Social isolation and depression can become a self-fulfilling circle of pain. In fact, I’m still fairly sure that my current depression is caused largely BY my social isolation, especially because it lifted so almost-completely during the month when my sister (and, thus, many other people) was/were staying with us.
I had a book club last night where pretty much everyone, or nearly everyone, had been feeling isolated for one reason or another, and we were all so grateful to be in human company again that we were tripping over each other to connect. It was like having several sudden gulps of air after being held under water for many minutes – heady and thrilling and life-giving and even a little chaotic.
And this is the problem with the sparse, deep-breath connections you have with people when you’re not living in regular community – every interaction becomes fraught with way more meaning and nuance than it should. In last night’s share-fest, there was a certain heightened, ecstatic breathlessness to our conversation, which was (I think, and I hope for everyone) refreshing and affirming and nourishing. But if something had gone wrong, that heightened quality could have turned a social deep breath into a lungful of water.
I’m contrasting last night’s experience with an experience I had a couple months ago, another deep-breath occasion, in which an acquaintance of mine, who is usually bright and affirming, was apparently having some kind of really bad day (I didn’t ask, it wasn’t a deep-sharing kind of gathering, but her energy, if you’ll excuse the word, was very, uncharacteristically negative). She was muddling through the event, but it was clear she wasn’t very happy, and her humor had taken on a caustic edge. She made one joke at my expense that I wasn’t very troubled about, but then 15 minutes later she made another one that really hit home, highlighted an aspect of my personality that I am aware of and insecure about and ashamed of, and I was kind of done for the night after that.
If I still lived in community, if I had friends readily available for convos and comfort, if I were still surrounded by a lot of people who make me feel safe and likeable, I probably could have shaken this off in an evening, maybe two. I’m 90% sure that this acquaintance didn’t mean anything by her comments. But because I didn’t have enough people around to counteract the negative, I couldn’t be 100% sure, and so her comment crushed me. Crushed. Me. Was this what she really thought of me? I’d thought we liked each other. Do other people talk about me like this behind my back? Is this everyone’s primary perception of me? Is everyone secretly just tolerating my presence? I cried for three days. I was inconsolable. My husband tried heroically to make me feel better and failed. Finally I called my sister, and she knew all the right affirming things to say to snap me out of it. (Have I mentioned how awesome my sister is?).
And the other part of this is that because of the social isolation, I’m not even sure it’s worth bringing up with her. When every interaction is precious gold in the hand, is it worth it to risk tainting one of those moments by bringing up something that she probably doesn’t even remember, because she really DIDN’T mean anything by it? Or what if the reverse happens, and it turns out she really secretly DOESN’T like me – we socialize in overlapping circles, it’s not like I can NOT run into her. So that could be awkward – in fact, could taint many more deep breath occasions down the line. Five years ago, I could have easily been a grown-up and just checked in with her, and even if it turned out she didn’t care for me, it wouldn’t have been that big a deal. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have needed to grieve a little, but, you know, you can’t please everyone, and there were plenty of other people to socialize with, just tolerating each other would have been fine. But now I feel like I’ve been transported back to junior high, where her opinion of me matters much more than I’d like to admit, and so the politics become weird and tense, and checking in about a hurtful off-hand comment seems like a very dangerous endeavor.
Living in isolation seriously skews your sense of perspective.
The thing is that I know I have days where I’m the perpetrator rather than the victim of this probably-unintended negativity – days where I am bringing the thunderstorm with me, and good luck to you if you happen to stand in the way. Depression and isolation only make this worse.
And I hope with all my heart that the friends who have been on the other end of that have had healthy enough communities to brush it off – “Meghan shouldn’t have said that, she must be in a really bad place right now, maybe I’ll say something about it next time we see each other,” but I know statistically that’s not true. We are lonely in the West. Mother Theresa thought it was our great tragedy.
I don’t have a good way to finish this post, so I’ll end with a wish – it is my wish for all of you that you have vibrant, supportive communities, that you dwell in an emotional place where you know you are deeply loved and loveable, a spectacular and unrepeatable member of the world.