Hey, You. Yeah - You. You, sitting there, thinking you're the only one.
Today I was reminded that we all feel like we're alone in our troubles sometimes (or most of the time). Over time we learn a few things. First, I think we begin to learn which things we have reasonable control over - like our choices. Second, I think we learn that we find solidarity in open, honest dialogue. I love this picture, but isn't he a lonely little bug? I feel exactly like him sometimes . . . all alone, hanging on for dear life. You feel like that, too, some days. I know it for sure. So, we're going to talk about that today, Reader.
A good friend of mine bravely voiced some feelings of loneliness this afternoon in hopes that others might help with ideas about bridging this social gap. Because of the magical universe that is the internet, I got to watch other people as they responded to this statement. Now, this friend is probably one of the most brilliant and talented folks I know. Funny and smart and full of artistic ambition. And honest, thank goodness. People responded to my friend with all sorts of advice. People were clearly thinking about this. It was not new territory. But for my friend, who is looked up to by plenty of people, to share that this was a struggle? That was fantastic! That was freedom served up on a silver platter. I wonder if my friend knows that . . . that he initiated a freeing conversation that probably helped somebody else?
We create isolation for ourselves sometimes. I do recognize that some isolation is the direct result of circumstance, and often we don't get to exercise control over our circumstances. But when we do find ourselves in a situation that involves a certain amount of choice, we have an opportunity to seek health.
Striking the right balance of social connection and rest has so much to do with our well being. For most of us it seems to start with figuring out whether or not we're an introvert or an extrovert, and then making choices about the management of our social energy (being an introvert does not mean we don't like people - it just means we get our energy from being alone rather than from being with people).
When we know ourselves a little better we're more able to know others well. We are also able to properly plan to spend or gather energy to do the things we want to, socially. Hey - if you're trying to create some sort of art or you have ambitions within your family and career, then you are going to need to know yourself in order to know how to help yourself.
I know all of this because:
a) I'm an introvert married to an introvert and we had to learn coping skills so we wouldn't go bananas early on. And . . .
b) I've gone to counseling for depression and anxiety. I'll probably go again (I'm already thinking it'll be a good idea to check in over the summer). Counseling is something just about everybody would benefit from. It's not a declaration of insanity go to counseling - it's an admission that you need to learn more about how to support yourself in a healthy lifestyle. I'm gonna say it again . . . for the ten thousandth time: IT IS OK TO SEEK COUNSELING SERVICES. IT IS WAY MORE NORMAL THAN YOU PROBABLY THINK.
There's a sunrise somewhere beyond all that fog we're trying to travel through. Sometimes an outside perspective is all we need to get there. It's a "teach a man to fish" sort of situation. Counseling ought to give us the tools we need to get where we want to go.
And now, it's story time with Sarah:
A few months ago I was going through a season of frequent panic attacks. It was intense. It was every single day. They were not like the panic attacks I used to have. They were worse. I almost could not hide them, and hiding my panic used to be a "strength" of mine.
Facebook made it worse.
My family moved churches this year, which changed our social landscape a lot. Facebook was full of pictures during December that reminded me how many of my old friends were still hanging out . . . but I wasn't hanging out with them. I was home taking care of the baby, holding down the fort while my husband traveled for work. Then we lost my grandmother, and before her we'd sustained other losses. It had been a tough year, all around. I was feeling burned out and purposeless. I was lonely even though I spent work days surrounded by kind people. It was the beginning of "the blues," which is my nickname for something that usually turns into actual depression. Anxiety was just one face of the same coin.
I found myself home alone one night. The baby was asleep in the nursery. I was experiencing a horrible panic attack. I didn't know why. I was on the floor of the kitchen, in my pajamas, clutching at my throat, feeling like somebody was physically strangling me, and wondering if I'd maybe gone insane. So I texted my anxiety buddy - my friend who I am able to talk about these things with. And I told her exactly what was going on. She called me. She talked to me about how normal it was for somebody living with anxiety. She prayed with me. She reminded me to access some of the coping tools I'd already been offered through counseling. She knew because she'd been there herself; so many of us have and so few of us are willing to say anything.
Hey, Friend! I've been there. I'm still there some days. You feel the lonely blues? I do, too. You feel the weight of worry? I understand. Isn't that like a mental hug? You're not alone. And it's ok to say that you feel the way you do.
Reader, it's always been like this, one way or another.
I was 8 and lonely on the playground at school.
I was 10 and couldn't find a friend to hang out with at lunch.
I was 13 and asking my parents to please let me quit going to church youth group because it was so lonely around all of those other teenagers.
I was 15 and learning how to fake being gregarious. I found a group of friends at school because of common activities. I still felt misunderstood by them almost all the time, but I could work with it.
I was 16 and accepting that I was just "different" so I got kind of outspoken about my thoughts and found a way to be ok with that.
I was 17 and all of my new college friends said I was "innocent" or "naive" and sort of talked down to me. I let them do it. I was super busy, so I felt like that was ok. I still didn't know myself very well. I still didn't know where I'd find people who would really "get me." I was fortunate and found a few special folks in the piano studio there who spoke to me like an equal.
I was almost 19 when I started figuring things out. My then future husband told me that before a person could date anybody else, they should be ok with themselves. I realized that I'd dated an awful lot of people at that point in my life and had almost never been truly ok with myself. I started out on an intentional journey to be ok with myself at that point.
I was 21 and starting grad school in a new city, living alone. It was lonely in every way possible. I didn't go to church almost all year. I didn't have friends outside my classes. I was really depressed and anxious that year. I'm willing to bet that most of my classmates didn't know it. We usually can't tell when these things are happening to another person.
I was 22 and newly married, still in school. That was 2010/2011. I started writing songs that year. I was still often lonely (being married does not solve every personal problem, friends, even though marriage is nice). I still often struggled with anxiety, but I didn't know what to call it yet. It was a visceral experience. The physical experience of anxiety and depression is real. It's not imaginary.
I didn't know exactly what to call my anxiety until just last year. I really only went to counseling because there was so much new stress at home - I had a baby to take care of. I knew I needed some extra support and I was running out of steam with all of my old coping mechanisms. Because we have some wonderful counselors in our family, I didn't feel strange about calling a counselor to set up an appointment. The hardest thing was convincing myself to make time for self care.
"But you're a Christian, Sarah! Why didn't you just pray about it?"
Oh, I did. I prayed a lot. I prayed for years and years. And these days I pray an awful lot of thanksgiving up to God for the good gift of my counselor and the time I was able to take to address my emotional health. I'll pray prayers of thanksgiving when I need to access those services again. I'm sure that I will. I truly believe that God has gifted some folks to help others in this way, and I believe it's a miracle when we're connected with those who can offer words of healing and coping tools to us.
You're not alone.
Not at all.
But you might feel lonely.
It's a real feeling.
And you might need to be around people more often. You might need a better support network. It's possible that all of this is true.
That's alright, Friend. You have the power to reach out and build that. Step 1 is saying, "I feel loneliness/sadness/fear/worry/anxiety and I want to feel supported and known." Then you seek out friends, activities, support, and knowledge.
Maybe you need to get out a bit more. Maybe you need to join a club. Maybe you need to join a club and access some counseling services - do you go to a college or work for an educational institution? Usually emotional health services are offered to students and employees of institutions like these. Do you have insurance that can help you find a therapist? Check on that. It's not hard to get that information.
Maybe you already have some pretty good friends or some comfortable acquaintances, but you're not so quick to reach out and ask to do activities with them. Yes. I get this one. Big time. Maybe start by asking somebody to join you for a meal before or after a shared class/activity. Maybe create an event yourself: i.e. a jam session of friends (if you're a musician) or an excursion to some sort of concert or exhibit or something with a bunch of others. Sometimes this doesn't pan out, but it's worth trying more than once. Trust me. I have been there. It's ok. You're going to be ok even if the first thing you try doesn't work. For those of us who are not naturally outgoing, this is very difficult. But it's worthwhile to use our energy this way.
Friend, whoever you are, you're not the only one. There are other people feeling this feeling. It's not imaginary. By admitting that you feel the way you do, you're taking step 1 and that is a good thing.