Nicholas Kristof is a rare breed of op-ed columnist. While many opinion writers are reluctant to leave their perch, Kristof continues to report from all over the globe on human-rights matters. And he always retains his compassion regardless of the subject he is covering.
He has done exemplary work in so many areas, but he has probably made his biggest impact over the decades in exposing the cruelties and injustices that have beset the lives of women and girls, who have been raped and brutally mistreated in Africa, Asia and throughout the world.
In the Sunday Review of yesterday’s New York Times, Kristof weighed in on a different topic, one that likewise has not received as much coverage as it should, the issue of loneliness in the world.
As I write for Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global, whose mission includes combating stress and improving wellness, I did know that Great Britain named a minister for loneliness in the past year or so.
But I must admit that I had not followed the issue as closely as I should have.
It was heartening to see that Nicholas Kristof had gotten out into the field, gone to London and interviewed Baroness Barran, who presently holds the loneliness portfolio in England.
For all the headlines coming out of Britain relating to Brexit, loneliness may not seem like a particularly significant topic.
But it is.
As Kristof pointed out in his piece, “social isolation is more lethal than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, or than obesity.” He cited research from Brigham Young University to bolster his point. Given that obesity contributes to the deaths of “300,000 to 600,000” Americans ever year, “loneliness,” Kristof wrote, “is a huge, if silent, killer.”
While I have lived my 54 years with mental illness, including major depression, PTSD, psychosis, schizophrenia and suicidal ideation in the late 1990s, I am not going to claim to be an expert on loneliness.
I have not gone out into the field to interview experts, nor have I read research on the subject.
Nonetheless, I thought that I would share some insights I might have in this area, because, ever since my wife, Barbara, passed away in early September, I have been living alone. And I have been, to an extent, battling loneliness.
Barbara was my constant companion, Muse and angel for 23 years, and when she passed away on Sept. 3, I thought for the first few days afterwards that I might fly to Kansas City after the funeral and stay for perhaps a month so I could be near my good friend, Robin Blakely.
Robin, who has known me for more than 20 years and who came to my wedding to Barbara in 2001, arrived in L.A. in the morning on Sept. 4, less than a day after Barbara’s passing.
Robin and I discussed how we might manage the prospect of my staying in K.C.
As Robin runs a business and has her own family, we recognized that I was going to need to stay in a motel and pack my computer. I was going to bring my writing with me and edit my fiction for four to five weeks until my birthday in early October.
That was the plan.
However, after two or three days of hanging out with Robin in L.A., as we arranged Barbara’s viewing and memorial, I realized that I was adjusting okay to my life without Barbara.
It became clear to me how important it would be that I maintain my daily routines here in L.A., where I have lived for 25 years.
So, in the roughly 10 weeks since Barbara passed away, I have gotten out of the house every day. I have read and edited in coffee shops and restaurants, where many of the servers and staff already know me. And by staying in L.A., I have also been able to see my psychiatrist as well as some friends, whom I have known for quite a few years.
Other than seeing Robin and some of her friends and family, I would have been more than a little disoriented, had I left for K.C. immediately after Barbara’s funeral. And almost assuredly I would have had more difficulty readjusting to life back here in L.A. after my birthday.
In his op-ed, Nicholas Kristof discussed some of the strategies being employed by the British ministry to tackle loneliness, such as starting a more open, national conversation on the subject and having garden clubs and dog-walking groups, for instance, invite more people to join their communities.
On the subject of pets, Kristof added that “there is some evidence” that dog owners are less lonely.
I don’t have a dog, although Barbara and I did rescue a cat, Ferguson, our sweet orange tabby, in April. We took Ferguson with us to San Francisco on a trip in August shortly before Barbara passed away, and that helped both of us bond with him.
As it turns out, I have not joined any communities or clubs since Barbara passed away, although I am open to doing so.
Mostly, I have done what I used to do while Barbara was alive, hanging out with Ferguson, listening to Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, going for walks, getting out of the house, reading and writing.
More than anything else, though, what is helping me heal from my grief, what is helping me deal with my loneliness, is the gratitude I have that I was able to be with Barbara for 23 years.
Of course, I wish that she were still here in corporeal form. Barbara was not only my constant companion, Muse and angel. She was literally my savior, who came along at a time in my life when I was suicidal, due to deep depression, trauma and psychosis that had been building for three decades.
Back then, in the late 1990s, I did not have what some would call the “tools” or the experience to know how to handle mental illness, or loneliness.
But after being with Barbara for 23 years, I know how lucky I am to be alive. And I know how important it is to express gratitude, to thank people and to apologize.
Besides being thankful to Nicholas Kristof for writing about the subject of loneliness, I want to apologize to him for a couple of tough columns I wrote back in 2014 for the Huffington Post, my rebuttals to a piece he wrote in the New York Times on mental illness.
There is no question that I am in a very small subset of people, who have survived severe mental illness, who have come back from a 20 on the Global Assessment of Function scale, who have been suicidal, and who have lived to write with clarity about my psychotic and depressive episodes.
Yes, I will always have the right to critique others when they weigh in on any subject, particularly mental illness, but I should have been less provocative and more respectful of Nicholas Kristof when I responded to his column years ago.
And I will always admire him for his empathy, as well as his intrepid reporting.