Posted: May 17, 2019
One year ago this month, my partner Thomas undertook a five-month journey to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT is one of America’s long-distance trails, and runs 2,650 miles through California, Oregon, and Washington. PCT hikers start at the US/Mexico border, and carrying their food, water, tents, and sleeping bags on their backs, they hike until they reach the Canadian border. It’s a physically and mentally demanding journey through deserts, mountains, and forests; requiring planning and discipline and the courage to survive in the wilderness for nearly half a year.
I knew it would be a difficult experience for Thomas. What I didn’t know was how difficult it would be for me at home. There are very few blogs or articles written by the partners of PCT hikers on what the experience was like for them. I think I know why, and it’s related to something that our company sees and thinks about a lot – loneliness. More people are talking about the negative health consequences of loneliness – you’ve probably spotted at least a few articles or news segments about it in the last few years. Because I have a job where I need to think about, spot, and try to help alleviate loneliness, I thought I knew a lot about the topic. Experience, as it has a way of doing, was a much better teacher. Here’s what I learned about loneliness in the five months Thomas was on the PCT.
Loneliness can make you feel ashamed
Like many people our age, Thomas and I moved away from our families for work. Most of our friends from childhood and college also live far away. I learned that you can be lonely and still have a lot of loving, supportive people in your life. There were a lot of people I could have turned to for help and support, but because of the distance, it would require me to speak up and ask for it. I knew objectively that there was nothing shameful about feeling lonely in a busy and disconnected world and asking for more support.
I found, to my surprise, however, that I was reluctant to ask. It felt embarrassing to admit that I was lonely. When friends and family called I was thrilled and would chat happily with them, basking in the feeling of connectedness. I wanted to share that I was feeling lonely and isolated. But when they asked, I found I couldn’t make the words come out. I felt ashamed of being lonely, and also afraid that if I felt told them, it would be putting an awkward demand on them to help alleviate my loneliness. So instead, I said nothing.
Loneliness can be consuming
Like everyone, I had times of feeling lonely before Thomas hiked the PCT. But those experiences were brief and fleeting and easily resolved by spending time with someone and then going on my way. Being lonely is different. I learned that loneliness can be pervasive and consuming. I came to dread weekends, previously a beloved time of relaxation and solitude, because I knew that I wouldn’t have anyone to connect with. Three-day holiday weekends were my enemy. My thoughts would turn to how long it had been since I’d seen another person, how long it had been since I had used my voice to talk aloud. Many Sunday nights I’d collapse exhausted into bed, crushed under how alone I felt. I would rush into work on Mondays, eager for the chance to see and talk and connect with fellow humans. I learned that chronic loneliness isn’t a passing feeling. Chronic loneliness colors your entire world, removing some of the vibrancy and joy even from pleasant and joyful things.
Loneliness can rebound quickly
My experience of loneliness gave me enormous empathy for the Elders I meet who are also experiencing isolation and loneliness. It also gave me insight into the fight against it. One of the most critical things I learned from my experience is that there is no quick fix to loneliness. My parents came to spend a week with me last year when Thomas was on the trail, and for that week I was not lonely. We had a wonderful time, and I was so happy to have other people in my apartment, to eat dinner with and spend the weekend with and to see when I came back from work.
When they left, I thought I would start over emotionally from the place I was when my boyfriend first left for the trail – not lonely, gradually becoming more lonely. It wasn’t like that. The loneliness returned immediately with full force. I suspect that being lonely might actually have impacts that are much longer, a phenomenon I’m still exploring. Thomas completed the PCT and returned home in October, so he has now been back home for longer than he was gone. I have not been lonely during that time. Recently, however, he went out of state for a few days and I found myself reverting shockingly fast back to the patterns and mindset I experienced when he was gone. Loneliness, I’m learning, has really strong muscle memory. You can’t fix it with weekly phone calls or occasional visits. The only way to beat it is through strong, sustained social connection.
After the Trail
Despite how difficult my experience with loneliness was, I was lucky. For me, loneliness had an end date. I knew that Thomas would reach the end of the trail and then come back home, and that knowledge made a difference in my ability to push through and live my life. I am humbled thinking about how different it must be for people who have lost their partners, or who never had one, who are isolated and lonely and don’t know if there will an end to that lonely.
I’ve always known, academically, that one of the strongest benefits of communities like ours is the increased socialization that our Elders experience and enjoy. Now I know first-hand how consuming loneliness can be, how it can make you feel ashamed, and how quickly it can come back. Now, when I meet with family members who worry that their loved one is experiencing loneliness and are considering Assisted Living as an option, I know what a profound and serious problem that is. I take extra care to point out the many ways that Dayspring Villa is set up to alleviate loneliness by creating strong and lasting social connections between Elders, their neighbors, and our warm, caring team.
The PCT gave my boyfriend the adventure of a lifetime. The PCT gave me powerful empathy, a renewed passion for my work, and lifelong motivation to alleviate loneliness and the suffering that it brings. We all have more work to do to understanding and eliminating loneliness.