-A Year Confounded by Stress-

Part I: Loss Aversion

My 2020 started at the end of 2019, when my best friend, whom I had known for more than 30 years, betrayed me. Just before Christmas, I lost not only one of the most important people in my life, but, since many of my friends were more closely related to him, I lost most of my social circle. People I spoke to daily, and spent almost every weekend with, in some shape or form, disappeared from my life, out of the blue.

Christmas was different that year. Normally, I would have celebrated Christmas eve with my best friend’s family. For several years, they ‘adopted’ me every Christmas, because I don’t celebrate Christmas with my own parents. Third Christmas day would have been a big day of eating and drinking with a bunch of friends, as would have been New Years’ eve. For the beginning of January, we rented a house in the Ardennes for a weekend of, again, eating and drinking with a bunch of friends. These events all happened, I just wasn’t there.

I was at home, on my couch, endlessly overthinking what happened. I went to work and I went to university, but every evening I just sat in the corner of my couch, staring blankly into nothing, trying to figure out what all of this meant. This lasted for three months. During this time, I had to write my second-year paper. I couldn’t read a single sentence without my mind wandering off into rumination about my friend’s betrayal, so my writing didn’t quite move along. Since ruminating was about the only thing I was capable of at that time, I decided it would become the topic of my paper. Might as well do some research on it, I thought, maybe I learn something useful. I still don’t know if I did.

Around April, the rumination started to become less pervasive. For the first time in three months, I could take a shower without being completely lost in thought. My cognitive abilities started to come back, which was much needed, because studying without them was really hard. I still thought about the situation every day, and I do to this day, more than a year later. And it still hurts, and I still can’t really believe it happened. But it’s more noise than signal now.

While I had no doubt my pain was warranted, I struggled with the question of how much suffering was justified. I was not performing as well as I thought I could, I felt insecure, weak and constantly tired. School was demanding and I could only deliver the bare minimum. I was lost in seriousness and not much fun to be around. Looking back, I think I was dangerously close to a depression these first three months. And all this, just because I lost some friends? You hear about grief from death, from divorce and job loss, but you hardly hear anything about grief after losing friendships. But it sure felt like I was grieving. It felt like my friends (especially the three closest to me) suddenly died in an accident and I had to cope with that loss.

Luckily, people around me assured me that what I was feeling was quite normal, that it was not trivial what happened. I read somewhere that Dante depicted betrayal at the deepest level of his Inferno, as the worst of human sins. A psychologist explained to me that when someone you have known for a long time violates your trust, it does not only disrupt the present, it unhinges your past as well. This resonated with me, as I felt my friendships might not have been what I thought they were all along, and my assumptions about the world might be terribly misguided. I might not understand people well at all, including myself. Disheartening as it was, this knowledge about the psychology of betrayal helped me realize that my suffering was indeed justified, and with this slowly came acceptance of the situation.

I thought I would have been able to handle this better. In my twenties, I spent a few years in a fairly dark place, from which I escaped through therapy, reading and meditating. I thought I learned all the necessary skills to stay healthy, in body and mind. But when this happened, I didn’t meditate, I didn’t exercise, and I wasn’t able to distance myself from my thoughts and my feelings. I did do at least one thing right though. When Corona hit, I volunteered to help isolated elderly people. I knew that focusing my attention on other people would do me good, because for one, I wouldn’t only be thinking about myself the whole time, and second, helping others would make me feel better about myself. And it really did help. Seeing these elderly people, who were so constrained in many areas of their lives, instilled a little appreciativeness back into my own life. The interaction with others also created a necessary distance from my own thoughts and feelings, so that finally I could look at them, learn from them and integrate them into a meaningful narrative.     

by Zowie Bindels


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