Living with mental illness has been an incredibly isolating experience for me. There are days where the loneliness is so palpable, that it feels as though my heart is atrophying in my ribcage, literally dying with each day that passes. Other days, I crave the solitude like breath, like I couldn’t exist without it. It’s an ugly dichotomy that is as irrational as some of my most delusional thoughts. It makes no sense that someone so lonely would want to spend so much time alone. It’s like pouring water on a drowning man or petrol on a fire you want to extinguish.
I remember a friend I had in my early years of High School. She was fun and friendly and often asked me to come hang out at her house, but without fail, I would find an excuse not to go. One night she asked me flat out on the phone, “Why don’t you want to leave your house?” and for the life of me, I couldn’t articulate the mixture of fear and uneasiness her invitations evoked in me. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy spending time with her, or that I didn’t want to go, but I just…couldn’t. I didn’t know the word anxiety back then, not in an illness way. I wouldn’t learn that for a few more years, but looking back that’s what it was. I felt the same way about school at times. Days I just couldn’t bear the thought of getting out of bed and facing the overwhelming emotions I had swirling around my head. Not knowing how to coherently explain the anxiety I felt, I made up pathetic excuses. Cold, flu, headache, stomach ache…you name it.
To be honest, even years later, when I could actually identify the emotions I felt as anxiety, I still used pathetic excuses of physical illness to avoid seeing people or going out. Why? Because people respect a headache, or an upset stomach…they may even feel a little empathy. But god forbid you tell someone you can’t make a commitment due to anxiety, and they huff and sigh and roll their eyes and discount you as a flake or a piker who just can’t be bothered. Christ, how I wish that were true. That would have meant I didn’t care. The problem was I cared too much. The amount of nights I watched my friends at the time all leave the house as a group, dressed up the nines to enjoy a night out broke my heart. I often spent those nights feeling the kind of sadness that’s hard to describe, crying myself to sleep because I was so desperate to be able to join them but I just couldn’t. I felt terrified being out of the house. My throat would close up, I’d have trouble swallowing, my heart would race and my brow would sweat and I felt I might faint. And the times that I thought I might be able to manage those anxious feelings, I hesitated for fear of having a panic attack and ruining the night for the people around me. The rare occasions I managed to muster the courage to actually join them, I’d inevitably find myself locked in the toilets of some intolerably loud pub, being sick and freaking out completely desperate to go home. Eventually, It was just easier to avoid inconveniencing the people around me by turning down their offers. And when you turn down invitations often enough, people stop asking. It’s not long before you’re out of the loop altogether. You can’t relate to their injokes they’ve created on their nights out. You can’t commiserate with their hangovers the next morning. You just stop being a part of the group. The worst thing is, it looks like you want it that way because you are always the one saying no.
And then, it’s not long before all your neurotypical acquaintances and friends start to put their lives together. Meeting the partners they’d go on to marry and have children with. Falling into their careers.Buying their first homes. Doing what unsick, typical regular men and women do at that age. That’s not the path I would take. Because of my illnesses, I’ve had long periods of unemployment. Long stretches of time where just getting up in the morning was an accomplishment. If I was lucky, I might manage 2 or 3 showers a week. It was a good day if I managed to get out of my pyjamas. I started to avoid social interaction more and more as my condition worsened. Not because I really wanted to be alone, but because I was desperately and dreadfully embarrassed by my lack of achievement. I couldn’t stand mortifying common exchanges like “What did you get up to today?” when my honest answer was that I lay under the blankets in bed with the cat and thought of all the ways I could take my own life. I didn’t want to see anyone because there was a good chance I hadn’t brushed my hair or teeth in a week, or hadn’t taken a shower that day and I really had nothing to talk about because I wasn’t doing anything except struggling with new, scary thoughts on top of the ones I’d already managed for the last ten years. I had no new achievements to tell them about, not ones they’d want to hear about like “I finally managed to get the washing on the line after 3 failed attempts!” Those things kind of pale in comparison to “We’re getting married!” and “We’re pregnant!” The more accomplishments they achieved, the more I distanced myself from them. And they from me.
For the first time in a long time, I made some new friends in the Psych Hospital where I spent 9 weeks on and off in last year, who finally understand what it’s like to live a life like this. They know what it’s like to be lonely, yet desire isolation. They recognize that when they ask how your day was, the answer might not always be good… and they not only comprehend that, they truly empathise with it. There’s a certain comfort you feel seeing your own madness reflected in someone else. It’s an instant tangible connection knowing you share similar pain and stigma. It’s like knowing a secret club handshake when you meet others like you. It’s not common ground you necessarily want to share, but there’s relief in finding you do. It’s knowing you don’t have to explain things like you otherwise normally would.
I never have to make up any excuses with them. If the highlight of my day is that I had a shower and put makeup on, they ‘get it’ and encourage me to celebrate the small victories. They recognise the challenges I face, because they endure things similar in their own lives. They get what it’s like to feel at constant war with your own mind. They understand when you cancel plans because even though you had good intentions when you agreed to them, your brain just won’t cooperate. They comprehend the shame you carry with you each day, like a pebble in your shoe you’re constantly aware of but can’t shake out. They know the ache of taking that last fist full of pills and laying down on your bed waiting for death to come, and the embarrassment that exists when you wake up in the Emergency Department to the scowls of tired nurses who have seen this shit all before and have had their last drop of sympathy exhausted.
We might have different diagnoses, but they all understand the nature of mental illness and how easy it is to get left behind by the rest of the world at times. Knowing they’re out there helps me to feel that even though I might feel lonely, I’m definitely not alone. And if you’re reading this, neither are you. I’m here and I get it.