Some people say they need time to be alone to maintain their sanity. I am not one of those people. The more I isolate myself is often a sign that things are not going well. More often than not, it's a sign that there is something very wrong in my life if I haven't left my house all day.
But that begs a bigger question, a tendency I see in not only myself, but also the people I'm close with: why do we isolate when life sucks? Why do depressed people tend to isolate more, and what can we do when we're in that situation and we recognize we are withdrawing and isolating?
A simple reason is that isolating ourselves is what we perceive as avoiding risk. Things are so bad, we believe, that we don't want to risk anything that could make our situations worse. It is a fact, in our minds, that revealing how we feel or revealing the circumstances that led us to feel as we do to someone is an action that can ruin us and put us into unknown and uncertain territory. It would rob us of control in a time when we don't have control over anything.
Withdrawing is a band-aid solution that isn't going to help long-term. I know that; you know that; everyone knows that. However, we choose it not by choice. We choose it because the band-aid is the best solution we have right now. Isolation and loneliness mean it will get worse, that our minds will venture into darker and darker places. We see ourselves doing this; but doing something to change it takes all our effort.
In a particularly moving account of this vicious cycle of depression and isolation, Jacob Durn, a contributor to The Mighty, writes that "my mind shuts down and refuses to let me leave the house the next day. When it's spontaneous like this, there's no way of telling people." Dunn, when he has these depressive and anxious episodes, states that he has an urge to scream into the faces of everyone around him when life is like this, and shout something like "Why do I have to live like this?"
So, the best thing to do, in his mind, is to "compartmentalize the life around me and hide away from it." However, he acknowledges the paradox that "once you lock yourself in your room and resist leaving, it can become extremely hard to ever do so." The problem, according to Dunn, only worsens from here. First, it's something relatively innocuous, like "I no longer want to do work." Then, it becomes "I don't want to go out," to "I don't want to eat," and then suddenly "I just don't want to live. I don't want to feel this way anymore."
Finally, Dunn comes to summarizing the cycle of anxiety and depression:
"It feels not normal, and it feels devastating. It feels like I'm not right and don't fit in with the status quo anymore. And that's why isolation occurs in the first place. Because our first reaction is not to talk, not to vent. It is to shut ourselves down and wait it out. Even though it didn't work the last time, the first time, or the times in-between."
Dunn's testimony about his cycle of anxiety and depression is powerful, and extremely so. I believe, however, that it is a very human and natural tendency to withdraw when life is hard and we're stressed. We think the less people see of us in our most vulnerable states, the better.
I have made an active effort to not withdraw when life hits in the jugular, but I still fall into the perfectly rational tendency all the time. I tell myself it's easier to do so, because avoiding and escaping life's problems are natural coping mechanisms. But, like everything in excess, withdrawing myself turns toxic, and isolation is one of the most toxic habits we can fall into. Although reflective and introspective, I am very much an extrovert that gains energy from being around others. Being at work for 12 hours feels much less suffocating than being at home for three hours, alone.
So I turn the question inward: why? Why do I isolate and withdraw when life sucks?
One thing is for certain: I don't withdraw when I'm busy or have a lot to do. That excuse is a complete lie, a socially acceptable one I know people tend to accept. I get a lot more done when I'm working in the company of others, so isolation is often a method of self-sabotagingly shooting myself in the foot.
Yet, I also know from experience that isolation isn't just being at home all the time or not being physically present. Sometimes, a greater isolation comes from hiding in plain sight, completely refusing to wear my emotions on my sleeve. "Be a man," I sometimes tell myself to justify this behavior. Most of the time I feel pretty neutral and am just focused on day to day things to do. But then feelings of grief and devastation just hit completely unexpectedly, and what am I supposed to do then? I hide and have mastered the art of hiding in plain sight, because sometimes, that's all I know what to do.
Until recently, isolation in the face of life's difficulties was simply the norm. From my perspective, my family does it, my friends do, and seemingly every person I encountered did. Noticing that someone was "off" was always an indication that I should give that person space instead of reaching out and checking in. Some people really do need space to process thoughts and emotions.
But again, I'm not one of those people. Each situation and individual is complicated. That is also a lesson I learned a long time ago. Sometimes we just don't have the words and can't find them, so we go on pretending like things are normal, even though life has hit us hard.
So I ask myself again - why? To be honest, I don't know. Wouldn't it be great if we can pinpoint one particular reason and solve it? That simply isn't how life works. Sometimes the isolation is a stage we go through, self-imposed or not, until we're actually ready to move onto the next stage. Sometimes the isolation actually is the new norm. But whatever it is, however, we perceive it in our minds, it is not something we choose by choice, but instead something that we're tricked into. We all know that most of the time, it's not helpful and will only put us into a darker place. Yet we're drawn into it time and time again. There's a reason that it's the first instinct and reaction when life gets tough.
I'm one of the people that gets lucky time and time again. It's hard for me to isolate myself, as there are people who are always reaching out and checking up on me, that save me whenever things get dark and unmanageably bad. They stand by me in spite of my flaws and despite all my mistakes, In terms of isolation, these people will not let me fail. I can't keep any secrets from them. They make me realize that the isolation doesn't have to be a bad thing if I can fill that with something more. They give me hope that this is who I can be to others in the future, in both my personal life and my career.
Romans 8:31 says that "if God is with us, who can be against us?" Protestant Christianity's mission is to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and in the context of this article, we can argue that one of its main goals is to resolve the problem of isolation. Because there will inevitably be times in our lives we have no one to turn to, when all we can rely on is God.
So the question here isn't why we isolate, because we'll never have an answer good enough to solve that problem. The question is how we deal with isolation when it suffocates us. From experience, my answer is to hold on to and be vulnerable with the people in our lives too precious to lose.