Mental Illness Wants You To Be Alone…
Sitting on my sofa last weekend, watching some football punditry, I heard a nugget of wisdom I never thought I’d hear on Sky Sports. Sure, their football coverage is thought out and insightful but this piece of wisdom wasn’t actually sport related.
As three ex-footballers sat discussing mental health, in football and in general, Paul Merson, an ex-Arsenal player turned pundit, delivered a line that slotted perfectly into place within my understanding of mental illness.
Speaking on his own experience of struggling with depression and more seriously, addiction, Merson said, ‘addiction wants you to be on your own’ and that makes perfect sense to me. Replace the word addiction with mental illness and its even more understandable.
Think about it, is there any mental illness you can think of that encourages connection and interaction? No, they all, in fact, do the opposite. Forcing us to slowly, bit by bit, cut ourselves off from the people around us.
The two most common mental illnesses’ to do this are depression and anxiety.
Depression is incredibly isolating, persuading us to withdraw from our lives and the people in it. Whether that’s not having the energy for social interaction, being stuck in a rock bottom mood or spending our days locked up at home, without the drive to step outside. Whatever it’s manifestation, depression wants us to be alone.
Anxiety wants the same. It might be a crippling fear of an unlikely scenario that keeps us at home that day, or it could be a sudden panic attack forcing us to withdraw. Perhaps its uncomfort in social situations that prevents us from developing friendships or maybe it’s just that the mood our anxiety creates, saps the enthusiasm for connection from us. Again, whatever it is, anxiety desires our isolation.
Living In Our Heads, spending all our time in a daze, drowning in thoughts, is also heavily linked to isolation. This withdrawal from the real world is a prime example of self-imposed loneliness.
You see, isolation doesn’t have to be physical, in fact, it often isn’t in cases like this. A lot of us who are suffering with some kind of mental illness will still go about our lives in a fairly normal way, following our weekly routines. We have jobs or classes to go to, people that expect to see us and so physically, we often still do the same things. We smile to that person on the street, chat with our friends in class, catch up with our colleagues on a Monday. But there’s something not quite right about it, it all feels a little hollow.
When we are mentally ill, it is common to start living in our heads, to pull back from reality. We attempt to dissociate from the suffering we are experiencing by hiding in our minds. This unconscious action helps us to feel more safe and comfortable, it’s easy, warm and alluring, like a warm cosy living room on a rainy winter night.
Our interaction with people while we’re in this state is numbed. We’re sat in our cosy living room and someone knocks on the window to chat with us. We aren’t willing to let them into the room or even open the window, so instead, we simply talk to them through the glass, cut off and isolated.
This lack of human contact will only make our troubles worse and perhaps spark other forms of mental ill-health.
The connection between mental illness and being alone is not just one way. Isolation can lead to mental illness just as much as mental illness can lead to isolation. Not only can each pave the way to the other but they often exist together, intertwining at the same time, existing and festering in a toxic relationship, where one is a crutch to the other.
Paul Merson isn’t the only one to have discovered this of course, on a very different end of the human spectrum, the Dalai Lama has spoken about our rising loneliness and its link to our unhappiness many times.
‘Too much self centred attitude…brings…isolation. Result: Loneliness, fear, anger. The extreme self-centred attitude is the source of suffering.’ – Dalai Lama
This self-centred attitude has led to the general rise of loneliness in the population, a rise that is an inescapable truth. Loneliness absolutely is and has been on the rise for a while now and the stats back it up.
A 2018 survey from The Economist and the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), [showed that] more than two in ten adults in the United States (22%) and the United Kingdom (23%) say they always or often feel lonely, lack companionship, or feel left out or isolated. – Neil Howe (Forbes)
(And that isn’t even the scariest statistic in the article, if you want to check those out, here’s the link. Millennials and The Loneliness Epidemic)
As I mentioned earlier, the Dalai Lama puts this isolation down to our self-centred living and once again, I’m in full agreement. It happens in two ways, our self focused motivation and the subtle uncomfort of the world it creates.
Our self-focus is pretty straight forward. For the most part, we are self-ish people. In that, we are all very focused on me, me, me. Not in the traditional sense of selfish, I want that toy and I need this and that. No, I won’t lend you any money because I’m Ebenezer Scrooge. What I mean is that we do want things, largely, for ourselves, ie I want this job, I want this much money, I want this house, I want this car, I want love, I want happiness. All of which sounds perfectly reasonable, I mean, I want those things too and though wanting things for ourselves is natural, we do tend to do it in excess and with sole focus, to our detriment.
All of that I, I, I is subtly and slowly isolating, on both a global and personal scale. Constantly thinking about ourselves leaves little time to think about or connect meaningfully with others. Not to mention, such self-centred thinking increases things like anxiety because most of our self-thought is thinking about the future, about what we don’t have and how we’re going to get it, and most of the time we worry about that stuff.
If we were to spend more time thinking about others well-being and acting on achieving that, we would find much more opportunity for human connection and all the good stuff that goes with it, eliminating a huge cause of mental illness.
Part two of the problem takes it from the personal to societal. It is more likely than not, that our self focused thinking is imbued by our self-centred society, one that focuses on money above all else, but I’m actually talking about a different problem.
The world that we live in has become an uncomfortable one for a great many of us. A huge percentage of us exist in relative poverty, in a world that tells us that wealth is the key to happiness. Therefore huge pressures are on us from the age of 18 to work in a job we likely hate, to earn money that will eventually buy us all this happiness and satisfaction. The reality being that most of us will earn just enough to survive.
In fact, the pressures started before all that work, when we had to pass examinations at school and be academically smart if we wanted to get anywhere in life. We have been competing against each other, ultimately for money, since about the age of 11, when we took our first big tests. And these are just two of the many factors that create a general unhappiness in us.
It is no surprise then, that this dissatisfaction with life causes us to dissociate and withdraw into our minds, into our cosy living room, once again isolating ourselves.
So, we can see there are many reasons for this rapid rise in loneliness and it is no coincidence that reports of mental illness have risen at the same time. Mental illness and loneliness struck up a deal to take over the world together, and so far there’s been no stopping them.
This would normally be the part of the article where I would point you towards meditation as a solution for the issue I have been discussing. Unfortunately, a solution for loneliness can’t be solved so simply, and while meditation has many benefits, it is largely a solitary practice.
Meditation, along with mindfulness, will help us to get out of our heads, to step outside of that cosy living room, which is a vital first step in getting connected, but really, that’s as far as meditation and mindfulness will take us in curing loneliness. From there we have to be courageous. It becomes about doing, taking action, getting out there.
The cure for loneliness is connection and to create connection we have to communicate, be open, care, risk and invest. I won’t drag on about the solutions for loneliness because, ultimately, they are very normal, human things that we are all aware of. The only one I will say is talk. Talk to people. Tell your friends and family what’s going on, be open with them, tell people how you feel. Just taking this small step will make a huge difference in both our mental health and loneliness.
It’s small solutions like this that maybe we have been too scared to try, that will make the difference. There are people out there who we can connect with, who we can become great friends with, share memories with… if only we have the courage to find them.
If you have enjoyed this post and think it could benefit someone you know then, please, share it with them, and if there’s someone around you who could use a little connection, why not reach out? You never know what difference you could make.