The BBC’s Loneliness Experiment

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When it comes to loneliness, you may not be alone.

On October 1, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) unveiled data compiled during its 2018 Loneliness Experiment, an online survey designed by a trio of academics that was filled out by over 55,000 individuals beginning on February 14. An article posted on the BBC.com on Monday summarizes the data; it also features interviews with three participants of the project who come from different walks of life.

Perhaps the most noteworthy insight revealed by what the article deems “the largest study of loneliness yet” is this: “There is a common stereotype that loneliness mainly strikes older, isolated people – and of course it can, and does. But the BBC survey found even higher levels of loneliness among younger people, and this pattern was the same in every country” (emphasis is my own). By “every country,” the authors are referencing the fact that individuals from “237 different countries, islands, and territories took part in the survey.”

The following table provides data from seven different groups based on age. The group featuring the greatest percentage of respondents who indicated that they experienced frequent loneliness included those between ages 16 and 24.

BBC loneliness table

The article’s authors proceed to explain that this increased prevalence of loneliness among younger people is not necessarily a generational difference (i.e. that today’s teens and twenty-somethings feel lonelier than young adults growing up decades ago). The BBC.com staffers cite the fact that older people who completed the survey indicated that the loneliest periods of their lives occurred when they were younger.

Why? The author’s suggest that, “The years between 16 and 24 are often a time of transition where people move home, build their identities and try to find new friends.” Whether you navigated high school and college in the 1960s or early 2000s, these circumstances generally hold true. Young people immerse themselves in new employment and educational experiences, test new living situations, and venture forth into new relationships with friends, lovers, and employers.

Although these growth initiatives can result in powerful interpersonal bonds and the security of new-found belonging, they can also yield dramatic gulfs of soul-searching, isolation from the familiar, and a demoralizing uncertainty about what comes next. Anecdotally, being young has never been easy. The data from the BBC’s 2018 Loneliness Experiment seems to suggest that this has been true for many generations. Loneliness is a common condition experienced by people of all ages — but those who are younger self-report it at slightly greater rates. Regardless of age, it may be accurate to acknowledge that we are not alone in our loneliness.

For birthdays, cards truly deliver

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The moment I spotted this card last week, I knew I had to buy it. Why? Because I believe that birthdays are occasions that warrant a physical message of recognition and good cheer, one that is chosen by hand, written by hand, and delivered by hand. Showing a close friend or family member that you really care is best done using this method.

At a time when instantaneous digital communication dominates the social landscape, greeting cards can seem quaint — even outdated. But they offer everything that we hunger for in the age pixels and Pinterest: surprise, personalization, intimacy, and lasting value. Those brief birthday wishes that clump up on your Facebook feed once per year? They might offer a degree of surprise and a moment’s worth of personalization, but intimacy and lasting value are two traits that they, at least in my mind, clearly lack.

Which would you rather receive from your closest friends? A phone full of text messages punctuated with emoji, or several colorful envelopes in your mailbox featuring stamps — yes, the Post Office does still sell these miniature pieces of artwork! — and your name printed on the front. Your name written by someone else’s hand! As in, they actually took the time to record every letter of that special group of words that identifies you as a unique being. How revolutionary! How counter-cultural! How refreshingly daring!

Even if seeing your name and your mailing address penned by someone else does not pique your interest, the heft of the envelope itself should send a shiver of possibility up your arm. A greeting card weighs something, actual ounces that can be measured on a scale. Cards are sturdy — even robust — in comparison to the rest of the “gifts” that arrive in your mailbox on an almost daily basis (grocery ads; the Bed, Bath, and Beyond 20% coupon; the latest Kohl’s mega-sale flyer; etc.). But that birthday card? It stands out!

By the time you walk through the garage on the way to the kitchen, you are actually giddy with anticipation about what the envelope might contain. So after you drop your keys on the counter, give the dog an obligatory pat on the head, and deposit the rest of the mailbox’s contents next to the toaster, you stand there holding a thick envelope that still has yet to yield its gift. But you are already feeling good, even warm with the glow of recognition. Someone cared enough to send this gift days in advance (shocking!) so that it would arrive before your special day. And that matters. You can feel it in your chest.

And if your friends truly value you — and they should, right? — they will have chosen cards that mean something special. They transmit a greeting that is decidedly not anonymous in nature; rather, their humor (or seriousness) reflects directly on you and/or your relationship with that person. Case in point: the card pictured above was chosen for a specific friend, because I know that this person will value the dark colors, the matte finish, the wry humor, and the bats. Yes, the bats. Their presence called to me. I knew my friend had to receive this card — in 2019. Yes, I will safely store it for over six months. Trust me.

Although the card’s interior features a greeting (a short “Happy Birthday,” in this case), it is what I will write that will likely make the biggest impact. Not because my inscription will be profound or hysterical or moving, but because those words will be placed there by my hand, with care, in ink, for my friend’s consideration. And those words will honor our relationship, this person’s uniqueness, and the fact that I feel fortunate to have someone in my life whose significance warrants a physical message of recognition and good cheer.

Unlike a text or a Facebook comment, that physical message can then be stuck to the refrigerator with a magnet, set out on a dresser with other keepsakes, or displayed on the mantel above the fireplace along with other friends’ cards. Together, they say that the recipient is being celebrated, not just his/her birthday. They recognize a person, not just a transitory occasion that occurs every twelve months. And they serve as a palpable physical reminder of intrinsic worth for days, if not weeks.

The next time a friend’s birthday appears on your calendar, remember that people matter. And cards truly deliver.

Note — The word hallmark originated in the early 1700s. It refers to a stamp (or a mark) that was used by the Goldsmiths’ Company of London to identify the level of purity of gold or silver. The hallmark was a physical symbol that recognized a standard of value.

“But I didn’t want to ask for help.”

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What happens when elite athletes suffer from mental illness as a result of head trauma? One answer to this question can be found in the August 2018 issue of Bicycling magazine, which features the first-person account of professional cyclist Alison Tetrick.

Before Tetrick transitioned from a successful road-racing career to her current role as a gravel-racing champion in 2017, she suffered two concussions. The first, which occurred in 2010 at the Cascade Cycling Classic in Bend, Oregon, was devastating. During the race’s first stage, another rider — who was trying to avoid a crash she could see ahead — accidentally clipped Tetrick’s front wheel. The pair were traveling downhill at an estimated 45 mph when Tetrick was launched from her bike and hit the tarmac.

In her words, “I didn’t slide, didn’t tear shorts, didn’t bleed. I just hit the ground. I landed on my hip and head, and shattered my pelvis” (p. 56). After spending over an hour on the ground while first responders arrived and stabilized her, the 25-year-old was airlifted to a hospital where she was quickly diagnosed with a concussion, a form of traumatic brain injury (TBI). The journey that commenced after she was released from the ER included daunting physical rehabilitation, and an even more challenging mental climb — a process that is still on-going.

While her body slowly healed over the months following her crash, Tetrick’s mind seemed perpetually in a “dense, never-ending fog” (p. 56). In both her relationships with friends and with family, she struggled to maintain a stable emotional state; she felt anxious and irritable at times, and emotionally vacant at others. Her marriage ended. And she struggled to determine how she would continue as a professional athlete in a sport where confidence is key. But despite these challenges and concerns, Tetrick fought on. Her body recovered and she made a comeback in 2011 at the Merco Cycling Classic in Merced, California. Despite winning the second-stage time trial, holding the leader’s jersey for three more days, and then winning the overall event, Tetrick knew something was wrong.

She writes: “Throughout my recovery from my broken pelvis, and after, I felt vulnerable and fragile, insecure and mentally frail…But I didn’t want to ask for help. I wanted to pull myself up by my bootstraps, cowgirl up” (p. 56). In language that testifies to the understandable fear of being an athlete who is perceived as weak or lacking in confidence, Tetrick says: “I didn’t want to admit I wasn’t okay [mentally] because if I admit that, and I’m leading a bike race, I’m going to get stuck in a corner because people know I’m going to have a panic attack…As a professional athlete, you hide your weaknesses….You can constantly find ways to tell yourself, ‘People like me. I’m normal. I’m okay'” (p. 56).

But, when dealing with a host of frightening symptoms that seem to indicate that your personality is morphing in strange ways, she admits that, “Deep down I was like, I don’t know if I’m okay” (p. 56). She continued forward, though, training and racing until disaster struck a second time in October 2011. At the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, her front wheel got stuck in a storm drain during a pre-race warm-up. She “flew over the handlebar, and smacked [her] head” (p. 58). Despite this injury — a second head trauma in less than a year and a half — she raced that day. But her life began unraveling shortly thereafter. The once vibrant and outgoing young athlete was not okay.

Looking back on the period following her second concussion, Tetrick describes her situation this way: “I stared at the wall for weeks, couldn’t move, couldn’t stop crying. The depression wouldn’t go away. My parents sent me to psychologists…We were trying everything, because I couldn’t function. I couldn’t sleep — I had to go on sleeping pills” (p. 58). Again, she fought back. With the support of family, friends, and a neuropsychologist whom she works with today, Tetrick got back on the saddle and started racing again. For two years she did so while using the antidepressant Wellbutrin. She reflects: “During that time I didn’t really have emotional highs or lows, I just felt flat” (p. 60).

Tetrick continued racing until shortly after she and her team finished the 2016 Tour of Flanders in Belgium. The day after that Tour, she attended a smaller race where riders “were taking all of these [unnecessary] risks” (p. 78). There, she saw a rider “hit a light pole” — a collision that seemed entirely unnecessary. And that is when Alison Tetrick decided that her professional road-racing career was nearing its end.

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In 2017, Tetrick traded her skinny road tires for stouter off-road rubber and entered the 200-mile Dirty Kanza gravel race which is held in early June. It was her first time competing at that distance. And she ended up winning, sprinting to the finish line just ahead of reigning 2016 champion Amanda Nauman. Today, Tetrick seems to be on top of her game. Physically, she is performing better than she ever has before. However, she knows that the mental consequences of her concussions still follow her. She says: “Every day you have to make a choice for your mental health, and possibly deal with the physical side effects…I still get emotionally flooded. It’s an injury that you can’t see” (p. 79).

Despite the coverage that concussions receive in the press related to sports, military service, and workplace accidents, a stigma still exists around the psychological effects of traumatic brain injuries. Even though there is nothing shameful about being struck by a fellow cyclist and crashing to the pavement — or being tackled by a monstrous defensive lineman — we still seem to tread delicately around the emotional and mood-related consequences that those massive blows can impart. Physical injury caused by others’ actions can be interpreted as an sign of having performed courageously on the field of play, but mental anguish rarely receives equal respect. Both are tragic, to be sure, but it is the latter that is often darkened by shame.

I applaud Alison Tetrick for writing candidly about the physical and mental challenges that she has faced in the wake of her concussions. Speaking about broken bones can be easy, but talking about a flagging spirit or a troubled mind requires much greater resolve. Tetrick possesses a character made stronger by her willingness to be vulnerable.

Things not to worry about…

This morning I received the accompanying photo from my friend Sandy Pinchback, a recently-retired AP English teacher. As former colleagues at Lake Orion High School for fifteen years, Sandy and I share a long history of professional collaboration regarding literature, composition, and engaging young adults in meaningful classroom experiences.

She and I also share a deep personal connection that transcends our different generational origins. We are — in her words — each other’s Anam Cara, or soul friend. (Anam Cara refers to a Celtic spiritual belief about the way souls can connect.) In world view, we are closely aligned; we subscribe to compassion and cooperation more than capitalism and competition. Education, psychology, and creativity are subjects we savor. And we possess a firm conviction that people possess value regardless of their job title, social position, or economic means.

Like me, Sandy is a journal writer. She granted me permission to share this image, one that captures an entry created several months ago. She found herself re-reading this short piece as she sat at the Whistle Stop Diner in Birmingham, sipping coffee while planning the rest of her Monday schedule.

I appreciate the smooth curves of Sandy’s penmanship, the texture of the paper, and the mixture of humor and seriousness contained in her entry.

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