There’s a huge difference between being “alone” and being “lonely”.
Merriam-Webster online defines alone as “separated from others” or “exclusive of anyone or anything else.” There are a few other definitions, but these are the ones I’m focusing on today.
I can dig that. In fact, I am, without a doubt, an introvert – I prefer to spend much of my time alone. Mostly, it doesn’t bother me. When I’m alone, it’s quiet – and when it’s quiet, I have time to reflect, to create, to write, to read, to pace myself, to “dance like no one’s watching”.
I value my alone time and see it as an opportunity to just be.
Lonely, on the other hand, is defined as “cut off from others”; “sad from being alone”; and “producing a feeling of bleakness or desolation,” among other definitions.
Loneliness, the state of being lonely – that one hurts. It’s an empty feeling, really, one that sometimes engulfs my whole self. Sometimes it’s temporary, and at other times it can become chronic and can lead to or exacerbate my depression.
LONELY IS NOT THE NEW BLACK
Lately, I’ve been feeling lonely. CeAnne has not felt well for weeks now, and has spent most of the last two or three weeks in bed. I’m pretty sure it’s because of the side effects of her new MS drug, Ocrevus. It’s a semi-annual infusion that takes five hours but it makes her feel like shit for weeks on end afterward.
So she’s spent the better part of seven weeks feeling like crap and holing up in the bedroom. (We call it “The Cave”). I mean, what else can you do? There are days she feels better, sure, and she’ll spend some time with me in the living room and doing things around the house, but she’s one of those people who over-does things and then she feels even worse later and retreats back to the bedroom. (She totally gets that from her mom.)
Not to mention, Sharon (CeAnne’s mom) spends 95% of her time in her bedroom, watching TV or on the phone with her friends.
That leaves me alone, doing my thing, 95% of the time.
As I said, most of the time I’m okay with that. I especially love my morning alone-time. It takes me a couple hours to “wake up” and then I write. Or nap. Or clean or even run errands. Or, last month, watch the Olympics.
But sometimes, I can’t help but feel lonely. And that’s where I’m at right now.
INTROVERSION IN ACTION
I don’t get out much, by choice. I know, it sounds easy, right? “You say you’re depressed? Go out and do something, for God’s sake!”
Okay, maybe it’s not all by choice. My depression certainly gets in the way of leaving the house; so does my anxiety. Whenever possible, I run my errands on the way home from my many mental health appointments, and I cluster them together so I don’t have to go out again.
Once I get home, I don’t want to leave again. I don’t care if it’s barely noon. I want to get comfy, settle in, and not worry about what “has to” get done later.
This is the other aspect at play here, one that many people can relate to: Being an introvert.
I rarely crave human interaction. However, I must say, when I do have to run to Walgreen’s or Target or Petco, I’m perfectly friendly and will chat up the person ringing me up. When I know the interaction is only going to last for a few seconds or a few minutes, I can do that.
But parties, get-togethers, wedding receptions, etc. – those suck the life right out of me and it can take me a day or two to recharge. I’d just rather pass.
I’ve been saying for a couple decades that I have a finite amount of energy in me, and each day, that amount differs. I was just trying to explain my lack of sociability to people. Little did I know how true it was.
Some days, I have almost no mental energy to spend on myself, much less other people. Those are typically not very good days. Those are the days I sleep a lot or just veg.
Maybe you can relate.
I don’t have much trouble getting out of the house for appointments, though. Probably because I know they have value and they’re “for my own good”. Plus, I really like all of my providers. For instance, I drive 30 miles one way to go see my primary care physician (she’s actually a Nurse Practitioner) because I absolutely love her. That makes it easier to go to my appointments.
But invite me over for a barbecue or to watch a movie and I generally bow out. I appreciate the thought, really. Everyone likes to be thought of and included. It just takes so much out of me.
HERE’S THE THING
You may know that one of the most common symptoms of depression is isolation, something I absolutely excel in. I can not leave the house for days and be perfectly fine with that. There’s no pressure to entertain people, to try to act “normal”, and I don’t need to expend any effort to not “look” depressed and risk someone asking me if I’m okay.
(This is where the But comes in…)
BUT so much isolation is bad (for me) for two main reasons: One, because it means that I’m just sitting around the house, probably not doing much of anything because I’m depressed and have no energy. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.
And two, because that’s one of the reasons I get lonely. No woman lives on an island, right? Doesn’t it take a village?
I don’t know about you, but in my experience, loneliness can lead to depression or make it worse, and I know that.
I just can’t help but isolate sometimes.
Being an introvert definitely has some advantages, such as the ones I listed at the beginning of this post. It’s a good thing, too, because somewhere around 50% of us are introverts.
But the disadvantages – especially for someone who suffers from depression or anxiety or any mood disorder – may outweigh the benefits if you take it too far.
Over the last many years, I have made umpteen promises to myself to “get out of the house every day”. Sure, Laura. Because it’s *that easy* to go out and be with other people when you feel like shit and would rather be writing goodbye notes to people.
Needless to say, that approach has never – I repeat – never worked for me. It can work for some, I’m sure. But the anxiety and fear that accompany leaving the house and being around people (especially at a large gathering) for an extended period of time are all-consuming.
Perhaps a more appropriate way to think about it is to do it one day at a time or one thing at a time, just like when you’re trying to stay sober or lose weight.
For example, “I will get out of the house today, and this is how I’m going to do it: I’m going to wash my hair at 10:00, get dressed, make my list of what I need, go out for a smoke, and leave right around 10:45.”
Yes, I realize that’s pretty specific, but if you’re anything like me, you need to psych yourself up for excursions about town.
My worst days are the ones where I wake up and have no plan whatsoever. Those are the days I waste. There may be ten places I need to go, or ten loads of laundry to do, or ten phone calls I have to make (OMG!), but if I have not planned ahead the night before, I wake up lost and there’s a very good chance I won’t do any of it.
So I came up with a method to ease my madness.
This method is simple, but not necessarily easy, and I am far from perfect about doing it. Here it is:
- I make a list of reasonable, DOABLE things for the day. It can be long or short; when I make a longer list, I can choose what to do. Gives me a sense of control.
- I include some enjoyable or relaxing things to take some of the pressure off.
- I also include teeny, tiny, little things, the things a lot of people take for granted – because they count, too (like brushing my teeth or getting dressed). Some days, these are the only things I can do. In fact, some days, even these little things are too much.
- If I have errands to run (alas, they are unavoidable at times), I write them down in the order I’d like to do them in. It cuts down on my time away from home and helps me make sense out of things.
- At the end of the day, I know that some (perhaps many) things on my list will not have gotten done. AND I’M OKAY WITH THAT. (Except for phone calls I put off – I have such anxiety around phone calls, I can put them off for months! Then I feel shame, guilt, and embarrassment…)
- If I’m feeling overwhelmed (which I often am), I ask CeAnne for help. She’s good at that.
EASY-PEASY! OR IS IT?
No, it’s not. When I’m depressed, and because I’m an introvert, I isolate. When I isolate too much, I get lonely. Then my depression gets worse.
The method I outlined above looks easy, but it isn’t. Not for me, anyway, and it’s the best I’ve come up with so far. It is never easy to step out of your comfort zone. It’s often not very fun, either.
Some people are better at it than others, and that’s okay – just as long as they don’t judge me for not being like them.
Look, none of this is easy. Life isn’t easy. And life with a mental illness (or two or three), with a brain that constantly tells you lies, that would sometimes like to see you dead – that’s not easy.
But it’s still worth it.