Loneliness is something I have always struggled with. I was never friendless, but I was frequently lonely. Primarily, I felt like I was somehow freakish, and that no one understood me and no one ever would. I was convinced that other people didn't really like me--they merely tolerated me. This, combined with social anxiety, made me feel like the ultimate outsider. It sucked, and I knew it, but more to the point, I didn't think I could do anything about it. I was weird and that was that.
This basically meant that loneliness and I got to be pretty good friends. I usually coped with the feelings by reading (friends made out of words and paper!), by working at school or at other part time jobs, or by telling myself that I loved being by myself. The last one was and is true--if I don't get my "me" time, I start to go nuts. The second I was able to stop having a roommate, I did. I would just as soon live in a roach motel as have a roommate. But, alas, it doesn't mean I don't get lonely.
ED as a loneliness "cure"
Eating disorders are filled with paradoxes and ironies, and the "loneliness factor" is just one of them. My eating disorder made me lonelier than ever- I couldn't stand to be around people because they did odd things like eat and sit down and laugh. Also, friends got in the way of the eating disorder, and so I isolated myself even further. File under: vicious cycle.
Although I was more lonely than ever, my eating disorder made the loneliness feel better. It was good I didn't have friends because then no one would comment on my shrinking frame and empty cupboards. It was good I didn't have friends because then no one would interrupt my exercising or my purging. It was good. It really was.
Back in the summer of 2001, when the AN was picking up steam, I was planning on spending the summer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. However, this was the first time I was really on my own, living in a place where I had no real friends and essentially didn't know anybody. I had spent a semester in college studying in Scotland, but I knew several people from my school who were going at the same time with the same program. Living in a dorm meant that I was kind of thrown in with people. But Atlanta was different. I had my job, yes, but I also had lots of time to myself. I remember worrying about getting lonely, and I also remember my mom expressing her worries about my impending loneliness to me. I told my mom that I would meet people, my cousins were only 30 minutes away, I shared a sublet with another girl. But I distinctly remember thinking that it will be good that I don't have friends because then no one could make me eat.
Thus it was that my eating disorder made loneliness feel less awful. See? All of this alone time was fantastic- I could stare at cookbooks and exercise like a fiend with near impunity. If people were around, I knew my disordered habits would be recognized and I would once again become Carrie the Freak. The irony is that I pushed away the few good friends I did have because I didn't want anyone to get too close. It was so easy to do this in the eating disorder, both because of the nature of the ED itself (you feel compelled to engage in some pretty bizarre behaviors and you also feel compelled to conceal those behaviors from those around you), and because the ED made it easier to let them go. It didn't matter- I had my eating disorder. What more did I need?
Of course, recovery has meant coming face to face with those feelings of loneliness. Although I'm probably less lonely now that I was in the depths of my eating disorder (as measured my interaction with friends and family), it feels worse because I don't have the ED to "justify" my loneliness. There's nothing to take away the sting and burn of wanting to catch a movie with someone and having no one to ask. At most I can tell myself that it's fine I don't have many friends because at least then I can fit in a much-needed nap when I need to! I know the eating disorder doesn't make me any less lonely, it just makes the lonely hurt less. It's so easy for me to slip back in old habits when left to my own devices--in part because they are almost habitual after all these years, and in part because I need people to help drag me out of my eating disorder. The times I have done better in recovery are those times when I have made the effort to be social and reach out. I don't know which way the relationship works, but I know that being more social and doing better in recovery are linked.
Recovery has also meant a shift in how I perceive myself. As much as I'm an introvert and love my solitude, I've had to accept that I'm also a people person. I need social interaction just as much as I need a quiet sanctuary to escape from the said social interaction. Figuring out what to do about my loneliness is another matter entirely. One of my tasks from my therapist this week is to identify some groups or classes that I can attend which might interest me. Common interests go a long way in helping people make new friends.
I realize that even people with no eating disorders can suffer profound loneliness, and it would be silly for me to expect that recovery would mean I would never be lonely again (though wouldn't that be nice!). But I do still miss how easily the eating disorder was able to remove the sting and burn of loneliness and just how much it hurts.