sometimes come across an article whose words jump off the pages of the magazine and into my heart where their existence stays and haunts me, forcing me to explore the matter deeper. Last night was one of those rare instances. While reading this month’s issue of “O: The Oprah Magazine,” I came across an article that I have not been able to get off my mind. So much so, that I ripped it out and placed it on my bedside table. The article presents the notion that loneliness causes illness and backs the idea with fascinating -and for someone like me, anxiety filled- factual scientific evidence of all the ways in which loneliness can in fact lead to illness, which I will briefly discuss below. So, why did this article have so much power over me? Because, I realized there was a major problem with it, not in regards to how it was written as I believe it was beautifully written, but because it missed the entire other side of the issue, the alarming one faced by you and I, assuming you also have Lyme or another illness that renders you isolated most of the time. Illness leaves many of us isolated, and we often feel abandoned by society, and therefore quite lonely at the same time. So, if illness causes loneliness, and loneliness causes illness, those of us who are lonely because we are ill are in quite the predicament. Is our illness then, in itself, making us sicker? Maybe, maybe not. Personally, I do not feel it is a lost cause, given we acknowledge the situation at face value and find ways to be alone without being lonely.
In the article which I speak of, titled “Just Say Hello,” Sanjay Gupta, MD, reports on the profoundly powerful effects of loneliness social interaction. Simply put, social interaction leads to healthier, happier and longer lives. On the other hand, loneliness leads to just the opposite. Apparently, individuals with strong ties to family, friends, and coworkers are endowed with health benefits such as fewer colds, less stress, lower blood pressure, better sleep, and improved cognition -all of which us individuals with Lyme disease have as a direct effect of the disease itself to begin with. Furthermore, he claims that those with strong social connections “have a 50 percent greater chance of outliving those with fewer social connections.” That is an alarmingly high rate for us, considering our longevity is already threatened by disease -a disease which causes loneliness, which in itself seems to be its own disease. So, if both are working against us, what can we do?
Most of us spend the majority of our time within the same four walls for months, years, even decades on end. As a result, it seems we either go in one of two directions due to this: either we come to enjoy and prefer solitude, or we pine for human interaction which is quite difficult to achieve when our mental and physical stamina often times barely provide us with enough fuel to get water or go to the restroom. Of course, those are two extremes. Many of us are in the middle ground, if not most, as we are human. Even if we come to prefer solitude, we have moments where we miss feeling as if we are part of a community. It is human nature to desire interaction with others. Just the same, if we are always sad over being lonely, we still have moments where we find ourselves quite enjoying the aspects of solitude.
Personally, I came to enjoy solitude so incredibly much that by the time I reached remission I much preferred it. Staying home to read or write on a Friday night sounded much more enjoyable than going out with “friends” who hardly visited me while I was sick. This in itself is also unhealthy, and it is still something I am battling. Because by the time we regain our health, we are entirely new people. After countless hours spent in isolation, we become unconditioned by society -something that many try to achieve, but that is forced up individuals like us. So, when we are finally able to rejoin society, we do not feel as if we fit in. We find that even when surrounded by others, there is a part of us that will always be alone, that will always be different, and that could never be understood by the average person. At first, I harbored much frustration over this fact, but I have since learned to view it as something beautiful rather than tragic.
But, how do we tackle this problem?
How do we prevent loneliness as a means to prevent further illness, when we already have an illness which promotes loneliness?
As Franz Kafka, an author whose life was filled with solitude and pain, so eloquently stated, “each of us has his own way of emerging from the underworld, mine is by writing.” He could not have been more correct. I believe channeling our trials and tribulations into creativity, whether it be writing or painting or any other hobby, is the key to preventing the severity of the loneliness we feel while we are alone. When lost in the creative process of whatever activity our souls are drawn to we connect with something at a deeper level than we, in many ways, have ever connected with another human being. Turning our darkness into light through some form of creativity is often an efficient avenue to help us be alone without being lonely. Still, one size does not fit all, which is that this does not entirely prevent us from ever experiencing feelings of loneliness.
What are some good ways to connect with others while we are bedridden or home-bound the majority of the time?
- Of course, this one is a no brainer. Social media. For a healthy individual, it would be better to interact with others in person rather than from behind a screen. For us, it is sometimes all we can manage, and that is okay. The fact that it is all we can do at times does not matter so much as the fact that we do in fact try.
- Skyping with someone is another fabulous social fix for us. While it is easier to text or call one another on the phone, something about being able to see one another makes us feel more connected and less alone. Ideally, scheduling a weekly “skype date” with a friend is the most beneficial way to utilize skype to prevent loneliness. Out of all the people out there who are isolated with illness, there is bound to be at least one person who we connect with well enough to do so.
- Find ways to volunteer online, especially ways that help bring awareness to your own illness. As far as Lyme disease goes, ILADS (The International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society) is a great place to start. As they state on the volunteer page of their website, “Whether it’s online community support, gathering donations, securing sponsorships, or helping out with the conferences, ILADS has a position where you can help. Join our TEAM and become a Leader in Lyme disease education and awareness.” In partnering with a cause like this, you become part of a team. You become part of something much larger than yourself. You can explore ways to volunteer for ILADS by filling out the contact form on the volunteer page of their website (http://ilads.org/ilads_media/volunteer/). Another great community to be a part of is the “Tick Borne Disease Alliance (http://tbdalliance.org)”
- If you feel up to writing, check out opportunities to write for a source that educates the public on the things you are going through -after all, you are an expert at this point- and see if there are ways in which you can contribute to the publication. For me, I received solace from writing for ...you guessed it...Public Health Alert! Coincidentally, I loved it so much that I somehow now run it. Get involved, you never know where your golden thread in life might lead you. If you are not up to writing, perhaps there are other ways in which you can help the cause. If you wish to help with Public Health Alert, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Of course, there are other options out there as well. I am just a tad bias ;)
Finally, when we do leave our houses, we tend to keep to ourselves out of habit. Rather than remaining silent with our noses in a book we do not even understand while in the waiting room at our doctor’s office, we can simply say “hello” to anyone else waiting along side us. Whenever we are in public, we have the opportunity to start a conversation with whoever is around us. This helps to prevent the all too common social anxiety that begins to plague us after years of being, for the most part, alone.
As John T. Cacioppo, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, stated, “Speaking face-to-face is always best, but online is better than nothing. When you use social media as a way to promote richer interactions in the real world, that’s a very good thing. The bottom line: It’s okay to start the conversation online -as long as you don’t let it end there.”
What are some of the ways that help YOU remain connected with others while being simultaneously separated from them? What are some of the ways that have helped YOU learn to be alone without being lonely?