Independence Is Different from Isolation

Why it’s so hard for those of us with mental illness to reach out for help when we need it.

As I’m writing this, my head feels like one of those squeezy toys with the eyes that pop out. We’re at around half-squeeze at the moment but it goes to full-squeeze whenever I try to blow my nose. My throat is raw and it hurts to swallow. I’m covered in a layer of sweat at all times. I’ve been sleeping for days, barely getting out of bed. I built a great pyramid of tissues on my nightstand, but there’s no more room, so I’ve started a pile on the floor. My cat’s been diving into it like it’s a pile of fall leaves, so she’s a walking, meowing petri dish now.

I got sick the day after I finally admitted to my loved ones that I was having another mental breakdown.

It’s fairly common to get sick immediately after a stressful period. This is known as “the let-down effect”. When you’re stressed, your body is preparing you for a fight or flight situation. These mechanisms and hormones protect you from viruses or chronic illnesses so that you can handle whatever the immediate danger is. The moment you relax or let your guard down (on a weekend or a vacation, for example… or after you finally ask your family for help after a prolonged period of trying to pretend you’re fine when you’re absolutely not fine), your immune system and pain receptors relax too. People will often catch a virus, or have a flair-up of their chronic headaches or asthma.

You might remember that earlier this year, I had a pretty significant mental health episode as a result of my cyclical, hormone-related depression. This type of depression is pretty common, but we don’t often talk about it because it’s so easily mistaken for “normal” PMS.

I can’t tell you what a relief it was, just yesterday, to read that Rachel Maddow talked about her own cyclical depression on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast:

“Susan can see it like a light switch,’’ she said (of her partner). “Even after living with it for 36 years, I still can’t tell when I’m depressed because part of depression is not being able to have emotional cognizance.”

God, that’s such a great description — lack of “emotional cognizance”. I’ll come back to that.

For Maddow, exercise helps. And I’ve recently started practicing yoga myself, but I also use a birth control pill to shut my hormones off entirely and have a strict daily self-care schedule to keep my head above water.

I’ve been working hard on my health with my parents in mind. After they pulled me out of my last mental breakdown, I didn’t want them to ever have to take care of me again. I didn’t want to be a burden. I wanted to be totally and completely on top of my own health. I figured, I’m 29 for fuck’s sake. I should have this figured out by now. I shouldn’t need my parents to take care of me.

My shame was massive, and yet I wasn’t able to admit to myself just how big it really was. I didn’t realize that I had invested my entire sense of worthiness on the condition that I become “independent”.

If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s around to hear it …does the tree still get eaten and decayed from the inside-out?

My anxiety and depression came back full-force when I missed a single day of taking my pill.

One day.

Just one.

For the tiniest pill I’ve ever taken, that thing has a scary amount of power over my well-being.

Once my hormones saw an opening, they attacked. (I suppose it works a lot like the “let-down effect” in that way). For about a week, I was an anxiety-ridden mess. I bet if you stuck me into a brain scanner, my amygdala (fight or flight/emotions) would have been lit up like one of those searchlights with the massive on/off lever you have to put your full weight into.

Ashamed and not wanting to admit I’d fallen off the wagon, I tried to hide the extreme anxiety I was feeling. I decided to quarantine myself until this thing passed and my pills kicked in again. That way, I could just wait it out and nobody would ever have to know that I’d messed up. Nobody would ever have to deal with me in that state. It would be as if it never happened.

If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s around to hear it …does the tree still get eaten and decayed from the inside-out?

“Emotional cognizance”, everybody.

For almost a week, I got up, ate my breakfast in my bedroom, rushed off to work without talking to anyone, did my freelance work alone in a cafe, stayed out as late as possible, came home without talking to anyone, and hid away in my bedroom again.

But isolation only agitated my anxiety. I felt so alone with my pain, so ashamed, so unworthy, that the emotions kept bubbling to the surface no matter how hard I tried to push them down. And after two days, three, four… they weren’t going away. I felt so jittery, I kept going to google and just typing the word “help” into the search bar (lots of Beatles results). I tried a suicide chatline, but when I got put on hold and saw how many other people were waiting, I felt guilty for taking up their time. Those people were probably actually suicidal, not just deeply, deeply uncomfortable. I exited out of the tab.

At one point, I was so afraid that I was going to cry in public that I hid in a restroom and worked for hours inside one of the stalls, my fingers freezing on my laptop keyboard anytime I heard someone else come in, and only moving again after they’d flushed, washed their hands, and left. Sometimes they didn’t wash their hands but that’s another issue.

As far as the work itself went, I wasn’t getting much done. Oh, I was writing. But my writing wasn’t making any sense. My mind was far too scattered to get to the point of anything. This, on top of everything else, just made me more and more emotional.

My physical body tried multiple times to signal to me that this quarantine thing wasn’t working.

First, an old shoulder injury came back with a vengeance and threw my whole back out, as if to say, “Get your crying ass out of the bathroom and go tell somebody what’s going on with you or so help me…

Then came the ocular migraines. I was in the middle of reading a submission to my publication when the center of my vision became blurry, as though someone had smeared something sticky on my computer screen. When I looked up and into the distance, the smudge was still there. I blinked and tried to squint it away, but it was no use. This had only happened to me once before and I’d been assured, at the time, that it was nothing to worry about. There was no pain. So I waited for my vision to come back and then got back to work.

Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

My isolation came to an end when my mom wanted to show me a new money-transfer system she’d discovered that would make transferring money from the U.S. easier. (All of my freelancing work is U.S.-based but we live in Spain, so transferring money from my U.S. bank to my Spanish bank is a pain.) As she pointed out the great new features and how much cheaper the exchange-rates could be, I couldn’t hold back my tears. And, to everyone’s horror, they were angry tears.

This felt like an attack.

What, did she think I couldn’t handle my own money? Did she think I couldn’t be independent? Did she think I was a child? I hadn’t spent a whole week hiding my emotions and working in bathroom stalls just to be treated like I didn’t have my shit together.

I had my shit together, goddamit.

Once the tears started, I couldn’t stop them. The dam broke big-time and everything flooded in all at once. Within minutes, I was sobbing and hyperventilating and having a full-on panic attack.

The only words I could get out were, “I’m sorry. I don’t know how to not be this way.”

“It’s ok,” they said. “It’s ok, we’re here for you.”

Those of us with depression, and other mental illnesses, especially need people — not as mirrors but as reference points.

Getting so physically sick right after I finally broke down to my parents tells me something important (and pretty obvious now that I have my emotional cognizance back) — my period of isolation did me far more harm than good. If I had reached out to someone the second I felt symptoms coming on, they might have been able to help. They may not have enjoyed being around grumpy me, but their presence alone would have grounded me a lot faster. I wouldn’t have spent all that time bouncing around my own head.

My mental health problems are inconvenient, to say the least. But a bigger problem is a misconception I’ve been carrying around, that to be independent you must isolate yourself — that to be an adult, you must be entirely self-sufficient.

I recently wrote about another important realization I had, that it’s pointless to wait around for the one person who can rescue you from the discomfort of your own process of “becoming”. Often, this can be a significant other, but I meant it more as a mentor — your Yoda, your Mr. Feeny, your Dumbledore — the semi-omniscient guru who has all the answers.

But just because I’m not waiting around for someone to rescue me anymore or point me in exactly the right direction doesn’t mean that I don’t still need people.

“Going it alone”, as much as those of us with social anxiety wish was feasible, just isn’t. We need people no matter what we’ve got going on. Everybody does. But those of us with depression, and other mental illnesses, especially need people — not as mirrors but as reference points. As mad as I get when I’m feeling like the world is ending and everybody around me seems to be ignoring the signs — it’s important for me to see that my perspective is the only one that’s shifted. It makes me just a little bit more cognizant that my emotions may not be entirely rational at that moment.

This is easier said than done, of course. I may have been dealing with my cyclical depression since I was ten, but so have my parents. And, like Rachel Maddow’s partner, they can always tell when the shit’s about to hit the fan. They’ve described it in the exact same way, in fact, “like the flick of a switch”.

There’s a tension that comes from that. They’re anticipating my bad mood. I’m anticipating them being annoyed at me for having a bad mood. My shame at seeing them tense up can cause me to get snippy. My snippiness proves to them that they were right to tense up in anticipation of it.

They’ll make the occasional joke (only when I’m feeling better, of course) about what a relief it is when I’m “myself” again. “Happy to have you back”, they’ll say, followed by well-meaning applause. But that joke gets stored into a special file in my brain and then submitted as evidence during the dark times — evidence that I’m a hell of a lot of work, that I’m some kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde accident, that everybody would be better off without me, that I’m like a stink bomb of shitty attitude that could go off whenever I enter a room, that I should probably just stop entering rooms entirely.

I’m still trying to figure out how to break this cycle of tension. Maybe we need an activity we can do together when they see the switch flick, a show of instant support that doesn’t put them in the line of fire. Like snuggling up on the couch together and watching a movie. A comedy.

She might end right back up in the bathroom stall.

As much as I feel this has all been a breakthrough for me, I don’t know if Depressed Me will remember it. She may think the whole idea of forcing herself to remain in the presence of other people (when that’s the last thing she wants to do) is stupid. She might end right back up in the bathroom stall. I can’t say yet and I hope I don’t have to find out for a while.

I’ve got, like, 20 reminders on my phone to take my pill now.

I’ve also got reminders to go to my writing meetup, to go to yoga, to take walks, to play with my cats, to check my bank account, to shower, to clean, to stretch, to eat, to breathe, to be present, to be grateful.

It sounds like a lot of work just to be a functioning human being. Most people don’t need reminders like that. But, when your brain is so often occupied with intrusive thoughts, anxieties, and sensitivities, it needs some help to remember the basics of survival.

It takes a strong, independent person to recognize their own weaknesses, accept them, and find workarounds.

It takes a strong, independent person to reach out to others for help.

Katlyn writes about history, travel, and culture… with some snark. www.KatlynRoberts.com.

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