I wrote this post when I was feeling extra somber, but I let it sit for a few days so I could collect my thoughts better. They’re still all over the place, but here goes…
I got a text from hubby who was at work with a suicidal jumper. They saved him that time, but lately it’s seemed that there’s been more successful suicides than usual…This isn’t the season for it so it feels extra depressing. And yes, there are seasons for these types of deaths 😞
Hubby’s stories of calls like this get me in the heart every time and I feel desperate to do something…ANYTHING. The deaths of Robin Williams, Chester Bennington, Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade did it to me, too. More than anything I want to be a voice for people out there who struggle and feel ashamed, desperate and lonely. I so badly want to create even a small shift in the minds of friends, families, coworkers and in society as a whole for how we look at people who need help, how we help them and to make space for them to feel like they can get help. So I create images with my favorite quotes, I write about it on Facebook, I blog…It’s never enough, but it feels like something…
A few months ago, I wrote a post with the same passion and desire. There was a lot of good that came from it — from people reaching out to me to thank me for writing it as it expressed what they had long felt to my own new awareness. There was also some bad where it was taken as a personal attack. The fallout as been heartbreaking. It’s been a disappointing and sad experience. I regret the hurt it caused…that was never my intention. The irony of writing about loneliness and thereby experiencing even more loneliness is not lost on me. But life has a funny way of teaching you the lessons you refuse to learn. After all of that, I have to believe I’m on the right track. When I found a post the other day, written by none other than, Brene Brown, it just confirmed for me that I’m not the only person who feels this pain for the struggle of others and has the need to write about it.
Brene Brown writes,
And I think…god, you’re so right. And then my next thought is, keep writing. It’s hard to want to write again, but I feel compelled to do so, especially on this topic. As difficult as it is to get over the fear of what people will think, I know that writing about my experiences (the good and the bad) is what gives all those obstacles I’ve overcome a silver lining. Plus, it’s much too hard to stay quiet – I’ve tried. Staying quiet is not a good option for me. There is definitely a silver lining to knowing and existing in some pretty dark places only to come out and be able to write about it.
So struggle…and loneliness and shame – god! They’re so hard to talk about. The only reason I have a somewhat logical way to express and feel them is because of Brene Brown. I read this excerpt about loneliness from her most recent book Braving the Wilderness almost a year ago. I couldn’t shake the words and feelings it invoked. It actually completely shifted the way I thought about all the suicides and sudden deaths hubby had been called to. I couldn’t stop seeing how lonely people were. And I couldn’t tell you how many times I told hubby, “people are just so damn lonely”…as much as he agrees, he really gets tired the Brene Brown-isms and her philosophies. The stats she quotes (see them at the bottom of her quote) will hit you hard. They should hit your hard. Because this is something I KNOW we can change.
The studies are right (not quoted here but in her book Braving the Wilderness) we are more sorted into ideological bunkers than we ever have been but we are lonelier than ever. Meaning we have moved our families closer to people that hold similar beliefs to us, yet we are still so desperately lacking meaningful relationships and connections that we’re lonelier than before. Living, working and playing in places where we can find like-minded individuals is simply not enough to feel belonging. Belonging that we are hard-wired to seek and feel.
When Brené talks about recognizing loneliness, I did in my own life. I saw it for the warning sign it was. In the past year of struggle, I know that the loneliness I was feeling could easily get worse and turn into full fledged depression. I’d been there and I wasn’t going back. In my desperation to pull myself out of it, I unfortunately did what I shouldn’t have done which is to reach out to dozens of friends (as she talks about below)…I said the only words I could manage at the time – I’m really struggling – and to people who I had no business saying that to. We weren’t close enough or had a deep enough relationship to handle what I was feeling safely and lovingly. It sucks, but that’s the reality of the situation. And in fact, I probably made it worse for myself as not getting the connection I was desperate for just made me feel lonelier. And I isolated myself further.
Cacioppo explains how the biological machinery of our brains warns us when our ability to thrive and prosper is threatened.
Hunger is a warning that our blood sugar is low and we need to eat. Thirst warns us that we need to drink to avoid dehydration. Pain alerts us to potential tissue damage. And loneliness tells us that we need social connection—something as critical to our well-being as food and water.
He explains, “Denying you feel lonely makes no more sense than denying you feel hunger.”
Yet we do deny our loneliness. As someone who studies shame, I find myself back in territory that I know well. We feel shame around being lonely—as if feeling lonely means there’s something wrong with us. We feel shame even when our loneliness is caused by grief, loss, or heartbreak.
Cacioppo believes much of the stigma around loneliness comes from how we have defined it and talked about it for years. We used to define loneliness as a “gnawing, chronic disease without redeeming features.” It was equated with shyness, depression, being a loner or antisocial, or possessing bad social skills. He gives a great example of this by noting how we often use the term “loner” to describe a criminal or bad guy.
Cacioppo explains that loneliness is not just a “sad” condition—it’s a dangerous one. The brains of social species have evolved to respond to the feeling of being pushed to the social perimeter—being on the outside—by going into self-preservation mode. When we feel isolated, disconnected, and lonely, we try to protect ourselves. In that mode, we want to connect, but our brain is attempting to override connection with self-protection. That means less empathy, more defensiveness, more numbing, and less sleeping.
In Rising Strong, I wrote about how the brain’s self-protection mode often ramps up the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening, creating stories that are often not true or exaggerate our worst fears and insecurities. Unchecked loneliness fuels continued loneliness by keeping us afraid to reach out.
To combat loneliness, we must first learn how to identify it and to have the courage to see that experience as a warning sign. Our response to that warning sign should be to find connection. That doesn’t necessarily mean joining a bunch of groups or checking in with dozens of friends. Numerous studies confirm that it’s not the quantity of friends but the quality of a few relationships that actually matters.
If you’re anything like me, and you find yourself questioning the idea that starvation and loneliness are equally life-threatening, let me share the study that really brought all of this together for me. In a meta-analysis of studies on loneliness, researchers Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton found the following:
Living with air pollution increases your odds of dying early by 5 percent.
Living with obesity, 20 percent.
Excessive drinking, 30 percent.
And living with loneliness? It increases our odds of dying early by 45 percent.
I don’t have all the answers. I truly believe however, that sharing the truth about our struggles and challenges makes it easier for someone else to do so. I want others to feel less shame to ask for help and I want those out there who want to help, to know how.
For those in trouble, please reach out. There’s so many compassionate people out there who are willing to listen and offer help. You’re not alone.
For Canadians, the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention has a list of local crisis centers that are available 24/7. For numbers, email addresses and addresses, please visit https://suicideprevention.ca/need-help/.
For Americans, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Call 1-800-273-8255 | TTY at 1-800-799-4889 Text START to 741741 from anywhere in the US, about any type of crisis.
International help: Visit https://www.iasp.info/resources/Crisis_Centres/
If you want to support someone who is struggling, reach out. Send them a text telling them you care and that you’re thinking of them. Suggest going for a walk, out for coffee or the movies. Most of us who are struggling aren’t looking for someone else to fix our problems. We don’t think our issues are your responsibility and we don’t think our friends and families can replace professional help. Despite our struggles, we are still human. Sometimes just a normal moment between two friends can make a world of difference.
As usual, Brene’s words are hers. I’m so grateful for them and enjoy spreading her wisdom as far and wide as I can. No money is being made from the image quotes. Please contact the webmaster to have these images removed if you are the copyright holder.