Together In Solitude: 6 Ways Mentally Ill People Experience Loneliness

Most of my friends who struggle with depression (which is a lot of them) all confide in me the same exact thing. Even though we all know each other, and know that we all have mental illness – we all feel incredibly lonely. At the best of times, we feel like a community. At the worst – we feel like no one understands us – or cares to.

I often feel loneliest when I’m with the people I love. I’m by nature a very private person – most people who meet me don’t get to know the real me until years after we first meet. This is nothing personal – it’s just a reflex. But the hazard of this reflex is that I often even shut out the people who care about me. I’ve talked about this in another post, What I Mean When I Say “I’m Tired” so I won’t go into it in as much detail here.

What is Loneliness?

When I first started to struggle with this post, I thought I would start with a basis in fact. So I looked up the definition of loneliness.

Loneliness, adjective

“Affected with, characterized by, or causing a depressing feeling of being alone.”

That definition seemed a little simple to me – which is fine. But I ran across another definition in the course of my week while I was working on this piece. I found it in the book When Your Twenties Are Darker Than You Expected which I picked up by accident at the library, but has given me so much insight while I’ve been reading it. The definition in this book is:

“Loneliness is a state of lacking intimacy with the people around us.”

That definition really struck me – it’s not that you are alone, it’s that you feel alone because you can’t – or, in my case, won’t – be open with the people around you. This leads to self-isolation, which I am horribly guilty of in general.

My Struggle

When I’m having a bad day, I feel trapped inside my own head. I withdraw from the people around me – not physically, but emotionally and mentally. I shut them out, and they don’t know what to do with me in those circumstances – so they let me. Which leads me to hit my toughest moment – feeling like none of my friends care about me while I’m still with them.

This is, of course, incredibly perverse, considering it’s my own fault that I’m shutting them out. And my friends have proven time, and time again that if I just reach out to them when they need me, they’ll be there to help me in a flash. But despite knowing this – I still find myself trapped by crushing loneliness when my depression flares.

I knew I wasn’t alone in this – in fact, I know that all of my friends with depression experience the same thing, as well as many, many more people across the world. So, I reached out to my friends and asked them to describe to me what their loneliest moments felt like – and what triggered them. I’ve decided to keep all of these anonymous since they’re so personal.

“I feel lonely, and then isolate myself…”

Yeah. Loneliness is my biggest problem with depression. Especially because it spirals. I feel lonely and then isolate myself. Which obviously doesn’t help with the loneliness.

I have a problem with crowds too. If I’m in a large crowd and not having a meaningful connection or conversation with someone – I can start feeling really lonely. In a full room. Which is dumb.

I also get a lot of my validation from verbal reassurance and love. That’s my main form of expressing and receiving love. So if I don’t have verbal affirmations from those around me that they want me around – I’ll feel like I shouldn’t be around and then again isolate myself and lead to that.

It’s frustrating because I have a strong support system of friends and family who know I struggle with mental health. But I tend to just not see it when I need it.

To help myself – I straight up ask my friends if they still like me a lot. Like, “Hey. I need affirmation we are friends and you want me around.”

They are understanding and provide that. Which is really stellar.

I also have a set schedule for how often I see friends every week to avoid mass amounts of isolation and loneliness. And I call my mom daily. And she’s just a bundle of support.

It’s all about finding your triggers and working with your team to support you. I can’t avoid crowds. So I cope instead. I’m single. So I can’t avoid being alone and feeling lonely. But I have positive affirmations of love and affection to prevent a full blown spiral.

I have people who specifically say – have you been social three times this week? And if I haven’t they show up at my place. It prevents isolation really well for me.

“All of a sudden I disappear, and no one asks where I’ve gone…”

When people don’t love me in the way that I love them, and they make no effort to try and learn how I need to be loved. It makes me feel like I’m the only one with my eyes open and what’s the point of that? I feel most lonely when I feel like people are inviting me out of obligation. I feel lonely when people hide things from me. I feel lonely when I put in 100% of the effort in a relationship. I feel lonely when depression is suffocating me and no one notices. Because all of the sudden I disappear and no one asks where I’ve gone.

“Waiting it out seems to be the only solution…”

My loneliness creeps up on me. Often when I’ve had a tough day or haven’t had a deep connection with anyone for a while. The only remedy I have is time—waiting it out seems to be the only solution. It’s just an overwhelming feeling that not only haven’t I built deep relationships but that I may never get to. It’s like floating in the deep space of your consciousness, being only too aware of how alone that makes you.

“At night… it can sometimes feel unbearable…”

It seems to happen sometimes at random, usually after I’m depressed and angry… Even when I’m with my husband. I’m usually thinking about other people and being a disappointment. Weirdly, when I’m at home alone during the day, I’m fine. But at night – when my husband is home and asleep next to me – it can sometimes feel unbearable.

“The look…”

Yes, having depression can make me feel personally isolated, i.e. caught up in an intense fear of socializing and small talk. Yet, I feel most alone and alien when I get “the look” from an acquaintance. The conversation typically goes the same way: I share that I have clinical depression, and in response I receive a momentary wide-eyed expression of fear. I imagine that they are internally picturing me like a radioactive bomb about to explode. As if having depression equates suicidal and a lack of control over my emotions. Usually, after the pause, they reply with a surface-level response of sympathy, as if I need to be “cured” of my illness of clinical depressed before I can live a happy and fulfilled life again.

But honestly, through the counseling and introspection necessary after my mental health diagnosis, I have come the closest to self-actualization and personal understanding. Yes, it is true that I have a chemical imbalance that predisposes me toward symptoms of depression, and I will never be able to “take a break” from my pharmacological and emotional therapy. But, I also am able to understand my limitations and then take the necessary efforts to function optimally.

Maybe the next time that I get “the look,” I will be brave enough to educate that depression isn’t an illness to fear, but instead one that society needs to understand better.

Let’s Talk About Suicide

If you have ever thought about suicide or attempted suicide, this article could potentially be triggering for you. If you ever need help, please reach out to those around you, or use the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to get help.

What a topic to choose, right? Who wants to talk about suicide? Those of us who haven’t lost someone or haven’t thought about suicide would rather not talk about it – it’s an uncomfortable topic. Talking about suicide forces everyone – mentally ill or neurotypical – to struggle with the thought of someone choosing to take their own life. That’s not a comfortable topic.

However, as someone who has struggled with thoughts of suicide, and who has lost someone, it’s a topic that I no longer want to avoid.

So if you’ve never had the desire to kill yourself, awesome! If you’ve never lost someone to suicide, that’s great. But I encourage you to read this article anyway, and maybe walk away with a better understanding of what it means to be suicidal.

If you have lost someone, let me say from the bottom of my heart, I am so sorry. Losing someone is never easy, but having to grapple with the reality that someone you knew was so miserable that they chose to die is even harder. It’s hard not to feel guilty and play the what-if game. “What if I had reached out to them? What if I had been a better listener? What if I had asked more questions?”

Take it from me. The what-if game will bring you nothing but misery.

Being Suicidal v. Suicidal Ideation

I’m sure at this point, most people now know that there is a difference between having suicidal thoughts and being suicidal. I’ve been in both places. So, I’m going to take a moment to try and explain the difference between them. It’s a bit of a blurry line, so hopefully I can clear it up for people who don’t quite understand it.

Suicidal Ideation

This is where I most often am when I talk about having ‘suicidal thoughts’. Suicidal ideation is a weird place to be. Imagine you’re just living your life, doing what you love to do, hanging out with your friends, and suddenly someone screams in your ear why don’t you just die?

For me, it’s often like that. Some days, if I’m having bad suicidal ideation, the smallest thing can bring on the thoughts. My debit card is declined. Well, you could always just die! My car won’t start. Death would be easier than this. I try to sort out my budget after over-spending. If you can’t pay that bill you can always die.

That’s what suicidal ideation feels like for me. Sometimes it can get a little more serious, though. Some days, it feels as if nothing is going right. We all have those days. And on those days – when I begin to feel that I am worthless, or that I can’t do anything right, or that all I can do is mess things up – it’s easy to see the appeal of death.

Death would be easier than having to fight on day after day.

Being Suicidal

There’s a huge difference between suicidal ideation and being suicidal. Because one is thoughts that float in and out of your head. And while one can lead to the other, the second is much worse.

Being suicidal is actively wanting to die. This happens when people start to write a suicide note. Sever ties from people they care about. Decide what way they’d most like to die – and then start to gather the things they will need.

People who are suicidal stop caring about themselves. When I was I didn’t eat for two days, because I simply didn’t care about my body. I wanted to die anyway, so why not just starve?

Sometimes they’ll take stupid risks, like driving without a seatbelt, crossing the street without looking both ways, or stopping in places they know they’ll be in danger. Because the risk doesn’t matter anymore when you’re suicidal.

If something else kills me now, it’ll save me the trouble – and my family the pain – of doing it myself.

Wait, What’s the Difference?

The main difference between suicidal ideation and actually being suicidal is that I don’t want to die.

Let me say that again, because it’s important.

I don’t want to die.

These thoughts pop into my head not because I actually want to be dead, but because life is hard, and sometimes the fight to keep living is just exhausting. But I don’t want to die. I’ve made no plans. I have nothing I could use. That is the main difference.

This can vary from person to person. Some people with suicidal ideation do want to die, but won’t make plans because they value people in their lives. Some people who don’t want to die can still be suicidal. This is just my experience, and my limited view. But hopefully my perspective will help some of you understand what I – and others in similar positions – go through.

Real Life Experience

This is going to be an unpleasant topic. Let me just warn you in advance.

Some of you may already know this – but I lost a friend of mine to suicide in October of last year.

He, like many people who suffer so profoundly, was loving, kind, generous, warm – and left a lasting impact on everyone who met him. I knew that he suffered from depression – I’d been his friend for his first suicide scare in 2013. I remember that heart-pounding day as we waited for news after he disappeared, and I remember the relief when I heard he’d come back alive.

I wasn’t prepared for his loss. Who is, really? I wasn’t prepared to attend his funeral – it’s hard to see someone so young (23) in a casket. I wasn’t prepared to see so many of my friends – all of us so grief-stricken – absolutely shattered by this sudden loss.

But most of all, I wasn’t prepared to see the reality of what suicide does to the people it leaves behind.

Barely a month before my friend passed away, I was suicidal myself. I wanted to end it – stop having to struggle. Stop stressing. Stop existing. It was so hard.

I’d always told my friends that if I ever thought I was a danger to myself, I’d seek treatment. So that’s what I did.

I found a therapist. After a couple weeks, my therapist recommended I seek psychiatric help and referred me to a psychiatrist.

Four days before my friend committed suicide, I started my first day on antidepressants. I don’t know how I would have handled the loss without them.

I mentioned before that I refuse to play the what-if game because it brings nothing but pain – there’s a reason for that. The last time I saw my friend alive was six days after I hit rock bottom – three weeks before he ended his life.

He was in a wedding and I attended. We got to chat and he hugged me, a huge, dimpled grin on his face. “I’m so glad you made it! It’s so nice to see you!”

We chatted for a while, and both expressed interest in hanging out soon – hopefully once our lives got in order once again.

I left the reception early, citing that I had a long drive to get home. But the truth was that I was exhausted. It had taken nearly all of my energy to just to come to the ceremony, and I needed to go home and collapse. I remember giving him another quick hug and a grin, and promising to text him soon to make plans.

Three weeks later, I’m attending his funeral.

It’s so easy to think of what-ifs, and blame yourself for things you didn’t know. I did it for a while.

What if I’d reached out sooner?

What if I’d stayed longer at the wedding?

What if I’d checked in with him?

What if we’d stayed in touch better?

I shy away from those thoughts now. I can’t change what’s happened, and thinking like this only makes me more miserable.

Facing Reality

By far the worst thing about this experience is that it forced me to take a good, hard look at what happens when someone commits suicide.

I got to see – up close and personal – what friends and family go through with this kind of loss. I saw how it destroyed everyone around me. I saw people who’d barely known him cry when they heard the truth.

I saw his family struggle with questions and howl at the sky, asking why this had happened – why was he gone?

I saw friends who I thought were strong shattered into tiny pieces at the sight of his body in that casket.

I lived with the reality that someone I knew – someone I loved as a friend, and in some ways like family – was in so much pain that he chose to take his own life, rather than reach out for help. I’m not, and have never been angry about all of this. I’ve been too close myself to be angry at my friend. But I am still sad, and grief-stricken.

In that time of grieving, I lived with a paradox in my head. The sadness and pain at my friend choosing to end his life, and struggling with my own not-so-distant desire to do the same. I felt like a fraud, a hypocrite. How could I mourn my friend while still feeling the same as him? How could I grieve his loss and feel the pain of his choice while still feeling the same way myself?

I’ve given myself permission to feel both of those things, and through that made my way toward healing. One doesn’t cancel out the other. In fact, those feelings – the depth of them – are what help me know that I’m alive.

It’s not easy to understand, but I am not my mental illness. I am the one who mourns the loss of my friend, my mental illness is the thing that makes me want to die. This dichotomy that I struggle with is making me a better person, a better friend, and has taught me to love deeply, tell people how I feel, protect what I love fiercely, and not be afraid to talk about my struggle.

To end on a positive note – have a nerdy quote that always brings me hope, even in a dark time.

“The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad thing, but vice-versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them less important.” – The Doctor, Doctor Who

I know I said this at the beginning, but if you’ve ever felt suicidal, please get help. Your family and friends don’t want to live life without you. If you don’t like to talk on the phone, use the Crisis Text Line (if you’re in the USA) to talk to a counselor. Text HOME to 741741 to talk with a counselor now.

What I Mean When I Say, “I’m Tired.”

If any of you know me personally, you’ll know that I often respond to inquiries of “How are you?” in the same way.

I’ll pause, introspect for a moment, then with a wry smile – and maybe a yawn – I’ll answer, “I’m tired.”

Oftentimes whoever asked that question will respond with a laugh and echo my sentiment, and then the conversation moves on as normal, completely overlooking the fact that I haven’t said anything about how I actually am.

Those of you who know me know that I struggle with depression, and that sometimes it gets the better of me. On those days, “tired” takes on a completely different meaning.

“I’m tired…” of having to peel myself out of bed in the morning.

“I’m tired…” of using dry shampoo since I haven’t had the energy to shower in several days.

“I’m tired…” of plastering a smile on my face whenever I see someone so they don’t see the crushing emptiness that threatens to consume me.

Yeah. I am tired. And sometimes it just means I didn’t get enough sleep. But all too often, it can mean that I feel as if I’m losing my fight.

I’m tired of having to fight my own brain every single day. I’m tired of people belittling my mental illness by saying “Oh yeah, I get sad too.” Or, “You shouldn’t be on meds – you can do something more natural. Like yoga! Or meditation! Or exercise! Or deep breathing or regulating your sleep schedule or thinking good thoughts or refusing to think negatively or eating more fruit or or or or or OR.”

I’m tired of crying myself to sleep at night. I’m tired of sleeping for ten hours and still not feeling rested. I’m tired of thinking that death would be easier than having to wake up the next morning and continue on.

I’m tired of my brain trying to kill me.

I hide behind a laugh and the words “I’m tired” because I don’t want to tell people the truth. People don’t want to hear responses like “I’ve felt numb for a week”, “It took me three hours to get out of bed this morning”, “I can’t shake a crushing sadness that has no cause.” Or at least, I don’t want to give them, because I don’t like people to see me suffering.

But that’s become a problem for me. I’ve realized that in my quest to keep up the illusion of strength, I’ve locked knowledge of myself away from the people who care about me. By hiding behind a quick smile, sharp tongue, and ready laugh – I’ve concealed myself from people who care about me. My own best friend, just last week, found out what my favorite flavor of ice cream is. And something that insignificant isn’t even worth hiding – so why did it take me three years to tell her?

I’m trying to challenge myself to be more open, and let people in. Because shutting myself off from other people may protect me from harm – but it also leaves me feeling more alone than ever.

I won’t change overnight. So next time you hear me say, “I’m tired” now at least you know why.

Note: my favorite flavor of ice cream is Raspberry Sorbet.