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Dealing with loneliness

By Daphne Merkin, Elle Magazine
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Memoir "Lonely" attempts to give loneliness its overlooked diagnostic stature
  • Author tries to distinguish chronic loneliness from depression
  • To be part of a couple is to be, for better or worse, unalone
RELATED TOPICS

(Elle.com) -- Who of us can't lay claim to loneliness?

It's a good bet that, with the exception of the very few -- symbiotic couples, say, and unremitting sociopaths -- everyone knows something about feeling abandoned to one's own solitary company.

It's a subject that's been mulled over by philosophers and pop singers, from Kierkegaard to Taylor Swift, and is often the defining trait of great fictional characters, like Emma Bovary and Jay Gatsby.

Then too, adolescence is widely regarded as a period rife with feelings of loneliness, of being on the outside looking in. When I was in my teens, for instance, I wrote a poem about being "lonely to bursting," about being beset by a loneliness so bad that it had its own stink.

I recently read an essay in which the writer, Susan Sontag, is described as having suffered from loneliness, which surprised me, since my sense of her was of a person who lived in a perpetual flurry of admiring protégés without ever having to face her own unaccompanied self.

(Of course, the very fact of Sontag's being a celebrity couldn't have helped things; as we all know, celebrities are often paradoxically the loneliest among us.)

And then there are those two hallmark lonely moments, when we enter and exit life.

That we're born alone has never struck me as all that unfortunate since I'm taking it on faith that a newborn doesn't have a sufficiently developed brain to actually record the state of loneliness in all its existential reality.

That we die alone, however, seems nothing less than terrifying: Who wouldn't like company in the process of becoming extinct?

"Lonely," a memoir by Emily White, attempts to give loneliness -- a state, as she puts it, of "frightened isolation" -- its proper and hitherto overlooked diagnostic stature.

Suffering from chronic loneliness as she does, White wants this "stigmatized" experience to be not only officially recognized by the world at large, but to be honored as an affliction worthy of extensive research and, God help us, given its very own category in the next DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the fifth version of which is due out in 2013.

This is presumably so that therapists and psychiatrists can look it up as a psychological problem in its own right in what has become an ever-proliferating doorstop of a manual (the fourth version features "caffeine-induced anxiety disorder" and "nicotine dependence"), and deal with its symptoms instead of brushing them aside as part of the human condition or confusing them with the symptoms of depression.

Indeed, throughout her memoir, White, a lawyer, is at pains to distinguish chronic loneliness from depression.

Although she admits to suffering from both, she believes depression has been given more than enough press and is now understood by the culture at large to be a legitimate illness, worthy of empathy and care, while loneliness continues to be misperceived as a "light, minor, and occasional problem."

She goes so far as to insist that the silence that once surrounded depression (and still does, from where I'm standing) now shrouds loneliness instead: "So much shame and stigma attaches to the state that it's extraordinarily hard to talk about, even in a culture that prides itself on being self-revelatory."

White's book is a hybrid -- part memoir and part research, drawing on the work of loneliness researchers (who knew?) "in places ranging from Arizona to Scotland," as well as on responses from "about 20" other lonely people who she got in touch with through a blog that she created and advertised on Craigslist.

On the personal front, we learn that White's loneliness began in childhood. She grew up under somewhat isolating circumstances, with parents who divorced when she was four, and with two sisters who were, respectively, eight and 10 years older than she.

She was left to her own devices more often than not; her single mother was busy commuting to her job teaching English as a second language and she saw her professor father only on Sunday afternoons, occasions that she describes as "often marked by a sort of cool emptiness."

White also attributes her fear of loneliness to what she early on sensed as her mother's lack of connection: "What little family she had was in the States, her husband had left her, and she spent her days working with people who didn't speak English. Her flat, Midwestern accent was wrong in Toronto, she was an atheist in a Catholic neighborhood, and she was divorced at a time when you weren't supposed to be."

By the time White was 19 and a year into college, she was direly noting in her journal: "All I can see is more loneliness. Just more solitude, a life lived at a distance from everyone else."

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Despite her straits, by her early twenties White had broken up with one boyfriend ("a sweet, insanely rich, and paternal redhead named Martin") only to take up with "sinewy and handsome" Brian. She had made a "very close friend" in Laura, and was enjoying life as a law-school student: "I was abundantly social, and happy to be surrounded by smart people with big ambitions."

Hardly the picture of someone woebegone and overlooked by others, talking to herself in the corner.

And yet, we're told, White felt such a "failure to connect" that she fell into what sounds like a wholesale depression (sleeping 10 to 12 hours a day, not eating, crying all the time) and eventually sought out the help of a therapist -- who, such are the ways of therapists who treat people who have symptoms like these, prescribed Zoloft. So far, so confusing.

The confusion, I should point out, is endemic to the book, which is built on a premise -- the distinction between loneliness as a by-product or aspect of depression and loneliness as a disease separate from and equal to depression -- that seems at best intriguing but unpersuasive and, at worst, gimmicky.

"I'm not suggesting," White writes, "that loneliness is full of joy, or that it doesn't bear a passing resemblance to depression. What I am saying is that we need to start seeing loneliness as something separate from the noonday demon."

And what I'm asking is: Why? What does it accomplish to tease out the one from the other, even if there is a genetic basis for both, and accord them equal pathological weight? What does it clarify? There is no pill for loneliness thus far that I know of, just as there is no pill for boredom; both seem to me to be part of the normal emotional climate of humanness rather than deviations from it.

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A "cure" for loneliness would entail nothing less than a cure for life as we now live it. The same cannot be said for depression, which in its severest form derails the ability to function.

White is a sufficiently good writer that one goes on reading even when her book grows repetitive -- how many ways can you look at loneliness before it begins to sound like a metaphor for all negative-feeling states, from anxiety to sadness? -- and the scientific findings grow spottier.

Digging deep into the scant amount of research on loneliness that does exist, she comes up with a link -- aha! -- between loneliness and cognitive decline (although the study this is based on depends on subjects whose average age is 80) and ferrets out intimations that loneliness compromises the immune system, with the lonely "producing slightly more cortisol than the nonlonely."

Above and beyond these factoids, White has some valid points to make about various aspects of our culture, including the underlying anomie of contemporary urban life (although this is not exactly news), the "playground bully" that is Facebook, and the modern fictions we live by: "Increasingly...time alone has been commodified into something that can be bought -- in the form of yoga classes and meditation retreats."

She can also be scathingly funny, as when she recounts her experience in a yoga class: "Every session ended with us lying in the corpse position, with the instructor telling us to create loving energy around ourselves.This instruction always made me want to lunge forward and spin my head around. I had no clue how to create my own loving energy, and I felt like announcing this in a dramatic fashion.... I remained silent, and wondered about the metaphysics of loving myself. Was there a part of me that could detach and love the other part? Or was I supposed to generate some sort of emotional wave that would roll down my body from head to toe?"

White is a born taxonomist, someone who warms to categorization of data -- to pinning down the difference between "situational" and "chronic" loneliness or the distinction between "passive company" and "active socializing," between "subjective" and "objective" isolation.

What she has curiously little to say about, however, is the way in which being in a romantic attachment eases up loneliness more reliably than anything else, be it a sibling bond or a close friendship.

One can talk all one likes about the abstract state of loneliness, but when it comes right down to it, I think most of us consider ourselves supremely lonely when we walk into an empty apartment and know there is no significant other in the picture; we can turn on the lights, put on music, answer phone calls, and get busy on the computer, but nonetheless, there is a space that can't be filled in except by "the quiet presence of another person."

To be part of a couple is to be, for better or worse, unalone. Couples may not necessarily have "the lion's share of happiness," as the poet Philip Larkin insisted, but they have the benefit of a buffering Other to get through bad and good times.

I know my own feelings of loneliness have spiked during the periods in which I've been uninvolved with a man and that I begin to look at twosomes with an idealized gaze, despite the recognition that most couples are imperfect unions at best.

What I miss most has less to do, I think, with sex or companionship than with body warmth, pure and simple: knowing there is someone breathing beside you at three o'clock in the morning when you wake up disoriented from a bad dream. That kind of silent partnership.

White seems to both know and not know that her loneliness stems in large part from being a singleton; perhaps she is afraid of putting too much emphasis on this essential aspect of loneliness lest her memoir read more like a closeted version of Bridget Jones and less like a sociological treatise.

In her case, the answer to all the "numbers, tables, charts" she assiduously gathers to help explain "a state of mind marked by a relentless sense of absence" proves to be a Ms. Right: After years of looking for solutions to her loneliness in far-off places, she lets casually, and more than a bit disingenuously, slip on page 239 that, at the age of 35, she came out as a lesbian.

By the memoir's end, White is living in Newfoundland with her partner, Danielle, whom she met while playing in a lesbian basketball league, having finally found the loneliness cure that she's been yearning for all along.

"What I needed," she writes, "was someone at home with me, someone whose breath I'd hear as I sat reading, whose footfalls would sound in the hallway, whose voice would reach me from an adjoining room." Don't we all.

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