I learned recently that I see friends far less often than a lot of people do. Most see their best friends weekly and their general friends monthly. I'm more likely to spend time with my best friends socially once every 2-3 months, and my general friends once a year for a couple hours.
Perhaps that explains why I've been so lonely for so long, and I'd like to improve the frequency... although there's more to the story.
Loneliness doesn't just mean I'm alone. I can work on a creative project and not even notice being alone. Loneliness comes when I feel invislble, because my real self isn't seen and connected to others who understand. That's a much more nuanced issue to solve. I can easily be lonely in a group of happy people, even when I'm also happy, because I need a deeper kind of connection.
I have local friends, and the people I hang out with have generally positive opinions of me, so why not just go hang out more? I'd like to... sort of. But I'm a caregiver, and that makes life complex in some uncommon ways. Please forgive me the 7 paragraph wall-of-text segue... it's hard to sum up 15 years in a few words.
Caregiving Sucks, But Not For Why You Think
Being a caregiver for a spouse with chronic illness is not just about the jobs I do, and respite care isn't the magic solution it's sometimes described as.
This caregiving is about the other accommodations I make, to avoid triggering his pain. It includes keeping the house quiet and semi-dark for 2-3 hours each evening before bed. It includes not talking to him when he's dealing with pain, and not pressuring him to change rooms or cope with the surrounding world in any way. Processing spoken or emotional communication can be complicated and stressful when pain is already present. Even just me arriving home full of chatty or quietly bustling energy can be enough to trigger pain for him (yes, just me moving around the room is a trigger at times).
We've been living with variations of this for most of 15-16 years. I don't even think about the details anymore; I just do whatever is needed, on autopilot. During bad time periods, this is daily life. During good times, he may have a few weeks at a time where he's mostly okay as long as nothing stresses him. I could complain that it's not fair to me, but illness is far more unfair to him. It's more useful to focus on how to live with disability and salvage what happiness we can.
So, having friends over is complicated. He needs this home space to retreat into when pain is an issue, and pain sometimes comes unexpectedly. Am I supposed to ask my guests to quit talking or to leave, just after they've arrived? Or schedule last-minute so that I know whether he's likely to be having pain issues that day, and don't make plans until I know it's safe? But my friends have other commitments; they need to be able to plan in advance for their families.
It gets even a bit weirder when my husband seems to be hiding out from my friends; people can read the wrong thing into it and think it's because of anger or interpersonal dynamics. Actually it's a blend of pain, sensory sensitivity, and neurological overwhelm. So he tries to say hi to anyone new I have over, and then retreat to another room, but even that greeting is stressful on him. And then, seeing him struggle is stressful on me, since I've been the one to manage his environment and daily life accommodations for years now.
When we manage it well, it's an invisible disability - because no one else is let in to see it when it's bad. But on bad days... pain expresses itself as anger and short-temperedness, and while I have ways to cope and work through it with him, I don't expect anyone else to.
When we're in a period of days with a lot of bad times, I spend the good times sitting dully, using the quiet to catch my breath and recover. So caregiver respite isn't the issue; my ability to rest up during quiet times, though, certainly impairs my availability for socializing.
Emotional Intelligence is learned but hard work is exhausting
A friend of mine has several times seen me manage difficult people situations and commented, "You have so many good insights - you should write a book!"
While the key ideas might be useful, I dread how depressing it would be to explain how I learned these things. No one would read that, I'm sure - except maybe other caregivers who also really need to hear that they're not alone. And that we've all yelled at some point, no matter how much we love the care receiver. I find it hard to write about our journey, even; the memories retrigger my PTSD, and I'm not exaggerating on that. I do better if I stay focused on the present day.
But also, she's right. I have a unique strength there, because I've had to pay attention to tons of subtle signals, body language, tone of voice, the impact of healthy or unhealthy eating patterns, unconscious habits that are telltale signs of upcoming pain episodes, and much more. I've had to practice mindfulness to keep my own reactions under control even when I was frustrated or tired. I've had to set aside my plans to make room for what's actually happening in the moment, and the time it takes to respond in a healthy way; to be present and really listening, not just with my ears but also with my eyes and my heart. And I've done it for years, under high stress, nearly solo, which means I got really good at it.
My Love is deep. People are awesome. Diversity is complicated.
I love him intensely. We've been through hell and come out the other side, still very much in love at 18 years married. But... the love inside me isn't just about him. Love is who I am. I'm not saying I always make good choices (I don't). I'm not saying it's the biggest thing in my life (it isn't). But it's a huge part of how-I-am-with-people. I love quickly, deeply, and in ways that the culture I've been living in as an adult doesn't know how to express or make space for. My friendships come in many flavors, and some of them don't even exist or have names in mainstream culture.
I used to think this depth of feeling was a flaw in me. I thought there was just one right way to be, in the world, and if I wasn't that, I was a misfit. I had anxiety most of my growing up years from that, and well into adulthood. Sometime in my 30s I discovered cultural diversity, and suddenly I wasn't wrong or weird any longer. I was just another flavor among thousands or more.
It turns out that the curiosity, active listening, and mindfulness I had been practicing as a caregiver are also a key skill for communicating effectively across language barriers and cultural differences. I'm sure I still stumble at times, and yes sometimes I notice my stumbling and feel super awkward. And, one of the important skills turned out to be getting over myself even when I misstep, so I could be present to hear my impact and try to make amends, instead of hiding in shame. That one's not easy nor automatic. It also reminds me to be gentle with others who might have hurt me, because I get how hard it is.
People bump and jostle each other socially and emotionally, and we're all still learning how to be with that and still find peace with each other.
Some years ago I contributed a few words to an adhoc singing session: "We are stones in the river, we are stones in the river, we are stones in the river of life." Bumping around, getting our rough edges worn off. Have you ever really stopped to look at stones? Big craggy rough-edged ones don't stack together very well. There are big gaps, odd spaces, distance. Smooth, rounded off river stones stack into piles much tighter. They look right together. They've given up some of their individuality and distance, and gained the ability to be neighbors. Every smooth little rock was once a rough edged jaggy thing. But those edges don't wear down overnight. So what happens in that long in-between time? For each one, there was a time when they still had a lot of individuality, but their edges were starting to soften and they could combine well too.
That's what I want for myself. I cannot give up my individuality to fit into a culture that would leave my basic human needs unsatisfied. If that makes me an outsider, so be it. I need richer, more affectionate social connections than I get in most of the US Midwest; and needing those connections makes me somewhat unusual here. But I know it is not unusual everywhere, because I hear about other cultures and other countries where affection is more commonly and easily expressed, and where they're surprised to discover how distant we are here. So, this is a thing that is variable, not a one-and-only-way. And yet, adjusting myself to fit the local culture to try to be closer to people, would actually give me less of the affection I need, rather than more. So that feels strange and ironic.
I also observed that it's easy to make cultural mistakes when the person I'm interacting with looks mostly the same as me and comes from the same geographic area. It's easy to think that culture is approximately correlated with race and national origin, so that those of us who look the same would also think the same. Some of that correlation exists, but assuming too much risks missing the cultural diversity (and cognitive diversity) that exists within the visually same group. That means a high risk for missteps and misunderstandings, and a missed opportunity to learn from each other because we think we're more similar than we are.
Especially as the internet has allowed special-interest groups to thrive, some people may come from a subculture that has vastly different values and expectations, and they've come to see those ways of living as normal and common. The downside of this is the "filter bubble" that causes trouble in politics. The upside of this is that LGBT folks and other minority groups can exist in spaces that feel natural and safe and complete, to them. I see far less internalized homophobia in recent years, for example, because people can gather with their tribe.
I find people generally fascinating and awesome. (Ok not the haters. But the rest, usually.) People have hidden depths, and it's great when they allow enough time for conversation to build to sharing those thoughts and experiences. Those heart to heart moments are so important to me. I can't even explain why except to say that my chest physically aches when I am too distant for too long, and deep sharing fixes it, regardless of whether I'm listening or talking. It's fulfilling at a primal level in a way I think people who have it take for granted, and people who don't, don't even have words for.
I've been fortunate to have many opportunities over the years to experience those deep connections, and they were always, always worth it. They're also a bit difficult to set up circumstances for, so they're more rare than I'd like.
And again, this is a topic where culture varies; deep connections like that are not universal.
The rural culture I grew up in was very emotionally expressive verbally, very passionate talkers, and almost nothing was taboo to talk through. A few things were recognized as not appropriate for young ears (like arguing over who pays for grandpa's nursing care) but otherwise people would talk, vent, laugh, cry, get pissed off, and still keep talking with each other. Once you showed that you were trustworthy, people would tell you what was on their minds, without you having to ask or dig. Everyone expressed; that's just What You Did.
It turned out that expressiveness didn't carry over well to cities and higher economic class environments, where it was instead judged as lack of self control. That is a nearly comical misread of the situation - it actually takes quite a bit of self-regulation to stay in passionate conversation while expressing accurate emotional and vocal tone, word choice in context, hand gestures, and body language, and not just fleeing because the person you're arguing with is red faced because something pissed them off.
Sympathy and debate were both much more intensely and freely expressed, and I fear we're losing that piece of cultural gold as the rural areas are economically starved out and people move to the cities and adapt to conflict-avoidant city culture.
On Being Too Much
In many ways, I am Too Much for the local culture I live in. I care too much, I want too much connection, too much talking and listening, too much heart, too much devotion, too much expressiveness, and too much presence to the current moment.
Shallow chat and activity distractions are okay but don't hold lasting interest. I see them as a bridge to deeper social intimacy. If I can't share about who I am inside - my interests, curiosities, passions, observations - then I feel invisible or unwelcome. If I can't listen to another share about themselves, then I feel like an outsider who is not trusted. These things are not necessarily true of the group (they're not actually judging me that way and it's usually a subculture difference in expectations), but they're true descriptions of my feelings and desires and where I'm poorly matched to the group.
I can hang out with people at a shallow level and deeply enjoy the moments of simple things - taking pictures of flowers, walking around a park, or playing with children. (My secret is slipping out: children are really good at going deep, if given a chance to share their thoughts and feelings to an interested listener. It's a nice break from adult distance.) But anyway. I can be entertained and truly enjoy casual hangout with adults. But it's not heart-filling the way that deeper connection is.
As I said earlier, I am one flavor among thousands. I finally have the perspective to know with my whole being that there is nothing wrong with the way I am. Only, I might not be able to grow my flowers if the soil isn't right for me there. Just because I'm a sunflower in a patch of daisies doesn't mean that either flower is wrong... but I might feel a bit more natural if I can get transplanted into a patch of sunflowers. If that's not possible, I guess I should drop lots of seeds and see if I can invite more sunflowers to grow up around me. :)
I joke, but feeling different and lonely is really hard. Self-acceptance is one thing; belonging is another, and understanding is deeper than that. It seems like such a simple thing to ask for, but the implementation is a lot harder than it looks.