A young adult’s perspective on social connectedness
Visions Journal, 2019, 14 (3), pp. 11-13
The brain responds to depression as it does to any other illness, directing us to avoid activity—especially social activity—so that the body can focus on simply getting well... But there is one crucial difference: With the flu, such withdrawal symptoms help promote recovery—with depression, it only makes things worse. So, even though depressed patients feel—right down to the core of their being—that pulling away from others is going to help, that is only because their brain has been misled. In effect, depression tricks the brain into thinking it is something akin to an infectious illness that needs to be fought.1
When I first read these lines seven years ago, they resonated with me so strongly that I was never able to forget them. At that time, I was in the midst of an eight-year journey through depression, which to this day still feels like the loneliest road I could ever have travelled. It was a time when I felt that even though I loved socializing and making others laugh, voluntarily isolating myself from friends and family was a necessity for my recovery and survival.
My fear of letting others in was amplified by my fear of being stigmatized for being different. It also felt oddly considerate to separate myself from my loved ones while living under the same roof as them, to put up figurative brick walls in order to stop them from seeing my constant, inexplicable sadness. In my head, the safest bet for me was to lock myself in my bedroom, ruminate for hours in an attempt to understand why I was the way that I was, tell myself to cry it all out and then play it off as if I felt fine, with a set of excuses ready to go. I didn't want my indescribable feelings to affect the people I cared about. My state of loneliness felt not only warranted but necessary at that time in my life—and I grew comfortable with having my ability to socialize slowly slip away.
My experience of loneliness as a young adult was often influenced by my environment. For example, the stresses of university were compounded by the pressures of being the child of a single immigrant mother, who would tell me heart-wrenching stories about how she had to flee her home in search of safety and a better future for me and my siblings. This, along with mounting student loans, the constant side effects of antidepressants and the feeling that I no longer had the skills to form meaningful relationships—when everyone else around me made it look so easy—reinforced the idea that loneliness equated my survival.
The stress of moving to a new city—which in my case meant leaving behind my family and friends in Toronto to pursue another degree in Vancouver at the age of 28—also proved terrifying. I worried whether I would ever find a community or make the connections that I longed for. I knew that forging new friendships and creating strong social bonds was supposed to be fun. Although I believed that, my sense of enjoyment was never great enough to shake the feelings of anxiety that came with making those new social connections.
At that time, I never really knew whom I could share my challenges with, or how my new acquaintances would react to my story. Luckily, I found my partner at that time and felt incredibly fortunate to feel genuinely cared for and not judged negatively for my experiences. She showed me why letting others in was one of the best decisions I've ever made—it gave me the opportunity to meet one of the kindest, most remarkable individuals I could've ever met.
Once school finished and I started working in health care, I came across an article that focused on the difference between loneliness and solitude. The author wrote that loneliness is a combination of self-alienation—or feeling separated from one’s core identity—and a sense of social isolation. It is often accompanied by feelings of physical and emotional distress and pain.2 This description made all my feelings of loneliness flood back. I recognized this as exactly what I felt when I was going through my own mental health challenges.
However, the author also wrote that solitude is a completely different experience, often characterized as refreshing and calming rather than distressing. Solitude is more about one's choice to take time for oneself, to be alone with one's own company. Some say that solitude can be very useful in coping with loneliness,3 giving us time to reflect on what we want and how to go about getting it.
For me, solitude was very helpful in my recovery from depression. Solitude provided me with the time to reflect, to realize that I didn't want to feel sad anymore and that I would do anything to get out of my depressive state and feel genuinely and truly happy.
Solitude also gave me the opportunity to read books to help me understand what depression is, write in a journal, keep thought records and start a regular exercise program. Throughout this period of time, I was very lucky to have loved ones who made sure to remind me how important it was to like myself, that I should always be my own best friend and that at the end of the day, my recovery was for myself. They also showed me that it is okay to laugh, even when we are going through challenging times. Ironically, solitude also revealed to me that one of the most important things in my life is to be more socially connected with my loved ones, the people who make living enjoyable.
If there is one thing that I have learned through all of this, it is that the "lonely path"—whether it be the road towards recovery from a mental health challenge or any other life challenge that comes to mind—doesn't have to be so lonely after all. For me, the keys to recovery were embracing moments of solitude and reframing those times as periods for reflection, making an effort to connect with friends and loved ones—even when I wasn't feeling my best—and spending time trying new things and exercising, which in my case meant immersing myself in the boxing and Muay Thai community. There will always be a sense of risk with trying new things, but from personal experience, I can honestly say there can be a lot of amazing rewards as well.
Looking back, I wish that I had known what other resources and supports were available. Being new to Vancouver, I didn’t know how to navigate the BC mental health system. I would have liked to meet people with lived experiences similar to my own, who really understood what I was going through. This would’ve been incredibly helpful.
If I had known then about the organization that I now work for, FamilySmart®, I would've called a FamilySmart® Youth in Residence (YiR)—a young adult with lived experience of a mental health or substance use challenge—to support me in my journey towards wellness. A FamilySmart® Parent in Residence (PiR) offers the same supports for parents whose children are experiencing mental health challenges. I wish I had known what I know now—that there are skilled individuals out there who are willing to lead with care and compassion and offer a helping hand. All one has to do is ask.
The path towards wellness and connectedness is different for everyone. It is natural to take some time for yourself, laugh along the way, spend time with people you enjoy and feel nervous about trying something new. But there are many others on the same road, and seeking them out might be a step on your path to wellness. Find a route that works for you and keep building those connections with others. Through this, the journey to wellness will not seem so lonely after all.
To connect with a FamilySmart® Parent in Residence or Youth in Residence, visit www.familysmart.ca/programs/parents-and-youth-in-residence.
About the author
Alberto is the Health Literacy Project Manager at FamilySmart®. He lives, works and enjoys life on the unceded traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations (Vancouver, BC). His interests are in mental health promotion, cooking, running and Muay Thai (Thai boxing)
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Bekhet, A.K., Zausznieski, J.A. & Nakhla, W.E. (2008). Loneliness: A concept analysis. Nursing Forum, 43(4), 207-213.