Humans are wired to connect. It’s in our DNA. It’s how we’ve survived as a species.
And despite knowing this to my core, I spent years doing the opposite—being social instead of soulful, putting on a smile while staying separate, isolating myself so people wouldn’t see my vulnerability and sickness.
I retreated inward instead of asking for support until, one moment, something shook me to my core.
I realized that I was lonely.
Loneliness & Illness,
Hand in Hand
For as long as I can remember I’ve lived in extreme opposites—either incredibly social and engaged in connection, or so lonely that I’ve spent days in my apartment telling friends, “I’m not feeling well,” rather than confess my loneliness. This pendulum has always confused me. So much so, that up until a few years ago, I never would have admitted my loneliness at all.
As I processed and pulled up the roots of my loneliness, I realized that for most of my life, its always come hand in hand with chronic illness.
I’ve spent the majority of my life angry at my body. My earliest memories growing up involve doctors trying to explain the mysterious symptoms that have plagued me since early childhood. Only when I was eight years old did we discover one of the culprits—late-stage neuroborreliosis, a fancy way of saying “chronic lyme disease.” Migraines and joint pain became my new normal, as the medicine waged “war with my body.” This terminology never left me. I believed that my body was something I needed to fight in order to feel good.
I imagine this is where my loneliness began. I couldn’t stand to be inside myself, and it felt as if I stepped one inch beside my body in order to survive. If being in my body was painful, why be in there at all? And because I rarely inhabited myself, it became difficult for me to let anything in – especially love and connection.
Throughout my adolescence, I was mostly joyful, I had love for my friends, and connecting with others made me feel alive. Being with people seemed to be the easy part, but it was going inside and feeling emotion that really frightened me. My deepest parts remained shut, and they stayed that way into my teenage years and early twenties.
Intimacy was a code I couldn’t crack.
The first time I remember embracing a full range of emotions, from exhilarating joy and love, to incredible sadness, loss, and loneliness, was during my time as a Peace Corps volunteer. It was during this experience that I loved and learned intensely for the next few years. Through my relationships I learned about intimacy and how to express emotion outwardly without fearing judgment. I learned (and am still learning) about my privilege and my ignorance, eventually understanding that my Peace Corps experience was NOT about offering “help,” but rather I was there to listen, learn, grow, and experience community and connection.
The intensity of this experience of connecting to myself and to others made it impossible for me to avoid pain, sadness, and anger. At the same time it became impossible to avoid love, community, intimacy, and support. It was during this time that I learned to let love in. My emotions were no longer private events––love was a reciprocal exchange of seeing and being seen.
When I returned to New York City two years later I spent my time longing for a feeling of connection, learning, and depth similar to what I had experienced while living abroad. It took me years to realize that I was searching for something that was impossible to replicate. When I couldn’t find this feeling in NYC, I made up a story that it could only exist across the world, and so I began to return to my Peace Corps host country, and did so annually for the next twelve years.
Becoming a Bystander To My Own Life
New York City soon became my waiting place: waiting for my health to change, my loneliness to dissipate, and someone to tell me how to heal. I was waiting for answers. Each time I returned to NYC my health would decline a bit more, doctors struggling to identify the root cause of my illness. What they knew was that my Lyme disease had resurfaced, but with each new doctor that I visited, came a new diagnoses: epstein barr, fibromyalgia, adrenal fatigue, myofascial pain disorder, mono…the list goes on.
There were no answers in this waiting space, and this absolutely terrified me. I was afraid I would never get better. I was afraid to be seen in my dis-ease. And so, I hid. I retreated. I learned to hermit, to hibernate, to shy away from support, because I could do this alone—couldn’t I? I kept my loneliness a secret. I worked from home during the day, spent nights in, sometimes going out of my way to make my loneliness worse by not answering texts or phone calls. Even when I was social I still felt heaviness inside. I was afraid to be honest with others and myself because honesty meant action, and stagnation was where I felt safe.
Before I knew it, I became a bystander to my own life.
The Desire to Change & Connect
Here was the thing about my loneliness–– I was a master at distracting myself from seeing it. Cell phones, computers, Netflix, and naps filled my space and took me away from my connection to me. The abnormal had become my new normal until one day during a bout of illness, I finally realized that my isolation had made me fear support. I had been praising myself for not asking for help, when I should have been doing the opposite.
It was only when I began to see the depths of my loneliness that my awareness grew, and I started to see my desire to change grow. I knew I needed to step out of my daily bouts of loneliness, shut down the computer, and get out in the world and connect. I made a promise to myself that everyday I would force myself out of my apartment to have a moment of connection with someone—anyone—as long as it felt genuine.
These connections began with strangers in coffee shops, the guy at the corner store, the dog walker on the sidewalk, the person across from me on the subway, and I began to notice that during these small, quick moments, I was back inside my body. I could feel my feet on the ground. I was starting to find my way back to myself through others.
This is where the idea for the Connection Cure was born.
For the next two years, I ruminated on the topic of connection and it finally came to life during a Positive Psychology certification program, where I learned about the science that backed up my personal experiences.
Chronic loneliness can make us ill; human connection can help us heal.
As I researched, I started to put the pieces together. My illness wasn’t just about the Lyme, it wasn’t just about an autoimmune disorder, it was also about disconnection. My body was also fighting my attempts over the years to stifle my truth, my sadness, and my fear of vulnerability.
And so, I intensified the promise I made to myself and gave myself a challenge—what if I could find a strong sense of connection, belonging, and engagement while traveling across the U.S.? What is possible if I leave the confines of my apartment and explore the country through the people who live here? What if connection and engagement could actually be part of the healing I need?
So far, it has been.
I’ve been on this journey for the past year and a half and already I see the connection to my body, other people, the country, the earth, and myself dramatically shifting. From Elvis impersonators to ghost hunters, caregivers to psychiatrists, churches to synagogues, mermaids to pirates, non-profits programs to large corporations, living rooms to libraries, I am learning about the human condition, what we long for and what we retreat from. I believe that as we engage in micro and macro connections we CAN flourish.
We are in a moment in time where we are being called to act, to talk to our neighbors, to courageously listen, and to open the door to conversation. When I take a step back and look at loneliness as a part of our shared human experience–as our bodies’ natural alarm for connection– it looks beautiful. Our bodies’ are a complex and magical thing. We have evolved to not just want, but to need each other in order to survive, to thrive, to listen to our bodies, to honor our evolution, and connect.
We humans are pliable. We bend, we break, and like our bones, we repair ourselves. Lucky for us, we’re wired to do it together.
Lisa Daron Grossman has been a practicing certified Professional Coach from the Coaches Training Institute and the International Coaches Federation since 2010. She is a practitioner of Positive Psychology, holds her MFA in Creative Nonfiction writing, BA in Anthropology, a certificate in Mind-Body Medicine, and is beginning her training in Compassion Cultivation through the Center for Compassion and Altruism at Stanford.
Prior to working as a coach Lisa worked with storytelling as a documentary filmmaker, a copywriter for the Smithsonian channel, a New York City tour guide, and a professional team builder for over ten years. She has been asked to speak at workshops and wellness seminars across the country and was selected to speak at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as well as the John F. Kennedy Service Awards as part of a 2016 storytelling contest.
Lisa is currently living on the road full-time.