Over the past ten years, medical and scientific research has led to the development of a number of highly sophisticated radiographic, genetic and blood tests designed to detect heart disease and various forms of cancer at their earliest stages. The development of these tests has been motivated by two irrefutable facts: (1) cancer and heart disease are two of the leading causes of death among adult Americans; and (2) the sooner those conditions are diagnosed the more likely it is that the patient will have a favorable outcome. Still, as valuable as those tests have proven to be in reducing the number of deaths associated with those and other life-threatening diseases, they are only as effective as the vigilance of those who may be suffering from those ailments. Stated otherwise, if the people at risk of contracting cancer or being stricken by heart disease aren’t attentive and responsive to the early warning signs associated with those diseases, which, in many instances, will be known only to them or, alternatively, fail to see their doctors for “check-ups” on regular basis, the tests will be useless.
Obviously, I’m not a doctor or a clinical psychologist, but I have to believe that loneliness (left untreated) has the same capacity to compromise, if not ultimately destroy, the lives of those it infects as do many of its more “physical”/traditional counterparts. In fact, researchers have identified loneliness as a contributing factor in depression and suicide (the 3rd leading cause of death among teenagers and young adults), cardiovascular disease and stroke, increased stress levels and alcoholism and drug addiction – to name just a few. However, research also has shown that, like cancer and heart disease, the sooner loneliness is recognized and properly addressed the less likely it is to gain a foothold in our or another sufferer’s life. The problem, of course, is that are no diagnostic tests to help us ferret out loneliness. It tends to be much more subtle and varied in its “presentation.” It has no common cause. Indeed, the events to which it often is linked can trigger a profound sense of loneliness in one person and have no appreciable effect on another.
For all of these reasons, it is incumbent on us to be our own hyper-vigilant “diagnosticians” when it comes to recognizing the seeds of loneliness within us and in those around us, not only those we care about, but those who obviously need someone to care (or care a little more) about them. It is equally critical that we promptly and effectively respond to its presence. Here are just a handful of the “warning signs” to be aware of: (1) poor quality sleep patterns; (2) persistent feelings of fatigue; (3) being self-conscious about everything we do and say; (4) being unusually defensive or angry in our dealings with others; (5) a profound sense that we are alone in the way that we feel about things (i.e., that no one understands or is capable of understanding us); (6) recent changes in life circumstances that are known to bring on or exacerbate feelings of loneliness (e.g., divorce or the end of a significant relationship, a move to a new city, a new school or a new job, the death of a loved one, etc.); and (7) outward expressions that we often associate with sadness (e.g., tearfulness, a tendency to isolate, etc.).
Several years ago, I attended a legal seminar at a very fancy resort in Arizona. Like most events of its kind, there were lots of organized festivities designed to facilitate socializing between attorneys and their clients and clients and their vendors. During the course of the three day event, my attention was drawn to a young lawyer who, simply put, seemed to be disconnected/disengaged from the “fun and frivolity” that the rest of us were experiencing. She was often by herself at the “mingling” events and during breaks in the presentations. She politely, but consistently, “opted out” when invited to attend large (or more intimate) dinner gatherings with colleagues and prospective clients. One afternoon, towards the end of the seminar, I saw her (a complete stranger to me – save for my connection with her obvious sense of loneliness) sitting on a couch in a corner of the lobby first on her cell phone and, moments after she hung up, in tears. I remember my heart breaking for her, but I also remember, vividly and, in retrospect, disappointingly not reaching out to her.
Had that happened today, I’d like to think I would have approached her, at least offered (if not insisted) that she allow me to try and console her, let her know that she was not alone, that none of us are truly alone, that I cared, that I had shed the same tears she was shedding many times in my life, that I knew intimately the place from which she was crying out. Maybe if I had taken those simple steps, I could have made a difference. I had met the enemy head on. I had him dead in my sights. I had “won” half the battle (recognizing his presence) – and then I walked away. It was a cowardly act on my part and one none of us can afford to repeat if we are to have any hope of winning this war.