You know that exact moment in Cast Away when Tom Hanks is in the middle of the sea on a wood raft crying out for Wilson, his volleyball, as it floats away? That moment where your eyes fill up with tears because you feel his loneliness and isolation.
That’s what living with a chronic illness can feel like. But I have to be honest. I’m still navigating that lonely feeling myself when it comes to living with a chronic illness. And it’s not just the literal state of being alone but it’s also the physical, emotional and mental solitude. The frustration that others don’t understand or get it.
It’s not the “I’m sorry” or “I can’t imagine how you feel” comments that we covet either, it’s the search for others living through the same journey as us. A group of people who sympathize because they’re deep in the trenches too. Being disconnected as a society detaches us from the gratification of truly connecting with others on a deep and authentic level.
One of the biggest lessons in living with a chronic illness is that it shows you where your real support comes from. I personally have found a very small support system from a few friends, my husband and family. They understand that I’m going to have some darker days. They accept me for who I am. And acceptance is key when the emotions of loneliness creep in.
I love this quote from Elizabeth Aram, PsyD…“Whereas most people associate loneliness and isolation with interpersonal loss, those with CMCs (chronic medical conditions) also experience the loss of control over their bodies and the impact that has on their identity and relationships.” The loneliness you feel doesn’t always exist in your surroundings but you might feel it internally too. Loss and frustration that your body isn’t working the way it should. That it has failed you. But in your journey towards healing, you may find solace in the fact that many people battle with feelings of loneliness and isolation. In fact, 72 percent of Americans have felt lonely, according to the American Osteopathic Association.
So, how do you shift gears and combat the feelings of loneliness your experiencing?
Here’s a few places to begin:
1. Reach out to friends and family. Stop waiting for them to contact you and be the one to invite them over for dinner.
2. Recognize what it is you’re feeling. Name it. Start to understand what it’s doing to you and your body.
3. Get out of the house. Take your dog to the local park, join a club, volunteer, or take a new skill class.
4. This might seem counterintuitive but get offline. Social media can be very isolating even if we feel like we’re “connecting” with people. Instead use that time to go to a social gathering or invite friends over for game night.
5. Join a thyroid support group. There are so many great groups for whatever you’re struggling with. Research some in your area and get outside of your comfort zone.
6. Seek professional advice. The best thing I ever did for myself when I was struggling with loneliness was hiring a therapist. We’ve worked through issues and I’ve developed new habits to support my crave for connection.
7. Use your loneliness to fuel your fire. Educate others on what living with a chronic illness feels like. Host a class or group at your local coffee shop to talk about how they can best support someone they know who is living with an illness.
8. Make a list of the people who support you and a list of those who don’t. Focus your energy on the positive people and stop spending your time on the negative people.
9. Make sure you’re communicating what you need. Often we don’t ask for help because we don’t want to burden others. But most of the time it’s because our friends and family aren’t aware of what we really need. They may feel helpless in their efforts until you can effectively communicate what you need support with.
10. Meditate and practice mindfulness. Meditation alone won’t help with your feelings of loneliness but it will boost your happiness and make you feel better. Both are beneficial to encouraging and motivating you to get out and socialize more.
I can’t count how many times I’ve had to cancel plans last minute or leave a gathering early because of my IBS, GERD or Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. Having to socially withdraw from activities makes it hard to nurture relationships. And it’s hard for others to understand your reasoning why.
Social isolation is a major concern for people living with chronic illness because humans need social contact to thrive! According to an article in Psychology Today, “When we go through a trying ordeal alone, a lack of emotional support and friendship can increase our anxiety and hinder our coping ability.”
When we don’t have enough social contact, we begin to feel depressed and anxious which leads us to feelings of even more isolation. It’s like a human hamster wheel you can’t jump off of.
But there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and starting with small manageable actions will help shift you out of the feelings of solitude. Continue to put your health first even if others don’t seem to understand. Part of managing a chronic illness isn’t just good health, medicine and movement. We need to take a whole health approach that includes connecting with others as well.