Being Socially Isolated with Mental Health Issues - A Perspective for Loved Ones
One of the mental health conditions I deal with is social anxiety. So you would probably think that I rejoiced when the CDC guidelines came down about social isolation.
However, social anxiety doesn't mean I want to be a hermit. I still crave certain types of human interaction, just not all of them (like crowds, small talk, or making phone calls), and the amount of anxiety I feel about social situations varies depending on where I am with my other mental health issues. In fact, with everything going on, I need social contact more than ever.
In my case, I have bipolar disorder, type 2, which means my mania isn't as high as type 1 but my depression can go lower. I also have generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, social anxiety, agoraphobia, addiction issues, and I'm pretty sure I have ADD.
When I am manic...
I get hyper-focused on multi-tasking several things. So in this case, when a friend reaches out to me, I often ignore the phone call or text until a later time "when I'm finished with what I'm doing."
It's not that I'm ignoring that person as I often really want to touch base, especially now when there's so little regular human interaction taking place. It's just that once my brain is locked on to getting certain tasks accomplished right now, I can't switch out of that mode quickly.
In my mind, I always think I'm almost finished and I can call or text that person right back. But then one of these possibilities usually occurs:
- I take much longer than I thought to complete the tasks and the person is no longer available; or
- I am absolutely worn out from my frantic focusing (seems like an oxymoron but it really isn't) and I just can't deal with communicating with anyone at that point; or
- I just plain forget that you called because the part of my brain that remembers those types of things was being used to keep up with all of the tasks I was trying to accomplish.
To my loved ones:
Please understand that I'm not ever ignoring you because I don't want to hear from you or because I don't value our relationship. I know that if I did manage to stop what I was doing to take that call or reply to that text, I would be very distracted. My plan is always to wait until I have calmed down from all of the tasks to focus on you. The problem is that it rarely works out that way. If you haven't heard back from me soon, don't assume it's because I don't want to talk. Reach out again.
When I'm anxious...
Another way I'm affected during social isolation is how hard it is for me to reach out. This is due to my social anxiety. Making a phone call can take a herculean effort. It sounds crazy and when I step back and look at it, it is.
I will often put off making a phone call for hours or until it's too late, even when I really need or want to talk to the one I'm calling. I've always assumed it's because I don't want to disturb that person but I don't know if that's the actual reason or just one I can deal with. It also may be fear of rejection... if the phone isn't answered. It doesn't matter why I feel this way though because I've tried to overcome it and I haven't been able to.
Anyway, texting is easier to use for initial reaching out but it's hard to really have a good conversation. The way I often get around this is that I will text someone I want to talk to and ask if I can call. That's also awkward if it's someone I don't know well (and impossible if the person doesn't text or if it's a business call) so it doesn't work in all situations.
To my loved ones:
Please understand that I want to reach out to you so much more than I actually do. I think about it many times during the day but if I'm having a hard time with anxiety, making that initial contact with you can take more effort than I have, especially with all of the anxiety that COVID-19 has brought. Don't forget about me and reach out to me, as when I'm in this state I can take calls and texts... I just can't make them myself.
When I'm depressed...
Depression is a time that it's hard for me to communicate with others no matter what. However, when I'm really depressed (and sometimes when I'm really anxious), I need to know you are there for me more than ever.
Clinical depression is a state where you often literally can't make yourself do what you want to do or enjoy. Concentration issues, crying, feeling hopeless, apathy, and irritability are other common symptoms.
During a depressive phase, I need to know that someone cares while at the same time I don't want to burden others with how I feel. I don't want to snap at you because I'm so frustrated I can't stand it or spend an entire conversation on the phone crying.
To my loved ones...
If we haven't communicated in a while, please make the effort to reach out to me. If you call, know that I might not be able to talk. Talk to me. Tell me about your day. Something as simple as listening to you breathe while you watch tv can help, even if neither of us says a word. It's a reminder that someone is out there and cares when I feel so alone. If I'm severely depressed, a phone call at the right time can literally save my life (and actually did for my daughter).
So what do you do when the one you love is like me and has multiple issues that each take different strategies to overcome? I have talked to my boyfriend, daughter, and friends when I am in a good mental health state about these issues so they know how to respond when I'm not. I also never mind being asked at the beginning of a conversation where I am with my mental health, so ask if that's an option in your situation.
Just don't give up on those you love with mental issues, ESPECIALLY during this fearful time in history. We need you now more than ever.
(At least I don't have to worry about my agoraphobia, as there are no crowds right now! 😅)