Loneliness is something I think we all experience in one form or another through having an eating disorder and in recovery but is something we don’t often talk about.
Lately, I am not ashamed to admit, I have been feeling really quite lonely at times and although loneliness is not a new concept in my life, the shape of the loneliness I am experiencing now is different to the ways it has affected me before.
This got me thinking more about being lonely – whether we are physically alone or even if we are surrounded by people… however loneliness affects us it can be difficult to tolerate and to manage.
Generally, I do believe that as humans we are supposed to be social creatures. Like other mammals, humans evolved to be together, to connect, love and support one another, to nurture, to care… Loneliness is often defined as occurring when our need for these rewarding social contacts or relationships is not met.
But, having said that, not everyone who is alone will feel lonely. In fact, I am and always have been a person who enjoys and in fact needs time alone, in my own company and I can very often feel very content by myself, passing the time as I see fit and often do frequently even crave alone time! At other times though, I can and do feel very lonely when I’m alone… and at these times it is generally because I am longing for some form of human contact and it is not available to me.
When understanding the above definition of loneliness, it is also easier to understand why at times we can also feel lonely even when surrounded by people, perhaps even when with loved ones, if the people around us are not meeting our internal needs.
But loneliness is a hard emotion to manage.
Before developing this eating disorder, I am fortunate to have rarely felt lonely. I had good and meaningful relationships with family, friends and others and if I needed meaningful contact with another person, I could generally find it. In fact, I can honestly remember the couple of times in my pre ED life when I did experience more acute loneliness and I think the reason they are still so vivid in my memory is because the loneliness was not easy to live with.
And, research has shown that loneliness is in fact something that although not a recognised mental illness, does have a huge and detrimental impact on us. People who are lonely have been found to display signs and symptoms of more acute stress on the whole body than people who are not lonely and loneliness has even been said to be as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day… with lonely people 50% more likely to die prematurely (source).
So let us face it, loneliness is not much fun and not really very good for us at all.
And the sad fact is that those of us with eating disorders are also more likely than those without to experience some form of loneliness on top of all the other BS that the illness throws at us!
So, what forms of loneliness might we experience with an eating disorder? To answer this I will speak from my own experiences and perhaps you might relate.
When I was sick I isolated myself, I pushed people away, I avoided social situations and I lived alone and that was mainly because of fear of anything that would involve unknown food or having to sacrifice my rigid and disordered routines. I was not happy, I was incredibly lonely but the illness became the only comfort in my life because the cruel fact of an eating disorder is that the pain and misery of being lonely is easier to tolerate than the terror of doing anything outside the control of the illness. This form of loneliness when very sick is hard but the isolation then allows the illness to grow stronger and as it does the numbing effects of the eating disorder also mean that feeling the true depth of misery can be avoided. There were times though that I would glimpse into the world that I was no longer a part of, times of noticing just how cold and miserable I really was and those moments still make me weep today.
As well as this, during the illness and in recovery, there were also many occasions when I would be with loved ones or other people when I was desperate for someone to help me and to comfort me. However, I would find it so hard to voice my internal emotions or the pain I was experiencing from the illness that it would go unnoticed and this I think was a more powerful feeling of loneliness to the loneliness experienced when I was alone. Dealing with inner demons that nobody else can understand when in a room full of people is something that I am far from alone in experiencing and a very lonely situation to be in.
Now I am on a hopeful road to recovery. I am feeling alive once again, hopeful and quite frankly I just want to be out there living life. I don’t want to isolate anymore and I really want to be around people! But I am also living alone once more. Suddenly I find myself enjoying the company of others during the day when I am working and then in the evenings or at the weekends I now at times crave certain forms of meaningful human contact.
Sadly, due to the years of isolating in the illness, I don’t currently have many people to call on to socialise with, to be around, to talk to and enjoy moments with. I am doing all the things that they advise when considering how to manage loneliness – avoiding isolating, being around people even if not directly with them, joining social groups etc etc but it is going to take time for that meaningful life to build up and in the meantime it is really quite lonely.
However, I also do understand that we have to experience really tough emotions as they serve a purpose and this feeling of loneliness now is making me take action to find ways out of it, to find ways to try to ensure future weekends are not as lonely as this one.
So I am sitting with this loneliness today, feeling it and using it. I am reaching out to people and to groups and researching ways to build my life from here…. And I am also remaining vigilant to the fact that the illness can use this loneliness to try to creep back in, offering a numbing blanket from the difficult emotions that are arising and I am determined not to let this occur again by also doing all I can to stay on top of recovery.
Loneliness is hard, very hard. We all experience it and it comes in more than one form and at different stages of illness and recovery. I think though the key is not to let loneliness make the illness stronger… not to let the illness gain ground because it numbs the hard emotions arising out of it. Let the feelings of loneliness be there and use them to change the situation in any way possible to lessen the feelings of being lonely… reaching out to people, talking, sharing, getting into the world – whatever it takes that is not letting the eating disorder win!