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PTSD Questions & Answers
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Joyce Boaz & Dr. Frank Ochberg, M.D.

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PTSD Symptoms: Loneliness.

Q: Dear Frank, A support pal emailed, "I'm scared to death to be alone because...you know, who am I? Existential loneliness feels like a physical pain, and I sense it must have to do with brain chemistry and the childhood trauma I suffered. Somehow I sense that it also deals with no established identity, hence a feeling of not being able to be alone with myself because I do not exist. How can one deal with this?"

A: Dear Joyce, There is a profound difference between loneliness and aloneness. Loneliness is a feeling, like hunger, of missing nourishment. Words used to describe this feeling include aching, empty, longing, yearning, missing, needing, gnawing, bereft, bereaved, grieving, isolated, rejected, and blue. To be lonely is to be unhappy due to the absence of another. That other may be a specific person. Or it may be any desirable company. The sudden, painful loss of another results in grief. It takes years to recover from tragic and traumatic losses, although the condition is an inevitable aspect of human experience. Common feelings of loneliness occur whenever we want but lack sufficient human contact.

To be alone is, according to some philosophers, the essential human reality. It does not mean the absence of companionship. It means being the only one inside your skin; the one and only you; the only one you really know; the only one you can really rely on; the one who is there at every moment of your life. By this definition, you can be among loved ones and still experience aloneness. Learning to tolerate aloneness is worthwhile. Learning to appreciate aloneness far better. The mystic Osho writes of "the bliss of aloneness" explaining that "the only freedom from the fear of loneliness is to become aware of your aloneness, and the beauty and power of it. Your innermost center, where you are always alone, is so full and overflowing with all the beauties and benedictions of existence, that once you have tasted it, the pain in your heart will disappear."
The Bliss of Aloneness

But for someone who experiences existential aloneness as physical pain, these words of an Eastern philosopher have little comfort. You do not travel from childhood trauma and feelings of nothingness inside to a blissful state of self-regard in an instant of enlightenment. Many who take comfort from the Gift From Within family are painfully rather than blissfully alone. It takes relentless work to overcome this condition. If you have "no identity" and feelings of "I do not exist" you probably have had serious issues with attachment as a child. This may or may not be a post-traumatic condition. It usually derives from complications in an early stage of child development called "individuation," when a toddler is supposed to overcome infantile, dependent attachment to the mother. It also has brain chemistry components which may have been present from birth - extra sensitivity, an almost physical need for human contact, an innate fear of abandonment, a low threshold for anxiety and dissociation. This combination of challenges is very difficult for the individual, for their loved ones, and for their therapists. There are therapists out there who rise to the challenge. Finding them is not easy. GFW pen pals could share examples of good therapists and good therapies, encouraging one another to seek and find effective help.

Therapy for the feeling, "I do not exist," takes many years and will not cure loneliness. But it may bring the self-esteem and self-reliance that all survivors deserve. And then, the inevitable and universal condition of aloneness will be tolerable, if not blissful.

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Page created on 28 January 2010
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