There are few things worse than feeling lonely. Loneliness comes, in my experience, from the most surprising places. You can have a stable of caring, supporting friends; a solid family, a husband, a sister, a cat, and you can still feel it. Because loneliness does not always come from the outside. Sometimes it crawls into your stomach like a tiny moth, and flies up against your organs with a fluttery, empty resilience.
That’s the loneliness I’ve felt, and it has come, primarily, from living with illness in a healthy world.
When I was twenty-eight, I spent twenty-two straight days on the couch. I couldn’t move, my skin was raw and peeling, my stomach distended, my eyes perpetually half-mast. Thyroid cancer and Crohns disease had me under their thumb, like little invisible gangsters. When I had surgery to remove my thyroid, a nurse – on her first day on the job – held my bladder hostage while she practiced inserting a cathedra for over two hours until finally she shoved the tube into me with an actual proclamation of “ta-da.” She never cleaned the sheets. I’ve shit in my pants on the subway, I’ve fallen to the floor and stayed there for five hours while I waited for my husband to come home and help me up. I’ve been unable to care for my children for days and weeks on end. I’ve been scared, I’ve been sad, I’ve felt like it was all pretty unfair. But screw that. Seriously, I’m not after the pity. What I want is to feel less lonely.
I don’t know Lisa Bonchek Adams, a mother who has been tweeting about her stage 4 cancer. I am so sorry she is sick, and I hope that her life is full of the love and grace that we all deserve. But as I have been reading about her live tweeting of her cancer and the – I can only describe it as bizarre – backlash against it, it strikes me that no one is talking about what seems so obvious to me. I imagine she is sharing her experience in an effort to be less lonely. To share the pain (and also the beauty) that human suffering offers us. That is what is so magical about the Internet: the ability to connect with people – with mothers - you don’t know who can support you when you are lying on your couch, or the floor, or in your own devastation still trying to be a good parent.
The truth is there is a thin line between having it all and losing it all. And it is on that line I balance, and I think we all might balance. We, as mothers, as women, as humans, all teeter between an ecstatic celebration of what we have – a job we are proud of, some people who love us, a home we make – and the impending terror of the possible – a sick parent, or child, or us, a money catastrophe, a splintering friendship, relationship, marriage. It only takes an instant to be lonely. But the thin line is where life is, and we grab it with our toes, begging them to brace us. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.