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Friendship and Mental Illness: Ending Isolation Isn’t Easy

Living with  a mental illness can sometimes make us feel as if we don’t “measure-up” to other people. To people we do not know but wish to know. Or to people we know well. Mental illness can create an isolating and lonely life, void of friendship, of meaningful relationships.

Isolation and Mental Illness: What Friendships?

Mental illness can make friendships difficult and create isolation. This isn't good for anyone. Here are some ideas to help you get past the desire to isolate.When you are diagnosed with a mental illness it can feel like you have landed on a different planet: “The Land of The Mentally Ill.” Nobody really wants to arrive here– Disneyland sounds a bit better, maybe an abandoned island?–but sometimes we do and when we do we feel isolated. We feel as if we cannot be loved.

Suddenly we have a “label” and we frequent our pharmacist and psychiatrist more then we would like. Our lives are suddenly different now, they can feel alien to us, and so can our relationships with people, our friendships.

We might isolate ourselves because we fear rejection; like a bear that hibernates, we might rather be inside where it’s warm, where we feel safe.

Friendships and Mental Illness

I’ve never been very good at this one. I became an addict, in part, because I had no idea how to form relationships. My mental illness made me feel like damaged goods. As if nobody could love me—love me.

I’m still not good at this. It is confusing!

I know a lovely woman, completely accepting and understanding, who tries to coax me out of my shell. We have gone to lunch a couple of times; spent hours in Starbucks. But it’s hard. I know I like spending time with her, I feel better after, she is funny, smart and pretty. She makes me laugh. I make her laugh, but my natural inclination is to hide. And maybe that is “The Writer” in me but it is more likely that I still feel ashamed (Self-Stigma: When Mental Illness Stigma Comes From Within).

I cannot lie to you. I struggle with acceptance over ten years past my diagnosis. It’s getting better; it does for all of us.

Friendship is rarely easy for anyone who has a heartbeat, at least not at first, and getting to know someone is hard. Not just for us. We are in large company and we are not as different as we think.

Letting People Into Your Life Even If You Have a Mental Illness

Sounds great, right?

Mental illness can make friendships difficult and create isolation. This isn't good for anyone. Here are some ideas to help you get past the desire to isolate.Picture this: You are at home, in your best clothing and with a recently vacuumed carpet, when you hear a knock at the door. Rat tat tat. You walk over, look in the peep-hole and see a few people. They are smiling, bearing lovely wrapped gifts, and wearing shirts that state: “LET’S BE FRIENDS!” You let them in and it is like you have known them your entire life! Strangely, you have everything in common!

Yeah, right. If only…If only it were so easy! As mentioned, I still struggle and perhaps you do as well. How can we let people in? How can we form friendships?

A few ideas to consider…

>Remember that you are not a label. You are (insert name here) and you like certain things and have specific hobbies.

>Remember that you have a lot to offer someone else.

>You are not damaged goods, rather, you have worked hard to obtain stability.

>We all struggle, it’s the human condition, it builds character. And you have a heck of a lot of it!

>Healthy relationships are an important part of self-care. Working to find them, maintain them, builds our confidence.

And finally…you deserve friendships and those you choose to spend time with are lucky, you have a lot of offer. Just give it a shot.

Ask yourself: “What do I have to lose?”

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25 thoughts on “Friendship and Mental Illness: Ending Isolation Isn’t Easy”

  1. Relationships, ANY kind, are difficult for me. On a few different levels and for a few different reasons, I just don’t understand relationships. Many times I feel lost and confused and thinking that I shouldn’t even bother. Articles like this though make me feel less alone and encourage me to not give up. Thanks for that Natalie.

  2. I have tried so hard to make friends. I meet people and start talking. We exchange names to connect on Facebook… and that’s the end. Never to be heard from again. I’ve even exchanged phone numbers.

    There are people i’ve been “friends” with since high school. They live less than 5 miles from my house. I constantly hear “oh we should get together”, “oh you should come over sometime”, “let’s get together soon”… yeah right. Never happens.

    I even have 28 “friends” on Facebook. You know how many message me or leave stuff on my wall? ONE. My husband. That’s it. No one tries to chat with me. No one leaves me messages or cute pictures. What’s the point? The only email i get is spam. The only time my phone rings it’s either a computerized call from my psych clinic to confirm an appt or it’s my mom.

    On Friday i won’t even have internet at home anymore. So i will be further isolated when i am home. But i’ve gotten used to the isolation. My bed, tv, stuffed bear, and my cat are my best friends. And you know what? At least THEY won’t leave me. THEY won’t judge me. (Yeah.. i know.. the first 3 are inanimate objects..but you get the point). I’ve become bitter, angry and resentful. I’ve given up. It’s really not worth the effort anymore. It is what it is and i can’t change it.

    1. Hi, Linda
      Sometimes, you are right, it’s the little things—our pets, a warm bed–that make isolation a bit easier. I know it’s hard not to just give up entirely but sometimes I like to think people come into our lives at important times…
      Thank you for the comment,

  3. Same thing happens to me; nothing ever materializes. I’ve stopped getting upset over it and just read a lot and watch movies and enjoy what I have. When I had more people in my life, it wasn’t always fun. I try to remember how chaotic and mixed up people can be … and I find peace in not having obligations now and having so much freedom. I still feel isolated, but I don’t let it make me unhappy anymore. You can’t make people want to be with you, no matter how nice or good you are. Many people like fight & provoke. I can’t be around that and be happy. Just remember that people might be fighting with each other and not really having fun; we tend to think they are all having fun 24/7 — they aren’t. Enjoy the peace and quiet you have — get creative and take up a hobby or two that entertains you and relax, breathe, float. Don’t ruin your life by being anxious over things you cannot control. You aren’t defective, you’re just more alone than you are used to. Make the most of it and breathe. Try things you have never tried & make it an opportunity to grow a new you.

    1. Hi, KLM:
      I find that I really like time alone, reading and watching movies as you mention. There is nothing wrong with it. People are all so different…We all find peace in different ways. Great advice on taking up a hobby and understanding that having a mental illness does not make us defective.
      Thanks for the great comment,




  5. A great way to help with these feelings and the resulting isolation is to get a dog. A dog’s unconditional love does great things for one’s self esteem and a dog is a real conversation starter in any situation, especially an unusual looking dog. I have suffered from isolation and yet am now able to travel the U.S. full-time without becoming isolated, primarily because my psychiatric service dog, a standard poodle with a wild haircut, goes with me everywhere and starts scores of conversations every month. Even if a service dog is too revealing for someone a psych disability entitles one to an emotional support animal (pet) in no-pets housing in the U.S. without deposits or fees. Larry Davidson, a professor at Yale wrote an essay about how differently we see ourselves and the world sees us when we’re walking a dog versus walking down the street alone. A link to that essay and to other interesting links on emotional support animals and service dogs can be found on my outreach website at http://www.servicepoodle.com/useful-links-1/miscellaneous-useful-links

  6. Thanks for everyone’s feedback. Joanne, I was not aware of such a dog service or laws, so thank you for that information. I think we are under pressure to all be very social and outgoing, to all fit one mold. Truth is, we all process incoming information differently and have different responses. Much of it shaped by our parents. I find people hard to navigate and sometimes I cannot speak up for myself. This ends up making me feel worse and frustrated. I have learned about boundaries and have weeded out some toxic people and stopped being in a toxic profession. These were choices I had to make, and as a result, I am more isolated. Do I want to go back? NO!
    I try to remind myself that life really is a journey and what I have now will not be what I have later, as it different in the past. I do not have to be the person my parents controlled. Try to enjoy the time you have now, even if it is not exactly how you want it to be. Or maybe you need to assess things you need to change in order to make your life more comfortable for you. I found a book on introverts: I have not read it yet, but here is something you can check out … “QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain. Other authors I have read who have helped me are Alice Miller, Victoria Secunda and Dr. Gerald Newmark. Good Luck and Love to all of you, Kim.

  7. Ironically, it was my insecurities, my not accepting that this person wanted my friendship, and actually did love me, that ruined our relationship. It became a self fulfilling prophecy. I ended up driving her away. I never shared that much intimacy, or opened myself up that much to another friend before or since, nor had I ever experienced so much pain, during or since the relationship ended. I am not the same person today. I have made and accepted other relationships. I have learned to love myself and others. I am far more relaxed. I am happy and I love my friends and accept that they love and accept me.

  8. I can relate to most comments. Linda, at least you tried; I can’t even force myself to sign up for facebook or any social media site. Its like I fear someone getting to know me. So many people who I thought were my friends have mistreated me and abused my kindness which makes it hard to reach out. My husband and I have no friends though we each desire them (especially him). Now that I’m healthier, I would like to find some friends but its difficult to put oneself out there.

    1. Hi, Janice
      I understand completely. I find it’s helpful to take really small steps, “baby steps” for lack of a better term, in order to make progress. Remember you are not alone in this.
      Thank you for the comment,

  9. Depression is a painful and isolating disease, and mental illness is a source of derision for many insensitive people. Cocky people can love to place the “crazy” tag on people, and these same people can actually be the source of some of your “craziness” as their abuse tends to escalate as your mood and self-confidence declines. In such circumstances, say goodbye and do not look back as these people are not supportive friends. Knowledge is power, and when you feel well again seems the best time to learn about ways to stay well and avoid relapse. As for loneliness and isolation: introverts can be exhausted by the incessant chatter and demands of extroverts, and depression saps your energy and ability to tolerate draining or demanding people. A Catch 22 situation where you may feel obliged to seek company to avoid isolation but the very company you enter can make you feel worse. To be honest, most people feel exhausted after being talked at… Becoming a good listener and showing genuine interest in other people and their feelings and interests seems the core to developing ties. Learn that you have a right to put your needs first and take a break if you feel stress mounting. Self-care involves learning to say no to anything that may harm you. Part of why you may develop depression or agitation is due to feeling overly obliged to put others’ needs before your own. Hence why many people in caring professions experience stress and burnout. Depression is not all in your head, but there are healthy ways to minimise its impact.

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