By Emily White, author, Loneliness: A Memoir*
When I started a memoir about long-term loneliness, I faced the recurring question of whether or not I was just writing about depression. Trying to be as patient and precise as possible, I repeated "no, it's really loneliness," over and over again. Five years later, I'm still repeating it.
By the time I was 35, I'd experienced both clinical depression and long-term loneliness. My depression had a vicious energy, voices that hounded me all day obscuring the reasons I'd made my most straight-forward life decisions.
Loneliness, on the other hand, made me realize that my life might be a damn good life if only a sense of connection would present itself. Feeling isolated and alone didn't leave me delusional. If anything, it left me clear-eyed, and conscious of the fact that my major problem was a lack of intimacy.
We blur loneliness with depression for a couple of reasons. First, we hear a lot about depression on talk shows, in magazines, and on public information posters throughout our cities' subways. Widespread discussion of depression has lasted over 20 years. It's left us with a convenient way of framing this very human problem, so it's just much easier these days, to say that you're depressed instead of lonely.
Since depression is widely recognized, it's also a de-stigmatized ailment while loneliness remains less recognized and much less socially acceptable. There's a nasty tendency to assume negative things about someone from a single piece of knowledge about his or her life. This works overtime for the lonely. Studies show that when we're told someone is lonely we often conclude that he or she is passive, (mentally) slow, insincere and -for puzzling reasons- uncoordinated.
We see depression as something recognizably 'human' and significant. But we still judge loneliness as 'trivial'. It's not. I've been running a blog about long-term loneliness for over a year.
The people who post with me describe their loneliness as toxic, brutal, and unceasing. "It's lasted for years," someone might tell me, "No one sees how it destroys my life."
These days, there's a gap between research about loneliness, and how we conceptualize it. Loneliness is still popularly understood as a light affliction or a minor inconvenience, even though neuroscientists, physiologists, and psychologists have all shown that chronic loneliness has overwhelming health risks, leading to dementia, early death, and paradoxically anti-social behavior.
In 2010, we've reached a pivotal point in our understanding of loneliness. We now know quite a lot about it. We know it exists, and that it matters a lot. We know that it affects millions of people, changing and undermining their lives. Yet we continue not to talk about it. We still pretend that it's depression.
I've decided we don't talk about loneliness because we really don't want to. Study after study has shown that we're growing exponentially more isolated: we're losing confidants at an unprecedented rate, spending more time alone, living in solitary households, and visiting less with family and friends. As loneliness becomes a greater threat in people's lives, it becomes an increasingly taboo subject.
Because we're scared of loneliness, we sidestep it. We call it depression. We say that those struggling with long-term loneliness aren't really confronting what they say they're confronting. Compared to loneliness, depression is attractive; it's safe. You can take a pill for depression; you can buy Mind Over Mood or Lifting Depression. You can engage in talk therapy.
Loneliness is murkier. It's less controllable. It says something about our lives today--about the lack of connection many of us feel---about the way social ties are fracturing like glass. There's no pill for loneliness, no instant cure. Even talk therapy cannot always fill the deep chasm in lonely people's emotional lives.
But still...the fact that there's no easy response to loneliness doesn't mean there's nothing we can do. There is something significant we can do right away. We can stop saying 'I'm depressed' when we really mean 'I'm lonely'. We can also stop telling the lonely they don't know that they're really depressed, and that they don't really know what they're talking about.
Lonely people struggle with an absence of intimacy that is very different from depression. We can all acknowledge this. We can all stop telling them that the crushing sense of absence they're dealing with is really something else.
*Emily White is the author of Loneliness: A Memoir, published by HarperCollins now available from Amazon.com for $17.15.