November 2016 By Divya Thampi Connection with other humans seems to be the fulcrum of human existence, and the sole antidote to loneliness, says Divya Thampi. The virus had invaded my body during the monthly cycle, which was probably the worst time for me to be infected. As I lay on the bed in the Intensive Care Unit, four nurses worked on me. They were doing for me what I couldn’t do for myself and had never imagined needing help to do. As they undressed me, I felt stripped in every possible way – physically, emotionally, financially and spiritually. The shame of being an invalid washed over me in waves and I didn’t even have the energy to sob. Just as I was starting to feel engulfed by this hopelessness, I sensed a warm hand squeeze my arm and I caught the kindest pair of eyes look into mine. Close to my ear she whispered “You are covered, the curtains are drawn and there’s only one of us dressing you up. Relax, you are going to be all right, I will see to it that you are comfortable.” Instead of stemming the tears, her words caused my eyes to flood with fresh ones; but they were tears of gratitude. I was overwhelmed with the tender feeling that you experience, when someone reaches out and holds your hand, when you have been feeling cut off and isolated for so long. This nurse, who was a complete stranger, had done for me what many of my closest friends may have had difficulty doing. She had offered me compassion and connection when I was at my most vulnerable. I had been infected with dengue virus for the second time; the first time apparently had gone unnoticed, making the situation a little complicated to treat. A week in the ICU and another in the general ward of the hospital was followed by recuperation for a month and a half, at home. This unexpected and unceremonious illness had thrown my life completely off gear. But as I look back, that difficult period also held the most valuable lessons I ever learnt in all of my life – one of them being the need for and impact of human connection. Connection with other humans seems to be the fulcrum of human existence. But before we look into human connection let’s delve a little deeper into something else that lies at the opposite end of connection, in the spectrum of human experiences – loneliness. Sebastian Junger, an American journalist in a TED talk, speaks about how our lonely society makes it hard for war veterans to come home from war. He says that while the war casualties of soldiers has gone down dramatically over the years, the number of war veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), has gone up. This was puzzling because one would expect the two to reduce proportionately. He found through research that the increase in the number of anxietydisorders amongst war veterans, had less to do with the trauma they had encountered on the battle fields and more to do with feeling alienated in the civilian society they came back to. Soldiers and officers are used to being part of close-knit units with their workmates, a kind of a tribal mentality which is good for the emotional health as well as the overall well-being of the troops. However, when they get back to the regular civilian society they find “a fractioussociety splintered into various competing fragments, many of them hostile to one another.” While this is an example from America, things are not very different closer home. Lonely planet Social connections will keep you healthy and happy At a workshop that I had been a part of on “Movement therapy”, we were asked to think of two emotions that each of us wished to experience less often or experience in lesser intensity. Further, we were asked to share this insight within groups of 7-8 participants. From an IT engineer to a mother with a differently abled child; from a dancer, to a psychology student, the group was as diverse as one could imagine. We pondered for a couple of minutes individually on the matter and by the end of the few minutes allocated, I had loneliness in my list of two emotions. When it was time to discuss and share within the group, I waited till the end, because I felt reluctant to let people see ‘loneliness’ on my list; somehow in comparison to more widely experienced emotions like ‘anxiety’ and ‘anger’ (or so, I thought, at that moment), ‘loneliness’ looked pitiable. And to make things worse, by the time it was my turn to share, not a single other person had staked claim to ‘loneliness’. Eventually when there was no further scope to delay this moment of embarrassment, I painfully shared my list. All the group members listened respectfully and apparently without judgment, like they did for others. Soon after this, we were instructed to come to consensus, within the group, about the top two emotions we as a group, wanted to feel less of. To my utter surprise, all of us came to the conclusion that one of the two emotions that each of us experienced and wanted to manage better, was indeed ‘loneliness’. On hindsight this shouldn’t have surprised me because as a counsellor a significant number of the clients who approach me, do so because they don’t know how to deal with loneliness. Loneliness is different from being alone. It is a place that all of us end up visiting some time during the course of our lives. A short period of loneliness is almost good for us because it helps us appreciate the connection we experience with other beings, whenever we do. However, it becomes dangerous when you start wading in the waters of loneliness, for long durations. It is an emptiness that is overwhelming, that claws you down with its nothingness; sucks you dry of any joy, serenity, interest, gratitude or hope. You float in it listlessly, unable to experience life the way it is meant to be. The longer you drift in the waters of loneliness, the farther you get from the shores of connection. There’s probably nothing worse than this feeling of disconnection because when you are lonely, you are not just disconnected with others, you are disconnected with yourself. Human connections By the same token, connections with other human beings is at the heart of happiness and fulfilment. Social connections improve our physical health and psychological well-being. A telling study on social relationships and health shows that lack of social connections can be more harmful to our health than smoking, obesity or high blood pressure. Similarly, the biggest learning from a Harvard study on Adult Development that spanned over 75 years was – Good relationships keep us happier. We don’t need a research report to tell us that! But there’s more. What it found was that people who had good relationships were happier, healthier and lived longer. All of us know that we can be lonely in a crowd or in a marriage, so it is not just about the number of friends we have or whether or not one is in a committed relationship, it is about the quality of close relationships in our lives. Now, if we are wired to thrive when we are connected with other human beings, then how come loneliness is turning out to be an epidemic of alarming proportions? This is what I have come to observe from my own life and the life of others – when we experience loneliness, more often than not, we assume that reaching out for help is a sign of weakness; we learn from our work and social environments that we are single-handedly responsible for snapping out of these ‘inconvenient’ feelings. But the truth is far from it. We already seem to be doing a stellar job of criticising ourselves and don’t need one more person to tell us that we are behaving like losers. What we need is connection with a compassionate and understanding human being. What could a lonely person do then? The following incidents should throw some light on the answer to that question. A client, who was consulting me for depression, reluctantly confided that she felt deeply lonely. Added to that was her guilt of burdening her family with her unhappiness. She was certain that they were annoyed and tired of her being aloof and spreading an aura of negativity at home. It seemed like she was caught up in a whirlpool of her own feelings, going deeper and deeper into what seemed like a dark endless hole. Towards the end of the session she unwillingly agreed to talk to her mother, and just let her know that she was lonely. A week passed and the client returned. There was something different about her; the pall of sadness had lifted. As she spoke to me, a small smile played around her lips. She narrated that she had hesitantly told her mother about how lonely she felt. To her amazement, instead of dismissing her, her mother had hugged her and voiced through tears the extent to which she had missed her, and how relieved and grateful she felt to be included in her daughter’s world, even if it was to share her pain. Just that sharing had brought about a huge shift in the relationships within the family and more importantly, had broken the walls that kept the client isolated. This is not a one-off case of finding out that our near and dear ones want to be there for us, that they are not unaffected by the pain we go through and all they need is some kind of a sign from us, to pull us out of our isolation. Not very long ago, I called up a friend because I saw an update by her on the social media about looking out for a job. I was surprised because just about six months ago, she had started a small venture of her own. Puzzled, I made a call to her and did not get a response. After a couple of attempts, I had an uncomfortable feeling, so I kept dialling her number relentlessly and finally she came online. I checked if she was OK and she assured me that she was, but her subdued voice told
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