Psychobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.
I used to get lonely a lot, but over the years, I’ve been really amazed at the great, wide community out there that wraps me up in loving support, even when I try to push people away (consciously or without thinking about it until after they’ve gone.)
The great thing about being single is that you get to decide how you respond to external pressure to be in a relationship, to raise a kid on your own or with a partner that nobody approves of or likes, or even just get a pet and make that the center of your world. (Shout out to Cleo, who turns 12 this year.) Anyway, I was reading this book, No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood, a few months ago. Most of the writers, like Margaret Cho, are comedians. They say a lot of what I’ve written about before when complaining about the ways that coupled people and some uncoupled ones expect that any person presenting as a woman in the world explain their childlessness. Motherhood is still considered a prerequisite for performing real womanhood and women are not treated as such without a lot of drama if they don’t express ongoing maternal yearnings, desire or commitment.
Back when I was working in an office again, a co-worker who has a grown son noticed the cover. She mentioned a couple of other stories about single women, presumably like me, who are much older. One of them had a hellion of a kid even though she didn’t actually want to have any kids because 1) it was what women did in her day and 2) She was thinking about who would take care of her when she got old. I should have left my co-worker’s office. But she was actually standing in my cubicle, I think, which is why I didn’t interrupt the flow of conversation.
As much as I love other people’s kids — and truly, I do — I think having a child with the expectation that said kid will grow up and make sure to escort you to the best assisted living facility when you can longer fend for yourself is not a good enough reason to get preggers. Also, I don’t think merging with another soul in the expectation that you can care for one another into your later years is a good idea, either. We should like each other enough to want to make sure we both survive. That isn’t a given. And it is very, very hard for me to imagine that kind of long-term tolerance. Or maybe it’s that the joy of it, the possibility of the joy of it, keeps me from being lonely.
But I mention all of this to say that loneliness is killer for me as a single woman because at the heart of any panic I ever feel about being single is the belief that I might die lonely. While I’m being maudlin, notice that I didn’t say I would die alone — we all will — or that I would die of a broken heart (that’s my early aspiring romance novelist peeking her head out to say what up.)
Loneliness, after all, is the want of intimacy. Single is not synonymous with loneliness, we know. The faces of the lonely look a little like…well, my people, except loneliness research puts me on the winning side of things, I suppose:
Who are the lonely? They’re the outsiders: not just the elderly, but also the poor, the bullied, the different. Surveys confirm that people who feel discriminated against are more likely to feel lonely than those who don’t, even when they don’t fall into the categories above. Women are lonelier than men (though unmarried men are lonelier than unmarried women). African Americans are lonelier than whites (though single African American women are less lonely than Hispanic and white women). The less educated are lonelier than the better educated. The unemployed and the retired are lonelier than the employed.
Being connected is work. It is as much work, if not more, than being in a relationship. It feels like asserting yourself on the world in order to create a legacy that is not about being sad because you’re not 1/2 of a couple but instead about transforming your relationship to the world (or worlds) that you operate in. It makes me sleepy and sometimes cranky and moody, but the flip side is a reward. It takes loneliness away.
I was all about showing up for my boxing instructor, for instance, one Saturday, but I was tired and felt like flaking almost from the minute we stepped inside a glass-blowing studio (yes!) where she was giving free instruction. A little girl changed my whole attitude, though. She was just full of energy, her parents beaming, her brother off hanging out with the dog and eating something cold that I craved. She picked me as her partner to practice throwing punches, and I was so proud, even though she almost punched me in the face. For weeks afterward, I would run into her mother, and she would tell me about how this little girl who doesn’t know me, loved boxing with me. Weeks turned into months. Now me and her mom are good buddies.
It was great to be able to show up for her daughter without expectation and to make a connection that took me out of thinking about the future, or worrying about who will care for me when I’m old, if I get to be an old lady. Part of making sure I stay around long enough for that to even be a problem comes down to connecting in the moment, as much as I can, as much intimacy as I can stand. The question of how much intimacy one can stand (or, actually, I can stand) is probably a longer discussion.