In an earlier post, I discussed the disappearances people with mental illness can make, evaporating stealthily from social circles following psychiatric hospitalizations and treatments. Unfortunately loneliness and alienation have become such ingrained components of the lives of people with mental illness. Not only do prolonged disappearances yield loneliness and alienation due to increasing absence in social circles, but stigma and confusion play a part as well. When mental illnesses present in adolescence, this creates a prime breeding ground for the confusion that cultivates and fosters alienation. Adolescents become confused when their friend and comrade disappear for a short – or even extended – period of time, and for reasons that are foreign, and at times, incomprehensible. If one considers this situation, it may present with partial truth, in a sense, as mental illnesses are complex phenomena that even adults fail to understand. If adults struggle with accepting and understanding mental illness, expecting adolescents to be entirely understanding and cognizant of the gravity and tragic nature of mental illness is a difficult request. However this does not detract from the devastation and hurt felt by adolescents experiencing mental illness who make intermittent disappearances in the course of their treatments and who are ostracized when their symptoms and suffering percolate over, spilling into their academic and social lives, where their peers demonstrate limited understanding and eschew connection with things they just do not relate to or comprehend. As a result of these factors, the social circles surrounding an adolescent experiencing mental illness slowly dissipate, support and friendships disappearing surely and swiftly. In sets the beginning of alienation.
Loneliness and alienation are not restricted to adolescence. Adults also experience disappearances – psychiatric hospitalizations, leaving jobs on disability – all of which affect their work lives and social circles. Loneliness and alienation are such profound experiences, and probably some of the most tragic. Social connection extends beyond superficial engagements, such as coffee at the cafe or a birthday party. Rather it is such an integral part of human existence, providing sustenance to our minds and spirits, and the absence of this connection is debilitating. People with mental illnesses experience this social ostracism and alienation, which peg away at their ability to push forward and, in fact, can hinder treatment and recovery. I believe people have the power to be incognizant of the increasing distance they are placing between themselves and a friend or loved one with a mental illness, but recognizing this is imperative. Loneliness is a crippling experience and is the antithesis to mental and emotional wellness.
Since adolescence, I have been battling the loneliness and alienation associated with having a mental illness. I was lively and social with many friends in middle school, but when I hit my freshman year of high school, circumstances drastically changed. About a month and a half into the term, I was suddenly hospitalized in the adolescent psychiatric unit at UCLA. Thus I made a quick and silent exit from both my studies and my social circles. I spent nearly five weeks in inpatient care before I was discharged, not long before Christmas. I was psychotic, I was catatonic, and I was severely depressed. My diagnosis was confirmed as bipolar, and after numerous medications trials, I was deemed well enough to reenter the “real” world once again. The rumors surrounding my absence were numerous, and it was at this point that alienation began to ensue.
As the school year passed, I experienced four more hospitalizations for mania, psychosis, depression, and often times a simultaneous combination of the three. Needless to say, my completion of my freshman year was quite difficult. I tried to reenter my social circles sophomore year of high school, but my debilitating symptoms continued. It was at this point that the deterioration of my social supports became severely exacerbated. I felt as though I had lost many of the friends I had previously had, and this feeling only worsened. I switched schools in attempts to have a fresh start, but that was to no avail. Friendships never returned, and the loneliness and isolation became constant and devitalizing components of my life.
At this point in my life, I would love to say that I have rebuilt and revamped friendships and reestablished my presence in social circles, flying high as quite the social butterfly, but I still battle the loneliness and stigma that have seemingly forever plagued my life, although thankfully to lesser degree. While my significant friendships are few and far between, I feel as though I am gaining some sustenance, but my soul cries for more. I wish I could regain the social breadth and confidence I held in my middle school years – no, I yearn for it with such intensity, expending my emotional energy and resources. While I am slowly rebuilding and regaining relationships, but still feeling the pangs loneliness and alienation have wrought on my life, I am ever increasingly seeing the importance of implementing efforts to educate people about mental illness in order to erase confusion and stigma. Perhaps a greater understanding of mental illness would work to abate the loneliness and alienation that can occur and threaten the wellbeing of those experiencing mental illness.