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When Unwanted Solitude is Unbearable ~ The Heartache of Lonely Women

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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No one knows the blues like lonely women do. ~ Laura Nyro

Ever since childhood, the specter of loneliness haunted me. Being held hostage in the house for months at a time by my schizophrenic mother interfered with nourishing my needs for companionship and play. It also made it impossible to cultivate socialization skills. Without the bond of my older sister, I can’t imagine how I would have survived.

When my mother was institutionalized and I was taken in by my paternal grandmother, I began to slowly come out of shock. Engaging with others and the world helped restore my nascent ability to speak and feel.

Nevertheless, turbulent challenges ensued once my mother was discharged from the hospital and we reconvened as a ‘family’. The chaos prevailed, this time with the presence of my malignant sex-addicted father. Relational dynamics typified by chaos and cruelty made it impossible to be safely known. My longings for intimacy consumed me, but there were no sustaining reflective relational mirrors that could anchor me in a secure sense of self.

According to American psychiatrist and interpersonal psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan, the development of a sense of self that can endure normative loneliness is dependent on the interactive engagement of mother and infant. Those whose mother-infant dynamics do not foster a healthy tolerance for loneliness may incur traumatic loneliness. Sullivan refers to traumatic loneliness when he describes the most painful of human experiences.

German psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann who studied at length the malady of loneliness defined loneliness as the want of intimacy. Fromm-Reichmann said, “It is so frightening and uncanny in character that those who have once suffered loneliness try to dissociate the memory of what it was like and even the fear of it.”

Indeed the agony of feeling unloved, unwanted, rejected distinguishes the sort of loneliness rooted in trauma from conventional situational deprivation, or what Sullivan referred to as normative loneliness.

Sullivan and Fromm-Reichmann’s perspective crystallizes what I and women like me endured. This form of loneliness rooted in relational trauma is what Frieda Fromm- Reichmann refers to as ‘real loneliness’, a level of inexplicable suffering generating bouts of dysphoria and annihilation panic.

It’s not revelatory to note that the longing to be held is an essential human need. However, understanding the severity of its absence may not be as obvious.

The biological need for human touch, when not fulfilled catalyzes skin hunger. Without the warmth of physical human connection, the mind and body atrophies. We risk incurring psychogenic catalepsy, a state of rigid paralysis found in maternally neglected children (Rene Spitz).

I can attest that the debilitating levels of anxiety fueled by skin hunger weakened my immune system, and heightened crushing fears of exclusion and excruciating loneliness. It also led to harrowing patterns of sex and love addiction.

Many women beset by relational trauma and skin hunger become compulsively driven to turn to sex and romantic obsession in an unconscious desire to create or mend the primary bond and manage feelings of annihilating loneliness.

This compulsive quest controlled me.

Desperate to assuage the terror catalyzed by the desolation of traumatic loneliness, I sought refuge in strangers, frantically collected friends, and engaged in a steady cycle of incessant activities. Periodically, drugs and alcohol peppered these pursuits.

Of course, I know now what I didn’t know then. Love and domination can’t co-exist.

Looking back, memories of mental gymnastics badger me. I humiliated myself trying to find the rational in the irrational, desperate to find common ground with a lover or a friend who had no interest in equanimity. Anything to hold onto the illusion of mattering with those who enjoyed my subjugation and reveled in their power over me. Of course, I know now what I didn’t know then. Love and domination can’t co-exist.

Morphing into a codependent pretzel to feel connected is a common experience for women beset by traumatic loneliness. I fantasized and obsessed endlessly about romantic partners and escapades. I even traveled to South America to be with my man. When I discovered he had lied to me about returning to New York I was devastated, yet I still colluded in the charade that we were a couple when I came home alone.

Still, it wasn’t completely abysmal. Many life-affirming connections and endeavors rooted in healing, travel, creativity, and academia offered respite, healing, and growth. Yet inevitably, in the aftermath of a break-up or a holiday devoid of cheer, the curse of debilitating loneliness would overwhelm me.

Beside myself, I would plead for an answer from the powers that be.

How could I still feel so unbelievably lonely and broken with so many people and outlets in my life?

I wasn’t blind to my abject recklessness and a complete absence of judgment, but I was so relentless in my efforts to fill my emptiness. In spite of my efforts, it seemed as if nothing would generate enduring peace.

During pivotal lucid moments, I would surrender to slowing down and temporarily curtail the impulse to pursue love.

Dr. Charlotte Kasl wrote in Women, Sex & Addiction, “For many women there is a binge and starve quality to the addiction, periods of intense sexual activity followed by periods of sexual numbness during which they worry about their sexuality and ability to have a relationship.”

Kasl’s description of the binge-starve pattern aptly captures how I functioned. Insatiably hungry for love I was willing to sacrifice my emotional and sexual needs and limits to procure connection. The need for security and the delusional coupling of hollow amorous overtures with love was addictive. I appeased my insatiable loneliness with an erotic fix, encouraged by romantic mythology and the dire hope that someone, anyone would free me from my desolation. When the crash came I would go into withdrawal, sequestering with self-help resources and diversionary interests. Until the next time.

It is through love that we compassionately face the existential despair of our inherent aloneness and as Plato wrote in The Symposium, we “heal the wound of human nature.”

For women such as myself, whose relational needs and intrinsic affiliative nature was stymied by systemic abuse and deprivation, our brokenness is not just steeped in a collective human wound, but in multitudinous ruptures to our soul.

Repairing intra-psychic fragmentation in pursuit of inner cohesion is no easy undertaking.

For lonely women, the harsh reality of being born into a family where love was a scarce commodity, means that dissociation is deeply encoded to ensure survival. Nevertheless, eventually, we either get off a sinking ship or we drown. This simple decree is analogous to being liberated by defeat. Hence, when I fully gave in and gave up a deeper sort of reparation ensued. Having bottomed out by yet another betrayal, this time I threw in the towel for five years and plunged into darkness. I faced the loneliness I feared, along with the ogres and dragons encountered in that dark descent.

Grieving how I was robbed of my birthright for an abiding loving connection, led to releasing what could never be compensated for and naming what could still be reclaimed. Enduring the rigors of decompensation miraculously brought about a modicum of emotional regulation. This precipitated the cultivation of intelligent guardedness.

No longer bound by the impulsive need to recklessly latch onto anyone who offered meager signs of consideration, made the luxury of discernment and discrimination attainable. This opened up the space to establish esteem-building relational guidelines. Armed with a blueprint for rules of engagement, assisted me with concretizing love as a volitional decision to deeply know and understand another (M. Scott Peck) with reliable and ethical intent.

Although I hated the pernicious harm sparked by traumatic loneliness and how it defined me, my intuitive wisdom knew that attempting to amputate despised parts of myself and heal from a place of hate would only abort my growth. That said, it was critical that I relinquish contemptuous judgments that viewed myself as pathetic and needy.

Alchemizing humiliation to humility and compassionately owning what the loneliness led me to do under extreme circumstances, helped to restore my dignity. It led me to appreciate the tragic plight of tormented lonely women everywhere. Women, who as Laura Nyro sung, “feel the walls rush in. Walls that tell you where you’ve been, and you’ve been to the hollow.”

To all the lonely women out there reading this, I hope you feel less alone knowing that I recognize your plight. I’ve been to the hollow too. I want you to know that I see your worth, the boundless beauty within you, and the sanctity of your essential nature. My greatest hope is that one day you will come to see it too.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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