Visions Journal, 2019, 14 (3), pp. 8-10
Loneliness and the desire for human connection is something we all experience at some point in our lives. However, for a person living with a mood disorder, feeling lonely and wanting social connectedness is common. I live with a mood disorder, and for me, feeling lonely and craving social connection has been true more often than not. But living a healthy life when you have a mood disorder also limits how you can make social connections—for many reasons. I've learned a few tricks over the years, and I hope my experience will be helpful to readers who face similar challenges.
Accepting limitation in my life
Because of my mood disorder, I live a very ordered and regimented life; I've learned that doing so helps me stay well. I eat at regular times, I pace my activities and I make sure to get enough consistent sleep. This limits what I can do, especially socially.
I am naturally an introvert. While I like to be social, I'm only social to a point. I need alone time to re-charge and focus. I prefer one-on-one or small-group interactions.
I also have financial limitations. I am on permanent long-term disability (LTD) from my profession in a health care–related field. My illness can be unpredictable and complex, which is why I cannot work. Being on LTD limits my income, which limits my ability to engage in certain social activities with friends and in other areas of my life. In the past when I’ve been unwell, I have accumulated debt—something I am not proud of. I am still paying this debt off, and this contributes to my overall stress and limits my financial freedom.
When I first meet new people, I usually don't tell them about my mood disorder. Bipolar disorder 1 is still socially stigmatized, and like most human beings, I have a yearning for social acceptance. I like people to get to know me for my positive qualities, the real me, without the fact of my illness clouding their judgement.
Over time, I have found ways to remain socially connected to others, despite my limitations. When I am well, I have most of my energy from the morning until late afternoon, so I plan my activities to take advantage of this natural energy cycle.
I also have to take medication around the same time each evening, which increases my fatigue at the end of the day. Taking the medication later isn't really an option, because doing so increases the possibility of a hangover effect, which interferes with the following day's activities.
Sometimes it frustrates me that I don't have a lot of energy in the evening, as this is when many social activities take place. This means I cannot participate in as many activities as I would like, but I have learned to work within my limits, and people who know me well understand this and make plans with me during the times that work for me.
Another way that I combat loneliness is by attending a retreat centre for four or five days at a time. My retreat centre is Christian-based and allows me to focus on personal, creative projects in an atmosphere that is welcoming and supportive but not socially taxing. Going on retreat has become part of my life routine. I enjoy the solitude—connecting with myself without feeling lonely—and each time I go, I have a different, powerful experience. But I have to budget carefully in order to make it happen.
When I feel lonely at home, I do my best to distract myself in simple ways: sometimes I go for a drive or go grocery shopping, or I visit with select friends. I also get support from my medical professionals. I turn my appointment days into outings. Meeting with these people gives me the opportunity to discuss honestly how I am doing and what I need, any symptoms I may be having and strategies to manage my life in a positive way, and new research developments. My practitioners treat me as a human being with unique strengths, which is not always the case for those of us with mental health conditions.
Attending church services and activities is another way I connect to people, God and the world. Being with my friends and meeting new people is very meaningful. It strengthens my inner being and leads me to new discoveries about myself and others. Recently, I began attending the church that many of my friends go to, where I have been embraced and accepted despite my illness, which has made a world of difference. I have even been asked to contribute to the church’s new health newsletter, on mental health and wellness themes.
Volunteering has also become an important part of my life and helps me combat loneliness. Currently, I volunteer with a few organizations in the mental health field, providing education support for professionals and doing community outreach and public presentations, with the aim of advocating for improved access to mental health care services. While some of my volunteer work is done through email, I still feel connected with my colleagues and valued for the work I do. I have received positive feedback and ongoing support, and I believe my volunteering is contributing to my wellness.
Continuing to live well despite challenges
Being in an acute phase of my illness is still challenging. When my mood is low, my body feels heavy and I do not have much desire to engage with the world, no matter what the time of day. This is when I have to push myself very hard to be social, usually selectively social. It is often difficult, but I try my best. At times like this, I find it particularly difficult to connect with those of my friends who don't yet know about my illness. At the same time, the continuing stigma of mental illness keeps me from sharing my struggles with my entire social circle. That is why I really cherish the understanding and support of those who do know of my illness and who continue to value my time and my friendship.
Being in an "up" mood frequently comes with its own challenges. Sometimes I am overly friendly, and sometimes I am agitated and can't sit still. I may talk too quickly, or spend too much money or have thoughts of self-importance. I am also very energetic. Sometimes my feelings are so powerful that the energy seems like it could leak out of the edges of my body. But I have learned to recognize these symptoms as part of the rhythm of bipolar disorder, and I have developed ways to address them. Sometimes I seek medical help, and sometimes I simply withdraw from social interactions until my mood settles. My illness tends to be most challenging in the fall and winter months, so I’m always more alert to mood changes at this time of year. I focus on appreciating the days when I am well and being grateful for medical intervention when I need it.
As I write this today, I have been well overall for several months. My illness doesn't define me and I am a productive member of society. I enjoy my volunteer work and do not miss my professional career the way I used to. I have the support of my medical professionals, family and friends near and far and my young adult godson. This is truly a blessing and makes a difference in my life. With some personal persistence and support from others, people with mental health conditions can thrive socially, despite any limitations they may have. It is possible!
About the author
Kathy lives in the Lower Mainland. She enjoys time with others, her volunteer work and her hobbies, which include photography, reading, writing, art projects and Aquafit. She is passionate about helping others achieve their potential and receive the care they need. She believes in the power of the human spirit