Jim sits down in my office and promptly declares, “The doctors think you can give me some strategies to stop my binging. I know why I eat,” he continues, “I’m lonely. . . I’m not sure that can be fixed.” My heart lurches as he speaks. Loneliness, ah yes, I know that feeling– from the mild feelings of homesickness to the dead-of-night-panic of the “empty nest” as my children become more independent by the day.
Jim shares with me what loneliness feels like to him. His wife had died shortly after they had both retired and so now his life is not what he or they had planned. Meal times are no longer a pleasure. A meal for one in deafening silence emphasises the emptiness. There are times when loneliness sweeps through like a hurricane as if each cell of Jim’s body is electrified. It is then that the binges come thick and fast, the frenzied hand to mouth movement, the sedation of an overly full belly pushing down the emptiness, the solace that thickly buttered bread seems to offer in that moment.
But, Jim tells me, there are other times when loneliness feels like a concrete slab suffocating his heart, causing panic and fear. At these times, appetite is lost and eating is the last thing on Jim’s mind. The intersection of food and loneliness can be a confusing place to live.
Although the doctors are pleased that Jim’s weight is “stable”, his diabetes is poorly controlled and the predominant feeling of loneliness and wide swings from bingeing to not eating, leaves him with a sense that he is “losing his marbles”, a British saying meaning to lose your mind.
As Jim and I speak, I recall some of Pema Chodron’s teachings on loneliness, “It’s restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company” 1. Chodron tells us, however, that when we can “rest in the middle, we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that turns our usual fearful patterns upside down”.
I wonder what had once allowed Jim’s heart to be free, so with genuine curiosity, I ask. I hear warm, loving stories of dancing with his wife, and a personal and professional life which had been and still was dedicated to helping others. There are moments when Jim smiles as he talks about the way he had chosen to live his life and the values that are still important to him.
Together we sit in silence. Jim is now able to “rest in the middle” having stayed close to the difficult emotions and tender memories—the ones that can be hot with desire for escape or cool our worst fears. Jim does not leave my office with any strategy I taught him on how to “manage” his eating or his fears. Instead, he has felt the impermanence of all experience – heartache, loneliness, sedation, confusion, fear, and sweet memories — and is learning to cultivate his own calm with each breath.
Is loneliness or the fear of it something that resonates with you? Is it possible for you to “rest in the middle and cultivate a cooling loneliness”, calm in the knowledge of the impermanence of all experience?
Jackie Doyle, UK
1Chodron, P. (1997) When Things Fall Apart. Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Harper Collins Publishers.
N.B. Jim’s name and some of the demographic names have been changed in order to respect confidentiality