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Jacquie Bhana - The indignity of loneliness

Human beings are social beings. They need gratifying social relationships for mental and physical wellbeing. Flawed or absent social relationships can lead to loneliness, which has been perceived as a global human phenomenon for aeons. Loneliness is a common experience which does not discriminate against anybody – young, old, male, female, and on all parts of the globe. It is an awful thing. Sometimes it can be a prison of silence and invisibility, sometimes temporary confinement, and sometimes it’s forever. In SA, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) revealed that 70% of respondents in a survey reported feeling lonely, with women more likely to report loneliness than men.

In the deliberations around the impact of Covid 19 on mental health, this issue has been brought to the fore. I have taken a major interest in this topic, which is reinforced by the real-life stories that I have had sight of, i.e. testimonials of loneliness that I came across – short accounts that broke my heart and unleashed a wave of sadness for the indignity that loneliness causes. I have read that if you have ever been truly lonely, you may be able to relate to the debilitating physical and emotional ravages it unleashes.

Accounts of Loneliness
“I spent two hours ALONE wandering around a store because I was TOO NERVOUS to ask people to come with me. I ate two hotdogs and bought nothing.” Andrew, 24

“To me, loneliness means when I would stay home from school sick and read tons and be excited about my life until about 2pm, at which point I’d just be bored and vaguely nauseated and wishing I had someone to talk to.” Liz, 33

“Christmas GUTS ME every year. I already accept there will not even be a PHONE CALL for me. My evening walk with the dog takes my soul every year for curtains are open into living rooms full of families and friends, I can hear them, sometimes smell their turkey dinners, but most of all I feel their happiness knowing I will never have it.” Scout, 60

“I looked out the window to see OTHER APARTMENT buildings with a few scattered lights turned on and wondered who else MIGHT BE AWAKE with me.” Anonymous, 52

“More than anything loneliness for me is about feeling alone in a crowd; a certain kind of sadness with not finding my tribe; an inability to relate to the popular values presented in mainstream media; not being able to find a place of comfort and safety outside of my home; a disappointment and disconnect with the mainstream ways of the world.” Anonymous

“I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. I STRUGGLED to leave the faith for years, living a secret life where I hid many things about myself.” Anonymous, 26

“I read the Harry Potter series eight times at the end of elementary school and the beginning of middle school, because I didn’t have any friends and the characters in those books were the only things that made me feel less alone.” Alexandra, 19

“I was the ONLY KID that had no parent to kiss or hug them goodbye, because my mom was a SINGLE PARENT and couldn’t afford to be late for work. I had to wait 45 minutes after class had ended for my mom to come pick me up. I just sat there, while my teacher just typed away at her computer… I just wanted to be like all the other kids in my class.” Anonymous, 15

“I can find no one who knows what it is to survive war and ambushes, who was boots on the ground with me, who understands all the associated burdens of survival and what obligations and duties arise for survivors.” PB, 50

“For without LONELINESS, how could we ever truly appreciate COMPANY.” Catriona, 24

A Heavy Burden
Many of us can relate to people who put their feelings out there for the world to see and one can admire their vulnerability. The experience of loneliness can be especially challenging because it can often go unnoticed or unacknowledged by those around us, leading those feeling lonely to feel even more disconnected and alone.

John is one of many individuals who has experienced the weight of loneliness in his life. He describes it as a heavy burden that he carries with him every day, and it affects not only his emotions but also his physical health by experiencing constant fatigue and exhaustion, while struggling to sleep at night. These physical symptoms are often the result of stress and anxiety that come with feeling lonely. John also finds it hard to get out of bed in the morning and lacks the motivation to do things he once enjoyed.

These thoughts can be overwhelming and contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety, which can compound the effects of loneliness. How does John get out of bed and go to work as a productive and effective employee?

And even when at work, some people cannot speak up about feeling lonely. One individual said, “loneliness seems so sad. Lonely people seemed so clingy and needy.” He had a great job and a wonderful family and friends. His employer had contracted a counselling service provider, so he called them a few months later. The very helpful counsellor listened empathetically, told him to do what he loved to do and ‘put himself out there’. In that encounter, he began to appreciate the reality of loneliness: any cure or treatment seemed too hard; it was an exhausting mountain to climb. Weeks went by and his loneliness continued – he realized no one asked how he was. He wore a mask of competence and good humour, which did not encourage people to ask. Things appeared great with him. He realised people had formed relationships with the masks he wore, and not with the real him.

Grief and Loss
One of the major causes of grief is the loss of a loved one. In one case study, a subject vividly remembers the starkest period of loneliness when his father passed away. For years he mourned him and said that he despised the void that settled over him, a void that would at random times suffocate him in its grip. Grief is a terrible thing, and often loneliness is not far behind. Later, he got divorced after being married for many years, and in the shadow of that loss, he was eaten alive by the absence of companionship. Even his children could not be a substitute for that feeling of being so very alone, and no conversation or gaiety could reach in and suture the gaping internal wounds.

We can see that loneliness is a titanic challenge that requires real intervention. There is a library of questions, given that the problem is as deep as it is complex, with no single quick fix. Should we have more conversations? Should we practice ubuntu more? Must we crowd retirement homes and spend time with the silently forgotten? Must we reach out to young people, or open our homes for dinners and stimulating conversations?

Recognise Loneliness
One major revelation from an individual experiencing loneliness was that the connection he needed was not only to other people, but to himself. He needed his own approval, that he needed to know and accept himself before he could connect with others and the world around him.

In business, it has been said that there is no wealth, without mental health, so businesses must play a role in the mental health of employees and recognise loneliness. Companies who look after their employees’ mental health enjoy an increase in productivity. There are documented cases of success with interventions implemented by companies across the globe.

Secondly, there are a number of organisations that coach and counsel individuals and walk alongside them to assist. Important though, the first step is to recognise and acknowledge that loneliness is a legitimate feeling that can impact our mental and physical health. It is essential to understand that loneliness is not a sign of weakness or personal failure. It is a natural human emotion that we all experience at times.

The next step is to seek support from others, whether that be through friends, family, or professional help. Sharing your feelings and experiences can help you feel less alone and provide a sense of connection and belonging. It is also important to find and connect with the people that don’t make you feel alone in their company.

Another important aspect of dealing with loneliness is taking care of ourselves. This can mean engaging in self-care activities such as exercise, getting enough sleep, eating healthily, and practicing mindfulness and meditation. Engaging in activities that bring us joy and fulfillment can also be beneficial, whether it be through hobbies, volunteering or spending time with loved ones. Seek professional help, in some cases, loneliness can be a symptom of an underlying mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety.

We know there isn’t one single answer, but there may be a dozen that keeps more of us from suffering from a condition that isn’t always outwardly obvious. No one should be sitting alone in their homes or walking aimlessly, living in their own heads, and seeing the happiness of others. More should have access to the possibility of pain relief, care, belonging that comes from building understanding and care. As human beings, we need to reach out to others that we know. Who knows, maybe we can save a life!

Contact Jacquie Bhana if you would like coaching to become a high-performance employee and leader of a high performance team.
C: +27 83 386 8343

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