this is a product of growing up military/government/expat and moving a lot, I learned to be pretty emotionally self reliant. It has some downsides, but a practical upshot is that I’m excellent at keeping myself entertained. Even today I’m more likely to feel bored than lonely when left largely to myself (like when J. went off to London for nine months. I had some rough days but it was largely just fine). But I also know I’m connected to friends who have got my back even when they don’t live even remotely close by. It’s amazing how just knowing someone out there is on your side does for a person!

    1. I suspect your childhood/adolescence did help that way. The upside is self-reliance and the downside can be letting new people in. It will be interesting when you get to London to see how open people are there to making new friends.

  4. Yay! I’m so glad you got some new books! 🙂 And oh, how I know that feeling of loneliness all too well. There is currently an unpublished post sitting in my dashboard entitled “In Walks Lonely”, which basically sums up the feelings I faced when the initial excitement of my transcontinental move wore off and reality set in. I am certainly settling into my life in NZ now, but I will never be able to establish in one year (or two years or three years or five years) the kinds of friendships that took me a lifetime to culture back home.

    1. I spent an hour in Posman and loved it!

      I left Toronto — where I’d lived ages 5 to 30 — and it was a huge shock to realize how much I’d left behind in the way of friendships. I still stay in touch with about half a dozen people there and still miss them and our shared early history. The hardest part, for me, of being an expat is not having anyone here who “knew me when” — at 16 or 27 or at camp. Last night at dinner I had a lovely moment with one of my newer (since 2009) friends, who described me in a way that showed how well she knows me. That felt good.

  5. The loneliest time in my life had to have been my childhood. It’s interesting to me that since then, someone has always been there. I realized in college that it wasn’t always the same person who was there when I needed them, and it wasn’t always the person I hoped would be there, but someone was always there and would be there. It took me a long time to learn to form strong relationships with stable people so that I really could rely on particular people. But I do seem to have a knack for finding the support I need, and I’m grateful for that.

    1. You make an interesting point — sometimes it’s not at all the people you expect. Having a posse of solid friends, esp. when you have had a rough and lonely childhood, is so important. Glad that this has worked out so well for you.

  6. These past two years have been very lonely ones for me, ever since my move back to Massachusetts. You would think that moving back to your home state wouldn’t become an empty social void, but most of my old friends live either on the South shore or in Western, MA while I am in the center not knowing anyone. I discovered how difficult it is to make friends when you don’t have a regular work base to go to. “Make friends with the parents of your daughter’s classmates,” I was told . . . and I tried. I don’t have much in common with any of them. “Make friends with the dance moms.” I’ve tried, but do you see the inherent challenge it that sentence? As a person who has had to deal with stage mom’s from the other side, dance moms are a scary option. (Although to be fair most of these women seem very nice.) While I’m slowly finding my way, and have pushed myself past my inherent shyness to connect to a few people, it has been a long and lonely road. This year in particular, with the loss of my father, the loneliness and sadness often got the better of my body, so I believe that loneliness can indeed make you very sick.

    1. Boy, do I hear you on this! People have all sorts of advice on who we “should” connect with, but friendship is tricky and you, being a writer and academic, are going to be a particular type of person. I also know how huge Mass. is and how very different is can be from one region to another — I do fine in suburban/urban NYC but would not do well upstate, for sure, in a rural place; NH taught me that!

      So sorry to hear that things are this tough and losing your Dad, if you do not have someone to help you through that major loss, is really hard. I hope you’re taking the best care of yourself you can, and that you find some pals soon.

      1. It’s really hard. The TNR article is worth a read as it defined being lonely as (I think accurately) the pain of feeling rejected. It’s also tough when you just can’t find people to truly connect with — yet they are all doing fine with one another! I attend a local church filled with wealthy SAHMs…I have only connected with the few people there who work for a living and have some true understanding why I write even though I do not make $$$$$ at it. Shared values are key.

  7. Toronto was a lonely time for me… My dad gave me some good advice (but it became a bit of a bandaid for my problem). He told me to get out and just be around people. I did and it helped but…I found when I was my loneliest I spent ALOT of time out meeting people and hardly any time resting on my own. I was also in the most horrible relationship of my life.

    There is something to be said for this behaviour.

    You would think right now, I would feel the same living in a population of 280 something people here in WA, but it’s not the case at all.

    I’ve become comfortable with silence, and am happy… Now, I relish the time to flower hunt and enjoy nature. Having a committed, stable, loving relationship also makes a huge difference.

    However, I email/call my friends (the life mates) when the feeling calls for it. I also am looking forward to reconnecting with some kind of a circle of people (I’m finding women in Coorow but we’ll be leaving them soon). When we get to Perth in a couple of weeks. I’ve got time for coffee! ahaha.

    I say, make time for your real friends…the ones that would take a bullet for you and vice versa. There are about 10 friends I’d take a bullet for.

    Spewed a lot here for ya! Enjoy those books!

    1. Toronto can be a rough city….as I think many large cities can be. People (as they have here in NY) have already formed their little circles from school and/or work and don’t feel much need to add to them.

      Having been in a horrible marriage, I know how it affects everything else. I’m sure people can feel one’s misery and stay away from it, like some weird force field. It’s not surprising to me that my relationships now are much better since work is much less stressful than a few years ago and my marriage (second) is a good one.

      I am making far more time for face to face friendship than ever before — once or twice every week — and it’s really satisfying. I think 10 is probably the most we can hope for in that Kevlar inner circle.

  8. Yes. Living in NY on the fringe can be very isolating, raising a child with medical needs…double. I’m grateful for the internet, and the people I’ve been able to meet and connect with online. On the other hand, I’m comfortable with myself, creating imaginary worlds and writing them down 😉 and find myself absolutely desperate for space that isn’t crowded with people above, next to, and below me. The density of the population around you doesn’t seem to have any correlation with loneliness.

  9. I really admire you for being so independent and putting yourself out there. I married young and I am still married to the same guy. We moved quite a bit when our kids were young but I don’t remember ever being lonely. Parents of young kids attract parents of other young kids and it is definitely easier to make friends.

    I used to be more trusting and I was “friends” with everyone. My circle of trust is much tighter now so sometimes it’s more difficult to find a true friend to grab a cup of coffee with or a glass of wine.

    1. It’s interesting how differently we all live our lives. I was proposed to when I was about 27 or 28 but I had absolutely no interest in being someone’s wife at that point; my career was super-demanding and I knew I did not want kids so there was no biological clock ticking. Nor did all my friends rush to the altar, so I never felt out of step. I was so eager to travel and have adventures and, then, at 30, suddenly really wanted to get married and did a few years later.

      I think we get more selective. I lost/ditched two friends about four years ago when I tried to explain that a few habits of theirs were truly driving me nuts. They just withdrew. I have since made friends with people who I enjoy as much, if not more. We change.

  10. I have experienced many bouts of being incredibly lonely. After a relationship breakdown, after my mother dying, after a friendship deteriorated. I still get lonely now but I can recognise the danger signs if I am sinking from loneliness into depression.
    Now I have my cat Bixby, I don’t feel so much all alone anymore and I have a creature who is completely dependant on me. I guess people get that same feeling from children. But Bixby is a lot more self sufficient than a toddler!

    1. I thought I would not survive the end of my marriage…I hear you on that one! I had very few friends here then and it was very difficult. I’m glad you can see those signs; I was fortunate enough, when depression hit me, that my best friend of the time was a psychologist and caught it. I had really been in denial.

      Hugs to Bixby!

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