About PTSD: The Dangers of Loneliness

This is the second of two posts by Pat Burke, a former American marine sergePat Burkeant who describes his experiences with post traumatic stress disorder on the website for the PTSD Foundation of America. BONNIE




The Dangers of Loneliness

by Pat Burke

You’ve all heard this sentimental song by Hank Williams Sr. — “I’m so lonesome I could Cry?”  It goes on to say: “Did you ever see a Robin weep; When leaves begin to die; That means he’s lost the will to live; I’m so lonesome I could cry.  The silence of a falling star; Lights up a purple sky; and as I wonder where you are; I’m so lonesome I could cry.” 

When the silence sets in, the crying stops, despair overtakes our mind, depression sets in, your health declines and then you lose your will to live and you simply “Die of Loneliness.” 

We believe that by not talking to anyone, we will avoid controversy. However, one of the reasons we slip into this trap in the first place is we reject the notion our need to share with caring non-judgmental friends or caregivers the traumatic poisons which haunt our mind. 

A dear friend of mine, still in a bunker, posted this on Facebook from Dr Martin Luther King: “Our Lives Begin To End The Day We Become Silent About Things That Matter.” 

And then there is this one: “Silence is Golden,” unless you are in the grips of desperate loneliness. Then it becomes an exponential cycle of colliding emotions, failing health and dire consequences.

It is a medical fact that acute loneliness can and will kill you. You have often heard said, “She/he died of loneliness.” It’s true. My grandparents, borne in the 1890s, had been married for 68 years and neither had ever been sick. When my grandfather suddenly died of a stroke at the age of 93, my grandmother sank into a deep depression and within two weeks of his death, died peacefully sitting in her rocking chair. She was so lonely that she lost the will to live and her heart just slowly stopped beating. The doctors said that she died of loneliness. She did. 

Dr. Hara Estroff Marano put the phenomenon of loneliness this way: “Friendship is a lot like food. We need it to survive.”

Direct and to the point: “People need People.” This shouldn’t surprise anyone except for those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and eccentrics like Greta Garbo. While everyone normally feels alone and lonesome once in a while after some sad event in our lives, “chronic loneliness” is extremely unhealthy and even dangerous. It is absolute “proof” of the existence for maladjustment or emotional instability and help is needed.  In fact, it is one of the greatest dangers to those suffering from this mental tormentor as they withdraw deep inside themselves and retreat into their own personal bunkers for “safety.”

“Being alone” is falsely believed to be the only secure option in life for those mentally tormented.  Their excuse is: “I’m alright; I like being alone.” 

I believed that being by myself protected me from being “found out,” from hurting others, from being hurt. It was a way for me to excuse my behavior to myself by convincing me that I simply “didn’t need anyone.”  I would always lose control and end up frightening the crap out of everyone or even end up harming those around me whenever I would get with them, even family. 

However, while I convinced myself that I really “wanted” to be alone, I really didn’t and desperately “needed” to be with other flesh and blood human beings but my ego and depression wouldn’t let me. 

As social animals, human “touch-flesh to flesh” contact with other individuals is a fundamental need, a “basic drive” of being alive and healthy.  Communicating via email, texts, or Facebook is keeping in touch from a distance: safe and obscure but it is NOT a substitute for personal contact. We need to be touched by warm human hands to feel alive, without which we slowly begin to wither inside. 

I would always take cats or dogs or both into the “Bunker” with me.  They became my security alarm, my safety belt, my companion, my comfort blanket, my “friends” who never questioned my moods or actions and they got to eat everything I ate; and with the same spoon or fork. They even cleaned my plate and slept with me.  But as hard as I wanted and they tried, they lovingly were still “animals.”  

The hell you say!  I NEEDED the blood warmed touch of someone who loved me.  The longer I stayed isolated the deeper I fell into a fog bank, and the harder it became to emerge into the sunshine.

Without “human” touch, we actually become physically and mentally deprived of essential calming chemical hormones and develop significant excessive increases in levels of destructive stress hormones. These in turn result in the body simply falling apart and plunging into a mental and physical crash mode. Immunity levels fall dramatically; organs begin to fail; arteries become eroded as they develop rigidity and clog up. This in turn creates high blood pressure and clinical depression takes over our minds and undermines our learning and memory abilities. Unmet human relationships and social needs take a serious toll on our mental and physical health; we simply cannot remain alone or separated from inclusion in meaningful group life and close relationships without significant brain alteration. When we interact with others of like personality and culture, we are able to function optimally; to stay motivated; to accomplish every-day activities better; to handle stressful situations; to laugh; and to heal without which we simply wilt and die. Without them, we are unable to leave our uncomfortable but safe hiding place. We can’t do it alone.  Having close friends and a dearth of broader social human contact is the only solution to the distress of loneliness.  Television, eating, boozing, and drugging are not a substitute to “touch” but are the precursor to major health deterioration. 

Only a caring friendly trusted human can provide long lasting comfort to another human.  The problem is that with friendships or personal relationships comes vulnerability and exposure of our real self.  We are our greatest critic and the more time spent alone the more critical of ourselves and the world we become.  Then as we receive no answers to our unasked questions, paranoia begins to set in and we begin to see “bogymen” everywhere and they are all out to get us, use us, take advantage us or try to have sex with us.  I would say: “I’m not paranoid. I KNOW people are out to get me” but no one ever came into my bunker with the offer of sex. 

Anyway, we begin to develop various negative scenarios of how others see us and what they think of us. We begin to feel dirty, fat, grumpy; anything negative to keep others out. Our response is to dig deeper into our bunker. We become fatigued and sleep more and more and at sporadic times; not because we are tired but just to make time pass. We then can’t get enough restful sleep and turn to drugs or sleeping pills to give us peace. This in turn increases our lethargic distress requiring additional stimulants and so on. This isn’t passing time; it is destroying what precious limited time we have been given. 

While we slumber, the world continues to move at light speed and we are once again left behind. When we stick our heads out and see how far we are being left behind, we retreat like the groundhog back into our dens. When caring friends or family reach in to offer a hand out of the despair, we use excuses like — “I’m OK. I can get myself up and SOON we will get together.”

I used this so many times and have had dear desperate friends saythe exact same words to me. And soon, in most cases, never came out as they wilted, moved to drugs or alcohol to ease their terrible loneliness. Many ultimately killed themselves. How sad! How very, very sad and tragic and totally unnecessary! 

The reason we give for hunkering down in our bunker is to avoid people with an “I just don’t like people” attitude.  In reality, we are really afraid of “intimacy” with one another.  We have been hurt or have hurt someone and think that if we disappear we will cease to harm anyone else. The problem with that is our isolation from those who care about us causes more harm and distress on them as their understanding of our absence is assumed to be their fault without knowing why. And the harm to us and them is immeasurable. 

What we selfishly forget is that those who love us NEED us as badly as we need them.  Humans require love. Love requires intimacy. Intimacy requires vulnerability, vulnerability requires trust, and trust requires Human Contact

That’s why we think that being alone solves our distrust of people. While being alone for long periods of time, we become unable to even trust ourselves as our brain begins to play tricks on our ability to discern reality from imagination. When we let someone in, it allows their heart to touch ours when our guard is completely down as we feel naked before them. Our deep-seeded loneliness dissolves with each human touch so even the briefest contact initiates the process of healing. However, for a loved one, it may require almost a stalker’s tenacity to wedge your way into a suffering loved one’s bunker. And all that is accomplished may only be a hug or a pat on the back but “touch” is essential to revive the human feeling of life to the bunker-bound. Even this brief intrusion on our self-imposed imprisonment is frightening and fraught with feelings of fear of exposing our vulnerability and nakedness. While we may have a sincere desire to make contact, our feet become lead rendering us unable to move, unable to get out of bed, unable to go outside, or answer the phone, the door. We hide like frightened children when someone actually drops by. And yet our heart slumps when they leave because of our silence. However, in breaking your self-imposed silence by actually saying the words, you feel a little more trust and a little less fear each time you allow yourself to open up to a trusted friend. Many occasions a trusted friend will be more able to enter the bunker and provide positive progress when a family member could not because they are not so invested in personal feelings of guilt.

When we first retreat to our bunker, it feels great, free, in charge of our world, and even happy. We have locked ourselves in and become the master of all we observe: the TV, the remote, the beer, the favorite chair, the blinds, the bed, the animals: life is good. We don’t have to bathe, change clothes, brush our teeth; can sleep whenever and wherever we want: the bed, the couch, the chair, the floor. We have shown them, whoever the hell “they” are. 

Then, as our wishes to be alone are granted and life outside the bunker goes undisturbed without us, we begin to regret our decision but resolve to remain in spite of us. We peek out every once in a while to see if anyone is there to find that they are getting on with their lives without us. We get tired of watching; sleep longer and longer as if time will erase loneliness and start looking for anyone interested. However ego/pride really digs in and won’t let us accept help. We fall deeper into depression and despair; catch colds; gain weight; get weak; spiral down; suicide. We begin to realize that we really miss contact and that we really are alone and everyone has stopped trying to give us solace. 

This in turn begins to tear away at our emotional heart strings: we become sadder and sadder; develop feelings of emptiness in our gut; begin to really long for human contact. We feel totally isolated, distanced from everyone, deprived of caring. We become bonafied outcasts in our own life, devoid of emotion spiraling into numbness and loss of will to live.  We begin the walk to suicide by drugs, by alcohol, by illness, obesity. 

Psychologist John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago has been tracking the effects of loneliness. He performed a series of novel studies and reported that loneliness works in some surprising ways to compromise health. Perhaps most astonishing, in a survey he conducted, doctors themselves confided that they provide better or more complete medical care to patients who have supportive families and are not socially isolated.

  • Living alone increases the risk of suicide for young and old alike.
  • Lonely individuals report higher levels of perceived stress even when exposed to the same stressors as non-lonely people, and even when they are relaxing.
  • The social interaction lonely people do have are not as positive as those of other people; hence the relationships they have do not buffer them from stress as relationships normally do.
  • Loneliness raises levels of circulating stress hormones and levels of blood pressure. It undermines regulation of the circulatory system so that the heart muscle works harder and the blood vessels are subject to damage by blood flow turbulence.
  • Loneliness destroys the quality and efficiency of sleep, so that it is less restorative, both physically and psychologically. They wake up more at night and spend less time in bed actually sleeping than do the non-lonely.

He finished up by saying “that the lonely experience higher levels of cumulative wear and tear.  In other words, we are built for social contact. There are serious—life-threatening—consequences when we don’t get enough. We can’t stay on track mentally. And we are compromised physically. Social skills are crucial for your health.”

So if you find yourself being pulled into a bunker from loneliness, find someone to be with, do not be alone longer than a short time frame. If a friend asks to enter, take them up on it. If a loved one becomes bunker-bound, do not allow them to be alone.


About Bonnie Toews and John Christiansen

Bonnie's Blog Posts invite our readers and free spirits everywhere to share life's adventures with us. I talk about writing my novels, reading books, chatting with other writers and John's and my journeys around the world. We welcome your anecdotes to our experiences and discussions.
This entry was posted in Afghanistan vets, Canadian Armed Forces, caregivers, depression, estrangement from family, federal government, Homecoming Vets, post traumatic stress disorder, suicide, veterans' affairs, veterans' assistance programs and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to About PTSD: The Dangers of Loneliness

  1. Their is hope for PTSD resolution . I any one have see the front page of Stars and Stripes oct 5, http://www.stripes.com/doctor-ptsd-injection-can-work-miracles-but-dod-won-t-fund-it-1.156866

    You may see that I and my military colobarators are making progress see our web site and the new book .http://chicagomedicalinnovations.org/. For evey book sold $5 goes to treat PTSD

  2. Kevin says:

    Sometimes in my weakest moments I find myself searching the Internet for clues or answers to a very severe isolation and loneliness condition. I’ve sought out counseling at the local VA hospital and Vet centers. Each and every time all they want to talk about is war and PTSD , I’m tired of talking about the same things. They say go to veterans PTSD groups , I’m tired of war stories and medications. I’ve tried dating only to realize the only women interested in used up soldiers is women looking for someone to pay there rent or not understanding the eternal struggle of being ” emotionally detached” little do they realize there is so much emotion underneath the surface. I’ve also tried numerous attempts of social interaction, but yet society doesn’t understand how hard that actually is like for someone like myself. My academic pursuit is in jeopardy due to all the overwhelming feelings associated with this problem of mine. I struggle to just to try and be happy and thankful for everything , but yet 95% of the time I find myself isolated and alone. I have over 12 years of honorable service , I may put on front of being a proud veteran but actually I’m all alone. I have family and friends back home , but it’s the constant reminder of never being married or having children or the experience of having my own family is a constant reminder of how pointless this life of mine can be. I put on a show but actually I would rather be asleep or dead than to have to live alone anymore. For the love of my parents I will never hurt myself but I can not stop hoping that something will end it soon. Evidently the only purpose a supposed god ever had for me was to be a soldier and at the age of 34 to be told that due to combat related injuries a medical retirement what was in store for me. I’ve tried to make the best of it all, to be thankful. I keep waiting for the happiness I just wish it would happen soon cause I’m tired of trying with no results.

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