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?