One of the mental health conditions I deal with is social anxiety. So, you would probably think that I rejoiced when the CDC guidelines came down about social isolation. However, that’s far from the truth.
Social anxiety doesn't mean I want to be a hermit. I still crave human interaction, just not all types (like crowds, small talk or making phone calls). The amount of anxiety I feel about social situations varies depending on where I am with my other mental health issues. In fact, with everything going on, I actually need social contact now more than ever.
In addition to social anxiety, I have bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder and agoraphobia. Each condition causes me to react differently to this period of social isolation based on my individual symptoms.
Here is how each of my symptoms affects me during this time, and what I want loved ones to know.
When I’m manic
I get hyper-focused on multi-tasking. In this case, when a friend reaches out to me, I often ignore the phone call or text until a later time "when I'm finished."
It's not that I'm ignoring that person. I often really want to touch base, especially now when there's so little regular human interaction taking place. It's just that once my brain is locked on accomplishing certain tasks right now, I can't quickly switch out of that mode.
In my mind, I always think I'm almost finished and will call or text that person right back. But then one of these outcomes usually occurs:
- I take longer than I thought I would to complete the tasks and the person is no longer available.
- I am absolutely worn out from my frantic focusing and just can't deal with communicating with anyone at that point.
- I forget that they called because the part of my brain that remembers those types of things was being used to keep up with all the tasks I was trying to accomplish.
To my loved ones
Please understand that I’m never ignoring you because I don’t want to hear from you or because I don’t value our relationship. If I did manage to stop what I was doing to take that call or reply to that text, I would be very distracted. My plan is always to wait until I have calmed down from all the “doing” to focus on you. However, it rarely works out that way. If you don’t hear back from me right away, don't assume it's because I don't want to talk. Please reach out again.
When I'm anxious
Another way I'm affected during social isolation is how hard it is for me to reach out to others due to my social anxiety. Making a phone call can take a herculean effort.
I will often put off making a phone call for hours, or until it's too late, even when I really need or want to talk to the person I'm calling. I've always assumed it's because I don't want to disturb that person, but I don't know if that's the actual reason or just one I can deal with. It also may be fear of rejection if they don’t answer the phone. I've tried to overcome it, but I haven't been able to yet.
However, texting is easier to use for initial reaching out, so I will text someone I want to talk to and ask if I can call them.
To my loved ones
Please understand that I want to reach out so much more than I actually do. I think about it throughout the day, but if I'm having a hard time with anxiety, making that initial contact with you can take more effort than I have. Reaching out has been even harder lately, now that I’m experiencing more anxiety because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Don't forget about me. When I'm in this state I can take calls and texts — I just can't always initiate them myself.
When I'm depressed
Depression makes it hard for me to communicate with others generally. However, when I'm really depressed (or really anxious), I need to know you are there for me more than ever.
Clinical depression is a state where you often can't make yourself do what you want to do or enjoy. Concentration issues, crying, feeling hopeless, apathy and irritability are other common symptoms.
During a depressive phase, I need to know that someone cares. At the same time, I don't want to burden others with how I feel. I don't want to snap at you because I'm angry or spend an entire conversation crying.
To my loved ones
If we haven't communicated in a while, please make the effort to reach out to me. If you call, know that I might not be able to talk. Talk to me. Tell me about your day. Something as simple as sitting on the phone with you while you watch TV can help, even if neither of us says a word. It's a reminder that someone is out there and cares when I feel so alone. If I'm severely depressed, a phone call at the right time can literally save my life (and actually has in the past).
So, what do you do when someone you love has multiple illnesses that each take different strategies to overcome? I try to talk to the people I love when I am in a good mental health state, so they know how to respond when I'm struggling. I also don’t mind being asked at the beginning of a conversation where I am with my mental health, so please ask if that option is available to you and your loved one.
Don’t give up on those you love with mental illness, especially during this fearful time. We need you now more than ever.
Tracy Riggs is a professional photographer (www.cmbtphotography.com) and writer. She deals with several invisible illnesses in her and loved ones' lives and is passionate about lessening the stigma of those with invisible illnesses (www.spotlightonstigma.com ). She has one daughter in college and is in a steady relationship with a fellow photographer.