Here’s the bottom line, chronic loneliness produces a consistent stress response in your body. Your reactions to stressors end up being exaggerated and your fight or flight response is constantly turned on….it’s a lot like PTSD. Over time it will destroy your health. You’ll get sick more often and longer. You’ll develop high blood pressure sooner. As an example, during the height of the AIDS crisis, the lonely patients died the fastest. Chronic loneliness is as dangerous as obesity, it’s as dangerous as smoking. If you are or have experienced chronic loneliness then I implore you to read this article from the New Republic on psychology and loneliness. You’ll see yourself in it. Loneliness can literally affect your genetic development which I find fascinating if distressing. Note this excerpt is in regards to comparing brain scans between Romanian orphans who’d been abandoned and Resus monkeys kept in isolation. The point is that chronic loneliness can make you physically crazy over time. If you’re chronically lonely then your brain is changing.
Suomi was also excited about results coming in from peer-raised monkeys’ brain tissue: Thousands of little changes in genetic activity had been detected in their prefrontal cortexes. This region is sometimes called the “CEO” of the brain; it restrains violent impulses and inappropriate behavior. (In humans, faulty wiring in the prefrontal cortex has been associated with schizophrenia and ADHD.) Some of the aberrations were on genes that direct growth of the brain; modifications of those were bound to result in altered neural architecture. These findings eerily echoed the Romanian orphans’ brain scans and suggested that the lonely monkeys were going to be weirder than the others.
And I want to share a bit here.
In the middle 2000s I was chronically lonely for about 4 or so years. I went to work, came home, made dinner, cleaned up, watched tv or read or dabbled in some hobby I was going through at the time, and then I went to bed. That’s what I did. I didn’t see anyone outside of work and after spending a year trying to forge relationships with people, I didn’t try to. I just was. Was I also chronically depressed? Yes, but I was depressed because I was lonely. It was an amazing suck cycle that bored out my chest where my heart had been and replaced it with calculation and mitigation. I learned how to write electronic music, I learned about computer architectures and software, and I read the entirety of Marvel’s run on Doctor Strange. These things I did accomplish, yes, but I sort of hated myself.
Going to the grocery store was far more important for me than it should have been. I cultivated mostly false relationships with sales clerks and checkout attendants. Seeing a neighbor outside my house and having a ten minute conversation about out condo association (yay) may as well have been a surprise party in my honor. After these encounters I actually felt uplifted, less alone. Gross, right, I know. These things shouldn’t feel like life or death.
Here’s a short list of my insane gratitude towards basic things, some of which are not basic. Note that, with the exception of the below encounters, I have almost no memory of genuine interaction during these years.
- In 2005 I was unable to get off of work in time to drive the 8 hours home to my parents house for Thanksgiving…considering I was so lonely that I would sometimes randomly cry this was less like a bummer to me and more like my cat had been hit by a comet return addressed from God. I did what I’d learned to do which was pretend I was having a good time and watch a “marathon” of some genre of movie while drinking a case of beer. About an hour into said marathon there was a knock at my door. I answered and it was my neighbor from two doors down, the wife unit of a mid 70s couple who were still swingers at that age. She had two plates in her hands. One was turkey and beans and the other was warm bread and stuffing. She’d seen my car was still there and wanted to make sure I had something to eat. I thanked her until I’m sure she just wanted to escape (kidding, she was great) and smiled for the next two days.
- In 2006 I found out I was going to be going overseas to a wartorn country for work for possibly the next six months. I collected comics and had a folder at my favorite shop where the owner would keep all the stuff I wanted set aside for me every month. I was at my shop, run by a Vietnam veteran, and told him I would be leaving and could be gone a long time. Without any prodding he said “I’ll hold all your stuff until you get back.” When I told him it could be six months or longer he said, “Fine with me, just come back in one piece.” Considering I had no one else to talk to about the trip, really, this was like being told that I was loved. And, he was that kind of guy, he loved everybody.
- Miscellaneous: I vividly recall having longer than normal conversations with the following groups of people, butchers, a very cool dreaded checkout attendant at Whole Foods, the owner of my local coffeeshop who I never introduced myself to, vehicle mechanics who were changing my oil, TSA agents. There’s more but the one thing all these people have in common is that they were all transients in my life.
- At my Yoga meditation class I cultivated an aura of utter satisfaction. I always seemed very happy and, in truth, I was very happy when I was in class. Everyone else had lives. They knew people and each other. They did things. I pretended. I can’t tell you how much of a fraud I felt I was. But, still, thanks to those in the class. That one hour a week I felt like I was a part of something.
So, there’s the short list. The product of all this loneliness was that I became a much, much harder person. Tragedies, including the ones around me and in my own life, rolled off me with a “typical” feeling until they’d boil over in some out-of-character outburst. I was single and so meeting any girl was impossible because I was so unhappy that girls would immediately try to get away from me. I was awkward because I couldn’t muster any feelings. I began to feel like all people were liars just waiting to lie to me so I didn’t trust anyone. After all, where were they when I was lonely? Where was anyone? Oh, right, I became bitter at everyone.
This almost destroyed my life, it really did. I wrote another article on achieving competency in the workplace. That experience was the one thing that really kept me from going completely nuts during those years. The other was when my father, who never, ever expressed worry towards me, finally begged me to change my life. Hell, he even told me I could move in with him…I was 30 and had a great salary and owned my home.
You see, I’d been outgoing and gregarious before all this. I was fun. I liked to have fun and meet people and get to know them. These things had been easy for me. But in four years I’d completely fallen apart. So, in 2011, I left the area, left my job and changed my life. It’s now better than it has been since 2002 when I was an in love and underemployed graduate student living in New York. So, things change but you have to force them to change and God help you if you don’t have anyone to kick you in the ass. I know that much for sure.
But the hardest part of all this was admitting that I wasn’t okay and that I felt supremely unloved and unlovable. This wasn’t me, right? Well it became me and accepting that this was how I was now allowed me to finally panic in a proper and healthy way and get the hell out. Sartre, in No Exit, says that hell is other people. That makes me think that Sartre was never alone. Hell isn’t other people, it’s yourself, all the time, forever.