The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dumped by her husband, an author dove into loneliness and resurfaced with lessons for a pandemic

Science writer Florence Williams, who has a new book out on loneliness, in her backyard writing studio in Washington on Feb. 3. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

For generations of future researchers, the coronavirus pandemic will provide rich material on the social and physiological effects of isolation and loneliness. But science writer Florence Williams got a head start on the subject before the pandemic began, when her husband of 25 years abruptly left her in 2017. She almost immediately noticed changes in her body and decided to explore what they meant.

Her investigation took her from her home in D.C., across the United States and to Europe as she dug into the role intimate relationships play in human and animal health and longevity. Williams’s midlife dating misadventures, her discussions with neuroscientists and psychologists, and her therapist-assisted magic mushroom and ecstasy trip are all chronicled in “Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey,” published Feb. 1 by Norton.

“We’re not only social, we’re hypersocial, we find safety in numbers, and our brains are very much built to find strong attractions,” Williams, 54, said in an interview. “We’re hypersensitive to social cues and very aware of how people treat us … so when your primary attraction figure tells you that he wants to go find his soul mate, it’s devastating.”

The split put Williams in a growing category of Americans who live on their own. The percentage of single-person households has steadily risen in recent decades, and a 2018 report found that a fifth of Americans always or often feel lonely or socially isolated. And a report in September found, worldwide, that participants’ reporting of severe loneliness had tripled compared with before the pandemic.

Her husband’s departure left Williams feeling unbalanced and unwell, like “a stateless exile from my former life.” She had trouble sleeping, lost 20 pounds and was diagnosed with diabetes. She soon learned what was going on: to the nervous system, being dumped is like being left alone in the wild, and it reacts accordingly.

“You’re about to be attacked by predators, you don’t have safety in numbers,” she said, “and so your body [produces] more white blood cells” — inflammation to deal with the wounds. That means the body must make less of the interferon proteins that help people combat viruses (the evolutionary trade-off being that contagion is less of an immediate threat to people on their own since viruses spread in groups).

Inflammation in the short term is helpful in healing from a wound inflicted by predators. But over the long term it is associated with heart disease, cancer, stroke, dementia and early death.

And, as it turns out, it also can predispose people to getting sicker from covid, said Steve Cole, a professor at UCLA School of Medicine whom Williams met during her book research.

Noting that hunter-gatherers spent roughly a third of their time around the fire, “gossiping and playing,” Cole said modern life “creates a big risk for people to get into this mode where they really feel alienated and not cared for and on their own.”

American culture has long romanticized loners. “The U.S. has a particular strain of self-reliance that dates back to people like [Ralph Waldo] Emerson,” Williams said. “We pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, it’s a phrase Americans love.”

But as traditional modes of gathering — such as barn raising, knitting circles and church attendance — have declined, loneliness has increased, Cole said. “That organic form of shared purpose has kind of dropped out of the American experience,” he said, adding that the digital culture that has replaced it “really works to amplify discord and social rejection.”

“This is a known cultural crisis in American society,” Cole said. “When I was in graduate school, nobody talked about loneliness. … It wasn’t on the radar.”

The result, he said, is a “constant low-grade drizzle of stress biology — and now along comes covid and the interferon first line of defense fails to contain it, and it spreads throughout your lungs.” This results in a cascade of immune-response overreaction that can hamper covid patients’ lungs from allowing oxygen into the blood.

In the 1990s, Cole found that HIV-positive men who were closeted and did not have strong support networks died sooner than those who did; their interferon molecules, which help the antiviral response, were deeply suppressed. Subsequent research with monkeys infected with simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) showed similar declines when they were isolated from their group; when they were paired back up with other monkeys, their immune systems rallied.

To see how Williams was faring after her breakup, Cole measured the activity of interferons and inflammation genes in her immune cells to see how they changed over time.

The first blood draw was nine months after her marriage ended, and the second was five months later, after an outdoor river adventure that Williams, whose previous book was about the healing powers of nature, had expected would help regulate her. But the results were similar: Cole told Williams that her cells “still look like those of a lonely person,” she wrote.

Teens around the world are lonelier than a decade ago. The reason may be smartphones.

In researching her book, Williams talked with a woman whose romantic rejection triggered actual heart failure, a syndrome known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy; in Britain, where the government recently created a new position for a Minister of Loneliness, she visited a “men’s shed” where men go to find community.

She learned about loneliness in voles, mice and chimpanzees; she talked with a psychology professor who told her that divorce ranks just under the death of a spouse in terms of stressful life events, and a biological anthropologist who warned her not to get dumped again anytime soon.

Two weeks boating down a river on her own failed to change Williams’s inflammation markers. But a therapist-guided MDMA and psilocybin mushroom trip was “surprisingly helpful,” she said, because it brought a different perspective to her concept of herself.

“I did experience a sense of collective awe, that I am part of a cosmos and that my own personal ego and my own personal problems are perhaps not as big as they sometimes feel. … I felt less afraid of the future and I felt better able to move on.”

Williams also doubled down on other coping mechanisms such as tightening connections with friends and family, and communing with nature — remedies many in lockdown have also used to counteract the effects of social isolation — and she learned to be more flexible. “I became more comfortable with the idea of uncertainty and unpredictability,” she said.

By her third blood draw, two years after the breakup, her inflammation and anti-virus levels were down to a “charming” balance, Cole told her. And when the coronavirus hit shortly after that, she said, “I was sort of grateful that I’d had those two years under my belt, to inoculate me.”

During the pandemic, Williams found parallels between her personal trauma and a society that had loneliness and isolation suddenly thrust upon it.

“[There was] the sense that really our worlds had shrunk, we weren’t able to see the normal calm and comfort that we derive from our social network,” she said. And the fact that, pandemic or no, “we’re not as in control of our lives as we think we are.”

Williams will co-lead an “Unloneliness Walk” on March 5, open to the public, at the National Arboretum, at which she will talk about strategies and antidotes to loneliness and heartbreak.