Wednesday, July 10, 2019

On Human Isolation, Disconnection, and Loneliness

As a human being and something of an existential depression sufferer lately, I've done a lot of thinking about what the root of human misery and evil is and whether we can ever actually stop being terrible to one another. There are mutliple potential answers, and none of them are just "social media," but one thing I have been thinking about lately is the nature of loneliness, disconnection, and isolation.

If you're at all young and on social media connected to a lot of young people, you'll find that a common theme among us is loneliness and isolation. It's often disguised or lightened by jokes, but there are plenty of raw, genuine posts on Tumblr especially about wanting to make friends but feeling unable to connect with people or hampered by social anxiety. I recently came to a realization about my own feelings of loneliness and being unable to form connections with others, and now I'm on to wondering why this happened to so many of us and what we can do about it.

What does it take to feel really connected to another person? Sometimes I feel like I'd like to find a willing stranger so we could just pour our deepest feelings, fears, and secrets out to each other. I'm so tired of worrying that I'm bothering someone or "oversharing," but I can't seem to shake the feeling of social awkwardness no matter what I tell myself or how many times.

What caused this in me, specifically? I know as an unplanned child born five and a half years after my closest sibling, in a family that is not great with emotions, I often felt alone and isolated. I did make friends as any child, but as I grew very few of my friendships evolved beyond surface-level. We didn't really talk about our emotions or our families problems or anything like that. When I was hit with depression and anxiety in middle school, plus an unexplained and intense revulsion to anything sexual, I again felt isolated and alone.

People often point to social media as what must be causing the spiking rates of mental illness and suicide, but I wonder if social media wasn't naturally attractive to generations of young people already afflicted with disconnection and emotional isolation. We looked to social media for connection and understanding and validation and we did find some there, but maybe it's not enough. Maybe it's only a bandaid on a deep wound, a tiny bit of relief that we keep coming back for but that doesn't solve the problem, and maybe even makes it worse.

Don't get me wrong, there are many wonderful things about social media and the internet in general. But there are plenty of people who have expressed feeling like social media has made them feel more isolated, not less, and made them feel worse in other ways.

But I still don't think social media is the root cause. I'm old enough to remember life before social media even existed, and I felt isolated, lonely, disconnected, and unhappy before Myspace was invented. Now, maybe other people didn't. But I've heard theories about how the rise of the nuclear family model, everyone in their own little worlds in their own little houses, put us on a path to increasing disconnection from one another. Community involvement is not what it used to be. Fewer and fewer of us even know the names of our neighbors.

I sure don't.

One thing I do know is that humans are social animals who aren't meant to live in isolation. We're not even supposed to live in small family units like we do now, but in larger groups. I suspect that the American obsession with independence to the point that isolation is considered a better option than the weird shame we put on living with your parents is a disease that has eaten away at our collective mental health and maybe our souls if you believe in that kind of thing for many generations. Maybe that's why the U.S. is so uniquely fucked up. But at the same time, we're not the only ones feeling isolated and disconnected.

I'd actually love to see a breakdown of these sentiments by country via worldwide survey or something.

Anyway, so what do we do about it? I went through a period of isolation recently where I stopped trying to regularly get out and see friends and family, and it definitely had a negative impact on my mental health. But it's a constant struggle because somehow, even seeing people I've known for nearly my entire life is stressful, and every time there is a part of me that wants to stay home alone. I don't know why I want that so much if it's so bad for me. I want to break free of the useless social awkwardness and anxiety but I don't know how. Trying to gradually up my number of social outings is a difficult and slow process that seems to keep suffering from setbacks.

Maybe I need to try group therapy or something. Maybe I need to just start a support group for Millennials who feel disconnected and/or are terrified about the future possible collapse of society and extinction of the human species. Or organize some kind of space where I can sit with people and just lay it all out, including my social anxieties, and be like "fuck worrying about oversharing, fucking worrying about being overdramatic, this is how I feel, please tell me exactly how you feel without holding back."

And speaking of being dramatic, sometimes I want to physically reach into the minds and souls of others and just feel them and have them feel me. I want to feel the kind of deep connection I feel like I'm lacking and fear that I'm incapable of making somehow. Did I fail to learn that as a child and now I can't learn it as an adult, like certain sounds in some human languages?

Part of the reason I'm writing about this today is that my partner put on a random TED Talk about this very subject and the speaker named the degradation of human connections as the main reason for rising depression and suicide rates, and I think he might be right. It might be the root of a lot of our problems. I'm tired of feeling lonely and I'm tired of being afraid to say what I really feel. I'm tired of worrying that people will think I'm embarrassing or whatever other middle school crap.

I wanna get people.

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