How to Combat Loneliness

I’ve been thinking about loneliness the past few days because I’ve noticed a shift in my mood. It’s a bit lower than normal and when I think about why that might be, it comes back to feeling lonely. A year and a half ago I moved from a big city where I had spent 6 years making some wonderful friends, to a small town where I only had my brother in a town over. Then 6 or 7 months ago I moved to another big city, where I have my other brother, his wife, and a close friend I’ve known for many years and his partner. While I do see my brother and sister-in-law fairly often, I haven’t seen my friend much due to schedules, etc. I also don’t have any other friends here and it seems to be harder to make new friends at 37 than it was at 30. I also haven’t had a serious romantic relationship for several years.

Loneliness can feel like waves pounding over you. You can learn to swim through the waves.

Loneliness is also something commonly experienced by people with chronic pain and chronic illness. This can be due to not being able to engage in activities you once could. It could be a lack of understanding from friends and family, perhaps even lost contact with them because of it. It could be an inability to work. And so on. While some people are totally content being on their own (and for the most part I’m totally fine being on my own), most of us crave connection. It’s part of our evolutionary history. Humans have always lived in groups, supported each other. And yet we’re always alone…

One of the four “givens” of the human condition, according to existentialism Irvin Yalom, is isolation. It’s something we fear and dislike, and yet it exists for all of us. I think of it this way, who is the only person you spend 24/7, 365 for your entire life with? YOURSELF. No one else. And so, chronic pain or illness or not, loneliness is something we need to be able to deal with. But how do we do that?

Here are some suggested ways to deal with it:

  • join activities that you can do – this is something I’m personally looking into right now. Is there a sport you can play? An art class you can take? Some other activity you can engage in with other people, even with your pain? Sometimes this involves making room for your pain, which you can learn to do here.
  • reach out to friends and family – even if you can’t see them in person, connect via text or phone calls or video chats. I talk to one of my best friends every week via Skype. A couple of my other good friends I video chat with every few weeks and text with regularly. It’s not the same but it’s something.
  • join online support groups – well I have a love-hate relationship with these, they can be a great way to connect and remember that you’re not alone. Friendships can even develop online. Listen to this podcast about it.
  • Speaking of making friends online, try online dating – okay, if you’re in a relationship this may not be the best idea, but you could try Bumble BFF in which the sole purpose is to make friends. Otherwise, I have made plenty of friends in the past via online dating (though that was pre-pandemic and it does seem to be a little harder now).
  • Become your own best friend – while this doesn’t completely take away feelings of loneliness, it can help you in the in-between times of being with other people. I’m definitely my own best friend. And yes, I do still get bouts of loneliness but they are few and far between (I just happen to be in one of the few).

No one likes to feel lonely, especially when paired with other emotions like sadness and anxiety. While chronic pain and illness can make loneliness more common, there are definitely a few ways you can combat it so that you can keep making the most of it.

Book Review: Man’s Search for Meaning

This month I read the book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. The book is actually one of the top selling “self-help” books of all time. I put self-help in quotations because I’m not sure if that was the original intention behind Frankl writing it, but it seems that he might have recognized what it became between the years it was first published in 1946 and his death in the late 1990s. The first half of the book chronicles his experiences as a prisoner in concentration camps during the second World War, including Auschwitz. While this could be just read as an intense, heart-breaking story (and it is), the way that Frankl writes about his life experiences doesn’t come off that way. Instead, you can see his reflection and growth in his writing. It’s kind of hard to explain how that works, unless you read it for yourself. The story is also not chronological but instead jumps back and forth across his timeline in the camps to highlight pieces of the story that are connected to each other in some way.

While I don’t want to give away too much from the story, because I highly recommend that everyone read it, there were two main takeaways that I had from the first half of the book. First, is that if we believe our lives have no meaning, then we are more likely to give up when faced with difficult circumstances – and that meaning doesn’t have to be grand or anything, as the beauty of a sunset or holding the hand of a sick friend can bring some meaning for that day. Of course, as Frankl admits, in the concentration camps there was a huge element of dumb luck that you ended up in this line instead of that line (whereas that line led you to the gas chambers and this one didn’t), but for those with that luck, meaning became important. The other takeaway I had is that meaning is created by each other us, and is different for each person. It is solely up to us what that meaning is.

The second half of the book is about Logotherapy, which is a psychotherapy modality that Frankl (who was a psychiatrist) invented. It was kind of based on psychoanalysis, but with a heavy emphasis on existential philosophy, particularly meaning-making. During the second half of the book, Frankl does tell more stories from his time in the camps, integrating it with his theories about human existence and how helping people find meaning can aid with the treatment of many mental health problems. Frankl is considered one of the leaders of existential psychotherapy. Though logotherapy isn’t really used anymore, as there isn’t a huge amount of empirical evidence supporting it, it has influenced many other existentially-based therapies, including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which I practice. My personal beliefs are that life meaning is incredibly important, as are other existential concepts, which all humans ultimately deal with, and our ability to deal with contributes, at least partially, to our overall well-being.

Even if you aren’t interested in psychotherapy or existentialism, I highly recommend giving this book a read. There’s a reason that this is a best-selling self-help book. Many people struggle with finding meaning in their lives, especially at transitional periods, and this book can really open your eyes on how to find meaning, even in incredibly difficult circumstances. There are so many amazing quotes from this book, but I’m going to leave you with this one: “The helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by doing so change himself – he may turn personal tragedy into a triumph.”

For a podcast episode on meaning making with chronic illness, check out this one. Everyone, thank you as always for reading my posts. If you end up reading this book, let me know what your takeaways were. For now, keep making the most of it!

Choice, Growth, Freedom, Values & Acceptance

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl

For those of you who are not familiar with Viktor Frankl, he is a psychiatrist, author, existential philosopher and Holocaust survivor. His belief system, which was seemingly helpful to him while he was in a concentration camp, is that life can have meaning even in the worst possible circumstances (like he himself faced) and we are motivated to continue to live when we find that meaning. Like many other existentialists, Frankl believed we had the choice to do what we wanted with the circumstances we are given, even if we don’t always get to choose the circumstances ourselves. When it comes to chronic illness – physical or mental – it can be hard to always see the choices available to us, and sometimes those choices may be more limited, but they are still there. If I am in pain today, I can choose to lie on the couch or I can choose to do some stretches. I can choose to do nothing, or I can choose to sit at the computer and write a blog post that will hopefully help someone else. Depending on your situation, your choice options will look different than mine and that’s okay. The last part of Frankl’s above quote says that “In our response lies our growth and freedom.” Personal growth, and healing journeys (check out my podcast about healing here and personal growth here) are difficult but necessary if we want to live full and rich lives, if we don’t want to give up and into our circumstances. There is so much overlap between chronic physical illness and mental illness and feelings like hopelessness and helplessness play into both. Breaking ourselves out of the cycle is the key. That often takes the form of reaching out for help, and/or using our own self-help and self-care skills to propel us forward (for example, reading self-help books about these topics can be helpful if you don’t want to or can’t afford therapy).

Meaning, choice, freedom – even with chronic illness.

Recently I have been learning a lot about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as that is what I would like my practicum to focus on (I have to pick something that is CBT – cognitive behavioural – focused and ACT is “third-wave” and combines a lot of mindfulness). Here is a quote from the ACT training I’ve been completing.

“In this moment I’m holding my pain so that I can choose to do the things I care about.” – Timothy Gordon

Values and meaning look different for each of us.
(Vienna, 2017)

ACT is very values focused and as you can see values are closely related to life meanings which stem from growth and freedom, which stem from choice. This is a therapy with a lot of efficacy for chronic pain and chronic illness because it asks us to acceptance our pain, and helps us to move toward our values. I personally accepted my pain and my illness a long time ago. That acceptance has allowed me to do more with my life, like go back to school and start a new career, travel, exercise, write a book, and help others. These are all values of mine and they all bring my life meaning. But I didn’t have to choose to move toward any of these. I could have stayed where I was, but truth-be-told, I wasn’t happy. That realization of unhappiness sent me down this growth path which in many ways started with the acceptance piece. If you’re not happy, or you don’t know what your life meaning is or what you want it to be, I would suggest just starting with your values. What’s important to you? And then what your life would look like if you were living for those values. Now, this work is of course best done in the context of therapy, but if you’d rather some reading on the subject I would say check out the book The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris.

Acceptance can lead to new realities.

Your pain and illness don’t have to control your lives if you don’t want them to. Keep making the most of it everyone.

Disappointment, a necessary part of life

Let me start off by saying that I’m doing a series of posts this month for a link-up. My understanding was to pick 3 prompts and do a post on each. I just found out this morning from the link-up coordinator that you are supposed to do three prompts in one post. If I had known that, I probably wouldn’t have done it. To me, that makes the blog more like a journal. While, I definitely share my personal experiences in my posts, I always set out to make this more of a self-help journey we can all be on together, with hopes that people can take something away to apply to their own lives. I also prefer to do a “theme” of the week (as you’ve probably noticed) rather than a hodge-podge of random information. Since I technically broke the rules of the link-up, I won’t be allowed to participate in any future ones, which is honestly fine with me as I never need writing prompts… I just thought it would be fun to connect with other bloggers.

I know you’re getting a photo of him every week but I miss him.

Anyway, on the topic of disappointment, I know that 2020 has been a s*** show for most people, and we’ve probably all seen our fair share of disappointment this year. The last few months have definitely been that way for me – first my dog being put down, and now, well, current circumstances, which have left me feeling depressed, which is not normal for me (thankfully I have a therapy appointment today). I’m going to share my current disappointment with you in a moment, I am also going to (try to) set myself up (and you too) on the right path to move beyond disappointment, because it is a necessary part of life.

As you may know, I am doing my Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology (future therapist here!). What you may not know is that I am excelling in the program (literally have never had a 4.0 GPA and mine is actually higher than that – yes, I’m bragging a bit but I usually eat a lot of humble pie). What you also may not now is that Covid has f***ed practicum opportunities in Canada. We have to acquire our own practicums, and the university told us if we live in a major centre to contact at least 30 sites. I reached out to 63 in the city I currently live. Of these, only three confirmed they are taking students this year (1 I didn’t qualify for based on experience, 1 I interviewed for and didn’t get, and 2 I applied to but didn’t get an interview); 16 places never responded at all, and the rest said they weren’t taking students because of the pandemic. As a result, I also applied/contacted to 5 sites in a neighbouring city (all of which decided not to take any students); 5 in my hometown (2 never responded, 3 said they aren’t taking students); 1 in a city my older brother lives in (had an interview, didn’t get it), and 15 in a city my younger brother lives in (applied to 3, didn’t hear from 3, and the rest said they aren’t taking students).

My school I.D. photo lol

Okay, so that’s the backstory. The thing is, one of the places in the city my younger brother lives in actually accepted me as a student at the end of September. So, though I still had to do an application process through my uni, I did get some initial excitement going about living near family again and moving to the mountains! I have been in contact with my site supervisor, and have almost all my forms ready to go for school – the package is due Nov 1. Then yesterday, I hear from the university (who had initially sent off my application as the site is with a health authority) that the site has decided they took on too many students and cancelled my placement. While they didn’t say why mine was the one that was cancelled, it can be assumed it is because I currently live in a different province, as the health authority itself stated it prioritizes in province students. Here’s the thing, the site supervisor said he was still willing to supervise, and the whole thing is of no cost (at least monetary) to the site. It’s hard not to feel like I’m being penalized for the pandemic/living in the wrong province apparently. I know a lot of other students have had to defer their practicum until May but I’m already 35 and just want to get my career started. Thus disappointment. By the way, the health authority did tell the university they could submit my application to some of their other sites in the same region, so they did yesterday, but it sure puts a time crunch on the whole thing for me if there is a yes out there (fingers crossed).

Where I was supposed to move to… and hopefully still will.

So how do we work through disappointment? First and foremost I think it’s necessary to live in the emotions we feel. For me that started as stress and anxiety and has lead to deep sadness. I can only really move on if I fully feel these emotions, and so I will. Second, it is important to talk and process with someone. Like I mentioned, I will be having a session with my own therapist today (and yes, therapists do often have therapists) to do just that. If you don’t have one (you should!) then with a family member, friend, or partner also suffices. What I like about an impartial person to do this with is that they can get you to do more exploration and problem solving than someone who is just going to reiterate your own feelings and concerns back to you, or blame someone/something else for your disappointment (not saying the disappointment is your fault). Third, is to be proactive with what you can do. Apparently my decision could not be appealed by my site supervisor or the school, so I found a contact form and sent it off to the site explaining the situation and asking for a decision-maker to contact me. I also had the university send off my application to the other sites. I will continue to work on my school work (paper due this week) and try to keep myself busy and distracted while I wait to hear. Finally, I look at the worst case scenario. For me that is differing my practicum and doing in it May. Is that ideal or what I want? Nope. But will I survive? Yes. As I said, disappointment is a part of life, but it is the choices that we make when disappointment arrives that determine what our futures will be like.

I must live by my mantra now more than ever.

Thanks for reading, and keep making the most of it!

Transitions

One thing that can always be certain in life (besides death that is), is that we will encounter many transitions. These can be developmental, social, societal, living circumstances, jobs, losses, wins, health, and on and on. There is absolutely no way to avoid going through the transitions. Of course, some are positive and make us feel good. Others are neutral, it just is what it is (that’s how I look back on puberty but probably not how I felt at the time!). And yet others are, of course, negative and make us feel crappy. So how do we deal with all these transitions? Especially the bad ones? There’s no perfect answer, and everyone is unique and individual, but here’s my take on it.

Clearly my brother and I had to transition from these cute little tykes to adults.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I am very drawn to existentialism. In fact, when I become a psychotherapist (almost done my masters!) I plan on practicing from an existential-humanistic-maybe-some-positive-psychology-thrown-in perspective. Why do I like existentialism?
1. we, as humans, have choice and free will
2. it’s normal to have some anxiety
3. we need to make our own life meanings
4. the only guarantee is nonbeing (death) – okay this one’s a bit grim but it’s also true

What does this have to do with transitions? Well, let me take you through some of the transitions I’ve been through in the last month (there have actually been too many for my tastes but sometimes that happens), and how I dealt with them.
1. My 11 year old dog, Spike, my little baby, had to be put down. I cried, a lot, for three days. The I decided to give some meaning to this and wrote a children’s book. My friend is currently illustrating it and we plan to self-publish. And the book, it goes with the theme of health issues and will be helpful for children with chronic health problems.
2. My old roommate (whom I adore) moved out and my new roommate moved in. This started off great, with us hanging out and going out for dinner. Then this less than happy situation occurred and to be honest, she may not be my roommate much longer… which would then be another transition. However, my choice was to do some investigating into the issue, talk to the appropriate people, and manage my anxiety through meditation.
3. Yesterday I left my job at the retail company I worked at for 7 years (I had taken a year off before that, and worked for the company for 6 years before that). made the choice to leave, and now I am making the choice to focus on school and my side projects (writing, podcasting, maybe making some cool merch).
4. I have an interview for a practicum placement this coming Saturday. This is like a pre-transition stage because if I get the placement (which I really hope I do) then I will be starting a new chapter of my studies and career come January, with just a few months to prepare for it. Again, my anxiety will be managed through preparation and meditation.

Last day selfie!

I tend to be someone who is proactive. If I see a problem I try to fix it or resolve it, and then just manage my anxiety around it. Since death is the only given in life, then I choose to try to make my life as awesome as possible (thus the title of my podcast, Chronically Living and how to make the most of it). The title of this blog is Jane Versus Pain, and pain can come in many forms. Physical (like my undifferentiated connective tissue disease, fibromyalgia, and labral hip tear), or emotional (grief, anxiety, sadness, etc.). Managing life’s anxieties and working through those transitions that we will inevitably face is something we best learn to do.

Have a good week, and stay safe.

Wabi-Sabi

Some of you may have heard of this concept before, and many of you may have not. It was only recently introduced to me through my meditation app, where the guided meditation happened to talk about wabi-sabi. The explanation of it made me realize how much I identified with the concept and how important I think the concept is, regardless of what we’re dealing with in our lives.

What is wabi-sabi? It’s a Japanese worldview that has been around since the 15th century. There isn’t a great translation for it (as often happens when we try to translate culturally-specific concepts) but roughly, wabi means finding simplicity in nature, and sabi means appreciating beauty. What it’s taken to mean is the beauty of imperfection, and accepting the imperfections in your life, while making the most out of what you have. Because no one is perfect, and yet we all strive to be, especially in the Western World. But why? I am not perfect, you are not perfect, literally no one is. Another way of viewing wabi-sabi is your ability to appreciate complexity while valuing simplicity. The world has become a more and more complex place, as we’ve seen through this pandemic, but also just through the consistent advancement of technology, and through the political landscape in the Western wold. But while the world may be complex, it is the simple things that are more likely to bring us joy. Like spending time with family or friends, being able to work from home if you have that option, and the adorableness of a child’s laugh.

Accepting our imperfections: physical, and otherwise is a part of wabi-sabi. Photo at Kalamalka Lake, BC.

This concept is tied into Zen Buddhism. There are three aspects of Buddhism that it is related to: impermanence (we’re all going to die fyi), suffering (is inevitable, no one has a life without any), and non-self (which may not have actually been said by the Buddha, there is much debate). These concepts kind of tie into existentialism too, don’ they? Finding meaning in life, non-being, existential anxiety… Wabi-sabi definitely ties into some Zen principles like simplicity, asymmetry, beauty, naturalness, grace, freeness, and tranquility. And finally, I see the connection to mindfulness (which comes from Zen Buddhism as well) such as being present, seeing things as they are, and acceptance.

Nature is full of imperfections. Photo taken at Niagara, ON.

When it comes to health, there is definitely ways of applying wabi-sabi. We must accept our illnesses. We must accept any body imperfections that come with them. We are beautiful the way we are. We should look for the beauty in the simple things in our lives to make ourselves happy. That doesn’t mean we can’t dream or strive for more. Rather, we can enjoy and accept as a way of improving our mental health, while always trying to make the most out of life.

Sometimes it’s about just enjoying the simple things. Photo: My friend and I last October, just outside of Toronto, ON.