Tuesday, May 15, 2018

A Terrifying Life of Loneliness

Social Isolation

I came across an interesting academic paper recently; it is an oft-cited paper on loneliness and its relationship to mental illness, written by Dr. Frieda Fromm-Reichmann [1889–1957], which was originally published in Psychiatry: Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes (Psychiatry, 22:1–15, 1959)—almost 60 years ago.

Given what we know about our society, its competitive nature and its alienating harsh uncompromising nature, it is not surprising that it remains highly relevant today. Fromm-Reichmann writes:
The characteristic feature of loneliness, on which I shall elaborate later, is this: It can arouse anxiety and fear of contamination which may induce people —among them the psychiatrists who deal with it in their patients—to refer to it euphemistically as “depression.” One can understand the emotional motivation for this definition, but that does not make it conceptually correct.  
People who are in the grip of severe degrees of loneliness cannot talk about it; and people who have at some time in the past had such an experience can seldom do so either, for it is so frightening and uncanny in character that they try to dissociate the memory of what it was like, and even the fear of it. This frightened secretiveness and lack of communication about loneliness seems to increase its threat for the lonely ones, even in retrospect; it produces the sad conviction that nobody else has experienced or ever will sense what they are experiencing or have experienced.
Even mild borderline states of loneliness do not seem to be easy to talk about. Most people who are alone try to keep the mere fact of their aloneness a secret from others, and even try to keep its conscious realization hidden from themselves. I think that this may be in part determined by the fact that loneliness is a most unpopular phenomenon in this group-conscious culture. Perhaps only children have the independence and courage to identify their own loneliness as such—or perhaps they do it simply out of a lack of imagination or an inability to conceal it. One youngster asked another, in the comic strip “Peanuts,” “Do you know what you’re going to when you grow up?” “Lonesome,” was the unequivocal reply of the other.
The first fact to get straight is that loneliness is not depression, and yet many doctors mistake depression for loneliness. Loneliness is a stand-alone diagnosis. Sadly, this is a truth, an everyday reality, for many people worldwide, from young to old.

If I have written often and periodically about loneliness and social isolation [e.g., see here and here and here], it is chiefly because I think it is a major problem that affects our society, and more so in societies that have undergone industrialization and the adoption of capitalism as an economic system, thus increasing alienation and dislocation of the individual. Such is my current view, and it is not by any means a scientific view, though science might one day validate my ideas on this matter.

Here is a revolutionary thought. Fromm-Reichmann determined, writes Judith Shulevitz, in The New Republic (2013) “that loneliness lay at the heart of nearly all mental illness and that the lonely person was just about the most terrifying spectacle in the world.” If you can get a hold of this article by Dr. Fromm-Reichmann, I would highly recommend that you read it in its entirety. You will not be disappointed.

And, equally important, if you think or suspect that someone is lonely, reach out to him or her. You can be saving his or her life, and you might make a good friend, too. 

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