Tending the Temple

Loneliness vs. Depression

Author and blogger Jason F. Wright recently wrote a column on loneliness, encouraging readers to reach out to someone if they were feeling lonely (including the suicide hotline). You can read it here.

After reading it myself, I read some of the comments criticizing him and assuring us all that loneliness has a name – depression – and that the only truly “helpful” advice is to tell people to get professional help.

The piece was timely for me. I recently discovered that I have been lonely, some days debilitatingly so. I use that word “discovered” because it came as a surprise to me. I would have assumed a feeling like loneliness would be pretty easy to identify, but that was not the case. I’ve felt tired. I’ve felt sad. I’ve felt unmotivated. I’ve felt apathetic. At times I’ve felt despondent. Hungry. Sorry for myself. Sometimes I’ve felt physical pain, in my neck, my back, my chest, my gut, my eyes. Sometimes I’ve felt rejected by others, and sometimes I’ve felt like rejecting others myself. I’ve also felt a lot of shame about having all these feelings. I had a lot of feelings I could identify, but wrapping it up in a bow and calling it “loneliness” was not immediately obvious to me.

The obvious name for it was depression, and I did call it that from time to time. As the article suggested, I did reach out to my spiritual director when I was feeling especially depressed. It took every bit of effort I could muster to send those texts to her, and I could do so only because 1) I was desperate to unload the burden just a little, and 2) I trust her unconditional love, her non-judgement, and her ability to restrain herself from giving advice.

(Side note: When you are feeling those feelings and can finally muster the courage to tell someone, there is a very real risk that “someone” will assault you with well-meaning unsolicited advice, the worst of which includes, “Have you considered professional help?” and “There’s no shame in taking medication if you need it.” I can’t publish the words I want to say when I get advice like that, but I can say I’d rather be slapped in the face than hear those things, because it would sting less. What I can publish is that yes, I’ve used professional help and medication in the past, and neither worked very well and are very expensive, especially when your insurance has a deductible of thousands before you get any coverage. Finding a good counselor was like finding a needle in a haystack. Regarding antidepressants, the side effects were worse than the feelings I was looking to cure. I don’t say that to discourage others, nor do I look down on those who need and choose pharmaceutical solutions; they just aren’t for me. If someone has the courage to share their darkest pain with you, don’t offer solutions. She isn’t sharing with you so you’ll fix it. Sharing with you is the fix. Hug her and affirm her and thank her for opening up. Ask if there’s anything you can do to help. Then shut up and wait for her to ask. Maybe a listening ear is all she needed.)

I also reached out to a very special group of friends for support. No broadcast status updates to everyone on Facebook for me; I don’t want to draw attention to myself in the midst of my emotional darkness. But reaching out to this select group and asking for their prayers helped lighten the burden, especially the feeling of shame. I can’t overstate how ashamed I was of the way I felt, and my instinct was to hide myself. But we are only as sick as our secrets, and sharing my secret struggle, not with the world, but with individuals I trusted, dissipated the shame. Thanks to their unconditional love, now I can share about this experience with the world in a way that maybe will help someone else instead of make people feel uncomfortable or sorry for me.

One woman with whom I shared is around my mom’s age. She said she experienced the same thing when her husband retired and was at home all the time. The irony, of course, is that her loneliness set in precisely when she was no longer spending time alone. She asked me point blank, how much time do you actually spend with just yourself? The answer is complicated. Although I’m a single mom of three, with a boyfriend who’d be happy to see me every day, I do have solitude built into my days. I have alone time each morning when the kids go to school, then I go to a job that usually involves just me in my office, alone. I tend to think I have a lot of alone time. But even during my “alone” time, my head is focused on others. Worrying about my son’s grades. Working out the family schedule and folding everyone’s laundry. Creating for clients. Answering emails. Learning music for church. My recreational time is spent with the fella or with hiking pals, not giving myself undivided attention.

Last weekend the fella took me to the Outer Banks for a much needed getaway. We did lots of fun things together: seeing the site of the first flight, climbing a lighthouse, flying a kite at jockey’s ridge, and eating gourmet dinners. But the part of the trip that rejuvenated me the most was the hour I spent alone walking on the beach to catch the sunrise Saturday morning. That one hour fueled me more than anything.

I had an epiphany that morning. I don’t have many complaints about my relationships with the people in my life. I have a pretty solid relationship with God; I can see Him at work in my life and in the lives of so many others, and I trust His care. But my relationship with myself kinda sucks.

I judge myself so harshly. I hold myself to impossible standards. Regret and anger turn inward, and I neglect self-care that used to be a regular part of my routine – weekly trips to the Y, yoga classes, support group meetings, nutritious food, writing and journaling, and most importantly, spending time alone.

It is paradoxical that one of the solutions for my loneliness is to spend time being truly alone. But it makes sense. I am lonesome for a relationship with the only person who has known me since the moment I was born and will be with me until the moment I die – myself.

Unlike my boyfriend, my close friends, my children, or even my parents, she knows and, more importantly, understands everything about me. She’s been with me through every heartbreak, every mistake, every triumph. Yet I routinely reject her. And then I wonder why I struggle with depression?

We can’t have meaningful social connection with others unless we first have that connection with ourselves. Healthy relationships are not possible without self-respect and a sense of self-worth, neither of which can develop if our focus is always on our relationships with others.

Loneliness is NOT the same thing as depression; loneliness is a symptom of depression. I think it is also a cause. There are studies demonstrating loneliness and lack of meaningful social connection are the precursors to addiction, more so than any other factor. This also helps explain why 12 step fellowships are effective for so many alcoholics and addicts, and those affected by alcoholism in their families. These programs give a sense of community and connectedness through shared struggles, and the 12 steps themselves, if actually followed, restore a relationship with oneself. No wonder there are 12 step programs for all the addictive behaviors to which we turn when we are avoiding ourselves – booze, drugs, food, sex, shopping, gambling. 12 step programs have a failure rate, too, probably because not everyone actually does the work required in the steps, or goes to meetings routinely enough to break though their isolation.

Mental illness is real. Clinical depression is real. But not everyone who experiences the symptoms of mental illness or clinical depression does so because of a chemical imbalance they can’t control. Sometimes addressing these crippling symptoms is very much within our control. A friend of mine who’s an avid cyclist reminded me that just 20 minutes of cardio a day can have the same effect on the brain as antidepressants. Another friend who’s a yoga instructor says her spiritual practice of yoga and meditation, along with some other spiritual practices, are what stave off her depression. Still another friend said that it’s when he’s helping other people that he finds relief from self-pity and low self-worth. “If you want high self-esteem, do esteemable things,” he says. And there’s always that reliable stand-by, the Gratitude List.

I practice all of these techniques occasionally, and I know from experience how much they help with my symptoms. That’s not to downplay that some people do need professional help. As my former counselor told me, sometimes we need the pharmaceutical solution to get us to the place where we are capable of embracing the effective non-pharmaceutical benefits of talk therapy and other activities. I understand that. But you can’t medicate loneliness away, either.

For me, depression is resentment and anger turned inward. It’s what happens when I set unrealistic expectations for myself, fail to meet them, and then hate myself for it and assume everyone else does, too. Often it comes out sideways in my judgement and criticism of other people, or envy and jealousy. In my recent struggles with loneliness and depression, my reaction to this cycle of negativity has been irritability, fatalism, and cynicism, a “why bother” attitude.

This week, I stopped asking “why” and got down to the business of “bothering.” I bothered myself to go on two early morning hikes after the kids left for school. I bothered to read my daily readers. I bothered to eat breakfast and have nutritious meals instead of fast food. I bothered to share my “dark season” with a couple people who would understand. I bothered to do some work I’d been procrastinating. I bothered to journal. To put myself first.

It helped a lot.

I’m bothering to write this because there’s no simple fix for loneliness and depression, whether it’s my own or someone else’s. Feelings can be overwhelming. Reaching out can seem too hard a task. Medication and therapy may be financially out of reach, and a depressive episode doesn’t schedule itself during office hours. Self-love is a choice that is always within reach. Not the feeling of love; the action of love. The kindness of taking a bath, eating a salad, walking in the sunshine and really feeling the warmth.

I recently saw a quote from Anne Lamott’s most recent book, Hallelujah Anyway, her newest book. “Love is seeing the darkness in another person and defying the impulse to jump ship.”

I bother to love myself. To accept myself just as I am, knowing only love has the power to transform loneliness and depression into unity and compassion.