It Started Long Before COVID-19
I give a simple greeting, but it invites a deluge of pent up emotion.
“How are you?” I ask over Zoom. Her large eyes begin to well with tears. “Oh God,” she says, reminding herself to breathe, tears beginning to stream down her face. “I’m just so lonely.”
I’m in Sydney but she’s in lockdown interstate, and it’s tougher on her than most. She’s facing her early recovery period alone, overcoming a serious substance use addiction while also battling the urge to act on her other addiction, food, which has dogged her all her life.
It’s something we in the recovery field are seeing more and more: Loneliness is on the rise, and it’s having real health impacts.
The research backs that up. Studies have shown that loneliness poses a similar risk of premature death to smoking or obesity. It is a key indicator of early cognitive decline and can have real, physical impacts on our cardiovascular health. Teenagers and young adults in their early 20s are especially vulnerable, as are older people over 75.
Public health officials are starting to take loneliness more seriously too, with messaging campaigns underway in the US, UK and Australia. The London School of Economics estimates that for every dollar invested in loneliness prevention, the community saves two to three dollars down the track.
While COVID-19 has led to a spike in isolation, the epidemic of loneliness started long before, and it’s been hitting the recovery community especially hard.
That’s because we’re wired for connection, it is the one thing that helps us soothe, be felt, be heard and understood. As British author Johann Hari says, “Loneliness is not the physical absence of other people: you can be surrounded by people and be lonely. It is the feeling that you are not sharing anything meaningful with other people.”
The 12-step recovery program is built on connection, and it seems that from the many stories I hear, that this is what we all crave (and not only in the midst of lockdown). So make a habit of saying hello to people in the street, say hi to your barista, strike up a conversation at the dog park. You just never know how much you will lift your own mood and theirs, or how much extra confidence it might give you to develop more substantial connections down the line.
I tell this to my client on Zoom. We talk. I work to soothe the pain, support her in sitting with her feelings, reminding her to breathe, to let emotions flow in, and to release them out.
We develop a plan of action. To reach out to a friend, to walk every day, and to ring another friend to recap the small seemingly insignificant things in her day – it’s about solidifying connections, even while trapped in isolation. It may be just a subtle shift, but it’s already making a difference, building confidence, and helping break the cycle of loneliness.