Dealing with Loneliness as a Therapist

Article by Dr. Michael Tobin

How do therapists personally deal with loneliness? With a heavy heart, I acknowledge it’s a question I’m uniquely and sadly qualified to answer. 

First, my credentials: I’ve been a psychologist for forty-seven years. I met my wife, Deborah, in 1974 when we were both students in graduate school. A year later, we moved in together. Along the way, we married, had kids—three girls and a boy; our kids grew up and had kids themselves—a grand total of seventeen between them. 

We were blessed; I was blessed: married to my soul mate, my life partner, and my best friend—the woman with those amazing moves who I met on a dance floor in Keene, New Hampshire, a month before Nixon resigned. 

That is until November 2018 when everything changed. 

Two weeks after we trekked to the Everest Base Camp, Deborah was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. The signs had been there; I guess we didn’t want to connect the dots. 

Fast forward two and a half years and Alzheimer’s has abducted the love of my life. Gone is that brilliant graduate of Wellesley, MIT, and the Sorbonne. That woman, who could speak five languages, possessed a stratospheric level of emotional intelligence, and knew how to love, no longer exists. 

A prisoner, locked in a world without memory, held hostage by this most insidious of all diseases­—Alzheimer’s.  

Am I lonely? Yes, but more intensely, I ache with sadness at her loss and mine; I rage at the cruelty of a disease for which the only advice a physician can give is, “Walking can help;” and I fear for a future that will only get worse.  

That’s the reality. We didn’t ask for it; we didn’t expect it; we don’t want it. But God doesn’t run a candy store. It’s a principle by me. You deal with whatever life throws you with grace, with honesty, and with humility. Oh yeah, never forget to laugh. You don’t let Alzheimer’s steal your soul along with your beloved’s. 

So beyond cultivating a warrior’s approach, how do I, a therapist, deal with the loneliness, the grief, the pain of seeing this once proud woman soil herself and forget who and where she is while she wastes away in mindless activities like watching the same movie repeatedly? 

  1. I go to therapy. Precisely because I’m an excellent “coper.” Skilled “copers” tend to neglect their feelings while they do what needs to be done. Therapy for me is a gift I give myself, an hour a week to let myself cry and rage, to share my pain without any worry that I may end up having to take care of the same people who presumably want to support me. 
  2. No one can replace my wife, but I make sure to surround myself with loving friends and family. 
  3. Since I’m at risk of sinking into loneliness and despair, I maintain a regular routine of creative activities like writing. Writing is therapy for me. Along with my weekly therapy sessions, my daily writing is a place of self-discovery, helping me to deal with loneliness. When you feel connected to the deepest places in yourself, you’re never alone or lonely. (BTW, I wrote a memoir, Riding the Edge, A Love Song to Deborah, inspired in part by Deborah’s Alzheimer’s. Greenleaf Publishing Group, my publisher launched it in July 2021.) 
  4. I give to others. By receiving, others give to me. I’ve learned how to suffer and how to share my suffering with others in a way that connects us deeply. When you’re connected to others, you’re never alone or lonely. 
  5. I talk to God. I’d be considered crazy if I told you God talks to me. Yet, God does, but not in words, but with the deep faith I have in my heart that I’m not alone; that somehow, in some inexplicable way, the same “cruel” God that presumably created this dreaded disease will also be there as my source of comfort and guidance. 

Let’s face it.  There are no atheists in a foxhole. And right now, I’m in a foxhole and I need all the help I can get, even if it’s invisible. Another antidote to loneliness. 

  • No one can suffer for us, and no one can take away our pain. Yet, having people in our lives who care can make a huge difference in our ability to keep going. 

So, I’ll conclude with this simple truth: The answer of how to deal with loneliness is connection—connection to ourselves, to each other, and for some of us, to God. 

There are no free lunches in life, but if you must pay, it’s a whole lot easier when you don’t eat alone. 

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