My boots were there, sitting next to the front door, a gritty residue of evaporated slush encircling the soles. I would have loved to climb back into bed that morning with Moby our Lab, rather than face my salt-encrusted minivan and an excruciatingly boring To Do list. But I had to get out into the world. I pulled on the unflattering Michelin Man down coat I swore I’d never buy until we moved to “Rhode-Iceland,” slipped into my water-stained boots, and opened the door to the cold January morning.
It may be different for the lucky military families stationed close to the Equator. But for the rest of us, winter — with its grey dormancy and dreary disposition — has a way of making us retreat into our dens like hibernating bears. As soon as the sun abandons us for southern latitudes, humans tend to retract, curl up, nestle themselves away until spring’s resuscitation.
On its face, this seems like a damned good idea. It’s cold outside, so why not fire up the CrockPot, put on lounge pants and binge watch “Ozark" all day?
The problem is that humans aren’t meant to be alone like bears.
According to a 2015 study in the journal “Perspectives on Psychological Science,” social isolation and perceived loneliness are potentially damaging to one’s health, with well-established risks of higher rates of cancer, infection, heart disease, arthritis, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, Alzheimers Disease, and dementia. Worse yet, loneliness and isolation can also cause early death. The study by researchers at Brigham Young University found that the subjective feeling of loneliness increases one’s risk of death by 26 percent. Social isolation increases mortality by 29 percent, and living alone shows a 32 percent increase.
Loneliness is subjective, however. In a 2012 study, three researchers at the University of California at San Francisco found that most subjects who felt lonely were married, lived with others and were not clinically depressed. While the quantity of relationships is a factor in loneliness, the quality of relationships is relevant, too. But regardless of whether one is actually alone, or just feels lonely, connecting emotionally with other human beings is essential for good health.
Military spouses may find that isolation is a natural response to frequent moves and a lack of community belonging, but the health risks are too serious to ignore. The same way it’s important to drink enough water, eat veggies, exercise, and get your teeth cleaned every six months — it’s important to get out and be with people.
During the work-ups leading to my husband’s year-long deployment to Djibouti, a friend contacted me about forming a weekly “Lunch Bunch” with two other wives. I was a bit of a loner, but something told me that I needed this, so I agreed.
We met each week at different restaurants, using the alphabet as our guide. The first restaurant name started with an A, the second started with a B, and so on. Initially, our lunches were typical housewife affairs with gossip and discussion about the latest hot dip recipes.
But soon, our rendezvous took on a rebellious quality, à la “Thelma and Louise.” We whispered like middle schoolers, heckled waiters, talked over each other, and on many occasions, laughed until we cried about the absurd realities of marriage, sex, parenting, minivans, in-laws, and the latest Anna Nichole Smith drama. We started keeping a journal, chronicling the best and worst dishes, memorable quotes, cute waiters, and frequent moments of hilarity.
By the time my husband returned from deployment, the Lunch Bunch had almost whizzed through the alphabet twice. We had guzzled more than one hundred Diet Cokes, eaten thousands of french fries, and laughed until we lost bladder control on countless occasions. I never wanted it to end, but military orders soon sent us overseas.
Despite all those french fries, the weekly lunches with my friends had kept me healthy during the deployment … and apparently, alive!
So, even in winter, when everything looks dead as a doornail and the wind cuts like a knife, resist the urge to retreat into your cocoon. Put on your boots, open the door, and get out into the world.