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The Lonely Brain


By AA Patawaran


As I emerged out of my teens, and out of my obsession with The Smiths, I decided I needed to redefine my life. With songs like Morrissey’s “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” running in my head, I previously thought that my life was a black canvas sprayed with white paint, but I resolved to look at it as different, as black strokes of paint on an impeccably white canvas.

It worked. Of course, I didn’t come to that decision on my own. Over the course of many years, from college to my mid-20s, I indulged my “fight or flight” instinct by tuning in on what made me lonely. And the universe, if I must believe all the books that I read, including Neale Donald Walsh’s Conversations with God, Andrew MatthewsBeing Happy, and even Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, complied with my wishes.

Because I was sort of a contradiction in terms, shy but sociable, self-defeatist yet a dreamer, a pessimist yet moved by hope, I joined a college org, the UP-CMC Broadcasting Association or Broadass, which was essentially a fraternity of sorts, meaning during the monthlong application period, I was forced to do things I otherwise would not do like singing, dancing, enduring insults, hard labor, public humiliation, even physical assault, and standing up even while, as a “slave,” my “masters” would try to get me down and kick me around in the gutter. It was a big boost to my ego that I never once thought of quitting.

Thanks to my college friends Joey Zaballero, Richie GarciaSuiee Suarez, and Yari Miralao, I joined a Catholic retreat, Days with the Lord, during which, over a weekend, I was forced to talk to God one on one for periods of time so long I often ran out of things to say. It didn’t make me a more devout Catholic, but it prompted me to be more curious about the idea of God and to want to be more authentic with my God relationship, which later inspired me to examine other religions, such as Buddhism or the Quoran not so much as a scholar but as a seeker.

Thanks to an aunt in New York, my Tita Emma, I had weekly sessions with a psychotherapist for about a year. In all these sessions, I could count with the fingers of one hand the number of sentences my therapist, Dr. Lourdes Lapuz, then the head of psychiatry at St. Luke’s, told me, but by letting me talk myself out of my own narcissistic gibberish, she saved me in every way a person could be saved. She let me understand myself.

Thanks to a friend I met in my first career, my advertising partner and art director Itsy Macasaet Dazo, I joined a positivity seminar, PSI, which taught me the basics of meditation, positivity thinkings, and facing your demons.

Again, like I said, it worked, all these things I went through and more, but the work continues. I’m not happy all of a sudden and, oftentimes, especially now that we are privy to practically everything that happens in this big, bad world, such as in Sudan or in Guatemala on the path to the American borders in Mexico, in the West Philippine Sea, in Quezon City after a little fall of rain, I still think it’s a lonely life.

But that’s it. After I turned 28, I would only be sad for a reason, like when my mother was sick, or when I disappointed my boss, or when I was out of money, and truth to tell, I’ve never been really so bored because now I enjoy my solitude, my silences, those times I’m forced to confront aspects of my life that seem empty or unfulfilled or underappreciated by me.

Science has a hard time defining loneliness. In the Harvard Business Review, former US sugeon general Dr. Vivek H. Murthy wrote, “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.”

At some point in the US, loneliness was declared an epidemic but because it is not a clinical condition like depression, because it is so subjective, because we cannot monitor it the way we can monitor body temperature or blood pressure or even hypothyrodism, the most common medical condition associated with depressive symptoms, nobody knows exactly what loneliness is.

While she was affiliated with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Maryland, Mary Elizabeth Hughes came up with this three-item loneliness scale that one has to answer in one of three ways—”hardly ever,” “some of the time,” or “often.”

How often do you feel that you lack companionship?
How often do you feel left out?

How often do you feel isolated from others ?

I suppose, however, that I would say “often,” if I happened to be answering these questions while browsing on my social feeds over posts of college friends at a get-together I was not invited to.

On the other hand, I would say “hardly ever,” if I happened to be answering them while drawing up a list of guests for, say, an upcoming book launch or a small no-occasion tea party.

But here’s the thing: According to American social neuroscientist John Cacioppo, author of the book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, the prevalence of loneliness in the US population alone is at 26 percent, which means that one out of four is lonely. His research looked into what would happen in the brains of lonely people “at the endocrinological level, at the genetic level, and what is that doing to immunity and resistance to disease, what genes are being turned on and turned off, when the brain goes into this self-preservation mode?” Cacioppo shared in The Guardian.

“For one thing, we found that loneliness decreases the effectiveness of sleep. You have sleep fragmentation and you always wake up tired. The cumulative wear and tear is greater if you are lonely than if you are not. You cannot make a direct line to heart disease or cancer, but you can certainly see the effects on the immune system.”

In another interview, this time with The Atlantic, Cacioppo said that “the purpose of loneliness is like the purpose of hunger. Hunger takes care of your physical body. Loneliness takes care of your social body, which you also need to survive and prosper. We’re a social species.”

I guess that, though I have just encountered Cacioppo, I might have addressed my loneliness issues by connecting more to the people around me. I’ve always identified as shy, for instance, but instead of just accepting it, I confronted the fact that it was a barrier between me and my happiness.

I’ve developed the acronym EASE: Ease your way back into social connections. The first E stands for ‘extend yourself,’ but extend yourself safely. Do a little bit at a time.—John Cacioppo

So I’m still shy, but I try constantly to combat it, becoming a teacher, for example, despite my stage fright, having a lot of friends, though I consider myself socially awkward.

I also used to identify as lazy, which I think is a big cause of loneliness, compounded by guilt, a sense of failure, and the idea that I was unreliable, but in my youth I fought (and Dr. Lapuz was on my side) so hard that at one point, like in my mid-20s and 30s, especially after I started in media, I became such a workaholic.

I guess it boils down to control, not giving in to impulses that tend to isolate you, even if those impulses disguise themselves so innocuously as “being not in the mood” to show up at your friend’s birthday party or “feeling too tired” to go to the beach with family. I once came to the conclusion that loneliness is self-indulgence, a kind of selfishness.

It is when you are in love with the world that you are least lonely.

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