Isolation

By Henry Boy Jenkins

psychoSuperman’s Fortress of Solitude. The Batcave. Croft Manor. All places of retreat, from the realm of baddies to a world that misunderstands. A place to think, a place to take off the mask. A sanctuary. An isolated place. Great for superheroes. Not so good for a person with a mental disorder.

It’s not as if stigma doesn’t isolate us enough. We might chose to be alone, take a little down-time; we have that in common with everyone. It’s when our symptoms dictate the isolation that the trouble starts. It goes against the human condition. We hairless apes are a cultural lot. We commingle, cohab, cowork, and cooperate. To be isolated beyond a natural moment of solace is to be lost in a black hole of Why Am I Here. It’s not only counterintuitive, it’s harmful.

While I’ve been going through a recent adjustment to my new medications, I’ve run through the checklist of initial side effects of this oppressive flatness to the world around me. Where did I leave my emotions? Where did I hide my excitement and joy? Why bother trying to look for those lost attributes? They’re not in the sock drawer or the dryer. I want to give up but I don’t want to. It’s as perplexing as it is annoying, and I know I need to ride it out. Just when I think I’m getting the hang of it, I find an old symptom resurfacing, and it takes outside help to bring it to my attention. As in, my best friend contacting me after ten days and saying, “HB—where have you been?” A couple of coffee dates with friends and I’m aware from their concern that I stumbled down the rabbit hole without even noticing. Never mind that I missed therapy or got into the habit of sleeping away my worries and depression. I broke my pact to call myself out to my friends when I was letting the bed win. I didn’t care enough to care or not to. I just hung out in my lair with my tech and my snacks. I wanted to be alone, except that I didn’t. I didn’t want anyone to contact me, except that I did. I didn’t want to isolate, but it was all I knew to do. So I stayed in. A lot. No one to talk to—no texts, no calls, no social media, no contact. The blandness of it staggers the imagination. And I didn’t want any of it.

Isolation in schizophrenia is considered to be a red flag. It is a warning sign that other symptoms may be cropping up. Withdrawal from social activities might trigger paranoiac thoughts, suspicious behavior, emotionlessness, or deterioration in personal hygiene. Isolation may stem from high levels of social stress. The loss of social contact itself is one of the most devastating aspects of the symptom of isolation. And it’s not exclusive to schizophrenia; that just happens to be my diagnosis and this blog is about my personal experiences. I have friends who live with chronic depression and bipolar disorder who frequently discuss their symptoms of isolation.

Unconsciously removing ourselves from the stream of life because we can’t find a foothold in its opportunities affords us no chance at the rewards or benefits of the normal life we seek through our regimens of medication, talk therapy, diet, and exercise. I’m not one to dig in my heels and brat out. I’m actually surprised to find myself hunkered in the bunker awaiting word from the outside that I’ve been gone. More surprising still is the news that I’m actually loved despite my awkward disappearance, that the world isn’t as flat as my symptoms tell me, and that people genuinely want to be with me, to interact with me, because I’m a good person regardless of what my symptoms say.

Last week I talked with my sister. I thought it had been a few months, like since my last hospital stay. She said it had been more like two years. I couldn’t comprehend it. The problem was that my mind had fixated on the idea that she didn’t like me and that no matter what I said or did, she never would. Which wasn’t true. That was paranoia. That was my illness. I reached out to her during this last bout with isolation, as an attempt to make contact with someone I love. My mental disorder had stolen all that time from me and robbed me of my family. Isolation in the long term ruining my life, and my having had no say in it because my illness decided, not me. Now there’s opportunity for change. It only took a phone call.

The secret hide out is fine for superheroes. For us mortals with mental disorders it can be a prison. Let’s remember to check in with our friends and families and be bigger than the stigma and stronger than the symptoms. I’d rather save the day from darkness than let it swallow me whole.

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