It may seem strange to pose this question: is it loneliness or is it depression? After all, many people feel loneliness at the loss or weakening of close relationships because of depression, and most of us who’ve lived with the condition over a lifetime experience those broken connections as some of its worst effects.
On the other hand, lots of lonely people are not depressed – sad, most likely, but not necessarily experiencing the classic symptoms. The two are different but often occur together. Getting straight about the difference isn’t a matter of hair-splitting for me. It’s been an important part of learning how to take my life back from depression.
The recent book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection reminds me of the way I got started in recovery and also offers new and helpful insights about the differences between loneliness and depression.
The authors explore why social connection is an essential part of human nature and what the effects of loneliness are, including long-term physical deterioration. They cite many cultures in which the worst punishment is not death but banishment, because it cuts a person off from every connection that gives them a meaningful place in the world. Deprived of that, they begin a collapse on many levels – from neurological to spiritual.
But this study also describes the importance of the pain of loneliness in the broad trend of human evolution as a possible warning sign. It can help sustain the bonds that hold a community together by reminding an individual of the central importance of human connection to survival. That impels a lonely person to restore the lost relationships. There is a pull to return.
We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. – Dorothy Day
Depression, on the other hand, serves as a different kind of warning. Stress and other causes have created such harm that an individual can no longer be a helpful part of the community and must retreat from contact in order to heal. Depression impels a person away from social bonds, at least for a time.
The concept of this contrasting pull-push is a good description of what I’ve gone through.
Isolation and Loneliness
When I’m in the depths of depression I’m completely isolated from people. I can hardly focus on what they might be telling me or bear to make a gesture in their direction. My feelings aren’t there – I can’t respond. People sense I’m not really in their presence at all. Trying to be with others is painful, and I need to retreat to deal with my own sense of despair, worthlessness and the rest of the charming attributes of depression. I need to start healing and to do that I have to be alone and get into whatever treatment might help.
It isn’t until I’m coming out of depression and can see the damage I’ve done to my relationships – even if unintentionally – that I can begin to feel that loss. Then I’m deeply lonely and hope I can rebuild and restore the closeness and trust I’ve undermined. In our culture, though, that’s hard. There are no ceremonies to celebrate a return. I may more likely be greeted with mistrust, anger and distance.
No soul is desolate as long as there is a human being for whom it can feel trust and reverence. What loneliness is more lonely than distrust? – George Eliot
When I was putting this blog together, the first topic that came to mind as essential to recovery was connecting. It was a main theme that ran through the journals that were my first source for these posts. Connecting meant that, first, I had to reconnect with my own feelings, always so remote and unreachable during the worst periods of depression. I had to be able to feel again, and to do that I had to open doors shut firmly against even sense impressions of the world around me. Most fundamentally I had to accept myself again as a whole person.
I had to feel the strength come back to my own body, see the colors in things, hear the words people spoke, and laugh, grieve, feel lonely, want to be part of my family again, want to go to work. Reconnecting with my own feelings, responding to daily life, I could begin to restore deeper connections with my wife and children. I often went through all this quite quickly, sometimes waking up one morning and feeling human again. At other times, I had to use all the tricks I’d learned just to get started.
Hard as most of those periods of recovery were, they were lost in depression before long, and the whole process had to start over again. What has encouraged me more recently is that the pull from loneliness back into connection has been so much fuller and more complete than ever before.
This push-pull idea is a useful reframing of experience, partly because it suggests that there are forces moving in depression and loneliness that go far beyond my own boundaries. That is another reminder that I’m not so alone as I imagine when isolation seems most complete.
I know the experience of loneliness in relation to depression can differ widely in meaning for each person. What is it like for you?