It seems I have written before about the gulf existing between Wellville and Sickville. It comes to a point where it feels impossible to remember what it was like to be well or even have one’s feeling truly understood. It is certainly an emotion commonly expressed on message boards and amongst friends with similar conditions. However, there is a side effect to this gulf because it sits between us and those with whom we would otherwise be closest. How many things are more isolating than feeling like those who have known you longest and often best no longer understand what you experience? What’s worse is feeling the only way they would understand would be to have the same experiences and know you would never wish that upon them. So the loneliness problem is a common side effect of any medical condition.
In the U.S., we prize our individualism. We celebrate our poets who could go off into the wilderness to find themselves. We rarely talk about our cultures increasing segmentation and physical divisions. For example, I find instant messaging with in the office to be a terrible, yet common, practice. I am 3 cubes over. Stand up, walk over, and let’s talk. Ten years ago, I heard a presentation where it was pointed out the best way to predict levels of crime in a neighborhood was to find out how many people knew their neighbors first names. I still find it hard to believe how many people do not know their neighbors. As a culture, I guess we go home, shut our doors, eat and watch TV/go online.
No wonder we do not recognize the public health risk of loneliness. How does one recognize the lack of something one is not used to having? Our culture makes being alone seem desirable or at least like we should feel fine being alone. Now there is a growing body of evidence suggesting loneliness is a driver for many adverse medical conditions.
One of my favorite meta studies looked at 70 studies involving more than 3.4 million people who were on average 64 years old at the time of their study. Over an average duration of study of seven years, roughly a quarter of the participants died. Those who reported being lonely were 26% more likely to have died during the study, and people living alone had a mortality rate roughly 32% higher than those living with others. One write-up of this study can be found at lonely.
The double edge of life in sickville is when our illnesses drive away those whom we love. It’s not easy sleeping in a bed with somebody whose spasms wake you in the night. Who wants to be close to a person whose touch can be so warm as to burn, whose emotions and thoughts seem to wander randomly? It’s hard on everyone, and it creates a cycle where illness pushes people away causing loneliness leading to still more illness.
On the more positive side, there is an increase in looking to “fix” the brain rather than just treat symptoms. brain hack
Rather than try to increase the pleasure chemicals in our brain to combat depression, what if we could just fix the part of our brain causing the problem? From my perspective as an MS patient, this treatment route sounds fascinating. If you are studying the circuits in my head, can you just fix them? Will doing so still leave “me” in tact? While you’re in there fixing my circuits, could you please make everything run just a little more smoothly or would a perfectly operating nervous system leave me without anything to commiserate over with others. Would it leave me more lonely?
The part of this study which scares me is the seeming potential to change who we are. It leaves open the question of what exactly make us the way we are. Are our neurosis a key part of us. Love me, love my craziness, but don’t worry we can change the crazy me to a more comfortable me later?
At least my dogs love me the way I am.