I used to be a person in one whirlwind or another, surrounded by friends, always in the middle of putting together a party or some such thing. Now the idea of a party rather scares me more than fills me with any sort of pleasure. And rather than celebrate the wonderful energy that was my creativity, the synergy that my time with friends produced, instead of that, I isolate myself from it all.
When you believe yourself to be unworthy your belief hits you in so many more places than you realize. For me, just walking down the street becomes a problem. Going into any public place is a matter for concern, being out among people becomes something to fear rather than something fun. It’s been a long time, for example, since I’ve been in a restaurant. It’s too much for me. I always think I’m being stared at, that people find me objectionable, that somehow I am not wanted there. I scream inside to get out of the situation and into a more familiar and stable place where I won’t have to be confronted on the left and right by all the imaginary things I believe.
Imaginary. All in my head. Nothing to do with reality. Some situation I’m making up. An imaginary, unreal situation in my head that isn’t real, except to my mind and body, that is; my mind thinks the imagined is real and my body responds with a flood of adrenaline and every other damn ‘fight or flight’ hormone it can flood into my bloodstream. So according to my body, the situation may as well be real, even if it isn’t.
Mostly I do what I do best and retreat. I hide somewhere, anywhere that’s handy. I have been known to panic and hide behind store displays in a grocery aisle. I have been known to flee a store, run to the car and hide myself from anyone nearby. I have hidden behind the curtains watching for the mailman to leave before I would emerge to pick up the mail and even then I would lean halfway out of the door and in a frenzy grab the mail from the box before anyone could see me.
I always figured that if I didn’t show my face then no one could say anything to me. And of course I would not have to say anything to them. I would not have to make excuses, explanations, small talk; I would not have to act like some sort of jerk and run away, or listen to them go on about something completely unimportant to me. I would not have to look them in the face because if I did they would see the panic, the sheer terror in my eyes. I didn’t want them to see my frailty, my weakness. I did not want to see them react in that moment of horrible understanding that there was indeed something desperately, immediately wrong with me.
Sometimes I would take the offensive rather than defensive position. One of the best offensive positions was to talk in a crazed, animated way about anything and everything, admit to being out of it and tell them all the sad and crazy things they really didn’t want to hear. That way they’d have no time to get a word in edgewise and I’d make a point of going to an extreme in the other direction rather than hiding. Same end result except now they know I’m off-kilter. And the best (well, worst) part is they wouldn’t return to visit and even more likely would spread the word to others of my behavior. That way, I’ve achieved my goal: isolation.
So those were the solutions: drive them off, disappear and flee or hide until they go away. No matter which one you pick, they’re all maladaptive coping techniques that must be un-learned.
“Isolation is a self-defeating dream.”
– Carlos Salinas de Gortari
Since I began hardcore therapy many of these symptoms have lessened somewhat; it’s been a great deal of work and I’m proud of that work and the results I have so far earned but I have a long, long way to go. I still isolate myself from everyone, not as much out of sheer pain but out of avoidance, which is I think just as bad because it’s one of the maladaptive coping techniques I must unlearn. Over the last ten years the astounding amount of damage, self-inflicted or not, has taken a great and terrible toll on me.
The stresses of my mental illness eroded my mind, made me introverted in one way and a ‘screaming me-me’ in another. Those stresses also corroded my body into an almost unrecognizable form from its previously robust state. Now I have a number of long-term illnesses that demand constant attention, and the mental illness combined with the physical illnesses put me over the edge when it comes to being with other people.
“The long, dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather for the devil.”
– C. S. Lewis
[There have been several recent studies that show that social isolation can cause many negative consequences for people. There’s a great TED talk about this subject that, if you’re interested, you should watch. Great stuff. It’s not just the mentally ill that isolate themselves, so everyone will get something from this informative talk.]
There’s no question that I put myself in mental and physical danger to keep everyone at arm’s length. And I do so hate the consequence of being lonely, it’s true. But it’s an insidious thing, this hiding, this isolation; on one hand I can’t let it persist and on the other I do it over and over again without even considering the outcome. Mental illness can force you to do things that are out of character, far out of the ‘norm’ of who you are. Worse, continued isolation can make other people afraid of interaction with you, uncertain of how to address this isolation, unsure how to approach you without causing you pain.
People fear what they don’t understand, and ‘healthy’ people simply do not understand why we would rather be a hermit and prefer not to subject others to behaviors we ourselves consider ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’. They don’t get the idea that if you don’t see me, then you don’t have to worry, comment, point out or otherwise make obvious the behaviors we already consider frightening, and we don’t have to subject ourselves to explanation and the pain that causes.
I pushed away just about everyone once I became ill. I did it with intent for some, without intent for others, and in complete ignorance with still others. But that person, the one that told them all to ‘get lost’, that person is long gone and the person that arose from the ashes ended up wishing and hoping that a small number of those in my past would come back into my present.
For the most part, that cannot (and should not) happen. And as things progressively get better little by little there is always some hope of finding new friends, or reconnecting with family who care.
For now, my mom and aunt tolerate me fairly well (and my cat does sometimes, too). I have a couple of old friends that are inching closer to a ‘reconnect’ and as long as I don’t scare them off with psychotic ranting I may get lucky and reclaim some good relationships that were lost.
Perhaps all of these small advances in relationships add up to positive (if tentative) steps back into the pond, if you will. But it is only by continuing the solid work to overcome perceived negatives from others (and to overcome my fear of them) that I am going to move into a more socially acceptable world for myself. And it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
” Isolation is the sum total of wretchedness to a man.”
– Thomas Carlyle