Chronic illness and the well of despair

In the 1970s the American comparative psychologist Harry Harlow created what he called “the well of despair.” At the time he was conducting psychological experiments on rhesus monkeys. He also fancied himself a bit of writer, hence the very poetic terms and expressions he employed. He was researching the nature of love. Mainly, it seems, by seeing what happens to a monkey when you deprive it of all contact.

The well of despair was essentially an isolation chamber, where monkeys were kept alone in darkness. Monkeys were placed in the well from birth with nothing but food and water. Adult monkeys raised in this way showed disturbing behaviour. They couldn’t interact with other monkeys. Harlow claimed that they had been raised in despair and carried this with them into the rest of their lives.

If you’re interested in reading more about Harlow I really recommend The nature and nurture of love by Marga Vicedo. (This is an affiliate link. You can read my full disclosure policy here.)

Sometimes, my chronic illness makes me feel like I’ve been forced into a well of despair. My illness does isolate me, but the real well is the one in my own head.


Throughout January I’ve been really struggling. Since my diagnosis I’ve not really come to terms with the reality of having a chronic illness, and at the crux of the new year I think it hit me all over again. It’s the long-term nature of the beast that I’m having problems getting my head around. Things got pretty dark in my mind, and I realised that I’d started avoiding everything. I was deliberately isolating myself. I knew that I needed to talk to someone so I sought out a therapist here in Barcelona. The weeks since have been filled with me trying to adjust my ideas about what my life will look like in the future.


Sometimes it feels like I’m making no progress with my health. But, that’s an unfair thought brought to me by the dark fairy. Thanks to things like taking up pilates my body is getting stronger. I can see the physical proof of this. I can improve my situation, and this gives me hope for the future. I won’t be cured, and I have new limitations, but things can get better.


I had a lot of pain in January, and I kept catching random throat infections from nowhere. This definitely had an impression on my mood. I grit my teeth and determined to just survive January and move on. Talking with a thereapits has really helped me to keep moving forwards, rather than wallowing in despair.


My chronic illness means that I often have to spend long periods at home. This is very isolating, especially because I left the majority of my friends behind when I moved to Spain. In London when I had to stay at home I had a variety of friends I could call on to pop round and keep me company. In Spain, I don’t really have anyone who fills this role. I know that I need to make new friends for my mental health and happiness. It does take extra effort though, that sometimes I don’t have. I’ve been trying to gently push myself though. The other week I signed up to a street art tour. It was a fantastic idea because I met some new people, and this really did perk me up. I need to do more things like this.


I’ve written this blog post as part of the February link-up on A Chronic Voice. Every month Sheryl posts prompts for bloggers to join in. This is my first time taking part.


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  • SpookyMrsGreen

    I know what you mean about the well of despair – I think I spent most of the second half of my twenties living in it! Not that you would know from the outside, because I kept on working and refused to show weakness. But at home, alone, I would let out the anguish, the tears, and my frustration because the pain will never stop. Thanks for sharing.

    • Jenny

      Aw, your comment really moved me. It’s so hard to show weaknesses in front of other people isn’t it? I know that I’m terrible at telling people how I’m really feeling. I hope things are better for you now.

  • k

    Hi! Thanks for your post. I love the description of isolation you use. I also mentioned social isolation in my link up post this month only not so poetically. Its so hard making new (good) friends when you move to a new place, even without illness. Hope you can find some pop-in type friends soon. I also live overseas (but live rather than travel), an Aussie in Cambodia.

    • Jenny

      Ah, thank you. I’m going to have to pop over and read your post now as well. Making friends can be hard – especially so if you’re the one who always cancels last minute like I do. But, it’s a process, I have hope.

  • Sheryl

    Hi Jenny, thanks for joining us, I hope you enjoyed writing with these prompts, or at least they were helpful for you in some way. I am also struggling with the exact same problem as you on isolation, and have recently pushed myself to go out and meet more people. It does make a difference, doesn’t it? I hope you make some lasting friendships, and that your month looks up!

    • Jenny

      The prompts were a great way to marshall my thoughts. Link-ups are fun.
      Going out and being with people makes a big difference. This month is already so much better than the last.

      • Sheryl

        Haha unfortunately for me, I got ‘normal people’ sick because of this, lol. Not to worry, live and learn (again and again) 😉 Wishing you more positive experiences and good friendships this month! x

  • Despite Pain

    Chronic illness can be very isolating, can’t it? I think that’s why social media is very important nowadays. It opens up doors to new friends who can be there at the drop of a hat, without even leaving their own home.

  • Rhiann

    Such a wonderfully honest and raw written post. It was really emotive and the descriptions were so beautiful and moving. Such a pleasure to read. Especially regarding the isolation as it can be one of the hardest aspects of living with a chronic illness. But I am glad that you haven’t let it to stop you from hoping and appreciating the small victories that you’ve achieved despite everything illness has thrown at you. Wishing you all the best and hoping for many more victories for you! Rhiann x

  • Claire Saul (PainPalsBlog)

    Hi Jenny – great use of Sheryl’s prompts and well done on such a personal and emotive post (haven’t done mine yet!). Hope you don’t mind but I have shared this on PainPalsBlog reg feature Monday Magic – Inspiring Blogs for You this week, Claire x

    • Jenny

      Hi Claire. Of course I don’t mind – thank you for sharing. And your kind words – I’m touched. I will keep an eye out for yours (or next months – don’t beat yourself up about it). x

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