By Shannyn Moore for the Anchorage Daily News
I read a study last week that played out in a way I didn’t expect.
People who are lonely have about the same life expectancy as smokers. Lonely people are twice as likely to die prematurely than those who are obese.
“Loneliness not only alters behavior, but loneliness is related to greater resistance to blood flow through your cardiovascular system. Loneliness leads to higher rises in morning levels of the stress hormone cortisol, affects the immune system, higher blood pressure and an increased level of depression. Loneliness, or perceived social isolation, also is related to difficulty getting a deep sleep and a faster progression of Alzheimer’s disease.”
Shorter: Loneliness will kill you.
I was reminded of Pop Moore’s story about visiting orphanages in Russia. There were so many children that they weren’t held. The visitors were instructed not to pick them up. They would cry, unable to process the sensation of touch.
Initially I tried to apply this study to Alaskans. Our suicide rates are so sadly high. It’s easy to feel isolated here. Then I thought of the epidemic of military and veteran suicides. The inability to connect upon return and the unbearable loneliness.
We have patches, pills and gum to help people stop smoking. It’s an acknowledged risk. We diet, have gym memberships and spend billions of dollars to look like the covers of magazines.
But loneliness? How do we abate that? We’re dying of it. Being alone doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lonely, and being with the wrong person can be the loneliest of all. There’s a difference between solitude and loneliness.
This past Monday morning, my nephew came into the world. He came early.
It’s been more than 17 years since I gave birth to my parents’ first grandchild. Six years ago, a second, a boy, joined our family. This year, both my sisters announced new babies would be arriving. More little Moores!
The anticipation and excitement — wondering who these little people will be. The preparation is fierce.
My nephew was has some catching up to do.
I’ve spent a great deal of time at Providence hospital this week — specifically the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
There is a hive of life and death and taking and giving. It is the NICU. The opposite of evil and hate in this world is embodied in the men and women who serve the babies and their families — including mine.
There is a constant reminder of the fragility and strength of our human state. Babies who are measured in grams are growing under constant care from the angels who walk among us. Touch is a necessary nutrient.
Strangers who stood with me while we scrubbed in would ask me how I was doing. I’d ask them. All of us were fighting the loneliness that comes with zero control and worry, and speaking our hopes out loud. There is something about that place that equalizes everyone there — we all worry and hope and love and touch; no matter how connected a family is on the outside, inside, everyone is the same, rooting for health and growth.
I remembered how to pray this week. Not just for my family but for the families who hadn’t had their prayers answered. Being exposed to the grief of a stranger is indescribable. The sound a mother makes when losing a child comes from the center of the Earth, through her feet and out her mouth. There is nothing to say or do — you can ignore it but you can’t fix it; you can only be a witness. Sometimes a hard thing is just a hard thing — and you have to share it to divide it. The celebration of an NICU graduate is multiplied among the families. The math of human feeling doesn’t always make sense.
Touching, holding, talking to — this, along with all the medical attention, grows babies. It reminds them to keep breathing, to stay.
Babies get lonely. We all do.
When my daughter was 3, we were grocery shopping. From her seat in the cart she noticed a woman. We were in the freezer section. “Mommy, that lady is lonely,” she told me.
I turned to see an elderly woman walking away from us. I looked at her cart. TV dinners. I made up a narrative in my head to explain her. I guessed she’d cooked dinners for a husband for years and couldn’t bring herself to cook for just herself. “I gave her one of my smiles,” my girl said.
I can only hope her tiny smile made a difference. The fact that she noticed made a difference to me.
To the staff at the NICU, my deepest respect and awe to you who serve our community, who spend your workdays tending to the taxing needs of the tiniest among us. I still don’t believe you can pay people to love — but you bring that to work every day. Thank you.
To the lonely who read this, I wish for you touch, and care, and love.
And to the new little boy in my life, I love you.