I want to talk about loneliness. It’s my belief that this society is emotionally connection deprived, and starving for human touch. I’m not talking about sex. I’m talking about regular, everyday, things like hugs and pats on the back. We have unlimited online connectivity. I can talk to people in Japan, Russia, and Spain simultaneously, but an intimate conversation with someone close, and in person, is a rare and precious commodity.
In this world of screens and social media, people have the illusion of human connection, but they feel a deep ache of loneliness inside. They try to fill up that hole with even more screen time, online dating, Twitter, Tinder, Facebook, Snapchat, and then they wonder why the black hole of loneliness inside of them grows bigger every day. They look at other people’s photos and profiles and wonder why everyone else seems to be happier and more connected than they are. Intellectually they know that it’s not true, and that people are posting only their highlight reels. They know that the outtakes are just as boring and sad as their own, but their nervous systems swirl inside with the pain of isolation.
In an effort to dull the pain, they get pets, which are wonderful–don’t get me wrong–but then the pets become pale substitutes for human affection and intimacy. I’m constantly shocked by the number of people who tell me that the only reason they don’t kill themselves is because they need to be here to care for a cat or a dog–not a person. Sometimes I think that instead of the diagnosis of depression that I’m putting in these people’s files, I should have the option of diagnosing loneliness. We weren’t made to live this way. We were built as tribal creatures, and we need people around us for support, connection, caring and love.
However, modern society has built a mythology of the lone wolf. People have the idea that they are supposed to be able to make it on their own–that they shouldn’t need help, and that if they do, then there is something wrong with them. As a result, people walk around pretending to have it all together, and they feel like frauds inside. They believe that in being alone they have freedom, but they’re wrong. True freedom is the freedom to be authentically oneself, not to be alone. These people are in a prison of loneliness.
Then comes COVID-19, and just when I thought the world couldn’t get any lonelier, and people couldn’t get any more isolated, comes social distancing. Most people have been laid off from work, are working from home, or are on furlough. As a therapist for a major HMO, my job is considered essential, and I’m still going into work because they haven’t figured out how to send us to work from home. However, all of my appointments are now by phone. I can’t see my clients’ faces, feel their energy, or take in their body language. My door is closed all day, and when I do leave my office, I have to wear a mask, which makes it so that I can’t even smile at my coworkers. I can’t even breathe. Then I go home to my apartment, where I live alone.
I’ve been joining some zoom meetings and having FaceTime with friends, and that helps some, but the truth is that I’m close to the loneliest I’ve ever been in my life, and I know that most of my friends feel the same way. The ones that are in relationships are faring a little bit better, as long as they are good relationships. The ones that are in bad relationships, are going through a serious test of whether they want to stay or not.
I understand the need for social distancing, and I’m not advocating that we go against the order and start infecting each other. However, when this is over, I think we need to start valuing our connections much more than we have been. We need to meet in person. We need to commit to relationships when we meet someone good instead of thinking there must be someone better. We need to have breakfast with friends, and lunch with coworkers. We need to hug each other and tell each other that we love each other.
We need to remember that humans are tribal, and it isn’t weakness to need support or to want love. We need to be willing to accept, as well as to give, help. We need to remember that being alone is not freedom. If you have someone in your life that you can be authentic with, know that you are blessed. If you don’t, when this is over, make it your goal to find your people.
It is my professional opinion as a psychotherapist, that loneliness is a major factor in the development of mental illness, and that community can be a cure. If you are depressed or anxious, I suggest that instead of following the urge to isolate, which is a symptom of these illnesses, you get close to others. I run several therapeutic groups, and I believe that being with people who understand and hear you is wonderful medicine, whether you’re sick or not.