Over the weekend, friends and I were talking about how isolated we have become as a society. I remembered an article I had read in AARP a year ago entitled All The Lonely People, which detailed loneliness in America -- and the statistics are frightening. Over 44 million people are lonely and longing to connect with another living, breathing soul. Even sadder is the fact that they are ashamed of their loneliness and that shame hinders their efforts to meet and bond with another person.
You might think, as I did, that loneliness is most prevalent among the elderly and that determining factors such as race, gender and education levels play a role, but you would be wrong. The highest percentage of sufferers is in their 40s and 50s and come from all walks of life.
Imagine awakening each morning feeling totally alone in the world -- no one to talk to or turn to. Imagine feeling separate and apart even from your family. Imagine believing that no one cares whether you live or die.
There is a lot of truth to the expression “alone in a roomful of people.” I have vivid memories of the first New Year’s Eve after my former husband and I parted ways. A cousin hosted a party at her home, which family and friends enjoyed with abandon. Me? I sat on the living room sofa and watched but never participated. I was within arm’s reach of touching someone/anyone, but in my soul, I was far, far away -- alone… lonely…. depressed and growing more so with each passing minute. Midnight signaled escape to a safer place – the dark cave that was my mind.
Safer was a misperception. Loneliness, as experts will tell you, increases the risk of life threatening diseases and Alzheimer’s. The devastation wrought is both physical and emotional.
I was lucky to have people around me who saw through the phony smile I wore like a winter coat; a coat that did nothing to keep the cold at bay. Without their support, I shudder to think where I would be today. Perhaps, like some desperate people, I would be roaming the aisles at my local supermarket each evening, a stranger among strangers seeking warmth under the glow of florescent lights.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve considered the probability that my husband will die before I do, but that kind of loneliness is not the same as what is described above. The loneliness referred to in this survey goes deep into the soul, into the very marrow of the bone, and leaves people desolate and empty.
Author, Brad Edmondson, wrote, “Chronic loneliness, experts tell us, is an ever-present, self-perpetuating condition that pushes people away from the relationships that sustain us and make us happy. The chronically lonely are not merely unhappy – they are in danger.”
Yes, loneliness is dangerous but not untreatable. Although recognition as a real and distinct mental health issue has been slow, experts are finally realizing that a “need” exists.
Emily White, a lawyer and the author of “Lonely,” in which she detailed her experiences with depression, wrote “loneliness can end only when the person who has it looks in the mirror and sees an entirely different person, someone who draws support and meaning from others instead of just themselves.”
Sessions with a therapist can help alleviate the symptoms and provide the ladder needed to climb from loneliness’ deep, dark pit. The climb is steep and slow but not undoable. Especially, if someone is reaching down with a helping hand up…
If you see someone you suspect might be lonely, extend a hand in friendship. Smile. You never know whose life might be improved by the kindness of a stranger.