This week, Madison, Wisconsin has been attacked by what people are calling a “polar vortex.” Frequently asked question include, “Is this like the polar express?” and “what is a vortex?” Respectively, the answers are no and no. It’s just cold air.
Nothing makes me want to leave my house like someone telling me to stay in my house. Suddenly, I run through groceries at three times the normal rate. (That could also be because I'm bored.) Suddenly, JoAnn Fabrics emails me every time scrapbooking paper is on sale, which has been every day this week. I respond to that type of nudge more quickly than a text from a long-lost friend. Suddenly, all I can think about is how I’ll document the changing of the leaves in 2019. Stickers or it didn’t happen.
Living alone, working from home, and having limited faith in the ability of my Toyota Corolla to take me places when it’s -30 degrees outside -- all this brings up the topic of loneliness. About a year ago, loneliness was in the news a lot. People were hollering about how loneliness will kill you in the same way romaine lettuce would go on to kill you in November and just going outside would have killed you yesterday in Wisconsin.
At the time, I was a little disturbed by these headlines. I wrote a response blog post for a different platform. Now, with a year of wisdom and maturity under my belt, I find myself... still a little disturbed. Time to write another blog. How things can change in a year!
“Loneliness kills!” That was the headline. Oddly, the meta-analyses that every journalist was citing included articles from as early as 1988. It wasn't exactly news. I can't speak to the quality of the methods (not because I actually can't, but because that is more-or-less my day job), but I can discuss my reaction.
(Ok, full disclosure: immediately after saying I wasn’t going to speak to the methods, I spent about an hour looking over the methods and wrote a completely different and probably very dry blog post about literally just the methods.)
I’ll spare you that post... for the most part. But you should know that the authors made a distinction between objective isolation (e.g., "I live alone"; "I see less than one close relative per month"), and subjective isolation (reporting "I feel lonely"). Then, they make the argument that the two types of isolation are equally predictive of mortality.
In the long and boring methods post, I pointed out the flaws with drawing this conclusion from the available data. And while that’s interesting to me, it’s not the point that really matters. Why did it bother me, that a research article told me if I live alone I am more likely to die early? And why do I feel compelled to comfort people that having only a few friends and seeing less than one close relative per month is actually totally fine?
In brief, because that’s me. I adore living alone, and I shudder at the possibility of getting a roommate, even if it would mean warding off an early death. (Indeed, “early death” is an appropriate nickname for the condition of “living with a roommate.”) The most romantic life I can imagine involves my husband living nearby. We live at a respectable distance on the same giant plot of land, and I know how to grow my own vegetables. I don't write down any recipes, I just remember them.
And I have forever been someone with only a few close friends. I could not fill out a bridal party if I tried, although I'm open to each of my existing friends appearing twice. They're great, so that would be fine.
The next paragraph is going to be boring, but if it provides inspiration for an equally-boring Netflix-only Indie movie about a girl who lives in the suburbs (ironically), probably a movie that is proudly ad-libbed and receives mysteriously high ratings on Rotten Tomatoes - well then, my work here will be done.
In any given week, here's what I do: I attend maybe three recovery meetings. I see friends outside of work once, maybe twice. I see my boyfriend slightly more than that, when he's in town. I catch up on the phone with people. Add to that 10 hours of writing, 7 hours of working out, and 17 hours playing Words with Friends on my phone (I wish I was joking), and that's my week My work environment is social, and when I get home I am frequently spent. I whisper suggestively to my brain that it’s just going to be me and her soon.
If you tried to quantify my social life and cross-reference it with a normative sample of twenty-five year old girls living in small cities, I would probably come up as “objectively isolated.” And yet, emotionally, I would be experiencing no ill effects. This is the life I consciously designed.
This is not to say I haven’t struggled with loneliness. I think loneliness is part and parcel of my personality (which, for Enneagram lovers, is a type 4, and for those not familiar with the Enneagram, is moody). As a general rule, I walk around the world feeling essentially alone, like an outsider looking in, waiting for the moment when someone fully and completely understands how I feel. This internal state does not shift with reality. It's just... Me. It's what makes me fun.
So, can loneliness kill you? I don't know. The headline is sexy specifically because it triggers shame, self-doubt, and catastrophizing. (By "catastrophe," I mean “the prospect of actually sharing a living space with another human.")
Although I believe humans are categorically incapable of objectivity, I'd encourage you to look objectively at what you want interpersonally, rather than what you think you are supposed to want based on your friends or your family or on social media or some journalist's alarmist retelling of an academic journal article. Figure out where you would be most comfortable - and then do about 5% more than that. Problem solved. Crisis averted. Modest personal growth scheduled. And you still don't have to get a roommate.