Yesterday a friend told me that his child’s young teenage friend had overdosed on pills in the night, leaving an email in the wee hours to some friends and family, explaining that he was “done,” and it was time for him to go. Luckily, one of those friends was wakeful and saw it in time to save him, but it was a close thing. It made me think of how many people only need one more thing to send them over this edge, and how the pandemic has been that tipping point for some.
This morning I was reading a novel by Lisa Kleypas, and I came across this dialogue between one male character and another.
Severin, who was habitually detached from his emotions, tried to identify one of them.
“Do you think it could be loneliness?” Devin asked.
“No, it’s not that,” Severin looked pensive. ‘What do you call it when everything seems boring and pointless, and even the people you know well are like strangers?”
“Loneliness,” Devin said flatly.
This paragraph woke me up from my novel. As a clinician I would have immediately identified this as depression. As a clinician and a human being who has experienced depression in its deepest forms, however, it got me thinking.
Isn’t loneliness the central issue in depression? It certainly has been in my experience. How can I use pleasure to counter this right now?
Tracing inner landscapes of the past, I remember that the sadness central to my depression always had one main theme–feelings of isolation. Like the character Severin, even when I was surrounded by people, I struggled with feeling a part of them. Why had I forgotten that loneliness was so central to my depression?
Today, I know that there were many reasons for the profound depression of my mid to late adolescence—hormonal, unprocessed life transitions, undeveloped emotional intelligence, suppressed anger, lack of physical activity, nutritional deficits–but the experience was one of profound disconnection from others, and it took many years of work to understand and overcome them.
This brings me back to the near-tragedy of last night. What of loneliness in this pandemic? What about this poor teen who tried to take his life? What can we do for those who lose hope, who despair? What can we do for ourselves?
As I wrote about in my last blog, if we are feeling awful right now, this does not suggest we are broken, or that there is something wrong. Most of us are not pathologically depressed or in need of pharmacological help, we are responding normally and appropriately to a very stressful and sad time in our nation and our world. So instead of immediately heading to the medicine cabinet, I suggest we try some other methods that have empirical evidence of helping us to balance our endorphins so that when we do see others, we feel more connected. And while we are at it—why not consciously centralize pleasure as the underlying intention?
We need to have a lot of physically distant social contact right now to keep us from terrible loneliness or too much isolation. Regular phone calls and video chats help, also. Yet there are more options, and it’s enjoyable to try them, so I suggest a multi-dimensional, pleasure-based approach to loneliness.
Beta-endorphin, which is responsible for a sense of belonging to a group, and connectedness, is abnormally lower in some groups of people (alcoholics in particular), and can fluctuate in any individual. Luckily, beta-endorphins can be increased in many easy, non-pharmacological ways. You know most of them. Moderate exercise. Sleep. Spending quality time with family and friends in relaxation. Being out in nature. Yoga. These things are proven by science to work, and we don’t have to do them in the extreme, or to practice them perfectly, to see dramatic results. Twelve minutes of meditation a day has been shown to have a profound effect. Many of these activities can be combined for a synergistic effect.
We can do these things to our pleasure. Seven minutes of yoga stretches. YUM. Go to bed just 15-minutes earlier. BLISS. Take a 20-minute walk. LOVE. Pop on the bike and cruise around the neighborhood or a bike trail SLOWLY. YES!
One more thing. A process-free or low-processed foods diet is one which is high in whole foods. Whole foods nourish our bodies and our brains, and they also increase beta-endorphins. We know most of this, but we ignore it because we fear that we have to give up our favorite foods. To see benefits, we don’t necessarily have to begin by giving something up. I recommend that people simply add. Add whole vegetables and whole fruits to every single meal. Every. Single. One. Add them to snacks, add them to dessert. The benefits can be felt within days. Make sure to pay attention to your emotions, because tracking the rise of wellbeing is as important as feeling it, in order to maintain your progress. Woo hoo!
We’re so all-or-nothing in this culture that sometimes I would like to diagnose the entire culture with a personality disorder. Then I remember that the first cogent explanation of personality disorders I heard was from an instructor who told me that BPD was like living with a perpetually teenaged adult. We are an immature nation. But we don’t have to be black-or-white about this. Let’s be FUN adults. Let’s take full advantage of our adult status to practice rather than work at these things.
As for me, I’m heading out to garden. What about you?
 DesMaisons, Katherine. Potatoes, Not Prozac.
 See the work of Jon Kabat Zinn at UMass, and Michael Posner at Texas Tech.