Life-Halting Loneliness

Loneliness is the unspoken diagnosis of our time.

Posted Mar 07, 2013

Loneliness is the unspoken diagnosis of our time. Loneliness cloaks itself in many forms: depression, melancholia, anxiety. Loneliness can even manifest itself as delusions and hallucinations. Loneliness results when a sensitive soul builds walls to protect itself from the painful disappointments of a heartless world.

“If you meet a loner,” writes the novelist Jodi Picoult, “no matter what they tell you, it's not because they enjoy solitude. It's because they have tried to blend into the world before, and people continue to disappoint them.”

In so many young people today, loneliness begins as a protection and with time becomes an impenetrable wall. The wall of loneliness can have the effect of halting all interaction with the social environment. The person becomes isolated.

But nothing, not even the soul, can grow when it does not interact with something outside itself. Loneliness can halt psychological growth.

The feeling of veing watched

In Pills are not for Preschoolers, I describe the therapy of a ten-year-old girl named Katelyn who felt like she was being watched by invisible people. This might seem to some therapists like she was experiencing a delusion; but it was not useful to me to see it in that way. After a few sessions of therapy, I could see that the heart of Katelyn’s problem was loneliness. After school, she longed to play with her older brothers, but they were usually out at basketball practice or hanging out with their friends. Katelyn thus was left to stay alone at home until her parents returned from work.

There were other family issues that contributed to Katelyn’s sadness. Her mother felt walled off from her husband, and Katelyn’s loneliness was also a reflection of her mother’s loneliness in her marriage.

The particular form that Katelyn’s loneliness took—her feeling of being watched by invisible people—was not inevitable. The symptom could have looked like depression or anxiety or mood swings. A therapist never knows precisely why a child develops one symptom or another, or why one particular child becomes the identified patient for the family. But in order to help Katelyn, I had to determine the root of the symptom and go about resolving that.

When Katelyn opened up to me about her loneliness, I could make some interventions. I asked her parents to pay their sons to “babysit” Katelyn for two days a week after school. Also, her father was able to rearrange his work schedule so that he could pick her up from school and work from home later in the evening. On the days that Katelyn’s brothers were not babysitting, her father took time to play a board game with her or help her with homework.

When she began to feel loved and cared about by her family and especially by her brothers, Katelyn slowly got better. The feeling of being watched by invisible people occurred less often, and the feeling took on a different shape. It began to seem more normal to her. “It almost feels like I’m an actress on a stage and an audience is watching me.” As Katelyn’s loneliness waned, the feeling of being watched disappeared altogether.

Like so many young people, Katelyn did not need psychiatric medication to cure her symptoms. Medication might have masked the symptoms for a time, but it would not have solved the underlying problem of loneliness. What Katelyn needed was a therapist who built a trusting relationship with her and got to the root of her problem so she could continue growing.

Loneliness is not a medical condition

In an era in which every human woe or trouble is diagnosed as a medical condition, loneliness is often mistaken for clinical depression. But we need to start seeing loneliness for what it is--a human problem, not a medical diagnosis. Mother Teresa said that "the most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved." The cure for loneliness is not a drug, but a growing ability to establish healthy relationships in the world. A trusting relationship with a therapist or even a doctor is one important beginning. A single good relationship can help break down the walls of isolation.

Joining a group with interests in common

Joining a group with common interests can be a good remedy for loneliness. I often recommend to my clients that they join a group. One seventeen-year-old girl decided to take a yoga teacher training class. She has now made a few friends in the class who are as passionate about yoga as she is. Another girl joined an environmental protection group and found kindred spirits there. Her friends are older than she is, but she doesn't care about that. One young man joined a group that watched movies together once a week and then discusses them. The group has helped him pull himself out of a paralyzing isolation. A single woman in her thirties reltuctantly joined a book club that she found through her college alumni association, but she now finds herself looking forward to the monthly meetings. Taking the first step out of loneliness is often difficult. But it is always rewarding.

 © Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D. 2013

 Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D. is the author of Pills are not for Preschoolers: A Drug-free Approach for Troubled Kids