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Finding support in lonely times

“Just because you are alone, doesn’t mean that you have to be lonely.” Over the past 13 years in the REBT program at Holy Trinity Parish Center, I must have repeated this hundreds of times to the people that took part in the program every week. The fact that people in treatment in chemical dependency counseling minimize this issue is sad. Very few clients will own this issue, stating, “I’m not lonely, I have a lot to do.” When push comes to shove, this issue tells us as counselors, what causes our clients to stay in addiction.

As a counselor, I have long been interested in issues of health for people ranging from seniors to those incarcerated.

When Dr. Vivek H. Murthy wrote a book on loneliness, as a health issue, stating “individuals can be imprisoned in themselves – in their loneliness, what we need to do is visit them out somehow; reaching out, caring, helping.” The problem of loneliness in our society is huge, before the pandemic and even more so now.

Loneliness, which is the feeling of being disconnected from others, even if you’re surrounded by people, i.e. agoraphobia, fear of the marketplace, social isolation, which is being separate from others, have been linked to increased risk of heart disease, stroke and premature death. Loneliness has been connected with increased anxiety, depression, suicide, while social isolation increases the likelihood of someone developing dementia. Thus in the “old days” of AA and NA requiring clients to attend meetings to minimize the above, with the core belief being that people needed to come out of themselves and start to form friendships and bonds with others, not based on alcohol and other drugs. A 2015 study by researchers at Brigham Young University likened loneliness to the dangers of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

One in three people ages 45 and up are lonely and one in four, ages 65 and older, are living in isolation, according to a 2020 report by the National Academies of Sciences and Medicine.

The pandemic has only exaggerated those issues. My wife Karen, and myself haven’t seen our kids in Florida or Ohio from a year to a year and a half due to COVID and a lack of vaccinations as adults. It’s not the risk of COVID, it’s the risk of isolation and the mental health effects of that, and the risk of social and developmental issues with children related to being isolated for prolonged periods of time.

We made it an issue to “skype” frequently, call often, to try and keep our loneliness in check. We plan, now that we are fully vaccinated, on going to Florida and Ohio to see our families, but I won’t say it hasn’t been rough to accept.

We know from different studies, that the more alone you feel, the less likely you are able to imagine how someone else is thinking or feeling. More loneliness equals less empathy. Empathy is a skill and it’s a skill practiced by being with other people. That’s why it always intrigues me in this field, when clients tell their counselors, “I don’t like going to groups, because I don’t like talking to strangers.” Many times they get away with this type of thinking with the idea of “meeting them where they are at.” Well, here’s one to counter, “no pain, no gain.” Too many people being treated in the field of chemical dependency are “out of practice, due to their loss of empathy.”

We have evolved as social animals to depend on the people around us. David Ropeik, author of “How Risky is it, Really?,” states “When the lion is attacking, together we can fight it off. Alone we can’t.”

Many places still have meetings that require masks, social distancing and washing your hands. I gave someone a list of meetings and their only comeback was, “I’m not going because I don’t agree with someone making you wear a mask.”

Five hundred sixty thousand Americans have died during the past year. Hello, wearing a mask should be automatic. Trust me, it isn’t.

It seems today that many people tend to reject or ignore information that doesn’t fit their world views. In his book, Ropeik attributes this type of tribal thinking to why so many people refuse to wear masks or get vaccinated, even when science reinforces that both of these things are highly protective and safe.

Loneliness then chips at our empathy. This can drain our open-mindedness, sometimes to the point that we don’t recognize what is happening in front of us.

As an example, when Western New York’s hospitalization and death rate skyrocketed in mid-winter, healthcare workers were largely exhausted. One critical care physician jokingly stated, “where’s the pizza?” in a reference to the regular lunches that the public was sending last spring, but largely forgot when the numbers got worse. Many nurses and doctors had stated that they had never seen this much death.

Unfortunately, many people aren’t listening. For many on the outside, misery rooted in wearing masks and social distancing has managed to overshadow the greater tragedy happening inside hospitals. As one nurse told me, “people don’t want to know. They are on their own islands and they’re so depressed and isolated in their own homes and very angry.”

Medical personnel are out on the front lines with little compassion shown. In his book, Murthy advocates spending at least 15 minutes a day talking or writing to someone you love – and doing it with no distractions. Also the face to face video calls rather than phone conversations.

Finally, because this has been difficult for all of us, loneliness has ways out that can help elevate people’s lives to another level. We don’t live completely alone in this society. I’m not going to give you a 2-4-6 method of dealing with your loneliness. I will, however, issue you a challenge to start and pick up the phone to get started. It’s up to you. I’ve been here a long time as God’s helper.

Mike Tramuta has been a counselor for more than 30 years. Call 983-1592 for more information.

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