Cure for Loneliness
He’s come to the disturbing realization that he’s unhappy with his life and has been for a long time. Day by day it didn’t seem bad; he just did what needed to be done and there was always lots to do. He’s a very good man and he’s every bit as hard working, honorable, and stoic as his father was. He’s a good provider and a good dad. His neighbors speak well of him. His boss would tell you he’s completely dependable and his family can always count on him. Day by day it didn’t seem like a big deal to stuff his feelings. It wasn’t – doing it for 45 years was.
He married an alcoholic. She was just like his mom. She took everything he had to give and then she left just like mom did. He’s ashamed because he couldn’t make her happy and he tried really, really hard. He got married a second time – to another alcoholic and before he tells me anything about her he explains, “I’m not leaving her.” Of course he can’t make her happy either and thinks it’s all his fault. He doesn’t drink because, “I’ve seen the damage alcohol can do.” He should check a mirror. He’s been an unwitting hostage his whole life.
“I think maybe I’m codependent.” Um…well…yeah…yeah, you are. “How’d I get to be like this?” I quote one of my favorite AA sayings – “What we lived with we learned and what we learned we became.” He’s annoyed. He thinks I’m blaming his father. “Who’s responsible for your happiness?” I ask. He’s confused. “Well…me!” Right. “And who is responsible for your wife’s happiness?” “Well…she says I don’t make her happy so I must be doing something wrong.” I face palm. “Let’s review – who is responsible for you and who is responsible for her?” A large light bulb appears over his head. He gets it. He’s a good Adult Child Of an Alcoholic and so having realized he was taught something unhealthy he berates himself immediately. I face palm a second time. We have some work ahead of us. A few months later…
He’s taking stock. “I’ve been looking at this path I’m on. I don’t like where it’s taken me and I’m afraid I’m not gonna like where it’s going.” I ask him if he’s travelling that path alone? “Pretty much.” I ask him a bunch of tough questions and he comes close to tears. As the final blow I ask him if he has any friends. “I have people that would come get me if my truck broke down…but I don’t have anyone who would want to just sit and talk with me.” Ouch. I ask if he wants some as he drowns in his unshed tears. Like most hurting men he gets angry and demands to know where he’s supposed to get them? We talk about hobbies and interests and things he loves doing and I tell him those are good places to start.
We talk about change and it scares him. I suggest that he could take responsibility for his own happiness instead of making his joy depend on pleasing miserable people. He knows how this plays out. Eventually it’s going to get good for him. The only unanswered question is how much he needs to agonize before he makes the changes. We have to hurt enough. We have to be sick and tired enough. Then we get mad and we choose the two most powerful words in the English language – “Never again.”
I have the Beatle’s singing in my head – “look at all the lonely people…” I meet a lot of them. There’s a million reasons to be lonely and they can be boiled down to three – fear, pain, and shame. Brene Brown asserts that, “Shame is the fear of not belonging.” She nails our experience in one short sentence. We didn’t belong to our families, to our peers, to anyone. Today we skirt the edges of social groups. We remain apart from while we yearn to be a part of.
I have sat with hundreds of people for whom 11-14 were the worst years of our lives. High school might have been worse but we found drugs and alcohol to hide us. In middle school, children are cruel. You knew just where you stood in the pecking order and it never, ever changed. We were awkward and insecure and horribly, horribly self conscious and many of us remain so today. We are afraid to have real friends. We crave a sense of belonging but we forget that holding others at arm’s length makes them go away. My friend Ardis says to the lonely, “You deprive us the pleasure of knowing you.” This brings tears to my eyes each and every time. Ardis sees beauty no matter how you package it. It took me a long time to believe that anyone would really want to be my friend. I gave with no expectation of a two way street.
I thank my Higher Power for the “brothers” and “sisters” that I have today because God put each and every one of them in my path. I call them my family. They are the most eccentric group of people you could ever hope to meet. They are mine and I am theirs. My “family” started with Bob. Bob is an airline pilot – a humble world traveler. Bob brought me coffee beans home from a trip to Columbia and he did it like it wasn’t a big deal. I choked back tears because it meant he thought of me. I have a vivid image of him in my mind that I will carry to my dying day. He was riding a mountain bike, wearing a cowboy hat, and carrying a man purse. He did stuff like that because he liked to and it didn’t ever seem to occur to him that anyone should care. We went on lunch dates together and talked for hours. Bob smiled every fucking time he saw me. He taught me volumes. Bob showed me that not all men are mean, selfish, or the opposite of me. Bob is the first man I ever called “friend” and later, “brother.” Bob opened a pretty big door to me. I no longer hated men and damn near half the people on this planet became potential friends.
About half way through therapy as a client, I decided I was cool. I didn’t have a strong argument for that – I just somehow knew it. I figured that three decades of hating myself was enough. I used to have this sign on my office door that said, “If you want to change the world, treat every person you meet like they’re the coolest person ever.” All of us wanted to be cool. Turns out we are. The experience I wish for each and every lonely person I meet is that they seize the chance to let go of their pain and their shame so that for the first time ever they can see themselves for who they truly are. I want to live in a world in which everyone has at least three close friends and a place where they belong. I know that that is possible. I know what it takes to get there and I know you deserve it.