The pulse of dial tone was sharp and metronomic. I don’t know what I had been expecting, but I hadn’t spoken to anyone for two entire days and I needed some connection.
‘Oh, it’s you.’
‘How are you?’
‘Well, I had a disaster with the lawnmower today.’
I waited while my mother went into detail about how she’d overflowed the oil on her lawnmower, how the roof of her house was leaking and that she’d have to replace it soon, how much childcare my sister required over the holidays and a detailed litany of what she’d had for dinner: two boiled spuds, skins on, runner beans (a tad chewy), corned beef (a lovely piece of meat). I waited for her to sincerely tell me how she was and I waited for her to ask me how I was. I waited for myself to reply with honesty.
I hung up still waiting. I sat and listened to the silence of the house that I lived in alone, tucked in the town that I’d moved to four months ago where I still knew no-one and wondered how, at 41, my life had gotten to this point.
Since I’d moved to a small town where life centred around families, mortgages and generations of people firmly rooted there, I’d felt different. Isolated. The internet was one place where I could find people like me and I’d been using it a lot.
On the internet I found opinions like mine. I found the culture and complexity I felt I was missing in the small town. There I found other writers with similar struggles.
I’d been using the internet a lot. I wondered, was I addicted? Behavioural scientists have linked internet addiction with social isolation. The three subtypes of addiction are: online gaming, sexual preoccupations, and excessive emailing or texting involving a constant compulsion to message or check messages. Did I have any of these? I did check my messages a lot. They were always disappointing. There was no message, ever, that could be big enough to stop up the gap inside me.
Internet addiction involving impulse disorder has been associated with an inability to establish face-to-face relationships or to engage in verbal communication. That made sense. There were definitely times when I sent a message rather than have to talk to someone directly. I worried I wouldn’t know what to say. God forbid, I might say something stupid. I’d avoid calling if there was an element of doubt or guilt. I’d text if I took a questionable sick day, to find out the outcome of a job interview, or if I had even an inkling of letting a friend down. I was avoiding real connection; I was avoiding communication involving anything more invested than the day to day. This realisation led me to think about when I started to do that and further, to think about how I was spending my time.
I was living alone. I spent hours and hours alone writing, and I discussed my work with no-one. It wasn’t only me living that way. Decreases in social support such as fewer friends, hobbies, neighbours, community events, free classes etc are not surprising when we consider how many of us now spend our time. Longer work hours, with longer commutes involving more screen time contribute to changes in the way we communicate, how and with whom. Like me, family members have spread across the globe. Our responsibility to other family members has been eroded. In fact, I had no responsibility at all. Worse still, I had used the remove of the internet, of indirect communication, to screen myself further from it.
Trying to blame the internet for my social isolation was another way to avoid taking responsibility. The truth was, it was me.
I grew up in a family that didn’t talk about their emotions. We did not speak to one another about how others actions made us feel. We certainly never spoke about our wants and needs, instead we manipulated to try and achieve them. I began to see that over the years I had used writing to do the same. If I explored my emotions, my wants and needs in writing it was less essential to say them out loud.
Social researchers have found that as soon as one person in a group breaks the barrier and says something vulnerable about themself bonding occurs and soon the others are sharing too. Examples are everywhere. When we get to know someone we trade our fundamental stories; the stories that we consider make us who we are. Popular culture, music, TV and literature has identified and used the idea that we connect to the self-confessional and to vulnerability in order to sell.
If I was seldom telling anyone anything real about myself, if I was seldom vulnerable, how could I expect them to be with me? How do you get good at anything? You practice. I felt like an idiot. I’d looked at everything but myself.
In the television show The Handmaid’s Tale, there’s an episode where the Handmaid Janine’s baby is dying. The baby is such a treasure it has been kept in a safe, sterile environment with the ruling-class family who do not touch it. There’s nothing physically wrong with the baby. It’s examined by experts with no clue how to save it. Giving the baby up for dead, Janine, the birth mother, is allowed to say goodbye. She immediately strips off and holds the baby to her skin. She cradles it all night while singing to it. In the morning the baby is thriving again. The premise is real; without touch, without human connection the baby may well have died.
The above scene has its basis in research carried out by neurologists and behavioural scientists. In 1958, ‘The Nature of Love’ by Harry Harlow was published in American Psychology. In it Harlow detailed his findings from experiments carried out with Rhesus monkeys. He found that baby monkeys chose fur-covered dummy mothers over wire mothers with milk. That is to say, touch was more important to them than food. Subsequent researchers found that fur-covered dummy mothers that moved were essential for normal brain development in the baby monkeys. In a series of experiments, the neuropsychologist James Prescott found that touch and motion were critical for normal neurointegration of the cerebellum-limbic-prefrontal cortex – the parts of the brain fundamental for senses, emotions and personal development.
Even our language reflects the pain of social isolation. Across the world languages use words for physical pain to express social hurt. He hurt my feelings or the formidable pain of heartache.
Fortunately, my realisation came early since social isolation can and does make people ill. In the past decade, in the US for example, cases of depression have doubled, suicide has become an epidemic and addictive behaviour is on the increase. Research has linked all to social isolation. Individuals with less social connection have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation and higher levels of stress hormones.
In ‘Reducing Social Isolation And Loneliness Through Membership In A Fitness Program For Older Adults’ in the Journal of Applied Gerontology (4 Nov 2018) Brady, D’Ambrosio, Felts et al found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 per cent and stroke by 32 per cent. The same study reported that data taken from 3.4 million people found that socially isolated people had a 30 per cent higher risk of dying in the next seven years.
After the phone call with my mother I sat there staring at the wall. I became aware that I needed to make changes and I needed to make them fast. I had lost the art of conversation. I had forgotten that I could shape the conversation. I could redirect it to things that interested me or both of us. I could ask my mother how she felt about the spuds she had for dinner. Were they from her own garden? Were they the first after her separation from my father? I could tell her how the new spuds made me think of my grandfather, her father, now passed, who speared his spuds with such a high flourish of the fork that he often missed his target and the littlest of the shore was nudged off his plate onto the table.
Shortly after this conversation, I moved back to the city and I made changes. Anytime I recognised that I was avoiding communication I took responsibility, approached it thoughtfully and enjoyed it. I took night classes and I set myself goals where I would approach new people and start a conversation; something I had never done before. I started doing affirmations and read that there is psychological evidence for them working; if you say them out loud it’s equivalent to being told them by another as a child. I focused my absolute attention on what the other person was saying, without any thought of what I was going to reply. I found myself talking more easily and sincerely. I worked on talking about my feelings and I prioritised building relationships with people that sincerely interested me and let some of the others go. It took practice and commitment. It took admitting I needed to change.
The most difficult aspect was unexpected. One of the factors I had given no importance to was the most fundamental. It was trust.
Research by Teresa Seeman, in collaboration with the Psychosocial Working Group on Support and Social Conflict, supports the importance of trust in connection. People residing in lower socioeconomic areas have less access to social support and resources. Social stressors like overcrowding, financial hardship, and fear and uncertainty have all contributed to lower perceived levels of social support. It can be a self-perpetuating cycle: greater social isolation breeds distrust and distrust breeds greater social isolation.
I had to learn to trust that what I had to say was interesting and valid and that people wanted to talk to me just as much as I wanted to talk to them.