“Nothing freezes your soul as swiftly as silent rejection from a loved one when you’re aching for warmth and connection. Such silence doesn’t stem from a wrong inflicted, per se, but exists because they cannot give from themselves, nor receive your gift of intimacy. When this loved one is your spouse, and your offering of affection is as tentative and fragile as a seedling, the ‘silent treatment’ of rejection rips through your chest, leaving an icicle-encrusted void of pain.
I’ll never forget the depth of loneliness I felt that night, an unremarkable one of many, as I slipped into bed next to my husband, desperately wanting to connect and feel desired. Yet this evening became the night branded into my soul, the night my female heart crumpled like autumn leaves under the weight of yet another frozen shoulder. The man who promised to ‘love and cherish’ me had once again rejected my attempts to pull his body close to mine, to softly mirror our shapes until my weary head could rest against his strong back, and recharge each other in warmth and safety. And the most painful part? I had no idea why I received rejection instead of reception.
I currently research the emotion of loneliness. It’s odd sometimes, upon reflection, to recall how lonely I felt for so many years, though ‘married.’ Yet, I would not have labeled myself as a ‘lonely’ person. Thankfully, I’ve since reconnected with my own soul. I’m a lover, impatient but optimistic, and dearly love fashion and to laugh and dance. Learning, reading, and being in nature are like breathing. I’ve sketched and created since childhood; now I paint. In fact, I’ve learned art is at the core of how I see this world.
However, in my marriage, I became a version of me I never want to see again. I didn’t know myself. I betrayed myself and did not defend my needs or wants, despite a nagging gut whispering something wasn’t right. I married a kind man, more friend than lover, and knew even then issues existed between us that I hoped marriage would dissolve, like steam to a wrinkle. I was wrong.
Loneliness is perceived isolation, an aversive, distressing emotion, a response to a mental state. It is subjective and refers to a deficiency in a person’s social relationships in terms of type, quality, or quantity relative to a perceived need. Loneliness hurts – both literally and figuratively – our bodies and psyches. We are not meant to live in a state of chronic loneliness. Research indicates increasing loneliness weakens our physical health – not the other way around. The lonelier we become, the more ill we become, body and soul. Loneliness is a painful void few admit to feeling, let alone discussing. Yet loneliness exists as an alarm, calling us to act to alleviate it.
Research confirms it: we are social creatures, and desire to be in supportive relationships. Without them, we wilt; we withdraw; we lessen. I believe the only way to lessen loneliness is to learn what we want and need. Action calls us to seek wellbeing behaviors such as talk therapy, meditation, and mindfulness. Gradual alignment of our desires with actions lessens lonely feelings. We must learn our way out of loneliness, and that may be a difficult lesson to learn.
One year after our divorce, my former husband called me. I was at a summer evening party. I recall pacing outside within the fenced-in yard, my face turned from the window so guests couldn’t see the tears streaming down my face as he apologized for failing, for not being ‘equipped’ to love me as I needed. I didn’t feel vindication, I felt sadness. I felt the loss, I felt loneliness.
I do not regret leaving my marriage; it was not a marriage that brought out our best. It was a marriage of repeatedly attempting to secure from the other that which was not within our personalities. We measured as opposites on personality and strength tests, and it showed. Sisyphus struggled anew each morning to reach the mountaintop while carrying the world’s weight upon his shoulders, only to regress again to the valley. We, like Sisyphus, bore our daily burden of attempting to connect when we simply didn’t fit. My puzzle piece was not meant for him, nor his for me.
I knew the imbalance within my marriage was damaging both of us: I began losing my hair and was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue. I cried daily. Suicidal ideation creeped in, first shocking, and then regularly, as I drove home from law classes at night. I didn’t want to go home – a beautiful home – because I knew it would be the same routine of passionless banter.
I became bitter and angry. I was often alone for functions: family dinners, a dance, art exhibits, and even on the night my youngest brother nearly died from an overdose. I was the lone sibling of eight waiting in the ICU, once again supporting myself, my spouse settled into routine at home. Why didn’t my husband attend in support? He later apologized and admitted (during our final attempt at marriage counseling), he couldn’t ‘handle’ my family. I was stunned, yet also numb. I had been alone at functions for years. He recognized the damage it caused my heart and our marriage. An apology brought some relief, but the damage remained.
I recall the day I reapplied to law school after withdrawing a year earlier from pure emotional exhaustion. Our marriage hit a particularly rough patch in 2013. By 2015, the bitterness and desert of my heart could not suffer another sacrifice of self for a marriage devoid of emotional intimacy. I was tired of feeling like my worst self, tired of seeing him in pain, tired of being in pain, and exhausted from failed attempts to elicit depth of emotional intimacy. I felt clarity of purpose and determination that weekend afternoon. I reapplied, and I was accepted.
I started the part-time evening program at the law school in the fall of 2015, at age 35. I was at my heaviest weight and feeling undesirable. I suffered from exhaustion, started losing my hair, and had already endured ten orthopedic surgeries mostly from a chronic degenerative connective tissue disorder, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. I had titanium in my right ankle and spine, and my shoulder had been patched three times. I was in pain, fatigued, and so lonely; yet, I added the challenge of night classes, for law, no less. This challenge would stretch my limits, strain my feeble marriage, yet bring opportunity. I had listened to the drive within, the one I’ve known since childhood.
He threw something on the floor at my feet; short of yelling, he made it clear he was angry. I had opened the door to the garage to his greeting after an argument about an area rug. A flash of energy released within me. It was tangible and brought clarity. Of course, our conflict wasn’t about a rug; it was the familiar cry of anxiety that exists when two persons simply do not align. I had arrived home from a wedding hours before the volatility. I traveled alone, of course, and upon arrival, I didn’t receive a warm hug or a passionate kiss (though I desperately wanted to give and receive both). Instead, a mere pat on the leg was my heart’s morsel.
I knew then our marriage was terminal. If I wanted to live a full life, I must file for divorce. In doing so, I would cease a life in which I had invested fifteen years. As I write, I still feel the loss, the loss of what good could have been, the loss of life energy invested. However, I don’t mourn the loss of time spent weeping and arguing, of nights spent in bed cold and lonely, yet mere inches from each other. I would not be me today – wiser and more tempered – had I not chosen to leave to live as my soul petitioned.
By the time I filed for divorce in the summer of 2017, I had lost weight through healthier food choices, cessation of medications, exercise, and building social support via law school. I took supplements to ease the strain on my adrenal glands, and to help my hair regrow. However, I learned that choosing myself, even while attempting to maintain a healthy marriage, was unpopular. I recall hearing, ‘Law school has changed you.’ It wasn’t intended as a compliment; I was angry. I was going into debt to become an attorney to bring stability to our income and future, yet still unable to be or do enough to bring happiness into my marriage. I felt the failure, immense sadness, and desolation press upon my chest for weeks.
Loneliness is multi-faceted; how I feel it may look different from how others process it. This is the subjective nature of emotion. Our personalities, upbringing, trauma, and wellbeing affect our expressions and levels of loneliness. Research divides the emotion into two types – emotional and social loneliness. Anxiety is common to both. Emotional loneliness feels distressing and may mimic feeling abandoned, because we need intimate relationships. Social loneliness makes concentration tough and is expressed as boredom and aimlessness. It may feel like being ‘left out.’
Law school takes, and takes, and takes your life energy. It requires a level of attention and brain power that makes my graduate school experience seem elementary. The detrimental mental and physical side effects of law school among students and graduates is a growing research field. Trust me, law school and bar prep are lonely experiences. As graduation looms, loneliness increases; and with it, the anxiety of passing the bar.
I research loneliness because I had to pick a doctoral thesis for my final year of law school. A 2018 survey indicated lawyers reported as the loneliest of American workers. I wasn’t surprised, but I was curious. I began to research. My journey of healing from divorce and regaining my health taught me the positives within social support. However, I was beginning to feel the strengthening of loneliness as I graduated and prepared for the bar.
It was a loneliness different from that within my marriage. It’s a type of loneliness experienced by those who have been through a journey of absolute exhaustion. In this same 2018 survey, doctors and engineers also reported high levels of loneliness. Perhaps the grueling study within the professions breeds a loneliness common to those who survived. Trying to explain it to most people becomes futile – and that is the punch to the gut – emotions improve when they are aired, so when we perceive it pointless to talk about them, negativity increases.
Chronic pain is exhausting. Not only was I diagnosed with a genetic disorder in 2007, but I developed the most excruciating headaches in my mid-30’s, about the time I applied for law school. The unpredictable stabbing pain from my right temple behind my right eye and into the center of my head stopped me in my tracks. It took nearly four years of tests, specialists, and the development of a novel medication to learn I had developed chronic cluster headache.
While there was relief in the diagnosis, daily I manage a chronic, relenting, and exhausting condition. Thankfully, monthly abdominal injections of a protein antibody keep the stabbing pain at bay. There is, however, a loneliness unique to those managing chronic conditions, because few understand the daily ebbs and flows. Unless you find a person fighting a similar battle, it can feel incredibly lonely, the relenting pain of your constant company.
By the summer of 2019, I felt confident in managing my diet, FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols), to reduce GI issues and inflammation caused by the degenerative disorder. I have undergone 13 orthopedic surgeries in 20 years. I had titanium in my ankle and spine, and my knees were struggling, but I was still able to walk and practice yoga – beneficial for my mind as much as my body. Yet a new challenge arose.
Weeks before the bar in 2019, I discovered two issues in one CAT scan. I had a bulging disc in my neck and a small hole in my skull above my right ear. I wasn’t surprised about the disc, as twenty years before, I had survived an automobile accident with a semi, my neck suffering intense whiplash. I was both relieved and distressed by the new diagnosis. Relieved, because this was an answer to the increasing dizziness and sensitivity to sound I’d been experiencing for the past two years.
Distressed because I had to take the bar in a month, and I needed cranial surgery to repair the hole and minimize damage, not to mention I had to be careful when turning around in case I fell or become nauseous. I’d stopped attending parties and concerts. Again, loneliness increased as I had to voluntarily remove myself from social interactions that typically brought happiness. I was also working full-time and studying for the bar. The stress was high.
I failed the bar, then I failed a second time. It took a year, a cranial surgery, a month off, and a refreshed perspective to pass the bar on my third try. Failing the bar is a lonely place, knowing you’ve studied and tested for days. Test flaws exist, and yet there’s nothing you can change. Failing feels like a kick in the face because you’ve spent thousands of dollars earning a doctoral degree to have another, enormous, hurdle to clear, before finally seeing your name on a license.
I could hear nothing, as odd as it sounds. I wished for the familiar sounds of footsteps, beeping medical devices, and the anxious chatter of supportive loved ones before the patient was rolled to the operating room. My mom and sister dropped me off at the hospital doors, and I walked, alone, to an eerily quiet reception desk. I was scared; of the 15 surgeries to date, this one brought me months of anticipatory anxiety.
It was a Friday, two months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and here I was waltzing into a hospital, voluntarily placing myself into an ICU with critically ill COVID-19 patients. I was preparing to permit a neurosurgeon to shave my hair, cut open my skull, retract my brain, patch a hole in the bone, screw my piece of skull into place, and stitch me back together. Surgery poses numerous risks; this surgery’s risks were adverse, life-altering outcomes. And yet, I chose surgery because I needed relief.
Loneliness drives us to seek connection because we inherently know there is strength in numbers, even if it’s one trusted person. Yet cultural and social pressures inhibit the need to show emotions, in that somehow, it’s ‘weakness.’ As I continue to express my emotions and listen to their stories about my inner landscape, the more assured I become in my self-esteem. I begin choosing healthier options across my lifestyle: whether it be relationships, occupations, or wellbeing practices. Learning through loneliness, however, may feel like choosing the lesser of two evils.
In the spring of 2021, I had an intravaginal ultrasound… not exactly the most comfortable of procedures. It revealed the existence of multiple uterine fibroids. I had been having an irregular menstrual cycle for a couple years that began negatively affecting my quality of life. At least one to two days a month I was in the fetal position with severe cramps, breakthrough bleeding mid-cycle, and exhaustion the day before my period.
I was shocked at seeing the ultrasound images. Again, it felt lonely not to be able to share such news with a boyfriend who didn’t exist. My former husband did not want children. Though I alternated between wanting children and fearing whether I’d be a good mother, when I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, I chose then not to have children because of the risks involved and 50% heritability.
Therefore, I elected the ablation procedure. Simply summed, ablation cauterizes the uterine lining, the endometrium, and in doing so, stops the blood supply to the fibroids. This should end my cycle of irregularities and pain. It also means I drive the nails into the coffin of ever bearing children. I do not wish that decision on any woman.
There’s a loneliness felt when you lose a part of your being you cannot replace. Choosing to undergo the ablation was the lesser of two evils, yet still I mourn for the loss of what could have been. Learning to reframe such decisions is an ongoing emotional journey for me. As I write, I continue to heal not only from the physical invasion caused by the ablation, but the emotional upheaval. I mourn not only the loss of my ability to bear children, but the loss of the choice to do so.
Loneliness is a sign. It signals we need to look inward and tidy up, but also that we need to seek counsel – whether friend or mentor. Humans need input from humans. It hones perspective and develops wisdom. Like a flowing river, with water entering and exiting tributaries, we too must permit life to flow and not become like the Dead Sea, devoid of life, without inlets or release valves.
I am no longer the angry version of myself. Indeed, I am hopeful. I made choices for my health, for the health of children that will never exist, and for the health of relationships that ended because I could not bear children. I am where I am; I am learning. Loneliness is part of the human experience. Instead of shunning it, I propose we begin to listen to it, and learn from it. My drive is to remain true to that voice within that speaks, ‘Don’t give up Liv, tomorrow is another day. I know it hurts, but what can you learn from this experience?’
Take care of yourself, seek to balance all that enters and exits your life, and breathe. I started Liv Balanced, LLC so I could create and share all that brings me joy. If you want to learn more about my research on loneliness and wellbeing practices, please visit me at my website. Liv Balanced. Breathe You.”
This story was submitted toLove What Matters by Olivia Ash, Esq., MS of Indianapolis, IN. You can follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook and her website. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
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