When we need people the most, sometimes we withdraw because of our mental illnesses.
|Thanks to the media, 'withdrawal' is a term most often attached to drug addiction, so I need to be clear that I am talking about withdrawing from other people, and that this doesn't have anything to do with drugs. I hope that this can nonetheless help others, even those who have suffered through that painful process.
After reading through the excellent book The Bipolar Disorder Survival Guide by David J. Miklowitz, Ph.D., I have realized that many of those of us with bipolar disorder or depression are very prone from withdrawing from other people as we feel episodes of mania or depression coming on. I know that I am certainly guilty of this; the more depressed and lonely I feel, the more I convince myself that my illness and emotional state are too much of a burden for others to deal with.
In full withdrawal-mode, I spend hours hiding in my bedroom on the computer, usually killing time by binge-watching television or playing video games (the former when I am depressed, the latter when I am manic). I avoid social situations, making excuses for why I can't go out, but the truth is that I just don't want to. These times when I am most set on avoiding others are the times when I most need that support, that social element, and the simple enjoyment of doing pleasant activities.
This is not healthy, of course, and it only serves to compound whatever mental state is taking root in my brain. Alone with nothing but my thoughts, I have very little to keep myself from spiraling, whether the direction is up or down. Being alone when depressed adds to my loneliness and despair, and being alone when I am manic builds the anxiety and energy that characterize the worst elements of that state.
These days, I can readily see myself withdrawing from others, but unfortunately I have yet to figure out how to stop it. Asking for help is one of the most difficult things we can face in our lives, and those of us with mental illness have to face it more than most. Sadly, this tends to increase those feelings that we are a burden to others, and that we are somehow 'not right' or unworthy of friends, family, or romantic partners, much less their aid.
Yet studies have indicated for years now that having a good social support system helps people to recover more quickly from depressive episodes, and having people close to you to notice the shifts toward mania can help to head it off before it results in hospitalization or worse. All of this information is important, of course, to helping us recover from the ups and downs of our illnesses, but sometimes what you know and what you feel are so different that they might as well exist on opposite ends of the galaxy.
The stigmas and discrimination that those of us with mental illness face often cause a lot of difficulty in trusting others. Years ago, someone asked me if I could name one person I trusted and I answered 'no' without hesitation. Now, I have learned that I am one of the lucky few with a family who cares enough to educate themselves so they can better support me, but I still have trouble trusting them with my worst feelings.
For example, right now I am swinging back up towards mania. I keep clenching my teeth, my sleep is restless, and I am full of irritable energy that makes it difficult to focus on one task for a long period of time. I haven't actually said anything to any of my family members; this is actually the first time I have admitted to this buildup of symptoms to anyone. I keep telling myself that I am controlling my behavior, my diet, and my sleep to the best of my abilities, but if I am completely honest with myself, I am a ticking time bomb.
This habit of withdrawing from others is by far and away one of the worst things I do for my illness, quite possibly worse than the substance abuse I used to take part in, perhaps even on a footing with previous refusals to take my medication. I have discussed it with my therapist, but only just last week, and now I am writing about it in an effort to gain clarity and insight, but also to provide it to others who might have the same or similar issues.
I can't continue this pattern if I want to control my illness and live a decent life, and neither can anyone else in a similar situation. I do not want to live waiting for the next explosion of mania or depression, and I doubt anyone else does, either. So it's time for me to take my own advice, and reach out. When it's hardest to do something, it's probably a sign that it's the right thing to do.