In my presentation on loneliness that I give to college students, I share how throughout my darkest times there was a theme of having no one to talk to. I was on my own with handling my depression and anxiety. There was so much stigma and I felt embarrassed to bring up what I felt were weaknesses.
In the years since college I’ve learned that mental illness has this incredible ability to make us feel alone. It causes us to feel as though we’re the only one dealing with what we’re going through. It warps our sense of reality. Mental illness causes us to feel very lonely.
I already felt out of place in college. I was a punk kid at a school where most everyone was preppy. I chose my college because my sister went there and I felt scared of going to school somewhere that I didn’t know anyone. I thought a large state school would swallow me up. I worried I’d get lost there and matter even less than I felt I already did.
Music was my life at the time and it troubled me so much to realize that there wasn’t anyone else at my school who had the same deep interest in punk music as me. This already left me feeling lonely. The added burden of depression and anxiety only increased the disconnect I felt toward others.
I began to ask myself, "Why would I want to speak up about my mental health concerns if they left me feeling guilt and shame? Not to mention, how can I explain what is going on in my mind if I can’t even understand what it is? It seemed easier to not even try."
But not starting that process of speaking up on our mental health issues doesn’t help us. In fact, it only sets us back from being the happier people we want to be. (Even at my most negative and lowest points I had to admit I did want to get better. But I didn’t know how.) So we need to make those initial steps to speak about our mental health. In doing so, it enables us to not only work toward recovery, but break free of the loneliness that so often accompanies mental health issues.
I write a lot about connections, loneliness, and belonging. It’s important to have community in our lives. It makes us healthier, physically, mentally, and emotionally. And even though I’m not yet forty, I’ve been fortunate to have some friendships for over twenty or even thirty years. I find those friendships rewarding. We do our best to keep in touch via email and social media. I also try and visit these friends once or twice a year. Our brief times together provide me with much encouragement.
But there’s a flipside to this: how do you know when it’s time to end a friendship? As an article on friendship pointed out: “When getting together feels like an obligation, you dread seeing someone or you walk away from dinner feeling angry, frustrated or dissatisfied, it may signal that the friendship is faltering and the end is near.”
It’s possible we have a toxic friendship. There are people that abuse our time and sympathy (I call them emotional vampires because they suck our emotions and give nothing back). It’s often the case that we wish to do what we can to save the friendship—especially if it’s one we’ve maintained for many years. Yet, for the sake of our own mental health it can sometimes be best to end that relationship.
When I have found a friendship to be overwhelming me emotionally, what I often do is first try and confront the friend in an honest manner. I let them know what they’re doing and that while I still care for them, they way in which they’re approaching our friendship is difficult for me.
If that gentle reminder doesn’t help, it is good to speak again with them. But if repeated discussions don’t change the person’s behavior, it can be best to extract one’s self from the relationship.
In doing so there might be feelings of remorse and sadness from letting go of something that you may have once held dear. But keep in mind that your mental health is what is most important in this situation. It can be key to look after yourself, especially if the relationship is causing mental or emotional distress for you.
When it comes to the actual extraction, lessening the frequency of communication is the best means to do so. It doesn’t mean to stop speaking with them cold turkey, but it can mean instead of your monthly call or email, make it every other month. If you’re in their city or town for another reason, don’t reach out to let them know you’re there. If they find out later you were around, assure them you were busy the entire time you were there and didn’t have a moment to spare.
If the friend confronts you on your behavior, be honest with them. Explain that you spoke with them about changing their behavior to make the friendship more equal and that s/he didn’t adjust. Tell them that you have to watch out for relationships that are difficult for your mental health. There is no reason to feel shame—your mental health is more important than any of your friendships.
The relationship may find a rekindling. That is the ideal situation. Your friend sees how their actions caused problems with your relationship and then changes their behavior. Barring that, though, you may have to make a clean break with that friend. It can be difficult and there will likely be feelings of remorse and as though part of you has died. And it’s okay to feel that way, because when we lose something important in our lives, it’s natural to grieve.
At moments such as that, turn to other friends and family. Give yourself time to feel your feelings. And then continue to build new relationships. Leave the past in the past knowing that you did your best to save the friendship and had to look after yourself. And when dealing with the precious area of mental health, you can never be too safe.
My brain has gotten me to the hospital emergency room more than the rest of my body. I’ve been twice, both in 2011. I read an article about people who had bad experiences in the ER with their mental health so I thought it might be good to share what’s happened to me. I wrote about my first experience in the ER in the last blog entry. You can find that here.
The content below is an excerpt from my memoir, Fiercely Lonely, which will be released at some future date.
The second time I was in the emergency room it was as though I was another person. This time was for an actual suicide attempt, as opposed to the first experience, which was for suicidal thoughts. After my attempt to take my life I became dead inside, but somehow still functioning. It was as though my mind kicked into a role it knew how to perform, but one which I was unaware of until that moment.
I went to a different ER than the first occasion, one closer to my apartment. In fact, I walked through Harvard’s Arboretum on a sunny, warm June morning. I listened to the birds chirp and saw the squirrels play and then proceeded to stroll into the hospital. I carried with me my gym bag packed with clothing and items I knew I would need for a week at a psychiatric facility.
At the hospital nurses and doctors asked me questions and with no shame I answered them in a blunt manner. I told them exactly what I did and spared no detail. The staff acted cool and calm and casual. Sometimes they were friendly. At other moments alienating, their conversations mechanical and detached. A suicide experience heightened their senses, though. I understood they took it seriously by the questions they asked and the way they approached me. The questions were the same as the first time I’d been in the hospital: “What did you try to do?” “Why did you try to do it?” And down the line it went.
I didn’t have to spend the night at the hospital the second time. Once again, through this new survival role that my brain possessed, I advocated for myself. I made sure to speak up for what I believed to be the best option for me.
The first time I was in the psych ward, people who could talk and were coherent shared everything related to their mental health experiences. They rated meds and doctors and other hospitals. They told me the best hospitals to go to, and while in the hospital the second time around I still remembered their words. “Can you see if there is room at Lochstead for me?” I asked the ER doctor. “I want to go to Lochstead.” Time stopped and I exited. Lochstead it was.
This blog is an exploration of the subjects of belonging and loneliness. I also look at mental health issues. I seek to provide content to my readers that is informative and helpful. If you don't want to miss anything, sign up for my email list.